Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dubai: A wealth of misplaced fortune

Re-entering the developed world has always been difficult for me. Overwhelmed and often convicted by the ostentatious and pretentious use of wealth and natural resources, I struggle (and fail miserably) to imagine how a country can justify, say, wasting 150 trillion kilocalories of food a year while 1/4 of the population in other countries face starvation. Or justify consuming 20,680,000 barrels of gasoline a day, while others are rationing power 3 days a week because of fuel shortages. Or spending an average of $64-$110 per capita daily on expenses while half the world's population lives on less than $2 a day.
As I prepared to battle these realities on my flight from Nairobi to San Francisco, I was confronted with a whole new enemy during my two 12 hour layovers in Dubai. As I explored the emirate, I couldn't help but tremble at the magnitude of the world's new tallest building, or the world's first indoor ski resort, or the world's second tallest hotel that also changes colors and is shaped like a sail boat. And as I thought about the World islands -- a collection of 300 man-made islands constructed to resemble today's world (video here) -- I couldn’t help but realize how divided today's world really is.

And unfortunately, as I've said before, the solution to eliminating this gap isn't easy. There are, however, some obvious interventions that would help to narrow it, one of which became painfully clear while I was exploring Dubai: Make smarter investments.

As simple as this sounds, the story of Dubai has proven that simple is far from common. As the government recently came to grips with the desert of debt it's in, the wisdom behind the investments this debt supports has been seriously questioned. Take the World islands, for example. Here is a project that cost an estimated $14b to make, in which the Guardian newspaper reported that the project is unlikely ever to be completed and the islands are slowly slipping back beneath the waves.

Now take that wasted $14b, and imagine what would happen if it was responsibly invested in businesses that are sustainably and profitably meeting the needs of marginalized customers in base of the pyramid communities. Imagine if it was invested in a vehicle such as Acumen's capital markets fund (mentioned here), which is built upon a history of profitable double bottom line investments through patient capital. Imagine the impact. Instead of 300 mounds of disappearing sand, millions of lives would be transformed, struggling economies would be revived, investors would receive financial returns, and the world would grow closer to resembling the harmonious place that the World islands is supposed to emulate.

Monday, December 14, 2009

New news (Part 3)

Several months ago, I embarked on a quest to share the 'new news' coming out of the continent, specifically focusing on entrepreneurs who are birthing sustainable value through the ventures they are creating. Since then, I've grossly failed at sharing a number of these stories, partly because of confidentiality reasons from work, but mostly because I've struggled with finding time to conduct the homework needed to adequately represent these ventures.

The past two weekends, however, have more than made up for this lost ground, as I've had the opportunity to sit with almost 20 early stage entrepreneurs, each one with brilliant business ideas and emerging ventures. Entrepreneurs that will create an academy that teaches students how to produce household furnishings, or an all natural grocery store that procures from small scale farmers, or a computer accessories manufacturer that distributes through supermarkets, or a customized email template designer that also places advertisements, or a back office outsource solution that oversees clients' administrative tasks, or an animal feed processor that sells to the same farmers it buys the raw materials from, or a biomass stove manufacturer that uses sugarcane waste as fuel.

As the on-the-ground lead for a new nonprofit organization called Sinapis Group, I had the opportunity to be inspired by each of these entrepreneurs as I interviewed them for Sinapis's pilot fellowship, a 7 month program that will provide each entrepreneurial fellow with comprehensive business training, one-on-one mentorship and capital, with the ultimate goal of job creation and economic development.

When considering the business landscape entrepreneurs face in Kenya, it is painfully clear why an intervention such as Sinapis is mandated. Small to medium-sized enterprises have been largely overlooked by both the microfinance institutions that fund smaller ventures and the commercial banks that capitalize much larger establishments, creating a "missing middle" dilemma for SMEs. To complicate matters, many of the emerging SME interventions are only focusing on existing SMEs, not start ups.

And aside from capital, there are a number of other barriers, well articulated on Sinapis's website: the underdeveloped business knowledge/skill of many entrepreneurs, lack of SME sector support services (e.g., small business associations), prohibitive business regulations and bureaucracy, access to good industry and market information, and underdeveloped infrastructure.

For these reasons, Sinapis (meaning mustard seed) has realized the need to help fill in the gap. And based on the entrepreneurs' enthusiasm during the interviews, the organization seems to be heading in the right direction. As one entrepreneur said, even if I have the best idea and the most passion and perseverance in the world, I'll still need access to resources and a supportive environment to have any hope that the venture will succeed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Alternate endings: Kenya vs. Nigeria

For more than a week leading up to the World Cup qualifying match, the entire country seemed to anxiously anticipate the afternoon where Kenya's humble Harambee Stars would face the formidable Nigerian Super Eagles. The Daily Nation ran articles every morning, NTV aired segments every night, and Capital FM debated throughout the day whether the Eagles would win and qualify for the World Cup, or if the Stars could pull off a miracle and somehow qualify for the less-globally-popular but relevantly-as-significant Africa Cup of Nations.

