Managing with Trust and Expectation

For the past 6 years I’ve been part of a rather unique organization in Ushahidi, where we decided early on that how we’d run the organization was that we would trust each other and expect that everyone would act like responsible adults. It’s worked brilliantly, even as we’ve grown and spun up new enterprises and organizations such as iHub and BRCK.

Yesterday I read about the Berkshire Hathaway “strategy of trust”:

Mr. Munger, 90, was ruminating on the state of corporate governance, offering a counternarrative to the distrustful culture of most businesses: Instead of filling your ranks with lawyers and compliance people, he argued, hire people that you actually trust and let them do their job.

It’s well worth a read, and I didn’t expect to find parity in leadership philosophy between us and a 300,000-person family of organizations.

How do we do it?

There are probably other organizations like ours, ones who have decided to trust their team and assume that people make good decisions based out of the best intentions of the organization and their colleagues, over themselves. We didn’t set out with a great body of knowledge on how to do this, but instead with some theories that we’ve refined over time. Here are the most important ones:

Find the Right People
David, Juliana and I particularly don’t like to micromanage. We’ll work with you to define the goal, but if you expect someone to tell you how to get there, you won’t fit. We don’t check up on you all the time, you tell us when there’s a snag. You need to work autonomously. We’ll help, and are always there for a conversation, but your job is to get from point A to point B.

It’s always better to find people who are smart and get things done, who can work autonomously and tend to not put themselves first. Big egos don’t go well with this kind of team, so we look for humility when interviewing.

I remember making a mistake back in 2009, hiring someone off of reputation and resume, without really digging into their portfolio or doing multiple interviews. Ever since then I’ve refused to look at CVs or resumes and each new person goes through about 4-5 other people on the team before we make the final decision. Those other people on the team catch things I wouldn’t, some about skill, but most about ethos and personality.

Knowing the Ethos
If an emergency happens where you are, can you make a decision and run with it, without having to ask permission? You should be able to. This is especially important in an organization with a globally distributed team that deals with crisis and disaster. We decided that everyone should be able to make critical decisions about deployments of the software, partnerships and strategic steps on their own. Just fill everyone else in on it as it comes up and if adjustments need to be made, then we do it together.

To make this work, we had to ensure that everyone on the team, from junior engineers to new QA staff actually understood the foundational elements of the organization. Not just what we built, but why we built it, how it all started and where we were going in the future. While there’s no “intro to X” classes, we do throw you in the deep end early on. It started with our first hire, Henry Addo from Ghana, who found himself speaking in the French Senate in Paris in his first month on the job. That made us realize that public speaking forces you to learn a lot more about the organization that you’re in, quickly.

Our goal is that a camera and mic can be put in front of any team member and they can answer any question on the organization. The way they answer it might be different than me due to speaking styles, but because they understand the ethos of the organizations, it is still correct.

Per Diems
We don’t do per diems. You’re traveling for the organization, spend what you need on food, lodging and transport. Be responsible about it, since this is money needed for the organization to grow. If you’re in NYC, we know things are more expensive, if you’re in Omaha we know they’re not. The “Agency Effect” (or Principal Agent Problem) comes into play here as the incentives are wrong between a team member and the organization if they get an allowance for travel.

Final Thoughts

I suppose what I’m saying is that if you truly trust people to act like the adults they are and to do the right thing, they generally do. All the corporate oversight you can apply won’t stop an Enron from happening, so something else has to work. It has to be something that’s real though, people can sniff out very quickly if it’s a manufactured, or fake, trust. This means as much of the onus lies on the leaders to “let go” as it does for the team members to shoulder and own the expectations that come with their role.

My greatest takeaway from the Mr. Munger and Mr. Buffett was found in the last paragraph:

Mr. Munger, in a previous annual meeting, contended that the best way to hold managers accountable is to make them eat their own cooking. Mr. Munger pointed to the late Columbia University philosophy professor, Charles Frankel, who believed “that systems are responsible in proportion to the degree in which the people making the decisions are living with the results of those decisions.” Mr. Munger cited the Romans, “where, if you build a bridge, you stood under the arch when the scaffolding was removed.

