Project Blog: Summer 2010

Kenya Documentary

posted Aug 25, 2010, 7:50 PM by Chris LoRusso   [ updated Nov 5, 2010, 5:42 PM ]

Kenya Documentary

I mentioned that a camera crew from WPSU spent some time with us in Kenya.  This 21 minute video provides a nice look at all of the projects we worked on in Kenya.  Tune in to the 9 minute mark for the WishVast segment.  Big thanks to Christian and his team for doing such a great job. 


posted Jun 26, 2010, 7:32 AM by Chris LoRusso   [ updated Jul 1, 2010, 2:21 PM ]

First off, let us apologize for the delay in sharing the events of MsaniiFest.  Towards the end of our trip, we experienced some hardware issues (dropped netbooks can have that effect) while maintaining an increasingly hectic travel schedule, so it was difficult to set aside some time with a reliable internet connection.  That said, I previously mentioned MsaniiFest (msanii = Swahili for artist, remember?).  The Festival was organized entirely through WishVast SMS and something that we're proud to say, turned out to be a huge hit.  One of the most powerful aspects of WishVast remains that of self-organization.  The crowdsourced genius of Wikipedia probably defines this concept best: "Self-organization is the process where a structure or pattern appears in a system without a central authority or external element imposing it."  For a shining example of the power of self-organization, check out what the folks at Meetup have done over the years.  When given the platform to do so, people have repeatably taken the initiative to self-organize to help solve some of the world's toughest problems.  

**Chanakya and I had some fun making a video about Life's Principles back on campus, and of course, we included self-organization.  For a more serious look, be sure to check out Scott and Kaylyn's Tech Movie.**

So what does all this talk of self-organization actually mean?  Some artists were interested in setting up a WishVast group to improve their ability to communicate with each other around common interests and issues pertaining to the local art community.  Through SMS and their newly formed group, WishVast empowered them to self-organize and pull off a wonderful event to cap off our time in Nyeri.  All in, there were about 30 vendors that participated, combining to form a great collection of paintings, jewelry, instruments and other local crafts.  We added other activities to make this an event for all ages, like a talent show, face painting, and music, culminating with a Kenya vs. USA soccer match.

In true double bottom-line fashion, the WishVast team structured the event to serve as a fundraiser for the CYEC as well.  A portion of each sale went directly to benefit the children that we had become so close with over the course of the month. 

If you're reading this, maybe you know someone from  WishVast or Mashavu?  Perhaps you found yourself on the receiving end of some local crafts (and indirectly made a contribution to the CYEC).  If not, there's always next year.  Although this was the first ever MsaniiFest, there is already talk of a MasniiFest II.  We'll be sure to keep you updated on that. 

Perhaps via SMS. 


posted Jun 4, 2010, 7:29 AM by Chris LoRusso   [ updated Jun 4, 2010, 10:26 AM ]

Once the fun was over at the iHub, our team made the short journey to our next meeting.  After walking about 10 steps down the hall, we received a warm welcome from Tonee Ndungu at the Nairobi Incubation Lab aka the NAiLab.  Not surprisingly, this place is awesome.  Concrete floors, floor to ceiling windows, balconies, several different work spaces, flip charts galore, and some of the coolest chairs we have ever seen.  The NAiLab is a brand new business incubator, and there are big plans for it moving forward.  Nobody knows the space better than Tonee, so be sure to check out his 2 minute video for a graphical representation of what it will eventually look like and to get a feel for the man behind the concept.

We had the chance to give Tonee a quick overview of each of our ventures and that was all it took.  He quickly provided some actionable, step by step recommendations to some of the most complex problems that we are facing as a team.  Needless to say, the notepads were out on our side of the table.  This guy is as engaging as he is full of energy. And he has to be - he definitely knows how to stay busy.

Aside from running the NAiLab, he's the Kenya Director for the 1%CLUB, which is an online marketplace of global projects that individuals can contribute 1% of their time, money, skills, or knowledge to in an effort to "structurally solve poverty".  He also founded and directs the Kenya Wazimba Youth Foundation which emphasizes the use of internet based media and social networks amongst teens throughout Africa to foster self-expression and reliance.  Given the nature of our projects (WishVast & Mashavu), everything Tonee had to say struck a chord with our group.