The fact that the World Cup trophy was on display in Kenya for two days was icing on the cake. Or perhaps a dangling carrot, given that the Stars have never qualified for the World Cup, were demolished 5-0 the previous week against Kuwait (yes, Kuwait), have lost 9/10 matches against Nigeria, and have a coach that now refuses to show up for practice.

In spite of all this, the support and enthusiasm throughout the country somehow remained undefeated, and as the week progressed, I quickly realized that this was not a match I could afford to miss. It also seemed like the perfect opportunity to rally the CT United squad and spend time with them, given our league had abruptly ended a few weeks back. Despite their aspirations to play professionally, many of them had never been to a professional match, so I knew they would be excited (Although I still might have been more excited!).

So after a hectic scramble to get the team tickets, the 9 of us finally made our way to the stadium; and as our green, red and white head-wrapped Matatu driver passed hundreds of wananchi waving the same national flag, it was clear that we were now front row witnesses to the conclusion of the story that the country had been creating all week.

It was also clear that we weren't the only ones who shared the same heightened sense of eagerness and purpose, as we soon found ourselves surrounded by thousands of fans, all trying to simultaneously squeeze through a police guarded gate that would only fit one average-weighted person at a time. Nearly suffocating and (every 30 seconds or so) propelling forward by a wave of power from behind, I began to understand why FIFA had limited the venue's capacity by 40% after their match against Tunisia.

After about 20 minutes, the waves became so strong that two police officers sunk over a barricade they had futilely assumed would funnel fans in to the stadium. After embarrassingly rolling to their feet, they then resorted to mob like tactics and started clubbing people with their wooden sticks. One officer in particular seemed to randomly whack every 3rd or 4th person that squeezed through the gate: My friend Raj took a reflected club to his fore arm, while the rest of us managed to squeeze by unharmed (although I did take my sunglasses off in fear of a face blow!). Needless to say, I didn't get any pictures of this.

Once in the stadium, we were immediately greeted with the electrifying anticipation that slowly managed to fill the half occupied stadium, and by the time the Stars kicked the first half off, the stadium was alive with vuvuzelas, "Let's go Kenya" chants and songs that I definitely couldn't properly pronounce let alone spell.

And within 15 minutes, despite all the odds, the fans got exactly what they were singing and dancing for, as No. 10 Dennis Oliech split several Nigerian
defenders and snuck a low left corner ball that bounced over the keeper's sliding legs into the middle of the goal. Before the keeper even realized what happened, the entire stadium erupted in disbelief and undefiled joy, as fans ran up and down the rows, spraying water, blowing horns, screaming as loud as possible, and hugging even the oddest looking stranger. It was as if Barack Obama had just been announced president elect again!
But unfortunately, stories don't always end as planned, and the press had to tell a tale the next morning of a team that was ultimately completely robbed by an offside Nigerian goal and an ignored blatant foul that would have resulted in a penalty kick for Kenya. (See highlights here). Despite the 3-2 loss, however, fans throughout the country had another story to boast: One of renewed faith, of restored confidence, of rewarded hope. Despite what the score indicated, CTU and the other 30,000+ fans walked away from the stadium victorious, embracing a story that would remind them why they will never cease to wave their flags, wear the jerseys, blow the vuvuzelas and sing their songs, even if their team won't play in the World Cup or the Cup of Nations.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Zanzibar: Paradise or paradox?

Perhaps no word could better describe the remote island of Zanzibar than juxtaposition… A sea of perfection encapsulating an island of poverty.

Only hours into our trip, this realization was first felt during our Friday afternoon descent into Stone Town -- the island's capital city -- as our 10 passenger, double propeller aircraft penetrated the island's coast, and suddenly miles of transparent water and white sand were displaced by thousands of grey and brown rusting iron roofs.

This unforeseen realization grew as we leisured through the narrow, brick-patterned / moped-filled streets of the town, and Linda took pictures (posted below) of the amazingly beautiful architecture that was often propped up by webs of Braveheart-like poles that looked nowhere near as sturdy as the spears from the movie. And at Nungwi Village, our honeymoon worthy resort undoubtedly seemed more like a mirage than an oasis to the villagers who lived directly outside and yet couldn't even enjoy a paved road or a store to buy throat lozenges or ibuprofen/pain-killers (or at least I asked around tirelessly and couldn't find one).

So, in light of this unsettling juxtaposition, our short time in Zanzibar definitely created a mixed and lasting impact. In addition to enjoying the beauty of the beaches and the company of my colleagues, the trip profoundly emphasized the significance of my consultancy at TechnoServe -- of which I was celebrating the conclusion -- and development work worldwide. Poverty is evasive and does not discriminate: not even a paradise island such as Zanzibar has been able to escape, yet…

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sacred tears (part 3)

The rains have finally come -- After cloudless months and colorless crops, heaven could no longer contain Kenya's ocean of tears.

As the country's landscape is transformed from Cairo to the Congo, I'm preparing to transition out of my first consultancy at TechnoServe and on to the next at Acumen Fund. I think back to the beginning of our food security initiative, and how much has changed while so much has sadly remained the same.

Despite the rains, the country is still in dire need of food. The Daily Nation still reads in the same amount of millions: 10m face starvation. 15m bag maize deficit remains. 4m demand instant food relief.

