Monday, May 26, 2014

Familiar challenges

Last week we had our #IBMCSC Kenya midterm review with the CEO and department heads of our client, the Women Enterprise Fund. The purpose was to review what we'd observed so far and make some initial recommendations. The feedback was positive but we have lots more work to do, even as we run down to our last few days.

What struck me was how familiar the challenges they face are. I've been on the other side of this situation - having someone or a group of people come in and look at your organization with fresh eyes.  It's humbling, and frustrating.  They point out things everyone knows are problems, but haven't been addressed because of deeper, structural issues.  It's so much harder to get things done and make change in any organization, than it is to simply have good ideas.  Balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders, adhering to ever more rules and regulations, balancing the need for creativity with the simultaneous need to be consistent with other activities going on around an organization, etc etc.  They've got to adhere to performance contracts, the mandates of their charter from the government, the direction of their board of directors, and still look for creative new ways to accomplish their mission.  No easy task. 

They say there's nothing new under the sun, right? The staff of WEF are bright people - so let's face it, it's unlikely we'll come in and in a few weeks uncover some brilliant game-changing idea that these bright people who are immersed day in and day out in their jobs will not have had already.  But sometimes the value you bring is an impartial viewpoint, and the ability to look across all the silos in the organization.  That I think we can do - and are doing - for WEF.  And you never know...some of the best discoveries are made by accident.  Maybe, just maybe, we'll come up with that stroke of genius that will help WEF change the world.

The problem of markets

Probably the most common refrain we heard from the women borrowers we met a couple Thursdays ago was something like: we produce these great things but we lack markets - can you help us find markets? In fact it's a very familiar refrain - it's the reason I was invited to Kenya for my Peace Corps assignment as well, more than 10 years ago. 

These trucks are lined up ready to take things to markets of one kind or another.
What I learned is that it's a lot more complicated than "there are no markets". There's all kinds of problems facing small producers - smallholder farmers, independent craftspeople, informal entrepreneurs - in making good profits from what they produce. There are most certainly markets, and lack of information about where markets exist is probably least of the problems. Lack of relationships with buyers and inability to produce at a high enough quantity and quality and reliability to meet the demands of large buyers who offer a consistent market rank higher in my estimation.

At the end of the day it's the same challenge small businesses face everywhere. But there's much to be learned from those who are able to find markets. Sarah Itambo of Wisna Farms, for example, lamented that prices for her quail eggs had dropped precipitously, but continues to sell through the quail association she's a member of.  Even at the lower price she still turns a decent profit on the eggs.  No doubt teaming up with an association cuts into her profits further still, but she recognizes she can't do everything on her own. Getting help finding markets let's her concentrate on what she's best at - production of  agricultural goods. So even if she gives up a big cut, it's probably a good deal in the long run to ensure a consistent market for her products. Because finding and connecting with markets here is more difficult and expensive - higher than normal transport costs, less than transparent information - middlemen take a bigger cut, and producers get frustrated. My hunch is many are too quick to go it alone.  They underestimate the value of the service the brokers provide.
Sarah's chicken and quail operation. Just when you thought you'd seen it all there was another small flight of stairs and still more poultry to be found.

The infamous quail and her eggs.  Once worth a small fortune, today not so much. Sarah still produces and sells at a decent profit.

Another problem is that marketing products and producing products are a different skill set- and personality- altogether.  I've seen a lot of successful small scale business people and they all have a certain hustle. They go out and talk to lots of people, always sniffing out opportunities.   I imagine a few of the women we met Thursday could be pretty uncomfortable approaching a cutthroat business person to try to strike a deal. They might not have the confidence to do such a thing. It might be that more than finding markets for small scale producers, it's about coaching them how to work with partners, or teaching the negotiation and presentation skills needed to strike deals at a larger scale than they would otherwise have confidence to pursue.
This women's group makes great stuff but needs help learning the markets for what they make.
Didn't get the details but this operation seems to be getting regular orders for their handbags.  Someone behind the operation has some handicraft market savvy.
Cool bead gekko on the wall. 

#ibmcsc Kenya

IBM invades Gatanga

Peacefully, of course.