We had plenty of laughs, caught an impromptu lesson in tech startups and business incubation in Kenya, and traded contact info (he'll definitely be hearing from us again).  Tonee is a young guy, and extremely well versed in the areas that our teams are developing services in.  In speaking about some of the obstacles that we continue to face with different demographics (age, technical expertise, rural vs. urban, etc), Tonee reminded us: "Maturity is not about age, it's about exposure."  With a group that ranges from sophomore engineers to old grad students, and still manages to stay on the same page, we can certainly attest to that. 

We also hear that Tonee is an MC in the Nairobi area.  If you have the opportunity to attend one of his events, we suggest that you do.  We'll certainly be on the lookout for the duration of our stay here in Kenya.  Thanks again to Tonee and the NAiLab crew.


posted Jun 4, 2010, 1:09 AM by Chris LoRusso

After several days of meetings, the WishVast team is back in Nyeri.  Our first stop was Nairobi's Innovation Hub (literally), known as the iHub, First off, we'd like to give a huge shout-out and special thanks to Jessica Colaco for the warm welcome and taking the time out of her busy schedule to sit down with our team. 

For those that are unfamiliar, the iHub is a space dedicated to innovation and shared resources in the Nairobi Tech Community.  One of the creators, Erik Hersman is also co-founder of Ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony" or "witness") which was first used to crowdsource crisis information and map violence following Kenya's disputed Presidential election of 2007.  Since then, Ushahidi has been used around the world, to track anti-immigrant violence in South Africa in 2008, to report on the Haiti and Chile earthquakes of 2010, and much more.  Needless to say, it was an honor to meet Erik and his team in person at the iHub. 

Jessica led us on a quick tour of the under construction space, which includes bright colors, a Japanese sitting area, wrap-around balconies, loft space, floor to ceiling windows, a foosball table and plenty of other cool areas.  Basically, the physical space is a techie's dream come true.  The greatest asset of the iHub, however, is definitely the people.  We were lucky to spend time talking about our ventures with Jessica (iHub manager) and Joshua (intern/designer/coder extraordinaire) who both provided a wealth of tech expertise along with insights into the local context.  It's easy to see how this place has fast become a magnet for talent, ideas, and collaboration within the Nairobi community.  

We learned a lot during our time at the iHub, covering topics ranging from long-term implementation strategy to immediate next steps.  There is even some great potential for Penn State University to develop a partnership with the iHub through a virtual membership tier, so our team is looking forward to making that a reality.

One thing is for sure; there is always something happening at the iHub, from the Random Hacks of Kindness global event this weekend to the recurring Mobile Monday meetups where people get together while reinforcing the 5 principles of the iHub: Community, Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Business Advisory, & Research.  A couple of us are even sticking around Nairobi and will be attending barcamp Nairobi '10 in a few weeks. 

Thanks again to Jessica, Joshua, Erik and everyone else at the iHub for the hospitality and insights.  For more info in the iHub, be sure check out Erik's CNBC interview and the iHub Launch video.   

Madaraka Day

posted Jun 1, 2010, 11:35 AM by Chris LoRusso

We hear that all of our friends and families back in the States enjoyed the long weekend at various Memorial Day celebrations to commemorate U.S.soldiers.  We should note that this time of year marks a very special holiday for our Kenyan hosts as well.  Observed on June 1st, today was the 47th annual Madaraka Day which recognizes a historic step towards Kenya's independence in 1963.  The WishVast team was lucky to be in Nyeri Town for much of the day and even caught a glimpse of a grand parade that made its way through town.

We had ambitious plans to speak with many of the local employment bureaus in an effort to better understand WishVast in the context of ad hoc labor.  Of course, many of the businesses in town were closed to observe the holiday so we had to come up with an alternative plan on the fly.  We decided to revisit Julie's Coffee Shop to follow up on her experiences with WishVast since our first visit.  Julie's turned into de facto HQ for the day, as we ended up holding many meetings there while enjoying snacks and the best coffee in town.  More importantly, several jobs were sent out via SMS that received responses within minutes.  

In a previous post, I mentioned that WPSU had recently joined us to film a documentary on our business development efforts in Kenya.  Who better to speak to the user experience on camera than one of our very first employers.  Julie agreed to do our first interview, which will help us better tell our story and raise awareness later this summer.  It was a welcome change of pace to start hearing about the benefits of WishVast from a voice other than our own.  To help demonstrate the system functionality on camera, Julie texted out a waitressing opportunity that just opened in her shop.  Before she could finish the interview, her phone rang twice (on camera!) from callers interested in the job.  Only time will tell who Julie hires, but it was nice to see such a real-time response to the text message that we watched go out.