And yet there are signs of hope: new approaches developed as institutions realize that we can't expect new results from the same tactics. The government has revived irrigation schemes in order to graduate from a dependency on rainfall. Private and non government organizations are partnering to develop a warehouse receipting system that will provide grain storage and reduce the current 30-40% post harvest loss. Private stakeholders have introduced weather indexed crop insurance that will compensate small scale farmers when drought attacks again.

And TechnoServe is developing a strategy for orphan crops that are drought resistant and can serve as substitutes for maize. Three months ago, our focus was exclusively on maize, the most important staple crop in Kenya. With time, however, we realized the overwhelming need for Kenyans to diversify, and to adopt crops that are not reliant on rain, that are not as susceptible to certain diseases/weeds, that don’t rot during storage, and that receive higher / more stable prices. So we've developed a strategy for several key orphan crops and are in the process of pitching to several key foundations/donors so that the projects can begin before the next drought hits.

As I've mentioned before, economic development is a very complicated beast to tackle, and food security has proven to be especially challenging. Our hope though, is that through this initiative, we are one step closer in eliminating these deplorable fill-in-the-blank million figures and conquering food insecurity once and for all.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Collision on Gitanga Road (and the rest of Nairobi)

As I walked out of the house to the concluding and relatively discomforting days of Nairobi's warm season, there seemed to be a heavy, unidentifiable tension in the air: Gitanga Rd was alarmingly quieter than the usual jungle of matatu horns, public service vehicle exhausts and herds of wananchi (citizens) stampeding from Argwings to Bishop Rd.

As I continued on a few steps past our gate, this atypical silence was quickly sliced into pieces by a hacking sound very foreign to that of the usual tree-bird kisses. A few steps later, the source of intrusion became apparent… A gang of men -- dressed in black and blue 3 button suits and double windsored ties -- were slamming long metal poles into wooden kiosks along the side of the road, destroying the small businesses that served as life support for about 20 struggling women in the community, while the men's colleagues carefully placed the women's bananas, tomatoes, eggs and other products into their freshly cleaned, white sedans.

As I got closer, a man standing safely across the street informed me that the men were from the City Council, the local governing body that controls the majority of life in Nairobi . Even more overwhelmed and confused, I asked what the women had done wrong, only to learn that my new friend was equally as perplexed. None of the wananchi seemed to know, resorting to white flag explanations of lost hope such as That's just how the City Council is

Three hours later, after returning from my meeting, I had the chance to speak with the women who had sold me 10 eggs and 6 bananas just days before. In a broken voice, one of them (Susan) told me that the City Council claimed their group didn't have a license and was a nuisance to the residents in the area. She said that they hadn't received any notice, and that this wasn’t the first time this had happened: Over a year ago, they women had much bigger kiosks, and the City Council tore them down, saying that they would only be allowed to have small kiosks that sat on the ground. Humbly, the women obliged, only to be betrayed a year later by the same poles and sedans that had destroyed their kiosks and whisked away their produce.

The secretary of the women's group shared with me a flyer for the society that they had formed (the Kilimani Juakali Sacco Society Ltd.), and confessed complete confusion about what the Council desired them to do moving forward. To stop selling completely wasn't an option -- their families depend on the income they bring home -- but they also knew there was nowhere else to sell, and that it was nearly impossible to get a license. They had tried numerous times before. Feeling completely useless, I asked if they could share with me their contact at the City Council, so that, if nothing else, I could at least understand this incomprehensible, paradoxical, and seemingly hopeless situation.

A few days later, during a meeting with Jae Talam, a senior inspector with 17 years experience at the City Council, I was told bluntly that the organization only issues licenses for kiosks to individuals they deem fit to run a business (i.e., their friends). After admitting the undeniable subjectivity in this process, she went on to say that even when they are granted, the licenses are very conditional: if a single neighbor calls to complain then the kiosk are shut down. Businesses that operate in permanent buildings are the only enterprises awarded the luxury of a demolition-proof license.

When asked about the assurance the women had been promised last year regarding the smaller kiosks, Jane pointed to the new Town Clerk, who was recently appointed (not voted in) and had changed many of the policies and by-laws. She then quietly shook her head, indicating that it was very unlikely that the women had been notified of these changes.

No longer able to control my disbelief -- or to diplomatically position accusations as objective, open ended questions -- I confessed to Jane that I couldn't understand how the single governing local authority in Nairobi could justify the complete discouragement of the majority of the city's population (i.e., the poor) from engaging in market place transactions, while also seemingly exploiting them for the inventory of the council members' own cupboards and wallets. The story just didn't add up…

Embarrassingly, Jane confessed that the City Council was indeed failing in their efforts to engage the poor and that more needed be done. She discussed a strategy to allocate an open space (similar to the Maasai Market) where women could sell their goods, but admitted that it would not be nearly enough real estate and would provide high transportation costs for the women.

Not in the least bit encouraged by this strategy, and overwhelmingly confused and defeated by the rest of the meeting, I thanked Jane for her time and retreated to the exit. As I nearly crawled through the gloomy hall, I looked through a muggy window and noticed an enormous room, filled with a department store of clothes, bordered with a school of desks and chairs, and decorated with a museum of art pieces. All collections of the Nairobi City Council.

