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Leaders Are Negotiators

Nothing warms up an audience like laughter. Last semester I observed how several of my professors used humor to animate their lessons, particularly Bob Bordone and Debbie Goldstein of Harvard’s Spring Negotiation Workshop. Through skits, role-playing exercises, and tactfully incorporated film clips, Bob and Debbie used humor to make challenging negotiation concepts stick.

This week I will attempt to model this approach during a weeklong training on effective negotiation at the iHub. This short course builds off of the two talks I led here in Nairobi earlier in the summer, but provides much more time for dialogue, a full-blown negotiation simulation, and of course, a generous dose of snark and humor. Thanks to the continued support of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation (PON) and Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), I am able to offer this course free of charge to colleagues from Ushahidi, researchers at the iHub, and the winners of last month’s Pivot East competition.

Yesterday marked the first day of the four-part series and centered on the seven elements of negotiation pioneered by William Ury and Roger Fisher in Getting to Yes. A small but engaged group of entrepreneurs explored Ury and Fisher’s elements, considering how these concepts could be applied to their own negotiations with potential partners and investors. At first, the participants were reticent. I have seen this before. It’s tough to speak up in a group, especially in front of your colleagues. But I eventually got the conversation flowing, in part thanks to the battery of helpful facilitation techniques I picked up while working for Uncle D (our tongue-in-cheek nickname for Deloitte). For example, using sticky notes as a brainstorming tool is a surefire way to draw out the wallflowers. This simple piece of adhesive paper can be used as a microphone, amplifying ideas that would otherwise remain trapped in shy but sharp minds.

This afternoon we will continue to unpack the seven elements, but tomorrow is when the real fun begins. Wednesday and Thursday we will dive headfirst into a Harvard-designed negotiation simulation. The case, codenamed Appleton v. Baker, is one of the first exercises I completed as a young negotiation student. While centered on a real estate deal, the underpinnings of this case provide ample opportunity to experiment with the seven elements of interest-based negotiation. I am confident that the group of edgy software engineers and entrepreneurs will take the exercise quite seriously—and I cannot wait to see how things shake out. After the one-on-one simulation we will come back together as a larger group to review and discuss the results.

While I realize that a short negotiation training is not going to transform these East Africans into rockstar negotiators, I believe it will elevate their communication skills and hopefully lead to more equitable deals as they move forward with their businesses. Research has hinted that teaching interest-based negotiation skills in Africa works. Consider the success of Innovation for Poverty Action’s (IPA) Girls Negotiation program that emboldened young Zambian women to make smart, productive life choices. Arming entrepreneurs with similar negotiation toolkits is an important step in the development of effective leaders—especially those set to pilot the future of Kenya’s dynamic tech ecosystem.

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The People’s Republic of Kigali

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On Friday evening, my friend Heather picked me up at the airport for a night of drinking and gambling with a rowdy crew of Chinese businessmen. However, I was not in Hong Kong or Macau but rather in Kigali. Like much of East Africa, Rwanda is undergoing massive change and a countrywide construction boom. Cranes are in constant motion in Kigali and CAT dealers advertise aggressively around the international airport. The Chinese worker is not an uncommon sight here—nor in Nairobi. China is pouring billions of Yuan into the continent. Sure, I’ve read about China’s omnipresence in Africa and heard my lecturers at Fletcher wax about the creep of the Chinese dragon, but it is entirely different to experience firsthand.

The Chinese are literally everywhere, paving roads, hammering out railroad ties, and building high-rises at a Dubai-esque clip. In Rwanda, China has been busy. Around 70 percent of the country’s roads are tied to Chinese firms like China Road and Bridge. On the drive out to Lake Kivu this weekend I experienced Beijing’s handiwork as our rugged RAV-4 tackled Rwanda’s thousand hills with ease. The roads are modern, smooth, clean, and frankly, better than most I’ve driven on in the Boston-area.

The Chinese are also laying down rail like nobody’s business. This May, the Chinese government formalized agreements with the regional leaders of East Africa to build a train connecting Kenya to Uganda and eventually Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. As my classmate Patrick Malone notes in a recent Fletcher Forum article, the East African Railway (EAR) project will “open up lucrative mining and oil markets” and bring new jobs to the region. He cites, “In Rwanda alone—where ninety percent of Rwandese are subsistence farmers—the EAR is projected to generate 30,000 labor and 7,000 skilled jobs during its initial construction.” This is indeed exciting.