In other news, some of our team is heading to Nairobi to meet with some prominent members of the East African tech and venture community over the next 2-3 days.  We're still working out the logistics, but are excited to be changing gears early in the morning to spend a few jam-packed days in the nation's capital.  Rather than post about tentative scheduling arrangements, I'll save updates for when I can detail our experiences upon our return.  At this point, what we know for sure: our team is very excited about the roster in place.  

In the spirit of excitement to come, let us take this opportunity to formally announce another major event for the team: the first ever MsaniiFest.  Msanii, being swahili for artist, seemed like a fitting title for the event, as we our in the process of organizing a community event featuring food, arts, crafts, music, and more for this coming Sunday.  We previously mentioned the formation of a small SMS group for artists in the Nyeri region.  Sparked by our collaboration with YADEN (Youth Arts, Development & Entreprenuership Network), this seemed like a great way to test our system in an attempt to bring the community together via WishVast facilitation.  

The initial response has been quite positive from all parties thus far.  Many artists, students, and community members confirmed immediately which is great news for our system and the community.  If you happen to be in Nyeri, bring your wallet and your appetite - because the proceeds generated for WishVast will be donated to our partners at the CYEC

Stay tuned for updates.  

Kimathi University College of Technology

posted May 30, 2010, 5:33 AM by Chris LoRusso   [ updated May 30, 2010, 7:06 AM ]

After returning from a fantastic safari experience, it was time for the team to get right to work.  Saturday was a big day for WishVast as the CYEC hosted over 100 visitors from the Kimathi University College of Technology.  The Mashavu team had plans to give demonstrations of their medical devices which provided a great opportunity for the WishVast crew to do some networking, marketing, and research.  We had ambitious plans to conduct 70 interviews on the day in areas including labor hiring, agricultural supply chains, and microfinance.  

Since we were expecting such a large number of visitors, we decided to relocate WishVast HQ from Duncan's office over to the CYEC Library.  It proved to be a wise move as we enjoyed a revolving door throughout the day while we met with the region's top tier of tech talent. Luckily for our team, many of the students we spoke with were working towards undergraduate degrees in commerce, computer science, and information technology.  Given their fields of study, many of the students were familiar with the programming language that our system currently uses so we had several opportunities to open up the laptop and take a look at the code.

After looking at the day's numbers, we collected some great data and completed 69 interviews (just shy of the 70 mark!).  We are pretty happy with the results although we still have a long way to go as far as data collection is concerned.  More importantly, we generated some serious interest with the local tech community and many of the students signed up to help us with the SMS beta testing right there on the spot.  We received some encouraging validation for many of the implementation scenarios that we have been working on, namely labor hiring practices and agriculture.  

We made many new contacts and will definitely stay in touch for additional advice, focus groups, surveys, and some on-the-ground tech and marketing talent.  We even picked up a new mascot - an awesome little cat that we call Paka (Swahili for cat - get it?) who likes to hang out in the library and break up any silence with some high-pitched meows.  

As for quantifiable results, our largest and most active group is the ad hoc labor group which currently consists of about 80 members.  So far we have confirmed 8 jobs that have been filled via WishVast SMS and we're excited to build on this momentum in the coming week.  With every additional worker or employer that we sign up, our value proposition to prospective users becomes stronger.  We realize this every time questions such as "does it work?"  or "is it just a proposal?" arise in our many daily conversations.  We now answer these questions with the promising results from our beta testing - which we hope will continue to improve as time goes on.  

Even after a long day of interviews and networking, the team didn't lose sight of one of our favorite activities: enjoying East African food.  We made our second trip over to the Banana Leaf for a Saturday night of food and music.  The WishVast team is small and we're always learning.  This time around, for instance, I was sure to sit right next to Duncan and learn all about the local delicacies in an effort to avoid any additional surprises.  Another great night in Kenya.  Another great week ahead.

Meru National Park Safari

posted May 30, 2010, 3:43 AM by Chris LoRusso   [ updated May 30, 2010, 7:09 AM ]

The WishVast Team is back at the Hotel Ivory after an amazing trip to Meru National Park.  We took a 2 day safari and were offline the entire time so our apologies for this post being so late.  That said, we’ll get right to it.  We are quite used to starting our days early and ending them late.  Our safari excursion was no exception.  The trip to Meru was longer than expected (about 7 hours altogether) but was a great adventure in and of itself.  After passing through many small towns and finding ourselves on the receiving end of countless smiles and welcoming waves, we arrived at Meru.