Friday, October 9, 2009

'From nothing to something' (Part 2)

It's an inescapable reality that if we're going to live the life of our dreams, it's going to take courage, willingness to risk, to attempt, to fail, to get back up.
-Erwin McManus

The morning of WEEP's Maasai Market debut rose upon us like the sun in the Rift Valley -- even though we were fully expecting and anticipating it, the size and magnitude was still exhausting.

As I lay in bed, restlessly listening to about every other 5 seconds of a Rob Bell podcast, thoughts of fear and doubt began to subtly eclipse my initial conviction to allow the women to enter this phase independently. Instead of dwelling on all the potential catastrophes, I tried to dream of the positive: the women surveying their home, meeting their neighbors, displaying their carefully crafted creations, and selling to their first customer. As I slowly remembered my goal to empower the women towards independence -- and as Rob said something about ordinary people doing extraordinary things -- my 20th century Nokia began violently attacking both my night stand and my day dream.

Almost before I was able to press the faded green button and cautiously ask 'Hello?' I was captured by the words that I had been mentally fleeing all morning. There's a problem. Ironically surprised that Murphy's Law seems to be one of the few that is consistently implemented throughout Kenya, I listened quietly as Mary (the Mathare coordinator) explained how our neighbor had occupied our space and refused to withdraw. I suggested she call the Maasai Market chairman -- knowing full well that I could have called him -- and pressed the equally faded red button feeling like a dad who had just allowed his first born daughter to get bullied on her first day of kindergarten.

As I tried sipping on tea to avoid slipping in to cardiac arrest, I slowly re-entered consciousness and remembered our training the week before. I remembered the dreams each woman shared, and the indescribable struggles that they had overcome just to be able to dream those dreams. I remembered stories of impossibly low cd4 counts, of husbands' abandonments, of begging on the streets and of feeding garbage to their children just to survive. In the same moment, I considered our current situation and almost laughed at how trivial it seemed. Somehow, I just knew things would work themselves out.

When I went to visit the ladies at the end of the day, the magnificence of their display was rivaled only by their radiant and exhausted smiles that they displayed. Sitting on the ground (something we discouraged in training), they jokingly asked me if I wanted to buy something. After they ensured me for the 3rd time that the day was going really well, a smartly dressed mid-20 year old woman wearing one of their bracelets approached their space with a wide smile, proudly proclaiming I told you I'd be back! At that moment, I knew the launch was unquestionably a success. They had returning customers. An aspiration we had brainstormed tirelessly the week before.

As the women closed up the sale with their new friends, I had the chance to review the day with Mary. Even though the smiles forming on her face narrated the whole story, I still asked what the numbers were. To my utter surprise, we had sold a total of 15 products and had received orders to produce several high margin items. In our first day in the market, we sold almost 5,000 shillings worth, while the typical vendor in the market sales an average of sh2,000 a day.

It was by far my proudest moment in Kenya to date. The women had overcome the odds, pushed through the speed bumps, and somehow created the courage to continue in the pursuit of their dreams.

And as is often the case when people pursue their dreams, they were not the only beneficiaries: the other 30 women back in the centers (who are not yet ready for graduation) were watching closely; Not only meticulously evaluating in anticipation of one day selling in the Market, but also quietly praying they would have new orders to fill and would no longer be idle / income-less. I began to imagine their smiles and laughs as Mary summed up the day for me: We have several new product ideas, have developed a relationship with a new wholesaler, and have several new orders, all of which will keep our centers far more than busy for the next week.

WEEP's new home (and neighbor)

New friends and customers

Negotiations 101

Exhausted but proud after a long day.

Monday, September 28, 2009

'From nothing to something' (Part 1)

There are times that you have to see yourself and your future differently than everyone else. You have to dream of a life that seems unlikely or maybe even impossible.
-Erwin McManus

It seemed as if the whole world thought they were nothing. Unclean, untouchable, undeserving outcasts. Forever damned by the HIV virus that had invaded their livelihood and claimed genocide on their CD4 T cells. Even their alleged soul mates had disserted them, abandoned like road kill on the Nairobi highway. These widows were told they had no future, no place in society, no reason to dream.

Fortunately, an NGO called HEART (Health Education African Resource Team) saw them differently: as women, as mothers, as dreamers. In 2005, the NGO established a program called WEEP (Women's Empowerment Equality Program), committed to restoring their health, teaching them a trade and providing temporary employment that would exercise their newly acquired skills, ultimately empowering the women so that they can exit the program and pursue the dreams that society told them to erase.

When I visited my first WEEP center in 2006, the program had just launched its pilot center of about a dozen women in Ngong (a community on the border of Nairobi). Three years later, they have 5 primary centers with almost 4o women, all of which are receiving medical access, technical training and temporary employment. The program is nearly ready to graduate their first group of women, however, the coordinators have realized that -- although these women have developed technical expertise -- they need to further develop their business acumen if they are to pursue their dreams of starting their own enterprises.