We all need to stand under our own bridges more often, and I’m going to figure out how to make that happen in my organizations.

A Kenyan Tech Ecosystem Report 2014

The Emergence, Challenges and Potential of the Kenyan Tech Ecosystem” is a Report by Julia Manske published by the Vodafone Institute. Follow the link above for an overview and a podcast on the topic.

[PDF Download of the "The Emergence, Challenges and Potential of the Kenyan Tech Ecosystem" Report.]

A tech ecosystem map of Nairobi

There are a lot of reports that touch on the tech developments in Kenya over the years, but few do as good of a job painting the background picture and how it has taken a few years to develop. Here’s a rather long excerpt, which gives a pretty good 10,000 foot view of the last 4-6 years in the Nairobi tech space:

With the success of M-Pesa Kenya advanced to the position of a global pioneer and international point of reference for mobile payment systems. For the first time Kenya was associated with technology-driven innovation. International media and large companies took notice of the African country. This had an effect on the Kenyans’ self-image. M-Pesa’s success became an identity-forming narrative; the idea that an innovation can come out of Kenya crystallised in the collective memory of the younger generation in particular.

Similar to the butterfly effect,16 M-Pesa became the trigger and driver of a new ecosystem of mobile technological innovations. It created a mood in which resources were pooled and key thinkers from the Kenyan tech and start-up scene got together. This development was accelerated by the foundation of the Ushahidi platform that was set up at the start of 2008 following the uprisings in the context of the Kenyan presidential elec- tions. As a reaction to the violence, an ad hoc team of developers and bloggers came together to collect witness statements via SMS and plot them on a Google map, thereby initiating what is termed “activist mapping”. The free open source service is now used by bloggers and activists across the world, for example for the earthquake at Christchurch or the Gaza war in 2008. The company that came out of this process enjoys high levels of familiarity in Kenya and its founders have become leading digital opinion makers.

One of the Ushahidi founders, the blogger Erik Hersman, was struck by the absence of places to exchange ideas in Kenya and so in 2010 he set up the iHub, one of the first co-working spaces for companies from the tech scene in Africa.

This was followed by a whole host of further technology spaces, incubators and accelerators. The Bishop Magua Centre, the fourth floor of which is occupied by the iHub, is also home to the spin-offs iHub Research, the iHub UX Lab, the start-ups Ushahidi, mFarm, Frontline SMS, mLab, the accelerator Nailab, Kopo Kopo, Preakelt and the Africa office of GSMA. The Who’s Who of the Kenyan tech scene is housed in a single building. Other actors such as the accelerators 88mph and The Growth Hub have set up shop in the immediate vicinity. Large multinational companies such as Google, Microsoft, GSMA, Nokia and IBM have opened branches and research centres. This development is facilitated by a liberal economic system with a dynamic and strong private sector that promotes efficiency, competition and overseas investments. Within seven years Nairobi has developed into an African centre of technological innovations – journalists dub it “Silicon Savannah”.

The success story of Kenya also radiated to other African countries. Technology experts, developers and designers started cooperating and by doing so gave rise to the technological ecosystem that they had been missing until that point. Especially Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Africa saw similar developments as in Kenya. Large development organisations, such as InfoDev which is associated with the World Bank, setup co-working spaces and accelerators. Microsoft, Google and individual investors financed the expansion of a range of start-up centres in the African metropolises. Spread across the continent there are now over 35 locations for tech innovations in 13 African countries – of which many are members of the AfriLabs [www.afrilabs.com] alliance. These generate new inventions and mobile and digital business ideas every year.

It’s a good report, worth a read and it covers a lot besides this, including a recipe for creating a tech ecosystem:

  1. Create access to funding capital
  2. Promote lasting structures
  3. Establish competences
  4. Set up stable real and virtual networks

Maps of Africa: Private Equity and Infrastructure Investment 2013

The good folks over at Africa Assets have teamed up with Cross Border Information to release these two maps. The first on private equity investment in Africa in 2013 and the second on infrastructure investment in the same year.

Private Equity Investment in Africa 2013

Private Equity info Map of Africa – 2013 (PDF Download)

There was a total of 83 PE deals. 44 were reported totaling $4.3 billion.

