Tolstoy Farm

MEST | Thursday, June 16th, 2016

Tolstoy Farm was an ‘experiment in truth’ that started in Africa. It was a laboratory and a training ground for Gandhi and the early Satyagraha movement in South Africa. Your startups at MEST are also little ‘experiments in truth.’ Albeit, in the explicit search of economic truth through customer validation and early revenue generation – is your idea real, is it going to bring value to the world? Of course Gandhi and his Satyagrahis practiced ahimsa (non-violence) and self-discipline in order to cultivate a kind of “soul-force” that would change politics in the 20th century (or forever).

Actually I consider Tolstoy Farm to be an early example of an African ‘startup.’ But before this, there was the Phoenix Settlement in 1904. Lessons from there fed into the creation of Tolstoy Farm in 1908 near Johannesburg. This was a place to experiment and implement ideas about self-reliance, discipline, and through this to further develop the philosophy and tactics for non-violent action. The 60 residents built three large buildings in 6 months with no prior experience. They made their own clothes. By 1909 Gandhi was dispatched to prison at Pretoria, where he read over 30 books, particularly more of Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau. The successes (and failures) at the farm were exported and scaled in India, by the establishment of the Sabarmati Ashram in 1916. This became a base in India, many more Ashrams were created, the Satyagraha movement grew to become a part of the Indian national independence movement, and it inspired non-violent social movements across the world. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to India in 1959 and studied everything Gandhi wrote. Non-violent philosophy guided Nelson Mandela to avoid at all costs a potential post-apartheid civil war in South Africa.

Why did I choose this example of an African ‘startup’? My family is from that community of Indians that first settled in South Africa in 1860. Amongst that community is where Gandhi realized and experienced first-hand the mistreatment and institutionalized racial discrimination of Indians in British South Africa. Decades later, in the 1950s my grandfather was a community organizer and political activist within the established Indian community in Durban. He too followed Gandhi’s footsteps, by going to prison for his political actions.

What the students at MEST are doing, in following their interests, is important. My motivation in coming to Ghana is in wanting to understand how developing scientific and technical capacity can be a means of empowerment. Yes, the training and support of young African technology entrepreneurs is important for economic development and diversification, but also for society in the long-run. Perhaps not all of you will become successful entrepreneurs. It is my hope that some of you will take the lessons you’ve learned (Generosity, Positivity, Standards) and consider getting involved in government, or politics – and resist the temptation to simply throw up our hands and say the government is corrupt, inept, etc. I’m sometimes disheartened by the level of cynicism I see here in Ghana. There seems to exist a need to rebuild the public’s trust in government, and see it as something to be a part of, and work with. Yet this may be the well-meaning naive observation of a Canadian visitor.

Through my research in mapping Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa’s tech ecosystems, everyone talks about “empowering Africa’s youth.” Do you feel empowered? I hope so. The whole world is watching Africa’s young generation – and there are two well-run narratives. Either several African states become an overpopulated mess by 2050, exacerbated by climate change; or, a unified Africa becomes the most vibrant cultural and economic force by virtue of its boundless youthful population. How could the latter scenario happen? I doubt it would be by sheer innovation alone, by simply creating new technologies and methods for the sake of it. I think it will take a lot more courage, discipline and honesty, in order to develop the things that will really serve society. The kind of courage, discipline and honesty that was cultivated on Tolstoy Farm. Of course, that is far harder to do than to say, but I welcome any conversations on this topic.

I think that is why a school like MEST is important. That is, if it can be leveraged to develop not just the next generation of successful entrepreneurs from Africa (as we all want you to be), but future leaders in your communities, and in every single level of society, empowered to fight corruption and operate on behalf of society’s most vulnerable.

Thank you to Todd Holcombe, Celine Duros, and all of the students, staff and fellows at MEST for a fantastic month!


Ravendra Naidoo is a Master of Public Administration student at Queen’s University, Canada. Has some experience with tech startups in California and Canada; helped to develop a rapid sensor to detect tuberculosis; and was a part of the student movement for equitable access to affordable medicines, and for more research to treat neglected diseases that affect the world’s poorest people.