When I sat down with HEART's executive director (Vickie Winkler) to discuss an 0ver-the-weekends type project that I could support, her first suggestion was the WEEP women, and the need to explore new sales channels for their products while simultaneously providing the women with business training and experience. We both agreed that the notorious Maasai Market would be a perfect platform for them to do so, and that we would need to conduct a comprehensive training in order to prepare them.

After an unexpected amount of planning and preparation, the 10 women punctually entered into the dimly light and dehydratingly hot Gospel Victory Center, to take tedious notes, ask targeted questions, and engage in role-playing exercises facilitated by the 7 speakers, 4 WEEP coordinators and myself.

Of the many lessons and takeways from the two days, I will never forget the exercise we began with on Saturday. The day before, the chairman of the Maasai Market Empowerment Trust had shared with us the importance of dreaming, specifically to dream big, because entrepreneurs are first dreamers. Imagine the impact that this had on the women, a group who society would say there is no point in dreaming, because they are HIV positive and won't live long enough to see those dreams realized.

So we began Saturday morning with each of the women sharing their dreams and visions for their life. One by one they re-crafted dreams that would inspire even the likes of Joseph or Dr. King, dreams of clothing and jewelry shops in Kibera, of school uniform stalls in Mathare, of returning to their home villages and establishing tailoring services, of employing other disadvantaged women, of empowering their children with business skills.

During the last session, a speaker (called Susan) from Jamii Bora (the largest microfinance institution in Kenya) talked about how she nearly died from HIV/AIDS, how she vomited through the ARV treatments, and how she was cut and beaten by the stigmatisms forced upon her -- all struggles the WEEP women had endured. But then Susan proudly boasted about how she never stopped dreaming, how she used the loans and the Jamii Bora community support to found her own business and fund her kids through school, and how she transformed herself from nothing to something.

As the women stared, laughed, cheered, and even finished Susan's sentences for her, I couldn't help becoming restless in my seat, thinking about the women's upcoming debut at the Maasai Market, their eventual exit from the program, their dreams to materialize their various visions, and the unimaginable accomplishments they had already achieved just by being alive and physically (and mentally healthy. As they started universally clapping at Susan's from nothing to something proclamation, I thought of an entrepreneur from Ghana -- I thought about how the words he shared at a conference applied directly to the WEEP women's renewed dreams of a life that might seem unlikely or maybe even impossible: we the willing have been doing so much with so little for so long, we can now do anything with nothing. 

Stella, one of the 10 women who participated in the training, who dreams of starting her own designer-fashion clothing company (more pics to follow).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

23 (random) things I love about Kenya (Part 1)

As my time in Kenya continues to develop, I am realizing that there is so much about this country that I love: people, places, plates, smells, sights, sounds, and a whole bunch of other things that don't begin with P or S. The list is so expansive, in fact, that it would be impossible -- or at least extremely overbearing (for the reader) -- to share every single one in full detail.

So, in order to unveil a few of these random fascinations -- without having to commit to a full blog entry on each one of them -- I've begun to compile a list. And because I am entirely positive that the list will only lengthen within the next 4-5 months, let's consider this part 1…

23 (random) things I love about Kenya
  • I love the way my shoulders and elbows have sparked lasting friendships with other Matatu passengers, as the conductor stuffed some 18 people in a bus that comfortably sits 10-12.
  • I love the way Bob Marley, Jay-Z and artists whose names I can't yet pronounce vibrate entire Matatus to life.
  • I love the way Matatu drivers breach sidewalks, invade ongoing traffic, charge single lane roads and honk war cries to pedestrians, all in the name of defeating 'jams.'
  • I love the way I always write Matatu with a capital M, even though it’s a common noun.
  • I love the way a visiting pastor recently compared God to a Matatu driver: finding a way when there is no way.
  • I love the way the pastor first made a disclaimer about the methods of Matatu drivers.
  • I love the way mango, passion fruit, pineapple and avocado taste alive.
  • I love the way my Kenyan mother makes chapati and githeri (beans & maize), and always has black tea and chai to prepare us for our 7am departures.
  • I love the way she prays with us, even when we are already 10 minutes late.
  • I love the way my Kenyan brother looks irate every time I so much as suggest a critique of Manchester United.
  • I love the way my football team (CT United) performs celebrations after scoring a goal, out done only be the likes of Usain Bolt.
  • I love the way the bathroom door at my office reads Engaged when the unit is occupied.
  • I love the way very important public figures are willing (dare I say eager) to accommodate requests for a meeting, even when there seems to be little t0 nothing in it for them.
  • I love the way every phone conversation (informal or formal) begins with an inquiry into your well being, even before the caller identifies himself.
  • I love the way 4 year old children in Mathare rhythmically and crisply shout: How are you! from across the road, marrying their developing mastery of the English language with their excitement to display it.
  • I love the way the same children proudly proclaim: I am fine, thank you! when the question bounces back.
  • I love the way I feel as if the entire country studies the same TV programs at night (think American Idol, times 7).
  • I love the way the Government gifts public holidays at random (I've enjoyed two, so far)
  • I love the way a street vendor called me Barack while walking by him on the street.
  • I love the way every article in the Daily Nation about Obama reminds readers that his father was Kenyan, as if it was possible to forget.
  • I love the way the Gitanga and Muthangari Rd Daily Nation representative humbly and radiantly greets me every morning.
  • I love the way the Daily Nation consistently has at least 4 pages flowing with football.
  • I love the way that this list could occupy the entire Sunday edition of the Daily Nation, and still be incomplete.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Community Transformers United (Part 1)

As I took my first step on to our bright brown-colored pitch in the Mathare slum, I realized that I was stepping into a completely different world of soccer.

