Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kenyan Construction Methods

On my way into work I pass several buildings that are under construction. I've mentioned before that the construction sites I've seen in Nairobi always have many more workers than I'm accustomed to seeing on construction sites in the States. For the most part, machines haven't replaced men. Today, I noticed a vertical assembly line of workers passing up rebar to the top floor of this office building. It has to get up there somehow. And I'm no expert, but I think I could come up with no less than 50 OSHA violations.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Unorganized Thoughts After One Month

• I’ve seen two H3 Hummers in my first month here. I still can’t decide where the car is more out of place – Africa or Metro Detroit suburbs. The 4x4 capabilities obviously suits Africa quite well but the price tag is a little more appropriate for suburban US.

• The grocery store where I’ve been shopping is nicer than any Jewel-Osco Chicago. I’m not joking. I was initially really, really shocked that this store, stocked with just about everything you can find in the States, existed in Africa, but now I’m beginning to feel a bit shocked at my initial shock. Why wouldn’t a fully stocked grocery store exist in a city that houses plenty of foreign embassies, Africa’s UN headquarters, a sizeable middle class, and is the largest city between Cairo and Johannesburg? My answer to that a few weeks ago would have probably been very similar to a lot of people’s answer, something along the lines of “because Africa is a continent of disease, famine, war, corruption, and violent crime.” I’m happy to be learning differently...and grocery shopping here:

• On my walk to work or home, I routinely see two or three men in pretty standard work clothes just running down the street. There are never any busses within eye sight that they might be running to, they don’t appear to be being chased, and no one else seems to pay any mind to them. They’re just slacks, a tucked in button down, and dress shoes. I can’t figure this out.

• In my first few weeks I kept feeling like I was accidently running into people. I’d be walking into work about to cross paths with someone walking the other way and I’d shift to pass them on my right just like I would normally in the States. Unfortunately, the other person would also try to go that way and we’d end up dancing for a panicked second before stumbling around eachother and continuing on. Cars drive on the left hand side of the road here, so I spent the last few weeks determined to always try to shift to my left (it’s not easy) when I’m about to cross paths with someone. It hasn’t seemed to improve things much. I’m beginning to conclude that Nairobi’s rules for walking are similar to the city’s rules for driving. Anything goes. You can pass on the left or right and should not take into consideration the actions of anyone else on the road. I now just walk in the most convenient path and avoid eye contact with anyone walking in the other direction. They can shift and pass me on whatever side they please. This seems to be working much more effectively, and I think I might be ready to graduate to a seat behind a steering wheel.

• I have yet to visit a restaurant where the number of customers outnumbers the number of employees. This is less about the number of customers, which is normally not an insignificant amount, and more about the number of employees. It has seemed in some cases that there has been a separate employee to take our drink order, take our food order, deliver our drinks, deliver our food, bus our table, present the bill, pick up our bill, deliver change. There are at least two security guards at the entrance and sometimes a parking lot attendant to help you park.

• For anyone having some trouble, I know a guy:

Zambia is Burning

I'm heading to Zambia at the end of the month to meet with the NGOs and private distributors that sell our pumps. Admittedly, I know very, very little about the country besides the name of its captial city, Lusaka, and that the northern city of Mununga, as written about in Josh Swiller's Peace Corps memoir The Unheard, is frightening. I now also know, after reading about one couple's Zambian honeymoon, that the country is burning, a result of climate change that is causing drought and desertification in sub-Saharan Africa.

You won't find me on any roads at night, but during the daylight hours of my trip, I'm looking forward to learning more about the country and witnessing firsthand how our pumps are being distributed and used. I hope to return to Kenya with words other than "frightening" and "burning" to describe my visit.

Monday, February 14, 2011

New Pictures

Not many from Kenya, but I just added to my Flickr page a few new pictures, including shots from the Carr wedding. My favorite?

Bone Crusher:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Year of Mobile

For last six months of 2010, working in the online advertising world, I couldn’t get through a meeting without talking about mobile phones. What is our mobile strategy? How do we get started with mobile? How big is mobile? How is mobile different than search? Do you have clients that have retail apps? The questions came from clients trying to keep up with consumers who were more and more likely to be using their mobile phones to browse the web. I sat through two or three presentations from publishers that predicted, based on the current adoption rates of smart phones, that searches done on mobile phones would surpass searches done on computers within two years. The presentations and articles passed around all predicted “2011: The Year of Mobile” and our clients’ questions and sentiments seemed to agree.

Now I’m in Kenya working for a non-profit that sells foot powered irrigation pumps to rural, subsistence farmers. In this world, seemingly far removed from mobile advertising strategy and mobile apps, I’ve found that I still can’t get through many meetings without talking about mobile. The prediction of 2011 being the year of mobile might be correct even here, albeit in a much different way than it was explained in the presentations catered to US advertising.

