Anyone who has come across a TED talk online will be familiar with the set up: highly educated technologists and entrepreneurs, on a beautifully-lit stage, giving “the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes or less.
In that respect, this could have been any other event overseen by the global conference organizer. But this one was different: alongside the customary techno-utopian or counterintuitive visions of the future, was a champion camel-jumper, who boasted of clearing seven camels in one leap, and the head of a pigeon-racing club, who described a recent competition where some of the unfortunate competitors were “eaten by predators and others died from the weather.”
Welcome to the first TED event at Sana’a, capital of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East and a nation at the heart of the covert US war on Al Qaeda.
The venue was Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East and a nation at the heart of the covert US war on Al Qaeda.
Yemen’s reality is at odds with much of what TED - which grew out of a laid-back Silicon Valley scene - seems to represent. For many outside the region, which once flourished thanks to the ancient spice routes, the country has become known for drone strikes against Al Qaeda suspects and for the 2011 protests - inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt – that led to the overthrow of its leader.
Anyone who has been to Yemen may also know about the country’s limited internet, a dismal GDP that fell a further 10% in 2011 and the population’s endemic use of qat, a mildly narcotic leaf that is chewed daily (and is partly blamed for a host of other problems, like the country’s water shortage and truncated work day).
But it was against this backdrop that the TEDxSanaa team opened its all day event on the last day of 2012, with the theme of “inspiring hope”.
Solar fishing in Yemen
"There’s been a long history of negative perceptions of Yemen...particularly from western media,” explained Walid Alsaqaf, the lead organizer of the event. “That has really put a lot of strain on many Yemenis abroad and forced them to distance themselves from their country. So TEDxSanaa is about selecting the cream of the Yemeni crop from around the world and presenting that as an image of what Yemen could become... We are taking the first step along that thousand mile road."
Guided by this theme, many of the speeches at the five star Movenpick hotel were marked by the techno-enthusiasm that have made TED famous: Emad Alsakkaf, who describes himself as a researcher, entrepreneur, IT specialist, and farmer, spoke of his vision of aquaponic agriculture. His talk featured a fish tank with a tomato plant growing out the top. His plan was to a build a large-scale aquaponic system in Mareb province, to the east of Sanaa, where fish would thrive in ponds and solar panels would be used to generate electricity, while also drawing tourists.
The idea drew a standing ovation, though the prospects for success might seem remote - Mareb has been the site of continuing violence between military forces and aggrieved tribesmen who regularly sabotage oil and gas pipelines and electricity towers to extract concessions from the central government.
Other talks also outlined seemingly practical solutions for the country’s future. Abdullah Faris, for example, noted that Yemen faces basic infrastructure challenges that are almost unimaginable in the West: since there is little notion of addresses, calling the police to report the location of a crime, let alone calling an ambulance to your home, can be a monumental challenge. “Ninety-five percent of the Yemeni population has never received a postal letter,” he says. His solution is a website that could provide a unique 10-digit address - or Natural Area Code - to everyone in Yemen based on GPS coordinates.