Project Blog: Summer 2009
I'm not sure if anyone is still reading this or not, but I wanted to take the time to write an entry about our last week in Kenya (despite being horribly late in doing so). As I'm sure most of you know, our website was actually disabled by Google for a short period of time for a still-unknown reason, and that led to the lack of consistent updates during the last week.
As Matt indicated in his last post, we took some time before the final week to get on the same page with exactly what had been accomplished so far and what needed to be done the rest of the way. With that under our belts, it was time for us to each get to work in documenting the scenarios that we had validated. With these on paper, it would be easier to see where gaps still existed and therefore know who to spend our last few days with and what questions to ask.
While Matt was working on some of this documentation on his end, I travelled to the Outspan Hospital Clinic in the heart of Nyeri town with some members of the Mashavu team. There I had the chance to ask a lot of people in line what motivated them to come out and also try to get a good idea from administrators how they set up such an event and how they got such active participation from the community. For next year's WishVast team, that information will be helpful as we hope to pilot the system with some groups of people in the area. I noted the effectiveness of radio advertising and also the effectiveness of just doing something interesting because many people tend to be attracted to new things that are going on and will take the time to check them out. Another observation I made at this clinic was the problem of glue with street children. We saw far too many kids who were just beyond high sniffing glue, and this is a very serious not to mention very sad problem. It's hard for us to picture 5-year-olds on the streets sniffing glue, but the problem is indeed very real in Kenya. We would want to help the kids out and perhaps want to even offer them money, but if they would just be spending it on glue so the situation is very difficult. Hopefully the government and NGO's and smart people like the staff at CYEC will continue to brainstorm ways to combat the problem.
As far as project work, Matt and I then compared notes on where we were, and decided that the top scenarios we had were the ones regarding employment, access to capital, and macadamia nuts. So, we split up and each took to the town indpendently to talk to more people. Matt went with Andrew to talk to Microfinance Institutions, and I went to talk to more employment bureaus. The people I talked to were very friendly and more than willing to share with me how exactly they do business. One of the managers of one of the bureaus also offered to set up a focus group with some prospective employees. This focus group was very successful, as we got our whole team together and sat down with four people who were in various stages of looking for jobs. Based on this session, I was able to fill in basically every gap in the employment scenario and am now confident we have a very glaring value proposition for WishVast in this scenario, not to mention the other scenarios. I also wrote-up a new narrative to help on-board next year's students quicker. I hope that at some point in the revision process I will be able to post a sizable portion of this write-up here. Ideally, it will serve as a sizeable piece of the Carter paper we have to write thanks to the grant and also for an eventual NCIIA proposal.
The day after this meeting, it was time for a return to Nairobi with the Mashavu team to talk to the venture capital firm Acumen Fund and MFI Jamii Bora (their motto is, "any family, however poor or hopeless, is capable of getting themselves out of poverty"). From a WishVast perspective, these meetings were both extremely beneficial and very interesting. We got a lot of positive feedback about our ideas and also about how we would go about getting the necessary start-up funds for implementation. The night was topped off by a visit to the tourist trap restaurant Carnivore. Despite being a tourist trap, the place was still awesome! They serve delicious meat roasted on a sword, including not only meats such as beef, chicken, and lamb, but also ostrich and crocodile. The traffic in Nairobi was a bit crazy that evening, and while certainly not as bad, the fumes and the congestion reminded me of the crazy traffic I experienced last summer in India.
Upon our return to Nyeri, it was back on the road again to Endarasha for another Mashavu clinic. The ride there was absolutely gorgeous as we travelled up the mountainside and saw the beautiful homes and landscape on the valleys and hillsides on either side of the "road." Road is in quotes because this may have been the most treacherous of the trip with all the potholes and uneven earth beneath us. When we returned to the U.S. last week, one of the first things I noticed was the smoothness in the ride on the road because it was such a stark contrast!
After our day at Endarasha, it was time to think about wrapping up the projects. We had a meeting scheduled with a charcoal broker, but that turned out to be a more challenging than expected prospect. Matt and I went into town to meet him, and while sitting at a restaurant received a phone call from the broker. I answered the call, but understood exactly zero words that he said. Having a conversation on the phone between people who do not speak the same language was quite an interesting experience. Thankfully our meeting with the macadamia nut brokers went quite a bit better. These two gentlemen were very forthcoming with information about the way they do business, and it was very helpful for us in filling in the gaps. By shedding light onto how many hops there really are in the supply chain from the farmers to the customers, we can understand a lot of ways where WishVast can help. We also learned a lot about grades of nuts, what they are used for, and also logistics coordination in general. These guys blow through cellphone credits like nobody's business, and WishVast could save a lot of that.