I was really excited to get this chance to show my #IBMCSC Kenya colleagues the place I worked for two years back in 2003-2005, and more importantly, the people I worked with.  Hard to believe it was over 10 years ago I worked for Youth Action for Rural Development (YARD). As I alluded to in a previous post, YARD's work is really grassroots community work in its truest form.  The social component of what they do is so important.  YARD's office and most of its staffers live nearby, and for many staffers the line between work and social life is blurred.  Even when there are no resources to be shared, YARD and its staff are, if nothing else, a shoulder to cry on.  Sometimes just having an ally available to listen to your worries and fears, and give you advice on how to solve your problems is incredibly valuable on its own.

The IBM team gets a briefing on YARD from Grace Wairimu, Program Officer.
Mugumo-ini self help group makes and sells handicrafts
 It's an interesting contrast from our visit to the IBM Research - Africa lab last week.  While the folks in the lab are thinking ahead, looking at how cognitive computing can help solve Africa's problems, the folks at YARD are tending to some of the more basic, immediate needs.  Making sure a woman widowed by AIDS and infected herself doesn't lose rights to his or her home when her husband dies. Ensuring secondary school girls have access to sanitary towels so they don't have to miss school when they are menstruating.  Teaching farmers to grow more drought resistant indigenous crops that are also highly nutritious, so they don't go hungry the next time there's a drought. You need both approaches for sure, but I'm sure glad organizations like YARD are out there attending to some of those simple, basic needs that you might otherwise take for granted.

This women's group told us about the demonstration plots they've developed to test out different new crop varieties, a water harvesting project, a greenhouse project, and the merry go round financing they run within the group.

The obligatory musical welcome.  A Kenyan specialty.

e took a little side trip up to Ndaka-ini in Upper Gatanga, where tea is grown, towards the Aberdare Forest.  I think it's one of the most beautiful parts of Kenya, and seldom visited by tourists.  I've sometimes fantasized about organizing multi-day bicycle tours through the area. 
Me with some of my old friends from the YARD staff.   

Sebastian's daughter Nancy made some new friends in a hurry...

...and even got some free healthcare out of it. IBM gives back! ;)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A visit to the IBM Research - Africa lab

Nowhere in IBM is there such a concentration of people working on so many issues that are so important to the world. The Research lab works on applying cutting edge technology - think cognitive computing - to the basics - water, education, agriculture, energy, etc.  It's an exciting place.
Some photos from The World is Our Lab photo contest

I envy these folks. They are applying their creativity and intelligence to the most important problems - and getting paid for it.  Of course the downside with doing cool things is that everyone else constantly wants to come hear about it and be a part of it - people like us! As an unofficial tour guide at IBM's M&C Lab in New York City, I can relate. 
Komminist Weldemariam describes his work on personalized education at the lab.

Now the plan is to bring Watson to Africa - Project Lucy was announced earlier this year.  There's a great writeup on Lucy here.

It's a bold vision.  When you look around you see such basic needs - one might ask: isn't cognitive computing sort of skipping a few steps? Do I need Watson when I'm still working on getting clean water?

Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya, who heads the lab, answered that question by pointing out that many of our clients are in fact way ahead of us.  They've leapfrogged landline infrastructure and mobile payments and now they are anticipating the next "leap".  Dr. Bhattacharya described how clients are already asking about technology two or three steps ahead of where they are, knowing that without the same legacy systems to overcome they can move more quickly.  An example he gave was a bank who had asked about how they could build on their systems to move into health insurance. If a bank will offer health insurance than why not equip a community health worker with a cognitive computing system that aids in providing basic diagnoses and treatments?

Our CSC team met with Charity and Eric from the lab who generously shared some ideas with us.  Eric's working on using voice authentication for mobile banking and collecting data that could help provide better credit assessments for smallscale borrowers, among other things.  I spent hours editing videos of these folks talking about their projects back in February for an IBM internal education initiative I developed content for, so it felt like connecting with old friends even though it was the first time we'd met face to face!

