Leukemia Survivor Hopes New Tea Shop Will Serve As Refuge

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Observers Call for Deeper Diplomatic Engagement in the Sahel

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A draft of a Pentagon report on the attack in Niger that killed four American soldiers, four Nigerien soldiers and an Nigerien interpreter last October calls for a smaller, more cautious U.S. military presence in West Africa, according to sources who spoke to The New York Times.

That could emphasize the need for deeper diplomatic and political engagement in the Sahel, given ongoing security challenges and difficulties in funding and coordinating a regional task force.

Militant groups

Details about who is responsible for the October 4 attack have been difficult to confirm. However, U.S. and Nigerien forces blamed Islamic State fighters shortly after the ambush in the Tillaberi region of Niger.

The Sahel region faces numerous security challenges, with jihadist militant groups expanding across lawless regions of Niger and Mali. Without state security forces to stop them, local militants have proliferated.

“There is almost no Malian administration on the other side of the border. I mean, right now it’s extremely problematic for the Malian forces to get out of the main cities in the north, so they are almost not in a position to go up to the border,” said Jean-Herve Jezequel, the West Africa deputy project director at the International Crisis Group, an organization working to prevent global conflict.

Jihadist militants may claim allegiance to IS or al-Qaida, but they often have weak connections to major terrorist organizations. These groups attract young men with few prospects, who pick up guns to survive, often with no ideological reasons to fight, Jezequel said.

Mediating dialogue

Jezequel sees two ways forward: increasing the military presence — an option that looks less likely given the Pentagon’s new report — or deepening political and diplomatic engagement.

“You have elements that are not hard-core jihadi fighters, who don’t want really to fight the state. What they’re looking for is a position in their own society, and sometimes they’re looking for [an] exit strategy,” Jezequel said.

That creates space for dialogue, Jezequel added, so long as there’s coordination with the military and at least a temporary halt on attacks.

The Pentagon’s recommendation comes after significant political fallout in the U.S. following the Niger attack, with some members of Congress raising sharp questions about why the American presence in the Sahel has grown to 1,300 personnel and whether enough oversight has been exerted.

The newly formed regional G5 Sahel joint task force, meanwhile, has been hamstrung by low funding and disagreements among member states about who’s contributing what, underscoring the need for an immediate solution to West Africa’s deteriorating security situation.

For Jezequel, that means expanding the Western presence by increasing financial assistance and mediating dialogue between different regional actors.

“In the past there have been a lot of misunderstandings between Mali and Mauritania, for instance, Niger and Mali sometimes, so there is a need … to restore some form of common understanding — of trust — between the states,” he said.

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Rising Temperatures, Terrorism Threaten Cameroon's Food Security

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Cameroon says its northern border with Nigeria and Chad and most of the Lake Chad basin face a food crisis because of desertification and the Boko Haram conflict that stopped farmers from doing their work.

Thousands of school children selected from all local primary and secondary schools planted trees on the outskirts of Garoua, capital of the northern region of Cameroon. Didier Djonwe, an official of Cameroon’s Ministry of Secondary Education, says the children were invited to plant trees because temperatures have been rising to up to 48 degrees Celsius from 42 degrees Celsius in the past couple of years.

Djonwe said by planting trees the children will understand that it is a citizen’s duty to protect the environment and keep it healthy for living, both for themselves and future generations.

Djonwe said each school in Garoua is expected have students water the trees on a schedule until the rainy season begins.

Up to 90 percent of rainfall in Garoua comes from June to September and evaporation, the government says, has been very high, with harsh, hostile and fragile climatic conditions.

Sali Seini of Cameroon’s National Action Plan for the Fight Against Desertification, said Garoua is one of the towns in northern Cameroon witnessing the worst effects of desertification and land degradation.

He said more than eight million hectares of arable land has either been completely destroyed or is losing its fertility to a level that it is becoming impossible to grow crops, which is a very serious handicap to agricultural production. He said all the degraded soil should be restored through tree planting and the construction of water wells and boreholes where possible.

Vicious circle

Seini says the phenomenon has worsened over the years, triggering a vicious circle of environmental degradation, leading to poverty, food insecurity and mass migration in dry areas.