One of my most interesting experiences of the trip then happened on the final Sunday we were in Kenya. I decided that I really wanted to experience going to church, and I was actually invited by Miriam (one of the women working at an employment bureau) to go to her Presbyterian church, so of course I obliged. Katie Workinger from the Mashavu team wanted to go too, so we ventured out together. This turned out to be a day-long exhibition. I got up early Sunday morning to get a mutatu into town to meet Miriam, and was promptly greeted by her friend who drove me to where Miriam lived. We arrived there, and were then invited inside to have tea with her and her son Arnold. There apparently was no rush to get to church on time (why were we surprised? Kenyan time was infamous by now...). We enjoyed the tea and a short conversation about how we'd been enjoying our time in Kenya, then started the walk to church. We arrived just in time to see the last minute of the English service. Instead of leaving then, we decided that despite the fact we wouldn't be able to understand a word, we'd stay for the Kikuyu service. In retrospect, maybe this was a bad decision. Three hours later, we were very hungry, very late to lunch, and had to excuse ourselves from a service that had no end in sight. I'm actually very glad that I went and do not regret the decision at all, but a 3+ hour service in a language I don't speak was very rough. The highlight of the service had to be when they made all the men go up front to sing a song and I was pushed up front to join them. People were taking pictures of me as I was sounding out the words in Kikuyu. I didn't understand a word of the entire service, but there was no doubt it was still a religious experience.
Monday was our last full day, and was full of meetings and getting things wrapped up. Tuesday morning was another morning of meetings before our departure to Nairobi and the airport. One final thing that had to be picked up Tuesday morning was my "Francis hat." One of the children at CYEC named Francis always sported a popular knit hat that covers his head, his cheeks, and his chin. While walking around the market in Nyeri, James, Mike, and Mike saw a shop where they make these hats, and had hats custom made to fit their adult-sized heads. While these hats are typically only made for children, they would look excellent in Blue and White for a Penn State Football game, and once I saw the finished product, I had to have one as well. Pictures to come!
So, after picking up the hat, it meant a quick packing job and then into the mutatus to the airport. I actually got a lot of work done on the LONG flights in preparing some documents for next year's team, compiling a whole slew of recommendations, and thoroughly writing out everything we had accomplished. This had been a three-week experience like few other three-week spans in my life, and I will always think highly of my time in Kenya. If I had even more time and money, I think we could truly make a big difference in a lot of lives, so I wish the very best of luck to future students who travel on any projects. We made a lot of wonderful contacts and I hope to encounter a lot of these people at some point in my future. Not only were the Kenyans wonderful hosts, but I enjoyed getting to know the other students, and it made for an amazing trip. If nothing else, it continued to reinforce my love and passion for international project work and actually getting to do something that directly impacts people's lives. I hope to be able to do more work like this in the years to come!
P.S. Get what song I heard on the radio in the car on the way to CYEC the other day? http://www.geico.com/public/audio/somebodyswatchingme.mp3
P.P.S. Check out http://www.clintonglobalinitiative.org/Page.aspx?pid=3502 where our $4,000 grant was announced! Thank you to everyone who has shown confidence in our ideas and our hard work! While I hope to be as involved as possible in the future of WishVast, I have graduated and will be starting my job with J&J, so I wish the very best of luck to those who continue with this venture!
Saturday and Sunday, 30-31 May 2009
With just about 2 weeks under our belts, it was time to compile all the notes, data, knowledge, and experiences we’ve gained and capture the most relevant and critical pieces in order to check our progress and potentially reevaluate our plans and goals. It was a lengthy process, but painted a much clearer picture of what needed to be done over the next week to accomplish our goals.
We started our summer validation project with the five detailed scenarios we created in our Engineering Design class with limited to no contextual information. Even with the potential for inaccuracies and shortcomings, these scenarios made it much easier understand the local setting and search for relevant information within the various conversations and interviews we’ve had. Because of this, we were able to extract many more scenarios for validation from our basic and on-the-ground research. Along with our five scenarios (market information sharing, logistics coordination, business harmony, positive use of leisure time, and advertiser attraction) we are currently pursuing others including: broker networks, microfinance, knowledge transfer and value add networks, long and short term employment, SACCOS, entrepreneurs, tourism, and tout social and economic networks.