Our team out in front of the lab.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Birthday in Lake Nakuru NP

My #ibmcsc Kenya colleagues treated me to a nice birthday celebration here at the Sarova in Lake Nakuru National Park.  It was definitely a special one. It started last night when just after turning the lights out I hear my roommate for the night Raghu rustling around then lighting a match. I thought either he's taken up smoking or he's lost his mind and is about to burn down the house! Neither was the case - he had surprised me with a small birthday cake and candles. What a nice gesture and a great way to start my birthday.
Some of my CSC Kenya teammates and I atop Mount Longonot

The rest of the group and the staff at the Sarova served up a nice chocolate cake and some songs at 930am after our early morning game drive. I sat out the second game drive and sat by the pool...can't say it was a bad choice:)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Scale vs depth

What's better - to help a few people a lot or a lot of people a little?

This question is behind so many big decisions governments and non profits make - or for that matter for profit businesses like IBM. 

We are trying to help our #ibmcsc Kenya client Women Enterprise Fund grapple with this same question when it comes to how to help women access markets. Organizing groups to grow or produce and deliver the right quality and quantity at the right time takes a tremendous amount of time and resources, but when successful has a direct impact on women's incomes.  Problem is, how do you scale that across an entire country?  Each group has a different capacity for producing goods and services, each location has a unique set of market conditions.  There's no one-size fits all.  You could just pay out loans to lots of women's groups across the country.  That's easier to scale, but not everyone will benefit - some borrowers' businesses will fail.
This group received a loan to purchase peanut butter making equipment - if successful it would have a big impact on members' lives.  But there are lots of risks to this business, and in any case the market for peanut butter is limited - you couldn't just train every group on peanut butter making and expect success. 

The same case applies for this women's group's fish farming operation.
No answers here.  But I do think small concentrated impact is often underestimated.  It's entirely possible to distribute bed nets, for example, to 1 million people but have only a few hundred actually use them. It's entirely possible you could have a larger impact training a few dozen women in poultry rearing, for example, providing them with improved food security and a means of income.  My MBA training beckons me to constantly ask - does this scale? A good enough question, but I've learned it's always important not to simply accept an apparent indicator of scale - a number of bednets distributed, a number of loans paid out - on its face.  

This women's group we visited produces terrific handicrafts, but struggles to find markets to sell what they produce.  What would it take to help them find a steady market and help them produce in the quantities and quality the market demands, at a cost that would still make it profitable?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Meeting a few of the borrowers

Today our team visited a number of women’s groups in Embakasi, a constituency within Nairobi, who’ve borrowed from Women Enterprise Fund.  This was a much anticipated outing for our #ibmcsc Kenya team - we've been diving deep into how WEF's operating model but hadn't yet met any of its beneficiaries.  

We were guided by the energetic and inspirational Tom Makisa, one of 292 WEF Officers who identify and train women’s groups, facilitate loan applications, and follow up with women’s groups to ensure they are benefiting from (and repaying) the loans.  

Tom shows us his office - and his stack of loan applications that need to be submitted. His is a big job.

Tom covers about 174 groups in Embakasi Constituency, which covers an enormous amount of territory.  Of course it’s not humanly possible to meet regularly with each of these groups, and in fact Tom estimates that only about 20 of them are highly active and engaged.  Yet he’s responsible for needling all 174 groups who’ve borrowed from WEF at one time or another to repay, as well as train new groups and follow up with groups WEF has already lent to.  He’s got a stack of new loan applications six inches high that he’s helped the groups fill, and now has to get the local committees’ sign off on, before passing them along to the regional office to be keyed into the system for approval by headquarters.  It’s a big job, and takes a lot of heart, energy, and passion. 

Embakasi includes some areas that feel like a cross between urban and rural

The senior member of Kangarue group shared words of wisdom with us.

Our first visit was to Sarah Itambo at Wisna Farm.   She is a member of a group that’s received a loan from WEF to raise quails.  She rents space to the group on her highly efficient urban farm on her parents’ property in Nairobi, and participates with the group in the daily upkeep as well as finding local markets for the quail eggs – and now that the prices for quail eggs have dropped, often the quail themselves.  She’s an expert in urban agriculture.  She showed us the space where she keeps chickens, rabbits, and quails – an incredibly efficient use of space.  She’s also got a greenhouse for raising herbs and other vegetables, and tanks for fish farming.  Not only has she turned a small space into a highly productive farm, she’s turned it into an educational platform and information exchange.  She conducts trainings and hosts farm visits (at a price, of course) and has traveled outside Kenya to share her knowledge and learn about urban agriculture practices around the country.