Hanson Langmia, Cameroon Country Director for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature says the situation is getting serious because of decreasing rainfall and water shortages and wild fires and the cutting of trees for fuel.

“Our rivers will dry up and a lot of things will happen and we will face the impact. The heat we are facing is because the ozone layer that is supposed to be protecting the earth is being destroyed by overexploitation of our resources and the release of gases that are destroying the ozone layer,” Langmia said.

Cameroon reports that 40 percent of its northern border with Nigeria and Chad has been affected by desertification and it has resulted in famine threatening 30 percent of the 3 million people of the far north region, including over 80,000 Nigerian refugees and 100,000 internally displaced persons.

The central African state says the situation may grow worse because the Boko Haram insurgency has prevented farmers from working their land and as a result, food production has dropped.

The situation is also bad in neighboring states of the Lake Chad Basin that depended on Cameroon for their food supply as the insurgency has moved.

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Tech firm's success may open doors for Twin Cities black entrepreneurs

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The data is downright discouraging: Only one percent of black-owned tech companies are funded by investors.

But Clarence Bethea, founder of warranty app Upsie, is experienced at trampling long odds.

He’d evolved out of a dysfunctional home, where his father abused his mother; intermittent homelessness and drug dealing as a teenager to become the founder of a thriving Twin Cities’ tech startup.

“It was a lot of work, but I met the right people at the right time who changed the trajectory of my life,” said Bethea, 37. “I received guidance and support from them along the way.”

Using that same formula of hard work and harnessing life-changing resources, Bethea recently overcame the investment longshot familiar to most black tech entrepreneurs.

He raised $1.7 million in nine weeks for his business, Upsie, which sell warranties and makes them manageable through a mobile app. The fundraising goal was $1 million, but it attracted prominent venture capital firms. Even with the round closed, investors are still lining up.

“For that next African-American founder who is like, ‘Can I do this?’ and is at a crossroads,” Bethea said, “hopefully this says that they can because I’m not anything special.”

But observers say Bethea’s fundraising feat — at that stage of growth and that amount — is unheard of locally and nationally. It’s prompted stories and interview requests from national media, like Black Enterprise and Forbes.

Clarence Bethea, CEO of Upsie, speaks on the phone at the Upsie office.
Clarence Bethea, CEO of Upsie, which recently received $1.7 million in venture funding to build the business. 

• Business: Entrepreneur brings his economic muscle back to north Minneapolis

“There still exists a lot of preconceived ideas of what a tech founder looks like,” said Sharon Kennedy Vickers, founder of the Twin Cities chapter of Blacks in Technology.

“The numbers are small for black tech founders because they don’t have the access to resources and capital to take their ideas to market. I believe the path to securing that kind of funding is a lot more difficult for entrepreneurs of color.”

Bethea said acceptance into Techstars Retail was the difference-maker. The international startup accelerator, offers select entrepreneurs funding and mentorship for a three-month period. In the Twin Cities, it partners with Target to cultivate retail tech businesses.

Bethea said Techstars’ training not only transformed his business, but the mere affiliation with one of the top tech accelerators in the world, validated it and leveled the playing.

“It took away the black or white thing,” he said. “It made people judge me on who I am, how I am as a founder, what our team is doing every day and the business.”

Bethea, a married father of two, lives in Burnsville, but he’s originally from Decatur, Ga.

A basketball scholarship at Bemidji State University brought him to Minnesota in 2002. Like tech founders Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, he dropped out of college to pursue entrepreneurship.

“I think being an African-American founder you have more questions, they dig a little deeper,” Bethea said of investors. “It’s not like I dropped out of Yale or Harvard. I dropped out of Bemidji State. I don’t come with that resume.”

Bethea said he’s personally familiar with CB Insights’ research on venture capital investments in 2010 that found only 1 percent of black-owned firms were funded.

Upsie launched in 2016. Its protection plans are at least 50 percent less for electronics and appliances than traditional warranties, Bethea said, adding the app remedies gnawing problems with the industry — high prices, lack of transparency and customer service.

“We knew consumers hated being pitched at a store to buy a warranty, we knew there was no transparency around that experience. We knew that service was terrible for most consumers,” he said. “It started with a mission to fix those problems and technology is just a way we can deliver it.”