Private Equity info Map of Africa - 2013

Private Equity info Map of Africa – 2013

Infrastructure Investment in Africa 2013

Africa Map of Infrastructure Investments in 2013 (PDF Download)

If you add up all of what Europe, the US and all the multilaterals together put into Africa, the total is $15,368,000,000 ($15.4b USD). China alone put in $13,360,000,000 ($13.4b USD). Is it any wonder that the African leaders of today look east to China more than the west to the US and EU?

Africa Map of Infrastructure Investments in 2013

Africa Map of Infrastructure Investments in 2013

A Suswa Excursion

BRCK Excursion: Mt. Suswa from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

We took a day ride out past the Ngong Hills into the Rift Valley and up Mt. Suswa. Here’s a (very) short video where were playing with a DJI Phantom 1 and a GoPro to do some flyovers of the vehicles. We went with 4 motorcycles (2 KLR 650s, 1 Suzuki DR650, and a BMW 650GS Dakar), plus a Landrover Defender 90. A good grouping of bikes and a backup vehicle, and a day with some fun dirt riding. The rocky road up to the top of Mt. Suswa is a lot of fun, and I was glad there had been rain the day before in order to reduce the dust.

The Masai live on Suswa, and though it looks bleak and unforgiving from down below, once you get to the top there is a lot of nice land for grazing and for growing crops. There’s also an extensive network of large lava caves. We explored through a few of them with our guide Jermiah (pictured below).

For this picture, we’re standing in the “Baboon Parliament”, a huge entrance to a cave, with it’s own skylight. The baboons live above, and they congregate, play and have meetings in the area where we are standing. It smells horribly, as all of the beautiful colors on the rock are from baboon urine, and all of the dirt below is baboon crap. If you go further inside, there’s a bat colony.

Here’s the BRCK sitting on the top rock in the baboon parliament’s cave.

We came back by the satellite dishes in the valley, through Mai Mahiu and up the Lower Road. Luckily we didn’t get any rain, though we did have to contest with cars deciding to come towards us on Waiyaki Way, when there was a jam going the other direction. It’s quite a shock to face oncoming traffic when you’re on a road with a wall between you and the other lanes…

Maps of Africa: Tech Hubs Across the Continent

Tech Hubs in Africa - 2014 Map

Tech Hubs in Africa – 2014 Map

[Tech Hubs in Africa 2014 - PDF Download]

There are now 90 tech hubs/labs in 28 countries around Africa.

A current 2014 map of tech hubs in Africa, done by the World Bank, iHub Research and BongoHive. Read the original article here, “Tech hubs across Africa: Which will be the legacy-makers?” by Tim Kelley.

As exhaustive as this is, I think there are a few missing. I believe that there are two new ones in Zimbabwe not showing up, Muzinda Hub and Hypercube Hub (though, I’m not 100% that they’re up and going as running spaces). All that to say, more keep cropping up, and that’s a good thing.

+ JoziHub, which is also missing.

What Twitter can tell us about African cities

The Atlantic just wrote this emotional piece predicting Twitter’s demise (don’t worry, apparently they write a lot of “end of” stories). Personally, I believe Mark Twain’s misquote fits perfectly here, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Twitter study of Nairobi - 2013

My friend Jonathan Ledgerd just sent me some links to the work that he and his colleagues have been doing at EPFL’s Afrotech Future Africa Initiative (Afrotech-EPFL) in Switzerland. They took all the geolocated tweets from Nairobi over a 3-month period near the end of 2013, with a total of 200,000 tweets in the data set.

The first of several such Twitter maps for African cities is Nairobi, you can find it here: http://twitter.lab.idiap.ch/

(Click on the top right icon to display and keep zooming in – at maximum granularity you can see exactly where the animals hang out in Nairobi National Park based on geolocated Twitter traffic.)

Twitter use in Nairobi. 200k tweets over a 3 month period in 2013

Twitter use in Nairobi. 200k tweets over a 3 month period in 2013

A few of Jonathan’s findings:

Tweeting does not mean production
More tweets are sent from Nairobi’s golf courses than from its factories. The industrial area of Nairobi, along Enterprise Road, produces some 8% of Kenya’s GDP, but sends sends fewer tweets than are sent from the fairways of the nearby Kenya Railway Golf Club.