Different not because the field was decorated with whistle-sized rocks and skin staining dirt instead of invisible rubber beads and artificial turf, or lined with hundreds of standing fans instead of scores of empty bleacher seats, or populated with or populated with oddly shaped and sized plastic-bag bundles instead of untouched $50 FIFA certified balls. Not even because the game is affectionately referred to as football instead of complacently labelled soccer.

This world was different because it was streaming with significance.

Here in the slums, as in many places throughout the world, football is much more than a pastime. It's much more than a game. More than a source of entertainment. Rather, it is purpose, meaning, pride, identity. As in the case with the team I was recently invited to join (at a youth rally in Mathare… read Aug. 24th post), many of our players have entered into the chalk protected safe haven with a burdened past. One of drugs, violence, gangs, broken homes and extreme poverty.

When the founder of Community Transformers (Nick Omondi), decided to start the football team with Steve Sacher, they had a vision. A vision to use the three balls they had been donated to restore community and hope and purpose into the broken lives of the Mathare youth. A vision to use football to encourage young men to live the lives they were created to live.

William is one of these young men. As one of Community Transformers United's (CTU) leading strikers, he wears a halogen-light bulb smile but takes his role as forward very seriously. He also participates in the homes visits that CT makes to women with HIV and helps share with kids the message about prevention. Prior to joining the squad, however, he was literally on his death bed, with little chance of survival.

As early as 13 years of age, William was involved in a notorious gang in the slums. He had become a victim to the illusion of drugs and violence and was eventually put in prison for 'gang activity.' After his short time in jail, however, he paid a much larger price, and was shot several times in the stomach/chest. He was taken to the local hospital, where the doctors gave him little to no chance of surviving. Even his family had written him off, and left him to become another addition to the startling statistic of youth who are dying preventable deaths (the World Health Organization conducted a study showing that 2.6 million young people are dying each year, 97% from preventable deaths in low or middle income countries).

Fortunately, Nick and the CT team were not willing to give up so easy. When they discovered William's story, they began visiting him daily in the hospital. Miraculously, he slowly began to recover, and became stable enough that the hospital could discharge him. He came to live at CT -- because his family didn't want to deal with him -- and slowly began to gain strength and overcome his addictions. It seemed as if he was finally on the road to restoration, physically and spiritually.

But was it sustainable? Or would he eventually be pulled back into his past lifestyle? How could CT continue to make William feel as if he belonged and was a lasting part of their community?

The answer came through football. Like so many other young men on the squad, William was once a devote footballer, but had lost sight of his passion through the blinding lenses of the gang life. CTU provided that opportunity to rediscover his passion, while becoming a part of something that was bigger than him. Football became not only an escape, but William's shot to redefine and re-establish himself.

Several years later, a liberated and recreated William joined me and the other 18+ boys of CTU, as we stepped on to the pitch for a local tournament. Without even completely knowing the stories of William or others like him, I sensed that this tournament had a much more profound significance than just acquiring more goals than our opponent. Whether we won the trophy or were eliminated in our first game*, there was something being created. Something bigger than myself or any one of the individual players on the team. Something that was truly transforming lives and the community of which we had become an integral part.

*Unfortunately we lost both matches over the weekend (one in PKs), but are looking forward to anouther tournament at the end of the month. 

Fans, doin' work, PKs, disappointment and unity (photos taken by Haley, a visiting team member)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New news (Part 2)

Two weeks ago -- on a warm, semi-cloudy day at the Nairobi Holiday Inn across from my office -- my colleague and I had the privilege to enjoy a cup of tea and many profound words with the founders of Rachel's Bargain Corner (or, what I like to call, the of Kenya). Even before I emailed the two to request a meeting, I decided that the story of Rachel and Enoch is one that needs to be shared: one of vision and courage and dependence and opportunity.

Rachel and Enoch conceived the idea to launch an online business while studying biomedicine and computer science (respectively) at the University of Egerton. With the growing domestic popularity of the Internet (underwater fiber optic cables were recently laid, connecting Kenya to the 'world network') and Enoch's background in building websites, the 26 year old couple knew the time was right to start an online business. The question then became, what is a product that is in demand that they could provide to Kenyans in a way that would be valued.

Kenyans don’t read

Founding an online bookstore would likely be an idea few would consider viable, given the prevailing typecast that 'Kenyans don't read.' Fortunately for society, however, entrepreneurs tend to look at things differently, and the Essendis believed that Kenyans actually have an aspiration to read, but struggle to conveniently access reading material. The closest bookstore for some could be day-journeys away, and for others, long queues serve as determent if the stores and books are available (particularly when buying text books). The Essendis also believed that books never go out of fashion and recognized the low cost of shipping and handling in order to deliver the products to their customers. Thus, Rachel's Bargain Corner was conceived.