Ryan Broshar, managing dir. of Teckstars, and Clarence Bethea, CEO of Upsie
Ryan Broshar, managing director of Teckstars, who runs the Retail Accelerator in partnership with Target, and Clarence Bethea. 

Upsie now has more than 14,000 users and 25 percent month-over-month revenue growth. The company went from two employees to seven in a year. And with the $1.7 million infusion, it’ll add six to 10 more employees this year.

“We are looking to grow in a cost efficient way, improve our product and service to customers,” he said.

Upsie was one of 10 startups selected out of thousands in 2017 for Techstars Retail in partnership with Target. It’s poised to disrupt the archaic warranty industry, said Ryan Broshar, managing director of Techstars Retail.

When Bethea left Bemidji State his junior year, he didn’t have a plan.

“School wasn’t my thing,” he admitted. “I just wanted to work, make money and get out in the world.”
He did stints with a trucking company and a youth basketball program where a former business executive became his mentor.

“He saw something in me,” Bethea said.

The executive poured his knowledge and money into Bethea, footing the bills for Bethea’s speech and body language lessons, grooming him for entrepreneurship. With his southern drawl gone and armed with business tenets, Bethea started a staffing business for Fortune 500 companies.

“When you grow up and you’re in a five-block radius and that’s all you know, then you see something outside of that you can achieve and somebody’s says you can achieve X,Y and Z. If you start believing it, it becomes powerful. And I think that’s what happened to me.”

In 2015, he began building Upsie to save consumers money. Bethea said the socio-economic status of entrepreneurs influence the problems they solve with their ventures.

Jeremy Madrid, Austin Nash, Katie Long, Lindsey Zimmermann, Clarence Bethea
Part of the Upsie team, from left to right, Jeremy Madrid of Wyoming, Minn., Austin Nash of Roseville, Minn., Katie Long of St. Louis Park, Lindsey Zimmermann of Plymouth, and Clarence Bethea. 

“When I was a kid we couldn’t afford a computer but if we did we’d have to buy something to protect it because we wouldn’t be able to replace it,” Bethea said. “Coming through that struggle allows you to look at problems differently.”

Bethea didn’t have tech background but believed his idea was viable business. He did research and contracted and then hired developers. Upsie went in beta stage in 2015.

The app went live in the summer of 2016 and the reception confirmed Bethea’s hunch. Angel investors and in-kind services hit $1.5 million.

Even with its high growth rate, some investors were skittish about Upsie. Bethea said if he were white he would’ve raised more and investors wouldn’t have been peppered him with extra questions and doubts.

But by the fall, there was a breakthrough, a $2.5 million deal with a venture capital firm was struck. Bethea planned to hire more people and move into a bigger office.

Then the investor abruptly backed out of the deal. An arrest when Bethea was 15 had emerged in their background search. It’d resulted in no charges. And Bethea said he’d disclosed his past to the investors.

“I was devastated,” he said. “I went into depression.”

Months later he learned about Techstars. But it seemed like a longshot — thousands of startups competing for 10 spots. Bethea still applied. The benefits were too numerous not to.

• Roots of tension: Race, hair, competition and black beauty stores

Techstars Ventures — the venture capital arm of the accelerator — invests $120,000 in each business. The accelerator, located in the Target building, puts Target mentors and business advisors just feet away.

Bethea and his team grew in knowledge and size, from two employees to seven within the three months. And by the end of the training, they gained a multitude of skills, including how to successfully court investors.

“I believe with stories like Clarence’s, we get to see and highlight that there are valuable products coming to market by individuals of color,” said Kennedy Vickers, who is also the city of St. Paul’s chief information officer.

“It also presents an opportunity for us to start funds designed to specifically support entrepreneurs of color.”

The other nine startups moved out of the accelerator when the program ended. Upsie crew remains, sucking up knowledge, Bethea said.

In a field dominated by white men from elite schools, Bethea sometimes felt out of place. But one of the most valuable lesson he’s learned is his background is an asset.

“A lot of this entrepreneurship game is dealing with adversity, dealing with the unseen,” he said. “And when you come from where I come from, that’s all you see. It took going through Techstars to understand where I fall in respect to those people who dropped out of Harvard and Stanford. It made me confident.”

