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.
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.