Sarah shows us a few of her crops.  Carrots here.  Herbs in the greenhouse.  Multiple varieties of chickens and quails in her hen house.  Catfish in a fish pool.  Many other things.  She practices what you might call 'agile farming' - constantly changing and adding new crops and livestock according to what's demanded in the market.

One thing she told us is that her farm is constantly changing – she’s constantly closing down projects and starting new ones.   I suspect that’s one of the keys to her success.  The fact is that markets always have and always will fluctuate.  Tastes change, competitors enter and exit markets, etc etc etc.  When you have a small space like Sarah has you can’t bank on one crop to make your living on year after year.  You’ve got to diversify and you’ve got to be flexible and agile. 

A case in point is the quail egg phenomenon.  About a year ago we’re told quail eggs became a fashionable thing to eat.  Restaurants and hotels were demanding them in great numbers, and few farmers had them.  Eggs were sold at 150-200Ksh (around US $2-3) each.  Farmers that began raising them were making a killing, selling dozens per day, at a cost of under 5 Ksh per egg to produce.  But as word spread lots of farmers started producing quail eggs, and the prices went down to 10-15Ksh per egg just as quickly. 

We also visited four other groups: Youth for Change Network which has used its WEF loan to acquire machinery to produce peanut butter for sale locally, Vilisho – a group of women who’s used their WEF loan to start a fish farming operation, Mwako Mpya who are using the loans to produce beautiful handicrafts, and Kangarue who are using the loan urban agriculture including fish farming, rabbit, chicken, and cow rearing.  Each faces its challenges – finding markets for its products and operating fairly complex operations as a group of individuals volunteering their time, to name a couple.  Yet it seems a lot of the value of these groups is in the social aspect of coming together for a common purpose – “bringing women out of the house” as one of the members put it. 

Evelyn of Vilisho group shows us the group's water filtration system it recently added to its fish farming operation.

One of Youth for Change Network's officers demonstrates the group's peanut butter making equipment
And come out of the house they did – about 20 Mwako Mpya and Kangarue group members treated us to a welcome song and dance before showing us around their farm.  They couldn’t have been more welcoming.  

A welcome song and dance from the Mwako Mpya and Kangarue groups.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The return

Yesterday I spent the day in Gatanga where I did my Peace Corps service from 2003-2005. It’s not the first time I’ve been back – I traveled to Kenya in the winter of 2008 and again in the summer of 2009 and visited Gatanga both times.  The main focus of each visit is to spend time with Sebastian Maina Wambugu, founder and program manager of Youth Action for Rural Development (YARD), a community based organization that does a range of grassroots community development work ranging from training on sustainable agriculture to supporting AIDS orphans to providing computer training to youth.  Each time I leave impressed by how much progress YARD has made, without losing its focus on grassroots community development (more on this in a future post). 

It was a whirlwind tour – since I only had a few hours it made for a lot of short visits with friends I spent many many hours back then.  By a somewhat amazing coincidence the Peace Corps that followed me at YARD, Johnny Finity, was visiting at the same time.  For him it had been even longer since being back in Gatanga – 7 years!  He started something called the GoBe Foundation, which aims to help young pursue their passions, and improve their storytelling ability to help them communicate their passions to those who can help support them.   He had just finished spending a month in Gatanga running a program for 40 Kenyan teens.

Of course Sebastian, his wife Esther, and their children are more than colleagues - they're close friends, so my visit was mostly a social one.  One thing I’m always struck by when visiting is how critical the social component of community development work is.  I often felt like I spent an incredible amount of what seemed like wasted time drinking chai, chatting with farmers, waiting around for people to show up for meetings.  When I visit now of course socializing is all that I do. 

Sebastian, Esther, their daughters (Big) Nancy and (Small) Nancy, me, and Johnny.
But the reality is that socializing is how you build trust, and without trust you can’t communicate important information to members of the community, nor get information from them.  You could argue that information sharing is the most critical part of development work. 

That said, it’s unlikely my visit yesterday had any development impact, but it sure was fun to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances, temporarily re-immerse myself in this community (with all its unique quirks) and be back in this beautiful physical environment.  