Also, we recently received word that our team and the WishVast project was awarded a grant from the Clinton Global Initiative. This award, along with the grant from the Carter Fund helps vindicate our efforts and keeps us motivated along the right track. Good times are certainly ahead.
Thursday and Friday, 28-29 May 2009
All work and no play makes the WishVast team a very dull machine. After all, what’s a trip to East Africa without a safari? After arriving late to Nyeri the night before with the Safari vehicles and a quick couple hours of shut-eye, we were eager to depart on our two-day expedition across the Aberdare National Park, Mount Kenya, and the Solio Range. Our safari vehicles pulled out onto the road and drew many curious eyes as the diesel mammoths roared through the quiet Nyeri roads. About an hour later, we arrived at the gates of the National Park. We waited impatiently aboard our vessels through a seemingly endless amount of paperwork and identification checks until we could finally set forth on our journey.
After seeing nothing but monkeys and buffalo all morning, we started to give up on spotting other animals (even though wandering packs of warthogs provided intermittent entertainment), at least until after lunch. As we wound through the Kenyan wilds and slowly climbed the Aberdares, the safari vehicle slowed to a halt and the engine ceased. The silence of our surroundings filled the vehicle before being broken by curious minds. It was easy to assume what the driver spotted, probably another herd of buffalo distant on the plains, but quite quickly we learned this was not the case. Just outside our vehicle, no more than a couple meters into the dense vegetation was an elephant, only recognized by the sound of its roar. Seconds later we caught a visual as it charged out of the trees and right in front of our vehicle to the other side of the road. Letting us know our presence was not appreciated the elephant let out another roar and settled back down, out of sight, into the woods—definitely the best sighting of the day.
After winding up to the high plains of the Aberdares, we stopped for a quick lunch and hike through the woods. Off the trail was the Chenia Waterfall which provided a much needed source of physical release and entertainment after being contained in the safari vehicle all day. Rock formations surrounding the waterfall’s base were very welcoming and begged to be climbed. Behind the vertical drop of about 30 meters was quite the rush of air pressure and a cleansing mist that awakened (soaked) all of us.
After a quick lunch, we were back on our way. Our safari vehicle navigated through the rest of the trail uninterrupted until we spotted a family of elephants feeding in the distance. Our luck seemed to be changing a bit as we passed other wild elephants. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to upload pictures while we’re here, but we will as soon as we return. This was definitely an adventure better explained with pictures.
As twilight approached and our time in the Aberdares came to an end, we headed out of the park to make our way to the campsite at the base of Mount Kenya. By the time we arrived to the campsite it was pitch black and not a single geographic figure was visible. The next morning, however was quite a different sight as the sun rose over Mount Kenya’s 12,000’ summit. After enjoying its view and a good breakfast, we were off to the Solio Range. Wild animals were much easier to spot here and our day was filled with close encounters with giraffes, zebras, rhinoceroses, buffalo, impalas, gazelles, warthogs, and most of the cast from The Lion King. Simba, Nala, Mufasa, and Scar were most noticeably absent because the Solio Range is free of predators.
Suffering from dehydration, the effects an interesting (to say the least) lunch, too much sun, and after almost 6 hours at Solio we were ready to head back to Nyeri.
Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Weekday life in urban Nairobi is for more chaotic than anything rural Nyeri has to offer, the entire town is abuzz with vehicles crawling through the overcrowded urban roads, sidewalks, and medians where man, machine, and animal could and do occupy the same space at any given time. Productivity takes on a new form as farms are replaced with office buildings, one room houses are replaced with apartment complexes, and the people walk the sidewalks with a bold sense of urgency.
Our goal today was to meet with the owner of a Nutri-business cooperative and understand the supply chains, social networks, economic networks, and [hopefully] all the gaps and frustrations in between. The second half of our day was a user group meeting with the folks from FrontlineSMS (an open-source SMS gateway tool that has become incredibly useful and popular in areas with high mobile subscriber numbers and low internet penetration).