And while these tracks hold promise of increased trade and economic growth, the question of who will benefit remains to be answered. Consider this provocative (and slightly irreverent) thought: When the Brits came to Africa over a century ago, one of their first priorities was building a railroad system that crisscrossed the continent. Clearly someone in Beijing has been doing a bit of light history reading. 

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Thoughts On My Thesis

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Yesterday I sat down with Erik Hersman for a chat about East Africa’s buzzing tech ecosystem. The meeting marked the start of my summer thesis research. Per Fletcher’s graduation requirements, Master’s students must complete a capstone project before May. This deliverable may take the form of a traditional research paper or a more edgy business case study. For my own requirement I hope to bridge the traditional and the creative, exploring the trickle-down effects of innovation hubs in East Africa with a particular emphasis on the continent’s growing middle class. While a lot has been written about Kenya’s romance with the tech world (see here, here, and here), there is a discernible lack of literature on how these innovation shops and tinker spaces are changing the game for everyday Kenyans.

Over fish tacos and quesadillas at Pete’s, Erik helped me layout a roadmap for my upcoming research. He started by underscoring the intersection between hubs and community development, noting, “The iHub was always designed to be a community space first. When you put cool people, in a cool place, cool things will happen.” I wholeheartedly agree. Aligning sharp folks with a valuable, shared mission is step one. And for me, understanding how innovation hubs act as community fabricators is a great starting point as I attempt to determine their impact on Kenya’s economy and overall employment.

While some skeptics will argue community doesn’t equate to GDP growth, I believe that community is an indispensable ingredient when developing a healthy and productive ecosystem. Hubs provide a necessary space for people to connect: Innovators can meet partners. Entrepreneurs can woo investors. And Fletcher students can interact with an impressive cohort of change-makers working out of the iHub—while sucking down kickass cappuccinos (obviously I’m slightly bias).

Keeping the fundamental role of community in mind, the next stage of my capstone research must focus on determining if Kenya’s lauded tech community has the muscle to inspire country- and region-wide systemic change, especially for those individuals living between $2 and $20 per day (the African Development Bank’s hazy definition of the continent’s middle class).

Ultimately, Tuesday’s interview energized me. It provided ample fodder for future conversations with thought-leaders in East Africa’s tech scene. Over the next three weeks before I head back stateside I hope to gain more clarity on my thesis question. Conversation with innovation hub managers in Nairobi as well as the entrepreneurs utilizing their services will help me focus my research. Time to get cracking—I’ve got twenty days.

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Time for a Rolex

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While only 400 miles from Nairobi, Kampala feels a world apart from life in Kenya. This weekend I hopped on an Embraer 190 and flew to Entebbe for a weekend reunion with Team Fletcher—East Africa style. The trip was a needed shot in the arm, providing a slice of Medford, Massachusetts in the middle of the Ugandan jungle. Four wayward Fletchies—me, Clint, Anjali, and Heather—all assembled in Kololo, a leafy neighborhood perched on one of Kampala’s seven hills before heading eastward for some R&R in Jinja. Our crew spent the majority of our time in Jina, lounging nearby the Nile River. Our schedule consisted of mandated pool time, chilled Club beers, and an intense daylong whitewater rafting expedition. And though I do hold a special place in my heart for Nairobi, the long weekend was a lovely escape from the traffic and smog of Kenya’s “Green City in the Sun”.

Before rafting/swimming/nearly drowning in the Nile (pinch me…the Nile!) our group toured the Hive Colab, a tech and innovation workspace located in Kampala. The Hive maintains a complimentary mission to the iHub: incubate and educate young businessmen and businesswomen, providing them an array of opportunities to flex their entrepreneurial acumen. On Friday, we met with Hive managers Barbara Birungi and Brian Ndyaguma. Both were incredibly helpful and spoke candidly about the unique interaction between tech and employment in Kampala.

Brian noted, “Technology is a double-sided blade. Consider this: When you create a good app you often rob the economy of jobs—so you have to proceed carefully.” He emphasized the importance of thinking through the positive and potentially negative effects of Uganda’s venture into the knowledge economy.

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Barbara had similar things to say about Hive’s emphasis on creating quality jobs in Uganda. In a recent blog post, she underscored the importance of generating ideas that in turn generate jobs—particularly in a country where young unemployment stands at 82 percent. It was exciting to see Barbara and Brian’s hope to harness the positive power of technology for the betterment of all Ugandans.