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Olympic Games in Africa? A Door Long Shut Could Be Opening

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Other than Antarctica, only one continent on the planet has never hosted an Olympic Games: Africa. Finally, though, that could be about to change.

But there’ll be a step to take before that happens: hosting the much smaller Youth Olympic Games in 2022.

IOC President Thomas Bach says a “mini-Olympic event” will be held on the continent, though a specific country has not been selected. The move could signal the possibility of an eventual Olympics in Africa.

Tempering the IOC’s optimism, though, is the reality that the continent’s not quite ready.

“This was exactly one of the reasons why we initiated this project with the Youth Olympic Games,” Bach told reporters. “We did not want Africa to have to wait. This, we hope, can inspire one of the other African countries to come up with a feasible candidate for 2032 or 2036.”

Eight African countries will field a handful of athletes this month at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang. They include Nigeria, which has drawn international attention with its trio of women bobsledders — the continent’s first team in the sport. More than 50 African countries are IOC members, and African athletes won 45 medals at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 in the biggest haul yet for the continent.

Yet Africa has never hosted a Games. Europe has hosted 30, North America 12 and Asia seven with two more on the horizon: the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo and the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022.

The first hurdle may be money. Just last year, Durban, South Africa — with the continent’s most developed economy and host of the 2010 World Cup — was stripped of the 2022 Commonwealth Games after its scaled-down budget was rejected.

At a meeting Wednesday of the IOC’s roughly 100 members, Gambian member Beatrice Allen made the case for neighboring Senegal and the Youth Olympics. IOC officials have already visited Senegal, making the West African nation the frontrunner.

“Senegal is a highly sophisticated country,” Allen said. “I am sure they can do it. They have a rich culture, and we will all be proud as members of the Olympic movement if these games are given to Senegal.”

Kenyan member Paul Tergat concurred. “We have been waiting for this,” he said. “The members of the IOC from Africa, we want to make sure that this can become a reality.”

Talk of an African Olympics has been circulating for nearly a decade. But the Games are a far larger and more diverse undertaking than the World Cup, which was held in South Africa in 2010. Olympics require more infrastructure and coordination between dozens of sports federations and national Olympic committees.

The World Cup involves only soccer and preparing eight to 12 stadiums.

The high-priced Olympics are a deterrent for wealthy nations, let alone developing ones. Sochi is reported to have spent $50 billion to organize the 2014 Winter Olympics, and Beijing spent over $40 billon for the 2008 Summer Games.

In addition, the majority of sports on an Olympic program are low-profile in Africa, meaning there is no regional fan base and few facilities.

In South Africa’s doomed Commonwealth Games hosting bid, for example, local organizers said they wouldn’t build a cycling velodrome because they didn’t have the money and it wouldn’t be used after the Games. That was a big deal for Commonwealth Games officials, who faced having cycling cut from the program.

Like Asia and, most recently, South America, Africa could benefit from showcasing its progress in the spotlight of the international stage the Olympics provides. For some, Africa is overdue, “a continent that has been for so long on the margin of our Olympic movement,” said Moroccan IOC member Nawal El Moutawakel.

With Olympics organizers eager to welcome them into the fold, Africa could change its status from competitor to host within a generation. At the IOC meeting Wednesday, after delegates from Nigeria and Ethiopia weighed in, the chorus of support prompted Bach to ask the full body if an event in Africa had its backing.

The room responded with applause. Replied Bach: “Congratulations, Africa. It’s your time.”

Associated Press writer Gerald Imray contributed to this report from Johannesburg.

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Libya: Twin Bombings Kill Two, Injure Dozens

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At least two people were killed and dozens more injured in twin bombings Friday on a mosque in the Libyan city of Benghazi, medics said — the second attack on a place of worship in Benghazi in the past month.

At least 62 people were wounded in the attacks on the Saad Ibn Ibada mosque near the Majouri district of Libya’s second city during Friday prayers. The devices appeared to have been detonated remotely.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks.

Two weeks ago, at least 35 people were killed by twin car bombings near another mosque in Benghazi.

Benghazi was at the center of three years of fierce fighting between extremists and forces loyal to Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar, who declared the city liberated last year.