The first meeting of the day was with Tei, a marketing agent of Azuri, a Nairobi-based Nutri-business cooperative that produces nutritious foods and snacks sold in supermarkets. Tei’s goal within the business is to find existing groups of farmers and help strengthen their internal production capabilities as well as their capacity to take on more business. Azuri uses the collective efforts of farmers across Kenya to produce all the necessary ingredients and this particular business model (a highly interactive and dispersed economic network) affords a potential application of WishVast. Essentially, factories in the community purchase agricultural goods from agricultural cooperatives and large scale farmers to process and sell to the Nutri-business company. The remaining portion of the necessary produce quota is purchased from local markets for a substantially higher price. With an implementation of WishVast and after managing the current supply chain, small scale farmers can be added to the current supply chain to fill the gap that the markets currently fill. Both parties win in this case because Azuri can buy at a lower price from small scale farmers, and small scale farmers can reap the economic benefits of a new, formerly unknown business opportunity.
After talking business, the conversation shifted to entrepreneurship and business development within Kenya. Champions within the community, those individuals who possess not only the technical knowledge, but also the vision and plan to set ideas into motion are easily found across the community. When asked about their daily lives or success rates, Tei added that champions are constantly used and abused, that they’re stretched so thin because people in the community flock to them for immediate needs. There is a great need to connect champions with other people relevant to their value chain and mute some of the other noise from daily life—WishVast, perhaps?
Tei also described a program called “twinning” between the University of Nairobi and local artisans. Students at the university spend up to two years working with artisans around the community to help develop their business. She noted that these types of projects are very successful (even in their infancy) because of the time commitment and focus on short term gains and long term sustainability, unlike the short term focus of some local NGOs. The news of successful business spread across networks of artisans and the demand for the program is increasing fast.
Finally, together we discussed what a successful WishVast implementation would look like in a situation like Azuri. A few key takeaways were that to start a WishVast network, groups built on strong-ties in a highly-interactive local group must first be managed (similar to how Facebook managed friendships in one particular university at a time). Next, fix the existing problems within the strong-ties, and then build the simple interactions over SMS that help expand the current social and economic network.
Our daytrip to Nairobi continued with a meeting with the [newly-formed (and potentially first worldwide user meeting)] Kenya FrontlineSMS User Group. FrontlineSMS was a tool developed to run SMS campaigns to spread information in places where cell phones are more prevalent than computers and internet access. The meeting brought together some of the minds behind the more than 100 FrontlineSMS projects around Kenya to share success stories and bounce ideas backs and forth. We watched a few demonstrations of the technology and found a potential future use for FrontlineSMS because a robust and proven platform, a powerful API, and the ability to develop web applications on top of the SMS gateway—for those of you with a non-technical background, this is exciting. We spent the rest of the meeting collaborating and learning from other users. It was interesting to note that the idea of implementing a social networking tool for developing countries was met with some hesitation or even confusion, but after discussing some of the social and economic mechanics bound to our project’s motivation people became very interested.
Our meeting was unfortunately cut short because of a surprise travel deadline. After leaving the meeting, we began our wild dance across the city by foot, bus, mutatu, and a strong defense against oncoming traffic to finally reach our meeting place. Here we met up with the group from Kansas State expecting to leave within the hour on the safari vehicles. Five and a half hours later (not bad, right?) we were off, rolling through the suburban streets of Nairobi in what was essentially an indestructible two-story house on wheels.
A 1:00am arrival bought us a few hours of sleep before leaving early in the morning for our two day safari.
Tuesday, 26 May 2009
In any other instance, days like this Tuesday, or at least how they’re planned on paper, would rarely deserve a blog entry. The plan was simple: spend the morning putting the finishing touches on WishVast’s technology side, catch a matatu from Nyeri to Nairobi, meet up with students from Kansas State (also working with the CYEC for the summer), grab a bite to eat, then off to sleep. However, based on any previous experience with Kenya’s chaotic and unpredictable nature (and not to mention that time seems to be slipping into a state of permanent irrelevance), I should’ve known better.
With the WishVast platform up and running for a day of small scale testing, it was now time to head into town and catch a ride to Nairobi. After planning to leave at 3:00pm, we were off by 5:30pm—not too bad. Travel like this is made possible by individuals who own matatu in a transportation cooperative, and like any other type of business in town, it’s highly competitive and completely chaotic. After finding a driver, or rather, a driver finding us, we were on our way.