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But beyond rivers and routers, I think my favorite part of the visit was my encounter with the Ugandan rolex. No, it’s not a flashy watch but rather a thin omelet wrapped in a warm chapati (flat, unleavened bread). So, why aren’t these bad boys available in Kenya? I am sure they would sell like hotcakes—quite literally.

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On BRCKs and Banana Bread

Having worked at a think tank and a consulting firm, I have participated in far too many report releases and project kickoff meetings—but yesterday was my first product launch. Wednesday marked the debut of the BRCK: the go anywhere, do anything, self-powered, mobile WiFi device. Designed in Africa, built in Austin, and deployable anywhere in the world, the BRCK has big aspirations. Today, over 60 percent of the globe lacks access to the Internet. BRCK stands to change this. Erik Hersman and his engineering team aptly note: “Most routers and modems are built for New York and London, whereas most of the people connected to the internet today live in places like Nairobi or New Delhi.” The BRCK aims to help close the gap between those living with and without connectivity.

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So, how does this funky little black box work? The BRCK acts as a bridge, allowing up to 20 users to share an Internet signal. This connection can come from a standard Ethernet port, a WiFi base station, or most relevant to the developing world, a 3G signal. With dirt-cheap data rates in places like Kenya, one BRCK can distribute the World Wide Web economically and efficiently. The team is already pioneering some impressive use cases including using a BRCK to bring the Internet to students in rural Isiolo or nurses operating along the last mile in Narok.

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Beyond Internet access, the BRCK is versatile. At first glance it seems to be a rugged MiFi with a bit of African charm. But upon further inspection, the brick-shaped BRCK appears capable of more than just broadcasting an Internet signal. Clearly it was designed with flexibility front of mind. For me, it’s easy to recall incredibly fond memories of playing with Legos as a kid. I would build towering cities and otherworldly space stations—all from the same multipurpose blocks. The BRCK embraces a similar emphasis on adaptability. Both hardware and software hackers will squeal with delight when encountering the BRCK’s customizability. At the launch we offered a few examples of the BRCK’s capabilities in action—including hooking up a remote weather station to the BRCK. Imagine sitting at your desk at the World Bank in Washington, gathering real-time data on weather in Waziristan. The BRCK is set to make this scenario a reality.

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Versatility, hackability, and a general open-source mindset remain at the root of “Hersman Enterprises” and the entire Ushaverse. Being open and allowing adaptation fuel creativity—and in turn, better, more tailor-made solutions. The BRCK represents a departure from traditional proprietary approaches to problem solving. This should be applauded.

Ultimately, I would deem yesterday’s launch a major success. That said, the question of attribution still remains. Was it the BRCK itself or the dangerously delicious catering provided by Erik’s wife? While the BRCK is a definite game-changer, Rinnie’s banana bread is a clear show-stopper.

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The Ushaverse Family

“How’s your summer going?” I have been asked this question countless times from friends, family, and former colleagues since landing in Nairobi four weeks ago. This open-ended inquiry is usually followed up with, “What’s Ushahidi like and how are the people?” While I cannot claim to be an expert, the last month working in the Ushaverse (the collection of enterprises and initiatives launched by Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich, David Kobia, and others) has provided me with a healthy taste of life in Kenya’s magnetic tech scene. And I am happy to report the experience has been incredibly positive.

Over the last six years since graduating from Georgetown, I’ve worked for a number of different organizations. Each one maintains a unique feel. Some are massive, with thousands of employees seamlessly operating around-the-clock. Others are smaller in shape and more defined in purpose. A few are global with networks that stretch from Boston to Bangalore. Ushahidi manages to straddle the line between a local outfit and an international enterprise. It is global while remaining lean and agile. This is a beautiful thing. Despite having less than 30 full-time employees, Ushahidi manages to operate worldwide. There have been over 60,000 Ushahidi deployments in 159 countries since Ushahidi launched in 2007. Enabled by a combination of open-source platforms and whip-smart staff members, Ushahidi has unquestionably created an international impact and recognized brand.

So what is the secret sauce that brings this small yet potent cohort of bloggers, coders, policy wonks, and ultimately leaders, together? Passion and good humor. Consider this: Every Monday the Ushahidi team logs onto Hipchat and connects to a global conference call. The weekly touchpoint provides an opportunity for Ushaverse employees to inform their colleagues about product breakthroughs, solicit advice on thorny deliverables, and advertise upcoming events. But besides these professional updates, the weekly call offers a chance for our remote team to connect. This week’s call included way too many bad puns, a bounty of baby pictures, and epic travel stories from the field. At first glance, these virtual updates seem silly (and some may say unnecessary); but I believe they help bind together a remote team spread across time zones. They represent Ushahidi’s dedication to fostering a positive and productive culture that’s not afraid to have fun.

