Spurring Innovation in Nairobi’s ‘Silicon Savannah’

 Team Juhudi Kilimo is in Nairobi, Kenya working with Juhudi Kilimo to develop a strategy for structuring, financing and operating a new innovation lab, dubbed “Juhudi Labs”, which will support the continual development of Juhudi Kilimo services to rural smallholder farmers.

Before our trip, we knew that Nairobi is one of the most prominent and fast growing cities in East Africa. Yet, I don’t know if we were fully prepared for the culture of innovation that Nairobi breeds. Also, we didn’t quite realize the impact that we would have as we developed the business model for Juhudi Labs, an innovation lab that would partner with outside entrepreneurs and streamline internal resources to develop micro finance solutions.

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Week one started off at our client’s headquarters: a brand spanking new second floor location in the posh Kilimani area – boasting reliable Internet, a generator, and security guards.  From our balcony, we interviewed local entrepreneurs and Juhudi’s team to delve more into the structure that Juhudi Labs would undertake.

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 That first week we also ventured to iHub, a co-working space and business incubator for local entrepreneurs, designers, and developers. iHub is heavily funded by big players such as Microsoft, Samsung, and Google; and is the heart of Nairobi’s Silicon Savannah.  And although locals deride the term “Silicon Savannah” since there is no real manufacturing capability here, the bigger picture is that Nairobi is abuzz with innovation and entrepreneurship, and our project with Juhudi Labs is positioned to be right at the center of it. GrowthHub, our next stop on the Nairobi tech movement discovery and as equally impressive, offers mentorship, access to capital, and training.

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 Week two took us into rural Kenya, our client’s satellite stronghold. Juhudi offers micro financing to rural farmers, and Ned our strategy professor would say, that is their internal fit. And what a fit it is – we spent about 48 hours over 5 days in a rented matatu, a Kenyan minibus, on Dramamine-required dirt “roads”, visiting farmers throughout El Doret, Bungoma and Masaii Mara (okay that last town was for a safari trip but I digress). We came face to face with the Kenyan spirit of kazi ngumu (hard work), from the farmers who worked tirelessly tending their dairy cows, the cooling plant operators who collected and distributed the milk to brokers, and Joseph our matatu driver who never seemed tired while we uncomfortably slept through most of the ride.

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A lot of us came to business school and chose Berkeley specifically for its proximity to Silicon Valley and the Bay Areas’s ecosystem of entrepreneurship. What we IBD’ers at Juhudi were privileged to experience was not just Mother Africa and the best she has to offer (oh yeah safaris and beach houses!!) but the ability to spur innovation and this ecosystem through Juhudi Labs in the ever-growing Silicon Savannah.

 We are very grateful to IBD and Juhudi Kilimo for the opportunity to meet, work with and learn from such an amazing group of people!

Asante Sana!

Thank you! Merci! Gracias!

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Feeding Children at the Center of the World

Team Partnership for Child Development (PCD) is working in Ghana to improve the school feeding program. PCD is a nonprofit organization centrally coordinated at the Imperial College of London that uses a network of experts, academics, and civil society organizations to influence policies on child education and nutrition. Our team’s goal is to examine how the country’s strategic grain reserves (buffer stocks) fit into school feeding program and identify ways to strengthen the connections between local farmers, the government, and school caterers.

No amount of research could have prepared us for Ghana. On paper, Ghana is a prosperous nation in West Africa, a model for economic growth and stability in the region, and a poster child for school feeding programs. Located on the Greenwich Mean Time just above the Equator, Ghana is quite literally at the center of the world.

The reality is that Ghana is still a truly developing nation. After settling in to our hotel just outside the University of Ghana, our team of obronis (Gustavo Brandileone, Nicolas Bennett, Sean Yokomoto, Slava Balter) explored downtown Accra, the country’s capital city. We expected a bustling and modern city center. Only Independence Square, the Black Stars stadium (Ghana’s national football team), and Flagstaff House (the President’s home) met those expectations. Instead we found an amazingly different, even relaxed village recovering after Sunday church. Partially developed construction speckled the horizon like modern-day ruins and a mixture of dirt-and-asphalt roads were dangerously lined with treacherous three-foot trenches that served as the city’s sewage system. Good luck if you miss a step.

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(Downtown Accra: Independence Square with the Black Stars stadium in the background)

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(Marketplace: business on top, family in the back)

The biggest reality of Ghana’s development hit the moment we got back to our seemingly modern hotel. No power. From then on we got used to daily power outages. Ghana had grown too quickly beyond its energy capabilities. But we had a packed agenda for our three weeks here so we pushed on and worked through the blackouts.

