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.