A low risk business model

Instead of buying books and maintaining a burdensome inventory, the Essendis have been able to establish key partnerships with over a dozen publishers and retailers, who provide books to Rachel's Bargain Corner at discount (usually 25-30%). Once the Essendis receive an order, they can then go to the publisher's site (all of which are located in the same area in Nairobi) and purchase the book directly.

Rachel's Bargain Corner sells all of their products at retail price, and provides free shipping to anywhere in Kenya, so the margins they make are small; however, they've adopted an perspective (it took Amazon over 6 years to earn a profit) and realize that as time develops they will become increasingly profitable through volume (i.e., as their popularity grows, they will receive better discounts from publishers, enjoy greater synergy when shipping, be able to sell higher margin products, etc.).

Doing business in Kenya

Doing business in developing countries has certainly proved challenging for many entrepreneurs and multinational organizations. Fortunately for the Essendis, however -- having been born and raised in Kenya -- they are very familiar with the culture and economic landscape and can organize their business in order to best take advantage of opportunities that others might have failed to cease in the past. For example, although sells and delivers to Kenya, the shipping costs are very high, and more importantly, a majority of Kenyans do not have credit cards. Rachel's Bargain Corner has realized the hindrance these two provide, and as a result, provides free shipping and accepts mobile payments via M-Pesa (which nearly 1/3 of the population uses).

They have also realized that many Kenyans are not familiar with buying goods online (e.g., phrases like 'Add to cart' have little meaning to someone who has never shopped online before), and so they have focused on educating consumers. They also have to focus on establishing trust with their constituents, as some are unaccustomed to the practice of paying for a good before it is received.

The never ending story

Although the Essendis just launched their site less than two months ago -- and are still operating out of their home office -- they are already receiving over 30 book orders a day and plan to hire additional help soon. They have also begun to sell CDs and DVDs, and look forward to providing other higher margin products as they gain their customers' trust and develop new industry partnerships. And the story will only continue to grow, as they move forward, page by page, on their way to becoming known as the of Kenya.

Me, Rachel, Enoch and my colleague Annah

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New news (Part 1)

I am constantly amazed at how little of the good news -- or what I prefer to call the 'new news' -- about Africa is getting through.
-Charlayne Hunter-Gault

It's not a well kept secret that a majority of the news covering the continent of Africa is negative. Stories of disease, corruption, violence, terrorism and the like seem to easily strangle out those of success, opportunity, hope and achievement. As a spokesman from the Red Cross recently said, More than 75 percent of the stories in Africa were negative. And research firm Media Tenor echoed the same concern: Africa received the worst overall rating of positive stories versus negative stories of all the continents.

Although there are undoubtedly many overwhelming challenges facing the continent (a few of which are mentioned in this blog), there are also countless rays of light and beauty to be discovered. So, in an effort to unveil just a fragment of this beauty, I plan to highlight the stories of several entrepreneurs that are making the continent a better place through their tireless efforts.

But first, a few thoughts on entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship has been recognized as the foundation to economic development, stability and poverty alleviation in Kenya (and in most developing countries). As a government official recently noted, No country will realize sustained economic growth without supporting small business ventures (The Standard). And as a local professor stressed, if Kenya is to evade its 'developing country' status, it needs to produce job creators, not job takers (The Daily Nation).

Sure, there are countless political issues that -- if sorted out -- would make an unprecedented impact on the well being of millions. But unfortunately, these are not easy fixes and rely on factors that are less controllable by an average citizen. Fortunately, however, economic development -- catalyzed by entrepreneurship -- is much more accessible and tangible and can even occur despite the ongoing political landscape transformation.

And the entrepreneurship opportunities are more than abundant. From basic goods and services such as clean water, public latrines or affordable mosquito nets, to higher end offerings such as designer clothes, online book stores or even event planning. If one were to compare the established business offerings in a developed country to those in the developing world, the possibilities would be astonishing.

Unfortunately, however, most educated Kenyans do not look to entrepreneurship (outside of farming) as a lucrative career option. Perhaps the risks are too high, or the status garnered is subpar (compared to, say, a doctor or lawyer) or access to credit is limited. Whatever the reason(s), the problem is undoubtedly perpetuated by the absence of existing entrepreneurs who can serve as entrepreneurship advocates. Because individuals do not see their peers achieving success through a tool such as entrepreneurship, they are much less likely to consider that tool viable.

For this reason, it is critical to unveil the 'new news' and share the successes of those that are creating a better world through their entrepreneurial ventures. These are the stories that need to be heard.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Crushed spirits, roaring lions and breaking free

Whatever you have, thank God. If you don't have shoes, thank God, because there are some people without legs.
-Peter Ndolo, 13 year old Mathare resident

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to speak with one of my best friends (Steve) at a youth rally that he helped organize in the Mathare slum (the theme was Break Free). Although I felt completely inadequate and unqualified to speak to a group who has endured so much, I knew it was an invitation I couldn't turn down.