This Economist article (thanks, Simon) gives a number of examples of how mobile phones are becoming a lot more than just devices to make calls. M-Pesa, which is described in the article, is plastered all over Nairobi on billboards and painted cement walls. In a country where over 60% of the population doesn’t have a bank account, the text based banking has opened up new opportunities for those that traditionally fell outside of the formal banking sector. My organization is currently running a program where farmers can put a pump on layaway, making payments through M-Pesa when they have money available, which will open up our market to farmers that find it hard to come up with the initial investment. There are ideas to start a mobile social network of farmers that will allow them to text a question to the larger group and get answers quickly sent back, making it possible to share information that hasn’t easily been available in the past. What’s the market price for my crop? How do I rotate my crops for better yield? What’s the best irrigation hose?

Last weekend I went on a trip outside of Nairobi with 10 other Americans working and living in Nairobi. 4 of them are directly working on mobile software, creating programs that will help organizations and businesses manage the data that is being gathered through M-Pesa, for example, and building out new services such as text based surveys. For my project, we’re talking to a company that allows you to develop surveys that are done via text message. If the owner of a new pump texts “survey” we can send him/her a series of questions that will help us gather key demographic information, know where our pumps are being used, and ultimately measure our pumps’ impact on farmer income. For the farmers’ time and willingness, we could offer a guarantee of the pump or reward them with cell phone air time. And we could do all of this from the comfort of a Nairobi office, sipping on Kenyan tea while data pours in from cell phones in over 25 different countries.

I noticed this article on Simon’s reading list this week. The title, “Why the Web is Useless in Developing Countries,” is over the top and I found the article’s argument a little weak. A simple phone call to President Mubarek, who just watched his government topple amid protests largely motivated through social media, would probably work in convincing even the biggest cynic that the internet’s power is great. But, after working in Africa for just over a month and witnessing firsthand the exciting development of new mobile uses and tools, I’d have to agree that mobile phones offer a much larger and more immediate opportunity to change and improve the lives of those living in developing countries. Especially in 2011 – the year of mobile.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

First Kenyan Field Trip

James picked me up at my apartment 20 minutes after scheduled. He was driving a minbus and I hopped up front into the seat on the left hand side feeling disoriented riding shotgun on the wrong side of the car. We made the very short trip to the office, parked and rode the elevator up to the sixth floor where we were picking up another co-worker, Anne, and then heading out of Nairobi to visit two farmers. Anne wasn’t in the office when we arrived, so we waited and when we finally headed out we were an hour and a half later than originally planned.

James is in his forties, very quick to smile, and from what I can tell has a favourite word. Happy. “I’m very happy to see you, David, and very happy to spending the day with you,” was his greeting and he riddled every other sentence with the word; so much so, it was hard not to return his smiles and yes, be happy. Anne is younger, late twenties or early thirties, with very short hair and thin frame glasses. She sits in the first bench of seats behind the front of the bus and her somewhat quiet voice is hard to hear over the noise of the road as we make our way out of Nairobi.

When you first get to Nairobi, one of the first things you’ll learn is that traffic is bad. Everyone you meet likes to warn you of the rush hour traffic jams and tell you that he wakes up an hour or two earlier so that his commute is 30 minutes rather than the 2 hours it would take in traffic. Judging by my short walk from my apartment to the office, I believe them. The smaller streets that take me to the office are gridlocked with cars, motorcycles, buses, bikes, and people. There are no traffic lights or followed stop signs at intersections, so they quickly become a snarled mess of vehicles inching into to the middle, playing chicken with their counterparts, until they can make their required turn. Pedestrians aren’t given an inch in any of this, so we’re left doing the same, inching out, playing chicken, until we can somewhat safely cross the street. And if I’ve learned anything so far it is that the little old Indian lady driving her BMW, who you think might give you a pleasant wave of her hand to safely let you cross does not. She does not lose a game of chicken.

James weaves through the city streets, through the snarled intersections and equally confusing roundabouts. The mini bus we’re driving has a flat face with no hood so everything is right outside the windshield and the cars in front always look dangerously close. After 10 minutes of city driving we turn onto what James describes as a super highway. It looks like an unorganized and dangerous construction site. There are people everywhere, some walking, some working, others just watching. With cheap labor, an unemployment rate of 40%, and not much capital to invest in Caterpillar machines, Kenya has replaced the backhoes, concrete mixers, and pavers of a US road crew with human workers. Hundreds of them peppering what will become some sort of “super highway.” The road goes from a very reddish dirt to paved, paved to dirt, from two lanes to three and then to one and back to two. But the traffic is moving in our direction, out of town, unlike the cars stopped on the other side trying to get into the city. Between the people, traffic, construction, and changing grades of road I find myself not sure where to look or what to focus on.

