Trusted Intermediaries

If you’ve run into me in the last couple months you’ll likely have heard me talking a lot about the need, power and abilities of trusted intermediaries. What is a trusted intermediary? It’s someone who sits between two parties, entities or ideas that don’t naturally trust each other and provides a bridge.

Do you trust this bridge? Why?

Do you trust this bridge? Why?

In some ways, this train of thought stems from the posts on bridgers and xenophiles started by Ethan Zuckerman and riffed on by myself. It’s only as my continued work in the African tech space has evolved that I have come to understand the true value of this concept. Seeing my position makes me realize how valuable it is to be trusted and in the center of a group of unknowns (ideas, funding, people or projects). It’s in the unknown areas of our lives that we search for trust, for people or conduits that impart a measure of confidence to our next decision. For the nod that tells us we’re heading out on the right path.

We lean on trusted intermediaries all the time, in both mundane decisions and important interactions. When you’re looking for a mechanic, you’ll trust your neighbor’s opinion over the phone book. If you need a new bike helmet, you’ll trust online reviews before you buy one with no reviews. Likewise, when you’re going to make a large investment in the African tech space, you’ll search out trusted intermediaries first.

A case study: Ushahidi

When someone is looking to invest in an African tech startup, using seed funding or grants (and it is the same for non-profits or for-profits) they are nervous. There’s a lot of other good ideas out there in other parts of the world, the low hanging fruit, that they feel more comfortable in putting money into. Why Africa? Why you?

Ushahidi started off quickly, and we were able to raise funds for continued operations much faster than many other similar non-profit tech organizations. While we’d all like to think it’s due to the brilliant tool we’ve built, we have to be honest and recognize that the individuals behind it are what gave the funders confidence to move forward. Ory, David, Juliana and I had been on the public stage for a while; we were known quantities.

We were trusted intermediaries before Ushahidi was even thought of. Which begs the question: would our team have been able to raise funds for almost any idea just as easily? Probably not, as the Ushahidi idea, timing and application are special. However, the point is still made, money flows when the people are trusted.

Trusted intermediaries elsewhere

Jon Gosier is a trusted intermediary. His Appfrica Labs incubator and innovation center in Kampala provides a person and entity that funders, projects and individuals are drawn too. His blog keeps him front and center in people’s minds.

Glenna Gordon is a trusted intermediary. She’s a photographer who has been romping around Central, East and West Africa for a couple of years. If you need a pro shooter in a hard spot like Liberia, you’ll find her blogging away at Scarlett Lion.

Eric Osiakwan in Ghana is a trusted intermediary. His leadership at the African ISP Association and the track record he’s had on projects makes him an easy person to go to in West Africa, and his Internet Research firm makes a perfect conduit for interacting with him.

Of course, these three are just a sample, there are many more like them cross the continent in different fields.

What is consistent about trusted intermediaries is that they have found a way to create a bridge between two things, and are trusted by both sides of that bridge. It’s why personal relationships, consistency, reliability and trust are more important now than ever before.

9 thoughts on “Trusted Intermediaries

  1. Those of us from America (whether citizens or residing), despite having an economy and a currency in the toilet are still able to start with an artificially inflated level of trust above others in Africa. While Jon and Glenna have put in a great deal of work to their respective projects, their being Americans is the reason that we know of them and not of Ugandans who were may have been doing the same work while they were getting well-known and growing additional trust. I speak of this from personal experience that an unnerving degree of weight is given to what anyone from the US says. Trust and being a “trust intermediary” still need to be earned and can still be lost, but we get a massive head start in this which goes above and beyond the countless hours we spend in trying to build our projects.

  2. I agree with Miquel, the flip side of being a ‘trusted intermediary’ is that sometimes perhaps too much trust is placed on people who happen to be in the ‘limelight’. There’s a certain amount of pressure to always deliver, which is good, but sometimes people put TOO much faith in our various projects and efforts. Great expectations can often lead to great disappointments. To Miquels second point, there are plenty of other organizations who exist around us, sometimes attempting similar efforts. Some have been here for years, the question is why aren’t they trusted? Does it always have to be Westerners (or the western educated) who act as proxies? Are there examples of purely local trust being built locally? If not, what does that say about the global development community?

  3. Very nice. Thank you for writing this, Hash, I’d love to see your recommended listings of trusted infomediaries in Africa grow into a serious list somewhere.

    best,
    Niti

  4. I think trusted intermediaries are key in unlocking potential around the world. This is why I started Transparency Solutions, to serve as that trusted intermediary and lift the honest and accountable organizations above the stigma of corruption and hopefully unlocking their investment potential.

  5. I dunno; I’m not convinced.

    Trusted intermediaries need to be confined by well-developed systems.

    For example, I voted for Obama. Much of my thinking was that this was a guy who understood the importance of civil liberties and the Internet. Even more, he was surrounded by people who could be trusted intermediaries. However, he has disappointed repeatedly in intellectual property and civil liberties (DoJ appointments and Patriot Act, to begin).

    Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare this w/ your examples because of the scale of their portfolios, but more generally, the reason why we don’t need to worry too much about Obama is because we have a solid system/structure in place to limit the effects (good or bad) of one person (courts, constitution, etc.).

    I’m inclined to think that those deserve our faith (and effort) more than individuals.

  6. Kevin,

    Your thinking, imho, may only apply to those locations where systems are not only in place and they work but are also trusted to work effectively by the local population.

    for the rest of us, trusted intermediaries maybe the only way to navigate a complex, chaotic system

    best,
    niti

  7. Emer says:

    good point Erik on the trust element and Miquel on the headstart as to where ur coming from, @butterflyworks we call it ‘navigating cultures’ as we continually find ourselves moving between not only geographically driven cultures but also across disciplines, hierarchy levels, non-profit to business and more. These are all sub cultures that need navigation and cohesion to come together to make a social innovation project. I find speaking the others language (use of terminology) is key and taking time to place yourself in the others perspective. thanks for the discsusion

  8. Niti – Or is it that where the system doesn’t work well to confine fickle human behavior, trusted intermediaries are even more risky?

    Perhaps what we need is a solid reputation system so that the trust can be more solidified?

  9. Good post to get the brain churning, Erik. While I’m in pursuit of supporting technologists in Africa, I place high value on the tidbits of insight you have to offer for those of us coming in the door after you. I can also appreciate the insight left in the comments. They all have valid points that I think are highly relevant to this discussion.

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