Twitter is not yet embedded in the state.
Police, army and air force hardly use Twitter at all. The Kenyan army barracks on Langata Road is home to several thousand of the country’s infantry and elite commandos. It posts almost no Tweets, compared to the dense Twitter traffic produced on the road itself and in the new housing estate opposite the entrance to the barracks. Similarly, the Kenyan air force base in Eastleigh does not Tweet. By contrast, the mostly ethnic Somali community living along the edge of the base are active tweeters. More data is required to determine if government ministries reflect the pattern of the city’s military bases. If so, there may be implications for a state moving on an information cycle which is slower and less precise than that used by younger Kenyans in the private sector.

Twitter is still in English language
81% of recorded tweets were in English according to an automatic language detection system. Only 5% were in Kiswahili. The rest were in an array of other languages including Hindi, Kikuyu, Somali, Luo, the Sheng dialect, and other languages. Many of these were mixed with English. This contrasts with the wider use of Kenyan tribal languages on Facebook and in text messaging. The use of English is uniform even in the lower income dormitory towns such as Wajere and Rongai. More research is needed, but the brevity allowed to tweets as well as the common platform might force the use of English.

But Twitter is becoming more pervasive
The first tweet in Kenya was probably the one sent by the co-founder of Twitter, Evan Williams, from the lounge of the Mount Kenya Safari Club on August 11, 2007. There are now 250,000+ active Twitter accounts in Nairobi – 6 Twitter accounts per 100 Nairobians, against estimated mobile phone density of 80 mobiles per 100 Nairobians.

There are a lot more observations than this, which you can find on the map if you toggle the control on the upper-right.

Unequal Distribution and Perception of Emerging Markets

35 percent of the world is onlineThere’s quite a good read up on the Tech Coctail site titled, “What (US) VC’s Are Missing in a Rising World of Smartphones“. It’s a little about smartphones, though the underlying discussion points are really about how blind the investors in the West are to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia due to their preconditioning on Silicon Valley being the only place that big tech things happen. Meanwhile, massive deals are ongoing in the Middle East and Asia that are under the radar.

But Western VC’s are slow, and US VCs in particular are slow to catch on to this trend. In part, this is because US investors are accustomed to seeing the best US deals, and they are used to dealing with our ecosystem, our rule of law, the network effect of talent that is Silicon Valley, and other places here that are attracting dollars accordingly.

After spending 3 months raising investment for the BRCK company in the US, EU and Africa I can confirm that there is a great deal of investor unease in putting money into something in Africa from the US. Silicon Valley types tend to pay lip service to this idea, but don’t actually invest their money that easily.

I just wrote a post on the BRCK blog about what Juliana brought up at TED last year about “unequal distribution”, this time shown on a world map of the internet of things. This idea of unequal distribution of information and how it played into the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution and now the digital revolution that we’re sitting in today.

Thingful.net - mapping the internet of things

Thingful.net – mapping the internet of things

Unequal distribution is not static, it’s a constant dynamic where no one region of the world will lead indefinitely. ITU stats already point out that 65% of the people who get onto the internet today come from emerging markets. Meanwhile, only 24% of the people in emerging markets are online. That means that whether the West realizes it or not, the internet focus has already shifted, the ripples of this are only now being felt.

If you think that Google’s, Yahoo’s, Cisco’s, Intel’s (and many other’s) partnership in the Alliance for Affordable Internet and Facebook’s Internet.org strategies around global internet connectivity are just CSR activities, then you’re sorely mistaken. These companies (literally) see the numbers and the know that they need to stake a claim in the regions where the future of the internet already are.

Where Facebook's users are coming from 2012 vs 2014

Where Facebook’s users are coming from 2012 vs 2014

Gear Worth Buying for Africa: PowerMonkey Extreme

I’m lucky enough to have friends like Toby Shapshak who, being the Publisher and Editor of Stuff Magazine, ends up having tons of people give him cool tech to write about. Every once in a while he dumps some stuff on me, things that I normally wouldn’t have bought, but am grateful for later. Toby is a bit of a road warrior, so he and I have a good understanding of what actually works and try not to carry useless stuff with us.