Last week marked the halfway point of my summer with Ushahidi. Simply put, the time has flown by. In four short weeks, I have mocked up a business strategy for a new Ushahidi product, spoken at Tech4Africa in the iHub, ran a half marathon alongside rhinos with a dozen of Ushaverse colleagues, and blogged nearly every other day. In true Ushahidi form, my midway mark was celebrated with a bit of pomp and pageantry. At approximately 3pm, Erik Hersman strode into the batcave (our co-working space located below the iHub) holding a Crowdmap sweatshirt. With a firm handshake and a few snapshots, I was bequeathed a gray hoodie. While only a temporary member of the Ushahidi team, I felt welcomed (and perhaps slightly awestruck). It is this type of camaraderie that drives the Ushaverse forward—and I am very, very proud to be associated with such a path breaking, human-centered organization.

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Hipsters Not Hippos

When someone mentions Kenya, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A few people may conjure up an image of a maasai warrior or a marathoner from the Kalenjin tribe. Some picture the vast savannah dotted with whistling thorns and covered in red oat grass. Still others think of Kenya’s impressive collection of wildlife—from lanky giraffes to portly hippos. I can almost guarantee that most people do not picture the Kenyan hipster, an elusive but budding member of the East African ecosystem. And yet, this weekend I came face-to-face with the Kenyan hipster at Blankets & Wine (B&W), Nairobi’s premier event for young African trendsetters.

B&W is the invention of Muthoni Ndonga, a Kenyan performer-now-entrepreneur. When Ndonga launched Blankets & Wine five years ago, she aimed to bring urban afro-based culture and music to the masses. Sunday’s event marked the 53rd edition of Ndonga’s experiment. The daylong music festival could just have easily been based in Greenpoint or Williamsburg, with Nairobians dressed to the nines. Beautiful girls in pantsuits danced under the winter sun as roving bartenders hawked Kenya’s favorite mixed drink called the dawa—a potent mixture of vodka, honey, lime, and sugar cane. There was even a slam poetry tent and a pop-up bookshop. I was stunned.

B&W is truly representative of the East African melting pot. Like the music festival that blends traditional African perspectives with new technologies and western ideas, Kenya is ground zero for cultural collaboration. Frankly, Kenya has always been a meeting place for people, ever since spice traders plied the seas between India and the Old World. But today, technology has catalyzed the mixing and merging of cultures. While music played from 1-7pm, cell phones were the top act at Sunday’s event—with Nairobians tweeting, tagging, and paying for chilled glasses of chenin blanc with their M-PESA accounts. Kenya is certainly leaning forward. Still, don’t be fooled—B&W is still Kenyan at its core. Yesterday we were reminded of this fact every five or so minutes when a small bush plane would tear overhead coming back from a run to the Mara, Amboseli, or another one of the numerous game reserves spread across this country’s mighty savannah.

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Pop-Up America

Last night Kilimani melted away as we entered Ambassador Robert F. Godec’s residence. Thanks to a few connections in DC, I was able to snag two tickets to the 4th of July celebrations at the Ambassador’s pimp pad. I must attest, Godec has quite the crib. Situated in the leafy outskirts of town, the house was the perfect place to ring in America’s 238th birthday. The atmosphere was incredibly festive. Red, white, and blue streamers dotted the backyard. Marines in full uniform roamed the manicured grounds. A gigantic American flag hung above the patio. The night could not have been more picture-perfect.

Spread among the decorations, a true American feast had been prepared. There were, of course, classic July 4th staples like hot dogs and hamburgers with Heinz ketchup (a rarity here), chips and dip…and wait for it, Subway sandwiches. I never thought that I would be so excited to see/smell the Subway brand. Delicious. And yet, true to form, the Subway employees remained incredibly stingy with regard to the cheese to bread ratio (ugh!). Subway trained them well.

Besides the main courses, there was also an abundance of desserts including mini apples pies (does it get more American?), brownies, and a giant cupcake flag. At the end of the night I scrambled back over to the dessert tent and stuffed way too many chocolate chip cookies into my suit jacket pockets for later. Yum.