#ibmcsc Kenya

The Nancys horsing around with their dad

YARD's new office - a big step up!

YARD's weekly work schedule

A few old friends from the community. 

A stroll down memory lane with Mama John, one of the community leaders.  She had some pictures of the going away party she and a few other community members threw me when I was about to leave.

A new addition to the YARD portfolio - a small community food bank.  Farmers sell their grain here, and reserve a portion for the most needy

A selfie with Grace, a long time dedicated YARD staffer now concentrating on AIDS counseling.  She's living in the apartment I lived in when I lived there.

A sample of the beautiful Gatanga landscape.  It's on the foothills of the Aberdares, a highly underrated, under-visited part of Kenya.

 She's actually a sweet little girl, I promise...

Brooklyn cool has reached Nairobi.

Brooklyn cool has reached Nairobi! Although I'm not familiar with any springs in Brooklyn...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What's changed?

It's been five years since I was in Kenya.  My #ibmcsc #kenya colleagues are asking me - what’s changed?

Right off the bat, I notice a few things in the plus column, a few in the minus, and a lot in the grey zone…

Plus column:
·      Real growth and development in the tech sector (see previous post)
·      Tangible sense of optimism about economic growth and opportunity

Minus column:
·      The traffic is much worse.  So much so that it now has a real impact on the kind of plans you can make (e.g. it may no longer be feasible to travel to work, then go home, then go to another neighborhood for dinner). 
·      Security is on another level altogether.  It seems like entering any public building now requires at least a pat-down, if not a full metal detector, empty your pockets, sign in and out kind of affair

Grey zone
·      New road construction.  Grey zone because it might provide temporary traffic relief but only temporary…if the past history of other cities is any indication the new roads will fill up just as soon as they’re opened.  Nairobi might be at the point of no return with regard to cars – there will only be more and more cars and no amount of road building will alleviate the traffic much. 
·      Lots of new building construction.  Nice sign of growth and prosperity, but how are all these people going to get around? Where will the water come from?
·      Fewer street hawkers.  It probably does keep things a bit safer and more orderly, but I miss those guys! What if I DO want to buy a pink elephant balloon on the street while sitting in traffic? I'm reminded of my probably best ever Kenyan street purchase.  It was in 2009 when Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat – a book about corruption in Kenya – had just come out.  It was hard to find in bookstores (they were afraid to carry it) but where did I find it? From a hawker on the street when I was sitting in traffic in a matatu. Another great street purchase was finding a hawker selling the exact political map of Africa I’d been hunting all over town for for days. 

It’s easy to lament some of the changes, and no doubt some could be better managed, but on the other hand any fast growing place is going to have challenges and growing pains.  Kenya is no exception.

That's traffic on a road that I don't think used to have traffic on it

Monday, May 5, 2014

A visit to the iLab

The new Strathmore University campus - I'm told it's the greenest university campus building in Africa
Now that I understand Tumblr requires users to register to read blog posts, switching over to Blogger.  Alas.   #ibmcsc Kenya

I'll try to keep up both, for those Tumblr lovers out there.

One of the trends I've been following from a distance with great interest lo these last five Kenya-less years has been the continuing growth in size and maturity of the tech scene here.  And in fact not just in Kenya - Bongohive ran a crowd sourcing project to count how many incubators there were across the continent and found there were 90 of them.  At least two tech incubators have sprung up in Kenya since I last visited in 2009. One is iHub, which grew out of Ushahidi, the Kenyan-born non-profit tech company that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collectionvisualization and interactive mapping. I hope to visit iHub while I'm here.  The other is iLab, at Strathmore University, which is an incubator and research center under the faculty of Information Technology at Strathmore.  We were lucky enough to visit iLab today at Strathmore's swanky (relatively) new campus in town.

We had a chance to hear from a couple of students about projects they are working on.  Two young women (rookie blogger mistake - not getting the names and contacts of the people you want to mention in your blog!) are developing an app to enable entrepreneurs to conduct name searches via mobile phone as part of the process of registering their business - a process that typically takes a number of time-wasting trips to a government agency downtown.  Another is building an app that lets you purchase digital versions of locally published magazines. 