The two cities are connected by one main highway, which makes travel to Nairobi a comfortable two and a half hour drive (comfortable is defined as seating 11 people in a vehicle barely made for 9 and racing across uneven pavement at 80kmph). Less than an hour into our travel, one of the passengers requested a quick stop and we slowed down to a small open air market on the side of the road. Uninterested in what they had to offer, I closed my eyes to go back to sleep only to be awaken abruptly by the immediate invalidation of my expectations. Surrounding our vehicle were at least 25 frantic salesmen and saleswomen with handfuls of produce attempting to convince the passengers of our matatu that their product and only theirs was the best price and best quality. To anyone outside the vehicle, it might seem as if they were trying to wash our car with fruits and vegetables, pressing them hard into the windows to give us a closer inspection. With all the passengers in the vehicle satisfied with their purchases, we moved on… slowly. Trying to sell just one more banana, one more potato, one more mango, salesmen clung to our slow moving vehicle shouting one last pitch, attempting to convince us that our shopping decisions were incomplete without this one last fruit or vegetable. Pulling away, our matatu took on the rich organic smell of satisfied shoppers. Take note grocers and drive-through chains: this is the model of efficiency and effectiveness.
Our route through rural Kenya continued almost uninterrupted until we met one particularly large pothole in the highway. The lack of suspension in any vehicle we’ve travelled in means you feel everything the road intended you to feel, but the combination of the feeling and the sound of [what we thought was] everything mechanical underneath the car falling onto the road made this one especially memorable. While not as disastrous, the hissing sound of leaking tires meant our trip would stop once more. Pulling off the side of the road and exiting our left-favoring matatu, we realized that we had destroyed two tires and rims in the last pothole. On top of that, darkness was quickly approaching. No need to worry though, a quick call to AAA 24-hour Roadside Assistance and we were well on our way. (I hope that you’ll understand the inappropriate sarcasm as a way to frame our frustration on what was supposed to be an easy and maybe even relaxing trip.)
Helpless and at the mercy of the transportation company to call in two new tires, twilight waned, the rural Kenyan darkness set in, and the passengers of our vehicle prepared to star in a new reality TV series about strangers overcoming social, political, cultural, and lingual barriers to survive the Kenyan wilds. Motivated by light of one flashlight, the driver and two others removed the wheel ruins and prepped the car for the arrival of new wheels. The new wheels eventually arrived and we were on our way, but not before a quick push of the matatu to get it started… right into oncoming traffic.
The rest of the trip was rather uneventful, the only other interruption being the extreme congestion entering the city that was completely expected. We finally settled into our hotel about 6 hours after our expected departure time, only to move once again to meet a few students from Kansas State working with the CYEC for the summer. After introductions, stories, dinner, and a few drinks we were ready to call it a night.
Just a quick update before Steve and I head out to Nairobi: the technology behind WishVast is working quite well. FINALLY!
We've been spending a lot of time the past few days trying to get the WishVast Network Management System up and running. The initial cellphone that we were trying did not work properly, so we ventured back to Nyeri town to get a new phone. We actually tested it at the shop so we would be sure that it would work. The cellphone connects to the computer properly, but there is still some disconnect between the software and the database because the messages aren't sending correctly. We actually put in a call to Eric (our main developer) and tried to communicate for help despite the seven-hour time difference, but no dice as of yet. Here's to hoping we'll have a good update soon that the system is up and running.
The technology testing is only our secondary goal, though. We're making a lot of progress on our primary goal.
On Sunday, we had a lot of fun with the kids, just hanging out and then playing soccer. It's been fun starting to really learn names and get to know a lot of the kids better. The soccer game was very intense, unfortunately resulting in a loss for the US team, but still a fun experience for all involved. Perhaps we had too much fun on Sunday, though, because we didn't get a lot of work done and it made Monday a long day.
In talking to a greenhouse owner/entrepreneur, we discovered a number of processes WishVast could aid including farming tomatoes and milk, and also the process of finding employment. The bureau that helps match potential employers with job seekers makes a pretty hefty amount putting the two sides in touch, and there is definitely an opportunity for WishVast to compete. Apparently these farmhands are making about 2000 ksh per month, but have to pay 700 ksh just to be recognized by the bureau to be matched up. This is a huge barrier to entry for work, and a WishVast group could really alleviate a lot of that pain and save people money.
This greenhouse owner was very sharp, and is just one of many such individuals we've had the opportunity to meet with since we arrived. It seems that there are a lot of entrepreneurs here who aren't just involved in one or two things, but have their hands in as many as ten or twelve things as sources of income. It's great to see the entrepreneurial spirit, and I'm starting to see a difference that people in developing countries are more eager to change and adopt new technologies, as opposed to in the US where "corporate America" seems much more adverse to this type of change and advancement.