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(Power outages: the work goes on for Team PCD)

PCD did a phenomenal job arranging meetings with government ministries, schools, farmers, and school feeding partners. There was no lack of people willing to share their knowledge and their challenges. With every progressive meeting we felt a growing duty to really solve the inefficiencies of the current system. While the government officials played a big part in implementing our recommendations, the real beneficiaries were the children. During our visit to a school, we surveyed a classroom full of fourth graders about their satisfaction with school feeding. At the end one brave boy stood up and asked us to “please increase the quantity of food.”

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(Feeding time: meeting with the headmistress, caterers, teachers, and students in a remote village of the Central region)

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(Smiles: children escape their classrooms to say hello)

The ultimate challenge: our client’s last visitor was Bill Gates. Bill visited Ghana just a couple months before us and stopped by the same school. No pressure. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had taken a keen interest in home grown school feeding and had funded a project for PCD to connect local farmers into the supply chain. With a slew of visitors and little change, we felt a pressing need to use our field observations to influence policymakers.

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(Meeting with government officials: in Ghanaian fashion, we started an hour late and included every decision maker possible)

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(Meeting with farmers: brainstorming how to increase farmer crop sales to school feeding)

Our fact-finding mission took us around the country, so we took advantage of the time to explore the far reaches of Ghana. On a trip to Tamale in the agrarian Northern region, we spent the weekend in Mole National Park, a safari reserve full of wildlife. Three hours battling with a dusty cheese grater road, rising temperatures, and no A/C we finally arrived at a serene nature escape. Sneaky baboons spared no time to jump on our table and steal Gustavo’s fries. Elephants were a bit more graceful and stayed a safe distance from base camp.

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(Elephant sighting: trying to look relaxed under the blistering sun)

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(Baboon thief: scouring our camp for more food)

After a weekend at the savannah, we returned to a hectic schedule of meetings in Tamale, Cape Coast and Accra. We had plenty of human mouths to feed.

Packaging The Wild: Kruger National Park

Flee at dawn from the sprawling metropolis that spreads from glass skyscrapers in Pretoria to millions of ramshackle tin shacks in Soweto.Drive east into the sunrise, past the tree-lined Joburg suburbs with high adobe walls and electric fences that keep modern living nice and compartmentalized for the lucky ones.Loop along rolling golden hills that could be California except for factories in the background spewing coal into the sky, or steel mines dredging the earth, or paper mills churning out toxic exhaust, or townships choking in thick paraffin clouds.

Get past all that industrialism and find again the primordial bush.It seems elusive in a South Africa struggling with the bloodshed of the past while racing towards the gilded future.Yet in Kruger National Park the wild still clings to survival, awaiting international consumers of prehistory in bite-sized morsels conveniently packaged in football-funded asphalt.

The path to Kruger twists through land where water vapor hangs above rivers like ghostly Mohawks, where the red granite cliffs paint the hills with a thousand faces, where ancient valleys harvest every hue of green.In the Kruger, brush grows thick.Scrub and brambles hide troops of elephants stomping over saplings, or rare rhinos rambling to the next watering hole…

…or giraffes tongue-wrestling spiny acacias and contorting their gangly bodies just to sip a drink.

There the veldt is home to strutting warthogs, cunning jackals, endless birds and herds of grazing impala and kudu and nyala and zebra.Always do the grazers keep one eye open for predators, for the wild teems with packs of hyenas, hides cheetahs in plain sight, and nurtures leopards hunting at dusk (check out one we saw! – link to come when it doesn’t take over 12 hrs to upload a video).Even the big cats seem to prowl with open eyes, wary of the footprint of man.

South Africa seems destined to be sandwiched in change.Certainly, building a stable gateway into Africa will propel the regional economy with a pool of low-cost labor, a growing middle class and increasing global relevance.This economic growth will no doubt supercharge the fight against illiteracy, and political disparity, and pandemics like HIV/AIDS.

But courting development South Africa risks a tragic study in how the wild lands were lost.This is not an African challenge, it is a global challenge.Many nations – particularly developing economies – struggle with balancing the lust for growth with the fear of losing not only precious natural resources, but also a link to what humanity once was, back in the dreamtime.To this end, parks like Kruger are important conservation havens.When our children see Africa, these parks may be all that is left of a land lost in the undertow of progress, and help the next generation learn to live in awe of the wild.

—Stuart Kamin