Some travel organizers from Shapshak

Recently he gave me some more self-organizing bits, like this blue Moleskine case, some color-coded cable ties and a smaller Micro-USB cable.

The Powermonkey Extreme

The last time I was in Jo’burg Toby casually handed me this solar kit. At first glance it seemed a bit big, but I stuck it in my bag and headed for the airport. A week later, I found myself camping with the family and broke out this thing with a funny name, the PowerMonkey Extreme ($200). Inside, there’s an inbuilt 3v solar panel, a 9000mAh battery and some cables for plugging it into the wall, computer or solar panel for charging.

The PowerMonkey Extreme with Aquacable

The PowerMonkey Extreme with Aquastrap

What’s cool about it:

  • The battery seems to charge pretty quickly using the solar or DC-in cable.
  • The battery is watertight, with a clip down cover over the ports. With the Aquastrap, it’s also IP65 rated for dust and water even when the ports are plugged in.
  • It has two power-out ports, so you can charge two things at once.
  • The case is well designed for packing it all in.
  • The digital readout is easy to see, and watertight controls
  • A velcro strap on the solar panels let you attach it to things in awkward places.
  • The folding mechanism for the solar panels means it can pack better, and this also helps for positioning it towards the sun.

What I wish were different:

  • The device has this strange touch-sensitive button that I didn’t know was a button until I hit it.
  • I couldn’t understand what the readout meant right away, I had to go look it up. The power charging vs the battery icon confused me.

Keep in mind that the pictures you’re seeing are of the PowerMonkey Extreme after being battle tested, not just on little camping trips with the family either. I took this device up into the northern deserts of Kenya on our BRCK expedition to Lake Turkana and back. On the last day, this was the only thing keeping people’s phones charged as it was the last thing standing, and it could fit in a Land Rover window to keep trickle charged. This is a serious device for real adventure.

Some more pictures:

Power-out, you can charge two things at once

Power-out, you can charge two things at once

Watertight seals

Watertight seals

Power-in port

Power-in port

Digital readout on the left, indentation on the right is a touch-sensitive button

Digital readout on the left, indentation on the right is a touch-sensitive button

Plugging it into the solar panel

Plugging it into the solar panel

Solar panel with velcro strap, plus the battery.

Solar panel with velcro strap, plus the battery.

All packed up and ready to zip.

All packed up and ready to zip.

Zipped up.

Zipped up.

Two Pockets

Life keeps reminding me that there are two pockets that money comes from; emotion/charity and analytical/business.

It seems obvious, and it is, but even with all of my experience raising grant funds for Ushahidi, creating partnerships with the iHub, getting investors for Savannah Fund and raising a seed round for BRCK, I sometimes get a wake-up call in a meeting when I realize that I’m not hitting the right points.

They use different languages.
They look for different returns.
They don’t care about your past history on the other side.
They consider experimentation, pivots and final success differently.

Tech Talent and Expat Bubbles – Kenya Edition

(Note: cathartic, bloated essay forthcoming, read at your peril)

Say you are a Kenyan web designer living in Seattle, do you think anyone cares that you came from Kenya? No, they only care that you are a great web designer.

If you’re an American programmer working in Nairobi, does anyone care that you come from the US? Yes, for some reason that matters. You’re judged on where you come from as well as your skill set.

It’s not apples-to-apples, though it should be.

kenya-usa

This is at the heart of an issue that I’ve seen played out many times over the years in Kenya. My position in the community, my background in Kenya and the US, and the organizations I’ve built locally give me a unique perspective on what’s going on here culturally, that sometimes is hard for others to see.

Americans, Europeans, etc want to work in Kenya and be part of a growing melting pot of engineers, web designer and entrepreneurs trying to build out the next great tech economy. It’s a grand dream, and one that we should all support if we want Kenya to be on the global map.

Kenyans are madly building companies, growing a new breed of programmers, designers and entrepreneurs that are waking up to the reality of a global market. It embodies all of the energetic vibrancy that makes Kenya a regional economic powerhouse.