Matt and I leave this afternoon (Tuesday) for Nairobi for two very interesting meetings, one with a woman involved in a Nutribusiness cooperative, and the other with a group of developers who work with similar SMS applications. The Nutribusiness cooperative would be a very interesting scenario, and the group of developers should be able to shed light on a lot of the technological successes and struggles of similar endeavors.
At this point, we've already seen a lot of potential validation for scenarios including the Macadamia nut farmers, an "I have _______, I want _______" sharing group, job seeking, "fun" groups such as soccer teams and coke bottle tracking, an entrepreneur knowledge sharing group, and now the Nutribusiness cooperative, with microfinance research (as a HUGE potential market) and more on the way next week.
We'll be leaving Nairobi immediately after our meetings tomorrow (Wednesday) to get back to Nyeri in time to meet the rest of the teams for our safari! Thursday and Friday will be fun days with some work on the side as we hopefully see more wild and exotic animals and have a fun time out camping and seeing more of the beautiful Kenyan countryside.
Here we are at 11:00PM on Saturday night after having left on Tuesday and I'm finally getting the chance to post a real update. I apologize that it has taken this long to write, but as you might imagine, we've been moving all over the place and working hard to keep up with everything that needs to get done.
For the sake of immediate clarification, I'd like to say that we have not changed the name of our project, but I wanted to give a shout out to the Mashavu team that has been doing great work since we got here. (Check out their blog at http://mashavu.com/blog/.) Since there are only two of us here working on WishVast while nearly ten times as many are here to work on Mashavu, we've had the chance to interface with their team a lot and I've learned a great deal about their wonderful initiative. I look forward to continuing to help them out in any capacity possible.
In order to get everyone up to speed, I'll organize this entry chronologically:
While I've been fortunate enough to have had numerous international experiences in the past (Hungary, Spring '08; India, Summer '08; Morocco, Spring '09), I was eagerly anticipating this trip knowing that no two experiences are alike. Unlike a few of our peers who experienced problems with their flights and their baggage, Matt and I both departed State College Monday afternoon and arrived in Nairobi Tuesday evening after a pain-free travel experience. Once all the rest of the team members (there are 33 total students in all working on WishVast, Mashavu, and Eco-Village) had arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, we crammed (quite literally!) into a bus for downtown Nairobi.
We finally got something to eat (including some delicious fresh fruit) and then spent the night in a hotel in the city. With the morning Wednesday came an ICE COLD SHOWER (thankfully my only one of the trip) and then our trip to Nyeri with a few welcomed stops along the way. This map of Kenya shows Nyeri's place on the map north of Nairobi:
While obviously our goal for this trip is to complete work on our Humanitarian Engineering projects, we wanted to make sure to get a well-rounded experience along the way, so our stops on the way to Nyeri were to a giraffe orphanage and Nairobi National Park. At the giraffe orphanage, we learned there are three types of giraffes found in Kenya, and had the chance to get very close to a couple. At NNP, we saw a variety of animals from monkeys to lions to cheetahs to an ostrich!
At each destination there exists a different entry fee for Kenyans vs. non-citizens. While this was unfortunate, it was expected, and we paid the higher amount in order to go inside. At NNP, the sign said that the price for students and/or large groups was $5, yet they still wanted to charge us $15. This is a common theme at times with large groups of "mizungos" (tourists), as earlier in the morning the person at the currency exchange had also changed the price for us. This is similar to experiences that I have had in India, and I believe it stems from the perspective that Americans have everything and can afford anything. It's hard to blame them for thinking this; I just wish it wasn't so. In the case of NNP at least, Khanjan was able to argue with the person enough to get us in for the correct $5 price. :)
The rest of the day Tuesday consisted of the scenic yet bumpy bus ride to Hotel Ivory in Nyeri. After a stop for dinner at a restaurant which featured a very good menu (I got a nice chicken dinner), we finally made it. The last stretch of road to the hotel was an uphill climb, and our bus was zigzagging all the way up the hill in an effort to get more traction! This made us all very glad to arrive and get some rest after a very long two days.
The day we'd all been waiting for was Thursday, our first day at the Children Youth and Empowerment Center (CYEC). This is the location that we'll be spending the vast majority of our time at as we all get validation on our project ideas. We were greeted by and introduced to the wonderful CYEC staff, and then got a tour of the campus. I was surprised and impressed by its size, and am continually impressed by the friendly and knowledgeable staff.