As we sat with the Mathare community, we were so inspired by the speakers, singers, dancers and artists that came before us, and considered it such a blessing to be surrounded by so many talented and gifted individuals who were able to discover true joy in spite of the poverty surrounding them (see pics below).

Went it came our turn, Steve and I spoke about overcoming our failures and considering trials and tribulations as stepping stones (not stumbling blocks) in the pursuit of our dreams and aspirations. We talked about our own failures (a first for me, publicly), about the unconditional hope and future that exists for all of us*, and how we believe that distractions are created to discourage and diminish us from realizing this future**.

After we finished talking, we thanked our interpreter (Patrick) and he shared with us how much our stories had meant to him. I was very grateful, but assumed he was just being nice. He went on to explain that he is the pastor/founder of a new church in Mathare and has been attacked with unimaginable hardships. He told us that earlier that week, his 8 month old daughter had died of complications while she was in surgery. She was his only daughter and had needed surgery because her intestines were twisted/blocked. I was speechless…

He went on to say that he had just found out that his uncle had passed away that morning. Literally minutes before we started speaking, he received a call with the news… Again, absolutely speechless.

He then shared with us his vision and how our message encouraged him and uplifted him more than we could know. I honestly could not believe my ears. He said he believes that God wants to use him to do great things, but that the enemy is trying to blot out his dreams so that he will surrender them. Even as Patrick was expressing how thankful he was for our message, I was thinking about how the benefit was all ours: the ability of this man to even get out of his bed, leave his home, serve at this youth rally and share his story with us speaks volumes to the faith and strength that he has found.

For this strength, I am eternally grateful and inspired. And will never forget his story.

*Jer. 29:11
**1 Peter 5:8

New friends, local genge artists and dance parties.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sacred tears (Part 2)

Let us start wherever we are by declaring enough is enough… We must not wait until we die of hunger and thirst. We must take action and reverse this process.
-Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (from Kenya)

Maize (corn) is the primary staple crop in Kenya -- The food security of the country single handedly depends on its production and availability. People consume far more maize than any other food (~37 million 90-kg bags a year, more than 1/3 of the calories and proteins consumed in the country), and around 4 million Kenyans are small-scale producers of the cereal grain.

As a result of the drought, maize productivity has been severely diminished (see the picture in part 1). The government is predicting that only 20 of the 37 million bags will be produced this year (private institutions are predicting 15m), which will expose nearly the entire country to food insecurity. It also significantly affects the price of maize, which becomes extremely burdensome for the majority of Kenyans who are net consumers (including the majority of small-scale farmers).

The NGO that I am working with has decided that enough is enough -- something more needs to be done before more lives are consumed by hunger.

Fortunately, many large scale donors have come to the same conviction (e.g., the Obama administration has doubled USAID's budget for food security to $1B and the G8 has committed $20B to sustainable agriculture development over the next 3 years).

So we have begun to research and analyze the entire maize value chain -- with the intent of identifying best practices, marketing gaps, areas for improvement, etc. -- so that we can develop a strategic plan for how to enter and hopefully advance the industry. The vision is to not only present productivity recommendations, but more specifically to suggest (and eventually implement) a business model in which farmers can work together to increase and optimize the post harvest marketing/selling of their yield.

As the lead consultant on this proposal effort, I have spent my first few weeks pursuing conversations with numerous industry players and diving into as many reports, publications, news clippings and thought leadership pieces as possible. While this has certainly proven to be a huge undertaking, and there is undoubtedly an overwhelming amount of work ahead, the potential impact is nothing short of life changing and sadly long overdue.

In spite (or perhaps as a result) of the heightened sense of urgency and responsibility, it's very inspiring to be a part of a project with so much potential, and I'm eager to continue to share our progress as we stumble forward.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sacred tears (Part 1)

Our tears are sacred. They water the ground around our feet so that new things can grow.

-Anne Lamott

Kenya is crying for rain.

The country is suffering from one of the worst droughts in its history and is on its way to becoming one of the most rain deficient countries in the world.

And the wounds are already profound…

1. Electricity has become sacred, as 70% of Kenya is powered by hydro electricity plants (one of which was shut down last month, leaving only 7 plants to support the country). In response, the government has begun rationing power to residential areas -- Even our house in Nairobi is without power three days a week. Personal inconveniences aside, one can imagine the toll this has on the economy, foreign investment and especially small businesses, which are being forced to shut down.

2. Livestock is suffering: over 150,000 cattle have already died and another 200,000 have fled to Ethiopia. Dairy farmers -- who sell milk from their cattle as re-occurring revenue streams -- are being forced to sell their goats and cows to butchers, before the cattle die of starvation. And because there are so many farmers stuck in this paradox, they are receiving prices significantly below market rate.

3. People are starving: the government has announced that 11 million are in need of food. Food insecurity has rapidly become the most pressing issue challenging Kenya. No other sort of development can take place if the basic needs of hunger are not being met. And although there have been red flags for months, the government can no longer ignore the crisis and initiated an emergency plan for food aid last week. Sadly, most fear it will be far too little.

It has become overwhelmingly obvious that something more needs to be done.

Maize crop that has failed to harvest due to the deficient rain.