Another young woman described an app she's working on to provide fish farmers with data on fish prices and information on fish farm management.  What was extra impressive about her was how much she understood about fish farming, and perhaps most importantly, specifics on why fish farmers have not on the whole successful up until now (this will the topic of a future blog here).  Among the factors she called out: fish farmers try to save money by feeding their fish food that's recommended for later in the fishes' lives because it's cheaper, when in fact you need to feed the fish a very particular type of food for the first few weeks/months of their lives -  and failing to do that means your fish will never grow to a marketable size.   While I still think she has a few things to work out how to turn her app idea into a real business, the fact that she understands her end user so well - not just the technology - is encouraging, and a rare combination especially in such a young person.

All this reminds me of the boom years of the Web in the mid and late 90s.  Practically overnight, every business under the sun it seemed had to move onto the Web.  Here in Kenya now it feels like nearly any transaction that would have previously required a face to face interaction is moving to mobile.  With mPesa of course enabling digital payments so many possibilities are opened. The possibilities seem limitless.

On my way! Dispatch from a global crossroads

There are some destinations on here I've never heard of...which is saying something because I've heard of a lot of places...Nador anyone?
On my way to my IBM Corporate Service Corps #ibmcsc Kenya assignment! I’m on layover in Amsterdam.  I love European airports.  Being in a European airport (I mean a big one like Amsterdam, London, or Paris) is when I most feel like a citizen of a globalized world.  People are passing through from practically everywhere.  I love imagining where they came from and where they’re going and why.  That guy over there is on business trip from Amsterdam to Paris.  That family is coming from Saudi Arabia on their way to New York.  That woman over there is coming from Ghana on her way to college in London.  Etc. Etc. If I was making this trip 30 years ago what would it feel like?

For one thing I can only imagine traveling to Kenya would feel like a much more exotic experience.  Today traveling to Nairobi feel like traveling to just another connected global hub - a place with modern shopping malls, ubiquitous mobile phones and high speed internet, a steady flow of tourist and business people coming and going.  Fourteen years ago when I took my first trip to Africa – to Zimbabwe for a college semester abroad – I felt (mostly out of ignorance) like was traveling to the end of the earth.  While learning that Zimbabwe, in fact, wasn’t the end of the earth was the big reveal from that experience, finding a connected computer lab at the University of Zimbabwe felt like stumbling into a time machine.  Sending an email to my college friends back home via telnet on a black and white screen felt like a touch of magic.  There’s no doubt that Kenya today is incomparably more globally interconnected than Zimbabwe was in 1998.  What a difference fourteen years makes.

Six days and counting

In September 2003 I sat eating dinner with my parents around their kitchen table when I broke down in tears.   The next day I’d ship off to DC for three days of pre-service training before heading to Kenya for over two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer.  Two years seemed impossibly long, and I was terrified.

Eleven years later I’m now days away from boarding a plane, again for Kenya, for my IBM Corporate Service Corps #ibmcsc Kenya assignment.   This time I’ll be gone for only a month, I’ll be staying in relatively swanky conditions in Nairobi, where I’ll be part of a team consulting for a Kenyan government agency working in microfinance.  I think I’ll make it without any tears, this time.

What was I worried about then? All sorts of things: getting sick, being away from everything I know for two years, being all alone in a strange land.  What am I worried about now?  Will my day job project keep running smoothly in my absence?  Who will water my plants?  Will be two business suits be enough?

This time my challenge will be less the scary and unfamiliar, and more checking my pre-conceptions and biases at the door, keeping an open and creative mind while using my experience as a sanity check.   After all, I expect to find a country much changed.

If there’s anything I observed in my two years in Kenya, it’s incredible pace of change.  Here’s a list of things that happened while I was there:
  • A new constitution was ratified
  • Matatus, the white minivans that are the ubiquitous form of public transportation Kenya, went from carrying anywhere from 23 to 36 people and driving recklessly at high speeds, to carrying 18 people with seatbelts, speed governors limiting speed to 80k/hr, and uniformed staff…literally overnight.
  • The price of internet access dropped from 3-5Ksh/minute to 1Ksh or less per minute.
  • Mobile phones dropped in price nearly in half
What will I find now? Stay tuned….
That’s me, back row middle…day 2 in Kenya, 2003.