Both are needed. However, all things are not created equal, which leads to tension.

Kenyan tech has global competition, so act like it

I often talk about the Kenyan tech scene as highly active, yet nascent. There is a great deal happening in our space, but it’s not nearly as big as other larger and older tech communities found in the Bay Area, London, Berlin, Israel, Moscow, Bangalore or New York City. We’re growing, we’re half-way up the mountain, and there’s still some climbing to do.

There is likely the same percentage of top level engineers and designers in Nairobi as anywhere else, but the pool is still small. I’d guess the total pool of engineers is somewhere in the 3,000-5,000 range, and designers are only about 100-200. It’s not a deep pool to pick from, and there are many who linger around the edges claiming that they have skills, but who aren’t qualified to do more than create a “hello world” website.

In the startup world, Kenyan-led companies tend to be under-resourced and without the same networks that make it so much easier for expats to get started. While we’ve been building up more and more base resources locally for seed capital, and the business acumen of the founders is improving due to them being in town, it’s still not enough. And, while the $25k accelerator level is very much present in the community, there’s a huge gap in the $100-500k investment levels.

So, with local entrepreneurs, this leads to a protectionist mentality about how many mzungu’s are around and how they are sucking up resources. It’s not a good place to be. What we need to realize locally is that in the tech world there are very few borders, that we’re automatically in a global playing field. There needs to be lighter rules for immigration of expats (from anywhere) who are willing to bring investment and talent into the country, and keep it here.

If anything, Kenyan lawmakers should be finding ways to reduce the ludicrous tax rates on software companies, which would incentivize local ownership, encourage local investment so that the companies that do well have their profits stay in-country, and try to attract international talent and grow local talent. It’s a long-term game, and will pay off in the years ahead.

US/EU immigrants need to understand where they are

On the other side of the fence are the international expats who enter into Kenya. They are often well-meaning folks with a desire to build a company, or be part of a company in this vibrant country brimming with opportunity. This should be encouraged.

What I’ve observed over the years however, is something that shouldn’t be encouraged. These immigrants who come into Kenya tend to hang out with each other. This isn’t strange at all, Kenyans tend to do the same when they’re in the US. What’s not healthy is when you spend most of the time around people who look and sound like you, then when you want something from the rest of the greater community, act like it’s not there because it’s not directly in front of you.

There are some amazing programmers in Kenya, some ridiculously good web designers, some top-notch entrepreneurs. You will not find them by throwing a dart in a room and hoping to hit one.

Complain all you like about immigration policy, the need for more high-level talent being brought into the country, business taxes, etc – and I’ll be right with you. You complain about there not being any local high-level talent and I’ll call BS.

Instead, get out and get to know people. Get outside of your expat bubble and be a part of the community. This isn’t just meetups, this is who you go grab a drink with, who’s wedding and hospitalization you attend, who you watch rugby with and who you help (and are helped by) when in a bind. This is Kenya, where relationships matter, and where they are earned over time. Friendships here aren’t given lightly, and when they’re given, then they mean something.

To many in Kenya, the expats come and go, so why should they be invested in? Sure, make “friends”, and see what can come out of it, but the problem is that we all know the expat will be gone in 2 or 4 years. The deep investment we expect out of our relationships in Kenya isn’t found in that kind of transient immigrant mentality.

A personal final recap

Back to the talent issue. I’ve had the honor to work with some amazing Kenyan programmers, designers and engineers. How was I able to find them? It turns out that the relationships that I started building back in 2006 (8 years ago), then continued throughout the years, opened my world up to the people who really know what they’re doing. I courted some for 3+ years before they finally joined my team(s), others that I’d like to join my team still won’t budge from their old positions.

Right now I’m looking high and low for an electrical engineer for BRCK, senior-level EEs who have telcoms and/or consumer electronics backgrounds aren’t in deep supply in Kenya. However, I know they’re here, I just have to look harder and keep pushing out beyond my normal network.

They’re here. They’re not easy to find and they might already have a great job. Your lack of being able to find them doesn’t mean they’re not here. Your inability to attract them to your organization isn’t their problem, it’s yours.