The tour included a peek inside the Clinic, the housing areas, and what would be our workspace for the duration of our stay. We also got to venture out into the fields and some of the land that the kids get to play in:
This picture is from the Mashavu blog -- I hope to upload some of my pictures in the coming weeks as well. As you can see in this shot, the area is very beautiful.
Upon completion of the tour, Matt and I had a very enjoyable meeting with a man named Andrew. Andrew helps out at CYEC, but his main job is running a biodiesel plant. He has actually been helping out the Biodiesel Eco-Village team all semester, but he is also interested in helping out with WishVast. As an entrepreneur who is very in touch with the community, Andrew will be a huge help to us as we work on our project. He has a lot of great ideas, can help frame our ideas in the proper context, and also has a lot of contacts that he can link us to so that we can be talking to all the right people. The three of us had a wonderful conversation bouncing all kinds of ideas off each other, and all agreed we were excited to work together for the next three weeks. We left Andrew with a copy of our website and videos so he could see what we've been working on this semester and so that he could give us some tips for framing our pitch better to local individuals.
After enjoying a nice big lunch at CYEC (a large variety of food and a good price -- 300ksh which is about $3.75), Matt and I ventured out into the area surrounding CYEC in the afternoon to start working on a community assessment. A few of the older CYEC students travelled with us, as did Abdala, one of the teachers at CYEC, to help translate and guide us along as we talked to people and observed the area.
Because we were travelling with some of the Mashavu students as well, Abdala was deliberately taking us to some families who had medical problems. All the individuals we spoke with were very forthcoming in talking about their situations, and all seemed very happy to see us! Our goal for the day was not to be asking specific questions that related to our projects, but just to be listening to their stories to really get a good understanding of a different perspective. A majority of the families we visited were extremely impoverished, which was a very humbling experience. We are just all so lucky to have what we have, and it's a shame that it's not until seeing things like this that many of us truly appreciate that.
Walking around the community in the blazing sun, we talked to around 20-25 people, and learned a lot from individuals who have a very different worldview. Despite living in poor conditions, it's not "coping" for most of the people we talked to, it's just life, and like I said, most are happy and were certainly happy to see us! For the most part very religious people, a number of them even told us that it was by the grace of God that we were here to see them, and they were so glad we came and visited. While we did not explicitly tell anyone about our projects or the exact reason we were here, I gather most induced that we were here as some part of project to help them.
One very interesting point that we noted while going around the community was that even though this was a poor community, most of the people had cellphones! We've all seen the statistic from the study in Tanzania that 97% of people have access to cellphones, but it never really hit home until now. From a western perspective, we wouldn't think that poor people would have cellphones, but they are an important part of life here and even if it's a large portion of their income, many people will spend the money on a cellphone. In many cases, it's the only way people have to communicate with family and friends in other parts of the country since transportation is difficult and we saw no one with computers or internet access, and they also use the phones for additional functionality like transferring money.
The experience in the community was very grounding, and really gave us a good contextual experience from the get-go that would set the tone for the rest of the trip.
Everyone definitely slept well on Thursday night after a long day, and in the morning we eagerly ventured back to CYEC. Matt and I sat in on a Mashavu pitch to a local woman, Sister Purity, so that we could hear the types of questions that she asked and continue to frame our project. Thursday morning also afforded us our first opportunity to really spend more time with kids. We went out into the fields while they were outside for recess, and we all had so much fun!
The kids are absolutely exhausting, but it's worth every second we can spend with them. To see the smiles on their faces is just priceless, and you really get the sense that they appreciate so much that we're here. They were constantly asking for piggyback rides and for us to spin them around. Despite the fact this was tiring, who can say no? I know we won't have a TON of free time to spend with the kids over the course of the trip, but they are so much fun to play with and I plan to spend as much time with them as possible. It's really hard to say goodbye to them at the end of the day as a lot of them crowd around our van to see us off, and smile and wave to us as we drive away. I think we're all getting attached...
We actually had an experience with kids on Thursday afternoon when we were out in the community, as school had let out while we were walking between homes, and a big group of kids followed us around like an enormous entourage, and they were smiling and laughing and asking us questions. A lot of the kids have very good English, in addition to speaking the local languages Swahili and Kikuyu. Every kid deserves a chance for a great life, and it's wonderful that CYEC is providing this for the kids who don't have that opportunity at home or don't have a home. The CYEC kids always seem just as happy as the kids who we encountered out in the community.
