Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: xenophile

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.

Bridger, Third-Culture Kid, Xenophile

[warning: not your normal tech-in-Africa post, continue at your peril.]

I’ve been off on a mini-family vacation, unconnected from the grid – not even taking my mobile phone with me. It gave me time to think, and one thing I started thinking about was the world I grew up in, and how my daughters are growing up today. It brought to mind a recent post by Ethan Zuckerman, and how it hit home to me. It’s who I am, and might help explain why I do what I do.

What are bridge figures, xenophiles?

(Stolen shamelessly from Ethan Zuckerman, please go read the rest):

Xenophiles are people who are fascinated by the whole world, by things other than their ordinary experience. They’re people who want to connect with people who see the world very differently. Some of these people are born this way, lots more are made – a good recipe for xenophilia is to raise a child in a culture deeply different from that of her parents – people call these kids “third culture kids”. Third culture kids have one foot in each of two cultures – the culture of the country they grew up and the culture of their parents, and as a result they don’t really live in either, but a little bit in both. Some kids hate this – many love it, and they end up bridge figures, natural xenophiles who can help translate cultures for other people. Barack Obama’s one of them.

It’s my theory that xenophiles are going to be very powerful in the future. We’re living in a world that the pro-globalization folks refer to as “flat”. That’s bullshit, obviously. The world is flat as far as stuff is concerned. In my hometown of 3000 people, I can get water from Fiji and fish from Chile, but I’m not going to encounter any Fijians or Chileans. I’m not even likely to encounter information from those countries, news, opinion or cultural influences like films or TV… not unless I very actively go looking for it. So the world’s flat in terms of stuff, but not in terms of human interaction. It’s flat, but in the least important ways – in the ways that matter, in the ways that would allow us to connect with people from other cultures, allow us to share ideas and solve problems together, the world is disconnected. It’s lumpy.

Xenophiles are good at making connections in this lumpy world. It’s a good idea to have them if you’re trying to do business in another country – some of the people who are making lots of money in this economy are people from developing nations who study in Europe or America and then return home. They can bridge between cultures in a way that helps them make smart economic decisions. They’re even more important if you’re concerned with security or with diplomacy, because their ability to cross cultures makes it far more likely that they can collaborate and create solutions with people from other cultures.

Normal is relative

I don’t think it strange at all switching from the US to Africa and back again. You shift, that’s all.

When you grow up like we did, “normal” to you isn’t the same as “normal” to either the Africans you live with or the US family you go see every 4 years.

It’s what makes these images look so strange to some people, yet so normal to me.

Lauren in Uganda (2002)
My daughter taking a bath in Uganda. The lady closest to her, Alice, I called mama mbili – my second mother growing up. She’s part of why I find it easy to switch gears so easily.

Me, in Southern Sudan (1978?)
This one is me back in 1978 or so, way out in the bush in Southern Sudan where my parents worked with the Taposa tribe doing Bible translation.

There really isn’t that many of us yet relative the all the “normal” people, but the bridgers, xenophiles and third-culture kids of the world tend to either have an inordinate impact or be spectacular failures. Maybe average is just a little harder for us to achieve?

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