From there we finished the day with a long game drive towards our campsite.  We were lucky to see an incredible amount of zebras, giraffes, and elephants before dark.  Memory cards will filled and camera batteries were drained.  Everyone had a blast.  After an impromptu after-dark tent-pitching lesson from our guides, we set up for and enjoyed dinner, refreshments, and music by the campfire.

The next day started early again, which fittingly, served as the grand finale.  We saw so many giraffes, zebras, water buffalo, and elephants that our trip was a definite success.  Our driver, on the other hand, was not convinced.  He took us off the beaten path in search of the king of the jungle.  We eventually saw a lion and several cubs which was an absolutely amazing experience.

Our good friends at Mashavu have posted a nice recap of the safari here so be sure to check it out and enjoy their poetic skills.  

Aside from it being a great opportunity for the WishVast team to spend some time with Essential Design and Mashavu, we are excited to announce to arrival of some new guests.  We were recently joined by a film crew from WPSU who will be spending the next week capturing many of our the team's activities in high definition.  Our work here in Kenya will serve as the pilot episode for a new series called "Global Penn State" which will air on the Big Ten Network in July.  We have been assured that the episode will be made available online as well, so we look forward to sharing it with all of our friends and family, both back home and here in Kenya.

While the safari served as a nice break from all of our testing and marketing efforts to date, there is still plenty of work to be done.  We arrived back to Nyeri late Friday night and promptly called it a day.  We had big plans for the coming weekend and rest and relaxation were not part of the equation.  More updates to come.  


Transport & Pizza

posted May 26, 2010, 11:27 AM by Chris LoRusso   [ updated May 26, 2010, 12:29 PM ]

The WishVast team had ambitious goals for the day. We had planned to meet with two large farm owners, Lewis and Martin, to discuss possible uses for the WishVast system in their produce supply chains which could then lead to additional ad hoc hire labor hiring opportunities.  Martin is heavily involved in international export, farms a wide range of crops, and could be a strong agricultural center of influence for the WishVast team.  We were excited to take a tour of the land and talk about potential uses for the WishVast sytem.  After spending several hours trying to finalize plans for the 30 kilometer trip to Narumoro with no success, we decided to walk over the CYEC to sync up with Duncan and other staff members. 

After another hour of logistical coordination and several failed mutatu pick-up attempts at the CYEC, we decided that it would be best to reschedule for a day where transportation could be arranged in advance.  It’s easy to take transportation infrastructure for granted when you fail to consider the local context.  At Penn State, we enjoy reliable CATA bus services that can be timed to the minute until late into the night.  Elsewhere, we can utilize on buses, subways, trains, and taxis with relative ease to make trips between neighborhoods, cities, and states.  And of course, most of us tend to just walk out to the driveway and hop behind the steering wheel to drive directly to our destination. 

Without prior arrangements, we have repeatedly found this not to be the case while testing WishVast in Kenya.  This could easily be seen as a problem, but our small team prefers instead to identify opportunities.  Several days ago, we approached a local shop owner about WishVast and its potential uses.  After showing him a standard “one to many” SMS drawing, the first thing he mentioned was transportation.  He pointed out several flaws in the local matatu (shared taxi/van) system when travelling to certain areas.  Today’s disappointing start proved useful for two reasons: First, we learned from this and will solidify arrangements well in advance when travelling outside of town.  Second, it validated the need (and opportunity) for more efficient uses of existing technology.  We’ll be sure to mention the “transportation scenario” in our future dealings with local thought leaders.

And of course, the day is never over.  We decided to head into town to recruit users for our different groups. We were accompanied by CYEC staff and students, and were excited to come across a local pizza shop. Weary at first of what Kenyan pizza may taste like, the majority of the team was pleasantly surprised. We tried both the Four Seasons and Margarita pizzas. WishVast’s Philadelphia team members raved about the pizza, while our New York counterpart begged to differ, replying “You Philly boys don’t know much about pizza, let’s find a Kenyan cheese steak joint and see what you think.” Clearly the Philly-New York rivalry lives on, even here in Kenya.

We continued through town, talking to people and familiarizing ourselves with the local landscape and enjoyed some more maize (corn) from a street vendor.  On our journey, we stopped to grab some supplies for the next two days which will be especially different.  That’s right, the WishVast team (along with Mashavu and Essential Design) is heading on safari!  We will be leaving the hotel Ivory bright and early to embark on a 5 hour trip to Meru National Park.   We’re not totally sure of what to expect, but we’re definitely excited.  We’ll do our best to keep the blog updated, but aren’t sure if we’ll have internet access.  More importantly, the WishVast system will be packed and secure thanks to yesterday’s hardware upgrades.