Anne points towards the green mountains in the distance and says that’s where we’re headed. Before we get there, we pass through two or three towns. I notice a surprising number of places advertising car washes and every other cement building seems to be a beauty parlor. I point the later out to Anne who finds it a lot funnier than I intended it to be. Again, people all over line the streets. We pass two markets of tightly lined up wooden shacks or tin roofed structures in dirt lots, with most of the shacks selling vegetables. The markets seem to be the center of activity with people and rickshaws weaving in and out of the road. At one point while driving up a hill, there’s a man pushing a wooden rickshaw in the opposite direction, down the hill. The rickshaw is loaded with something I can’t make out but based on his speed, the weight of his goods give him significant momentum. He is barrelling down the hill, putting a foot down to lift the rickshaw up and then riding airborne for 30 feet until he puts the other foot down and launches himself again. He speeds by us hanging on to the rickshaw, his feet dangling 5 feet off the ground. Amazed by his speed and recklessness I let out an unintentional “woah!” Laughing, James jokingly asks if I’ve seen anything like that in the states. None of us can quite figure out how the daredevil plans to stop the rickshaw.

We finally get out to the mountains and turn off the road onto a one lane dirt road that heads down a steep hill and park the bus 400-500 yards down the hill. The trip out of Nairobi seemed like an endless string of crude apartment buildings, shops, restaurants, and people, but we park the bus in a very quiet, rural area surrounded by large green hills. The path we walk down winds through small farm plots and James points out the different vegetables. Cabbage and spinach take the title of most popular. We come to a steep drop and below see a clearing. It’s a small farm set right up against a creek. There’s a hose with one end in the creek and the other end attached to a blue pump which looks like a small stair stepper exercise machine. A farmer is leaning on a narrow piece of steel that rises up from the pump as a means of support while he pumps his legs up and down. His stair stepper motion pulls water out of the creek, through the hose, through the pump, and through a hose connected to the other side of the pump. This hose extends 20 or so feet into his plot where his son uses the water pumping out of the end of the hose to water the crops. The pumps blue paint stands out the brightest in the field. It looks a little out of place and the power with which the water exits the one end of the hose is surprising.

We talk to the farmer while he’s working, pumping up and down on the foot pedals. He’s barefoot and is wearing a tattered golf shirt that swallows his wiry frame. He’s broken a good sweat and explains that he does this 6 hours a day, that since he bought the pump he’s doubled the size of his land and has starting building a new house. He has five kids, one of whom is only 3 months old and is described, with a smile, as a mistake. The rest of his kids are older and he says that he’s been able to afford their schooling with the income from the larger farm. The pump waters his crops more efficiently than what he had to do before which was stick a bucket into the creek, fill it, and then carry it and finally dump it over his crops. He did this 6 hours a day, the same amount of time he works with the pump, but was only able to cultivate a piece of land that was barely sufficient to keep food on the table, let alone pay for school fees. Because the pump waters the crops more quickly, he can water and tend a larger area of land, allowing him to earn more than what he ever would have aspired to with a simple bucket in his hand. He explains all this, sweating and pumping in the hot sun, with a palpable enjoyment and satisfaction.

We move on to another farmer that is nearby and hear a similar heart warming and meaningful story. This farmer is a woman and with the help of the blue pump has found even more success than the first farmer. She’s used it for close to two years and now half of her farm, which has grown significantly since she started, is for vegetables that she sells to a large food manufacturing company. The profits from her six hour days support her family of six. She says she has a lot of people asking to borrow the pump but never lets them, “They can buy their own pump.” A hard worker with a competitive spirit, I think. It’s no wonder she’s made a good entrepreneur.

We trek back through the fields and take off in the bus. James is very, very happy I was able to see the pumps in action. I agree and also note how nice it was to see parts of the country outside of Nairobi. We make our way back into the city using a different route that actually feels remarkably similar to how we left the city. People, car washes, beauty parlors, markets, and rickshaws line the road. Traffic is dense, construction is everywhere. We get back to the office, our field trip finished.

I head to my desk and open an Excel spreadsheet. Rows of numbers stare back at me from the screen, accounting for pumps sold, shipped, and delivered. In the past, Excel spreadsheets have mocked me for the countless hours I’ve spent calculating and formatting numbers and data points that seem worthless and hollow. But today, I win. These numbers represent blue pumps, new entrepreneurs, and school fees. These numbers have meaning.