The celebrations continued for hours, with speeches by Ambassador Godec and Kenyan dignitaries, an epic champagne toast, and a moving rendition of the American national anthem. I have been enjoying my summer in Kenya tremendously, but last night provided a vital dose of U-S-A. My roommate Meghan put it best: “Tonight is a pop-up America in the heart of Kenya.” Last night made me very proud to be an American.

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Kilimani Livin’

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Since my last few posts have been a bit more academic, I thought that I should lighten the mood and cast some light onto my living situation here in Nairobi. It’s been almost a month since I touched down in Kenya and I now feel comfortable calling Gemina Court my home. The apartment complex, located only a few blocks from the iHub is certainly an oasis in the center of bustling Kilimani. While the exterior of Gemina unfortunately looks like a prison, surrounded by 10-foot tall walls topped with razor-sharp wire, the interior of the compound is certainly well-appointed. And frankly, the walls, wire, and security guards are standard issue for many dwellings in Nairobi—for both expats and locals alike.

I am living with two other interns also working out of the iHub for BRCK. This is critical. It is so nice to have a wingman/woman in a new country to ease the adjustment to life outside the People’s Republic of Cambridge. Our apartment overlooks Gemina’s pool, which is tempting despite the winter chill ever-present in Nairobi throughout June and July. A fruit and veg kiosk stands about a block from our compound and a proper grocery store is just down the road. We’ve been doing a lot of cooking but also keeping our ears to the ground for good restaurant recommendations. The other night we discovered Under the Radar, an outdoor eatery located on the grounds of a Kenyan private security firm. In addition to serving up a solid veggie burger (my first find since arriving in-country!), I felt good knowing the folks at Radar were only steps away.

We are hoping to have a few friends and colleagues over to Gemina tomorrow to ring in the 4th. While we won’t have fireworks or the Boston Pops, I can promise a rousing rendition of America the Beautiful (getting the pipes ready as we speak). And while Budweisers and local craft brews from Night Shift will be absent, I am sure our crew can make do with a bucket of cold Tuskers.   

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Confidently Confident at Tech4Africa

It’s another engaging day here at the iHub. Today marks the start of the 2014 Tech4Africa conference series. Kicking off in Nairobi, this daylong event calls itself the “un-conference” of Africa’s tech community. The creation of South African technologist Gareth Knight, Tech4Africa provides young entrepreneurs insights into running successful tech businesses. What I appreciate most about Gareth’s approach is his emphasis on human interaction. In an industry dominated by gadgets and gizmos, Gareth provides a striking reminder that technology is nothing without intelligent, confident, and connected people.

This morning I was lucky enough to deliver my own negotiation seminar at Tech4Africa. At first I was a bit nervous as only 10 people had registered for the presentation, but within five minutes the room had filled with over 60 tech wizzes looking for tricks of the negotiation trade. The 30-minute session went quite well, with lots of laughter and some especially thoughtful questions from the audience.

I’d like to share one question in particular…as I get it time and time again from African entrepreneurs: How can I negotiate effectively against a more powerful, more experienced competitor? While there is no way to overlook your opponents’ background, wealth, or stature, I do think that two techniques can help level the playing field.

First, develop greater confidence. Confidence is at the root of any great negotiator. While no one wants to negotiate with a braggart or a blowhard, a confident negotiator is an effective negotiator. But one cannot develop confidence spontaneously. It takes proper preparation and practice as well as thorough due diligence on the opposing party. Consider this: People practice for sporting events and rehearse for talent shows, but how often do they systematically prepare for an important negotiation. Practice can help breed confidence.

Second, cultivate trust. Trust is something difficult to develop but dangerously easy to destroy. I believe that establishing an environment of trust can offset a palpable power imbalance. One simple (but surprisingly unused!) approach to foster trust is to sit on the same side of the table as the opposing party. Another is to allow your counterpart access to your negotiation notes or selected strategy documents. While these techniques may seem radical to some, I am confident that promoting trust through transparency encourages more productive negotiations, and ultimately, better long-term relationships.

My TED-style talk was only one of many exciting pitches at today’s Tech4Africa launch. This afternoon I plan to attend a session titled “Changing the African Mindset: Efficiency and Problem Solving are Intertwined” and another quirky briefing called “From Bedroom Entrepreneur to Social Entrepreneur”. Events like Tech4Africa are only the beginning for East Africa. There is much more on the horizon for the small but powerful cohort of Kenya’s changemakers growing up along the edge of change.