Haftar heads a government based in eastern Libya, while an internationally recognized administration has been set up in the western capital of Tripoli. The western government has struggled to assert its authority across the country.

The uncertainty in Libya has opened the door to terror groups such as the Islamic State to set up camps.

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Kenya's Flower Producers Eye US Market

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Kenya’s cut-flower industry has blossomed since the 1980s, and now holds the biggest market share for exports to Europe. Kenya’s flower producers are hoping direct flights set to open between Nairobi and New York City could help them put down roots in a new market — the United States.

On the cutting floor of a factory in Naivasha, about a hundred workers dressed in red smocks stand at sorting tables, some with blades at the ready. The remnants of their work lay scattered about on the gray cement floor.

Naivasha is Kenya’s floriculture heartland and workers at Van den Berg Kenya are trimming, packing and refrigerating bundles of roses.

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, this is the busiest time of year for flower growers in Kenya — the world’s fourth-largest exporter of cut flowers, with most of the exports going to Europe, Australia and Japan.

“We saw good growth of up to about 10 percent up to the year 2008,” said Jane Ngige, the outgoing CEO of Kenya Flower Council, which represents 115 of about 150 registered growers. “And, since then, it’s stabilizing at about 2 percent.”

Kenya’s cut-flower industry may be set to grow once again with direct flights opening in October to the United States.

Kenya’s flower growers have been anticipating the direct flights for a few years now, according to Ngige.

“And what we’re looking at is an opportunity to diversify our markets to the American market. And, we’re also looking — not to compete with the South Americans, who are the main producers or the main suppliers of flowers for North America — but look at complimenting the product. Because, our products are very different,” Ngige said.

Kenyan roses have a smaller head-size than the Columbian flowers that dominate the U.S. market, say growers in Naivasha, but Kenya’s varietals and low production costs could give it an edge.

While a small fraction of Kenya’s flowers currently end up in the U.S., the air freight stopover in Europe is a costly barrier to greater market access.

The managing director of Flamingo Horticulture Kenya, Jonathan Ralling, agrees that direct flights are a good opportunity — if there is enough cargo space.

“I think it will depend on how much freight is available, in terms of what can leave the country, and also of course how competitive Kenya can be against the South American exporters, which are very, very strong in terms of the U.S.,” Ralling said.

There are 100,000 workers directly employed in Kenya’s flower industry, but Kenya Flower Council says indirect services and products account for another 400,000 jobs, providing livelihoods for around two million people.

The hope is that, with better access to the U.S. consumer market, Kenya’s flower industry — and the number of people it supports — can only grow.

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Report: Military Probe Calls for Fewer Ground Missions in West Africa After Niger Ambush

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The New York Times is reporting that a draft military investigation into the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Niger last year calls for the Pentagon to reduce the number of ground missions in West Africa.

Military officials with knowledge of the findings told the newspaper the investigation also concludes that commanders in the field should have less authority to send troops on potentially high-risk patrols. Higher-level commanders will now need to approve certain missions that carry a higher risk.

No drawdown in Libya, Somalia

The officials say U.S. troops will continue to carry out joint patrols with local military forces, but say military officials will more thoroughly vet such missions, according to the paper. The officials said missions would not be scaled back in Libya or Somalia, where U.S. troops have been working with local forces to fight Islamic State and al-Shabab militants.

The draft investigation findings have not yet been released to the public.

The Times said the military investigation describes a string of errors that led to the deaths of the Americans, including bad decision-making and a breakdown in communication.

October ambush in Niger

Pentagon and Nigerien defense officials said Islamic State fighters ambushed their forces Oct. 4, killing four American soldiers, four Nigerien soldiers and a Nigerien interpreter.

In the attack, a group of 12 members of a U.S. Special Operations Task Force had accompanied 30 Nigerian forces on a reconnaissance mission from the capital city of Niamey to an area near Tongo Tongo.

Members of the team had just completed a meeting with local leaders and were walking back to their vehicles when they were attacked, U.S. officials told VOA.

The soldiers said the meeting ran late, and some suspected the villagers were intentionally delaying their departure, one of the officials said.

About 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in the Lake Chad Basin — Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad — to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, IS and other extremist groups.

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