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Hub Jumpin’

Tomorrow I’ll hit up my fifth innovation hub in Africa. I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to visit several different co-working labs and tinker spaces during my two months in Kenya. It’s exciting to experience hubs at different levels of maturity with varying approaches to change. I am thankful for my association with Kenya’s own iHub, which maintains a certain cache and reputation in the tech hub community. I’ve noticed that dropping the iHub name works a bit like a skeleton key, allowing known associates access to a number of Africa’s tech labs—and perhaps more importantly, their managers. These thought leaders and visionaries have been particularly helpful as I begin to weave together a cohesive story for my forthcoming thesis (focused on the trickle-down effects of Africa’s tech hubs). Besides interviewing Erik Hersman at the iHub, I’ve met with managers at Kampala’s Hive Colab and this Thursday I will venture to South Africa’s Jozihub in Johannesburg. Smart people with smart ideas working to inspire smart change in Africa. Smart.

While labs like the iHub and the Hive Colab appear seemingly independent, many are connected through a larger umbrella network called AfriLabs. According to their website, “AfriLabs exists to support the growth of communities around African technology hubs and to encourage expansion of the network by providing tools and resources for new and emerging labs.” It is great to see AfriLabs link best practices and best people across countries and disciplines, connecting disparate dots throughout the continent. This type of coordinating body can help set a course for Africa’s tech hubs—allowing them to calibrate their short-term and long-term goals. I certainly need to do more research on the AfriLabs model.

But beyond talking to people at places like the iHub and governing bodies like AfriLabs, I am quickly realizing that I need some context from labs located outside of the African continent. After wrapping up my summer in Kenya, I aim to glean more insights by exploring hubs in my own backyard. Cambridge, Massachusetts is a hotbed of innovation thanks to MIT, Harvard, and the city’s incredible density of graduate degrees. Only a few blocks from my house lies the Cambridge Innovation Center (or CIC). CIC claims to have “more startups than anywhere on the planet”. While this fact seems suspect, the CIC is definitely working on the edge of change. I better get myself back to Massachusetts to understand what makes the CIC tick and see if there are any exportable lessons for Africa’s own tech ecosystem. A trip to MIT’s Media Lab is also in order. Ethan Zuckerman of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media sits on Ushahidi’s Board of Directors—and I have a feeling that Ethan would have some salient advice for my thesis, and frankly, my career. But for now, onward to South Africa. 

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A True Ocean Highway

When someone mentions the ocean highway most people think of Route 1 in California. The epic roadway cuts along the Pacific coastline, rewarding drivers with incredible views of the rocky shore below. Today the road is mainly a tourist attraction as most commercial traffic bypasses the Pacific Coast Highway via Interstate 5.

However, unlike Route 1 in California, the ocean highway in Zanzibar, Tanzania is a thriving commercial expressway. This road is not really a road at all, but a well-worn trail of hard-packed white sand abutting the vast Indian Ocean. In addition to serving as a playground for vacationers, the makeshift road serves as the major thoroughfare for local residents. Fishermen ply the waters next to the ocean highway, prepping and selling their catch alongside the road. Women and young girls farm seaweed during low tide and use the ocean highway as a conduit to the local marketplace. Bikes, bodas-bodas, and dune buggies race across the sand track carrying goods for sale and people in motion. It is hard not to be amazed by life in Paje—where seemingly little has changed since people inhabited Zanzibar Island over 20,000 years ago.

Adjacent to this busy ocean highway is a stunning coral reef, dotted by residents on the hunt for food. I joined them early on Saturday morning, wading into the bathtub-warm water in search of tropical sea creatures. On the long walk out on the reef I spotted starfish the size of a soccer balls, sly clownfish, and way too many sea urchins. Navigating the urchin minefield was tricky and dodging their sharp spikes almost impossible. Despite sore feet and wrinkled hands, the reef walk was spectacular.

I am now back in Nairobi. I have swapped out my swimsuit for a sweater—as the temperature has dropped from 80 to 60 degrees—and traded a caprahinia for a green tea. I leave Kenya in a little over a week. The time has truly flown.

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Off to Zanzi

Just before midnight tonight I will land in my fourth East African country of the summer. A few of us living and working in Nairobi are taking a quick hop over to Zanzibar, Tanzania. The island immediately conjures up images of mystery and intrigue. The weekend jaunt will be my first time to the Indian Ocean and it will be a welcome escape from Nairobi’s chilly winter weather. The plan for the weekend is no plan—and I am looking forward to soaking up the sun.

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Still An Expat

When I woke up this morning I was hit by homesickness pangs. These feelings were unexpected. The last six weeks in Kenya have been an incredibly rewarding personal and professional adventure. They have flown by. While I do miss my close friends, family, and the Fletcher community, the summer has been good to me—thanks to the warm welcome by folks at Ushahidi, BRCK, and the iHub. But for whatever reason, this morning I experienced a serious bout of nostalgia.

While I am not exactly sure what caused this morning homesickness, I can point to a few telltale signs. Last night I received an email from a friend in Boston detailing a strike at my favorite supermarket chain, Market Basket. Now, I know what you’re thinking—it’s a grocery store, Owen. Who cares? But Market Basket is much, much more. It’s a cultural experience with unbelievably low prices and farm-fresh produce at a fraction of the cost of Whole Foods or even Trader Joe’s. With the ongoing drama around Arthur T. Demoulas’ beloved supermarket, I can’t help worrying that my local Market Basket just won’t be the same when I return to Cambridge. The news also brought insatiable cravings for some American staple foods simply unavailable or prohibitively expensive here in Kenya. A few come to mind: a gallon of Garelick Farms’ milk, Cheerios that aren’t $8/box, and Vermont sharp cheddar. Market Basket, your doors best be open when I return in August.

Today also marks two weeks before I jump on the red-eye to Heathrow and then Norway to meet up with my girlfriend. It’s been challenging being away from such a smart and beautiful woman. Our reunion will bring us through the Norwegian fjords and across the heart of Scandinavia. It will be an interesting juxtaposition to my summer in East Africa. We have already booked a cheap little cabin on the edge of a dramatic valley in Askøy. The trip will provide a necessary recharge before heading back to Fletcher in the fall. That said, I am going to miss $1 Tuskers, $2 githeri, and $3 cab rides in Nairobi. Norway, Sweden, and Finland are…gulp…expensive.

Beyond longing for Market Basket and missing my friends, perhaps my sudden nostalgia is tied to our broken hot water heater at Gemina Court. Broken is a bit of an exaggeration as the hot water is still working but comes out as a miserable trickle. I can’t complain too much as our apartment complex is beautiful and close to work—but I can promise you that the first thing I am going to do when I touchdown in London next month is take a long, steaming-hot shower. Simple pleasures: I. CANNOT. WAIT.

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Leaders Are Negotiators

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.