Anyway, Friday afternoon gave me another opportunity to go back out and talk to more people while Matt went into the town with Khanjan to look for some cellphones and some other project supplies. In town, I know Matt had a very neat experience seeing the hustle and bustle and venturing into the shops. He has a video of the busy streets that perhaps he'll post. He also saw some microfinance business and other possible businesses that we'd like to talk to about WishVast - I look forward to making those connections. While he wasn't able to get the exact cellphone we're looking for to use with WishVast, Khanjan talked to Paul Maina and Paul will be getting us the phone from Nairobi so we can start to test the technology. As far as my experiences in the community, Abdala gave us more of a varied tour as we talked to some people who were a little bit better off than the people we'd talked to on Thursday. I ended up running into a Macadamia nut "driver" along the way, and after asking him a few questions, knew that I had stumbled onto a great scenario that WishVast could really be valuable. A number of people around here farm Macadamia nuts, and the way the process works is that the farmers sell to brokers, who sell to the drivers, who sell in Nairobi, who then sell elsewhere. If we can further investigate and understand this supply chain, perhaps there is an opportunity for WishVast to eliminate some of the additional hops and allow the farmer to earn more of the money.
Another interesting stop on Friday was at the local quarry where a number of the men work. Seeing the quarry was quite impressive, and in probing for questions, we also found it interesting how they communicate with the person who comes and picks up the rocks after they've mined them. After each visit, it seems we're getting more and more validation for WishVast as a viable product here that can really help people.
Saturday was a pretty hectic day, but one that allowed us to spend some more time with kids, and venture back out in the afternoon.
The morning was made stressful by the fact that our computers and thumb drives have all been ravaged by some kind of virus. The Mashavu team started experiencing some problems when we first got here, and it seems to have spread since then to the point where we've lost a number of our files and it's handcuffing our technological capabilities. At home, this wouldn't be such a big problem since downloading tools to fix this would be a snap, but here with very limited access and slow download speeds, it's a big problem and we're working hard towards finding a solution.
While we continue to work towards that solution, the day was not all bad though as we helped out with the first test of the Mashavu station. I believe Matt and I hold the first and second place rankings for the spirometer test of lung capacity (I guess playing brass instruments helps), and we enjoyed helping out the kids get in for the testing. I didn't have much time to spend there, though, as we prepared specific questions for another trip into the surrounding area. I knew a little bit more about specifically what I was looking for, as I really wanted to talk to more people involved in the Macadamia nut process, and hopefully maybe even stumble into some other individuals who could exemplify a need for WishVast.
The afternoon more than met expectations as Matt and I got to talk to a Macadamia nut farmer, some fruit vendors, and a number of other interesting people. During these interviews, we got a lot of great information that will help us enormously in vetting our already-prepared scenarios.
Abdala also took us to her beautiful home and served us tea! This was a wonderful treat, and one that we were so happy to have experienced. There's nothing like being invited into someone's home in a foreign country to enjoy tea and have a good conversation. We talked about how we've really enjoyed our experience so far and how we're looking forward to the next two weeks! Matt and I also spent some time strategizing as we now have a lot of leads and need to figure out who will be engaged in which interviews moving forward. Our primary goal will be completing as many interviews as possible and really validating these value chains to understand specific scenarios for which WishVast can be used here. Our secondary goal will be testing out the technology with our group of students since Paul did find a phone for us and we're looking forward to getting it set up.
If the first few days were any indication, we're definitely in for a roller-coaster ride of fun and hard work, but I can't imagine anything else I'd rather be doing! I'm excited for what's ahead, and will continue to provide updates whenever possible!
We've had an eventful ride to this point. All travels went fine, and we arrived in Nairobi as scheduled. We spent a day traveling from Nairobi to Nyeri, including a stop at a Giraffe Orphanage and Nairobi National Park. Overall the day went well, but we were happy to arrive in Nyeri and get some sleep.
Today was our first day at CYEC in Nyeri, and we were excited to have the opportunity to get to work. In the morning, we met a man named Andrew, a jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur who works with the center. He was very excited to work with our team on the WishVast venture. In the afternoon, our team ventured out with part of the Mashavu group to better assess the community around the CYEC. We were really grounded by the experience of seeing the impoverished community, but now have a much better understanding of the project context. Excited for more experiences to come…
(I hope to be able to provide more detailed accounts in the coming days as time permits. Clearly this short blurb doesn't tell the whole story!)
Matt and I are finishing up our final trip preparations before we leave tomorrow for Nairobi!
Next post will be from there!
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