Looking forward to the adventures to come.

The Coffee Shop

posted May 25, 2010, 11:25 PM by Chris LoRusso   [ updated May 26, 2010, 12:06 AM ]

Today was an eventful day for the WishVast crew.  We started off the day by making some modifications to the WishVast system hardware.  As it stands, we’re currently running a local system that does not require internet access to push messages to WishVast members.  Thankfully, we reprogrammed this just before our travel date, to ensure functionality in the event of an unreliable internet connection.  Given the design of the WishVast system, we require nothing more than a netbook and tethered cell-phone to operate the system during our beta testing period. 

We start each day by setting up the system, either in the hotel conference room or over at WishVast HQ in the CYEC.  Given the amount of networking we are doing, it’s likely that the team will be meeting in many more locations in the coming days so it would be nice to have an easily packable system that we can just “grab and go” whenever an opportunity presents itself.  Thanks to Chanakya’s creative use of some supplies on hand (namely, duct tape and a zip-loc bag), the system will be much more travel-friendly from the point forward.

With the theme of travel in mind, we headed out to Nyeri Town as soon as possible.  We stopped for a quick maize (street corn) snack and were on our way.  We spent the entire day doing some grassroots marketing, talking to anyone who would listen and signing up as many users as possible.  After a trip through the central district and into the slums, we decided it was time to regroup at an internet café and then stop next door for a cold drink. 

We ended up at Julie’s Coffee Shop for a quick break.  Knowing that we have limited time to test our system, “breaks” don’t really exist.  We ended up talking with the owner (Julie, of course) about WishVast.  Before long, she was sitting at our table which prompted a round of vanilla milkshakes and carrot cake to follow up on the fresh passion fruit starter.  Julie gave us some invaluable feedback on our approach and even signed up as a user.  Most importantly, Julie sent out another job opportunity via SMS to the system right there!

On another note, hiring and recruiting is still progressing on other projects, with 5 ad hoc jobs created and filled this week alone.  Some of these workers have been invited back to participate in other projects, and others have shared our service with friends and family.  Our “Art” group is growing, and we’re interested to see how the local art community uses our service.  The day’s events even allowed us a closer look at some work by artists in town. 

We were pretty happy with progress made, given that more hiring and job posting activity occurred throughout the day.  We closed with a late meeting with a local government official and are excited to see where our newest relationship will lead.  Stay tuned for future updates. 




Nyeri Town Connections

posted May 24, 2010, 12:56 PM by Chris LoRusso

Today, we traveled to Nyeri Town with a local contact named Sam.  We had our first experience in a public Matatu, which is a van taxi that serves the transportation needs of the people around town.  A Matatu is supposed to hold 14 passengers, but there were at least 20 in ours which made for an extremely cozy ride. It seemed as if every person we walked by or encountered, Sam knew and was friendly with.  We made our way to a local University to meet with the Dean in order to make preliminary arrangements to meet with 150 students during our stay in Nyeri.  The meeting was productive and further preparations will be made in the coming days.

After the meeting we met with locals to conduct interviews for research purposes.  During one of the interviews, we were approached by a man interested in the system that ended up being a very good contact.  He is expecting to launch a new company in the coming month with the goal of helping people borrow and lend money via cell phones.  It was a great opportunity to set up another meeting as there might be some synergies between our ventures. 

Later in the day we met at a restaurant and discussed local market trends and some ways in which WishVast could be implemented.  As discussions became more intense, we realized that our new contact was seriously interested in our project.  We decided it would be best to bring in the rest of the team, including Khanjan, back at our hotel at 8pm to have a more formal meeting.  The meeting was productive as we made possible  inroads to an Indian telecommunications company that is new in the area and looking to expand.  

We also conducted interviews in the slum area of Nyeri in order to get a better understanding of the different classes and access to financial services.  Everyone seemed to see the value in the information that could be provided to via SMS through our system.  Sam had connections with community leaders who we met with after the interviews.

We spoke with many people about the system and uncovered another scenario in which WishVast could be implemented.  There are many artists in the area who are looking to increase communication in an effort to find venues for their work in the area.  Tonight we launched our fourth WishVast group: “Art.”  Users will be signed up in the coming days with help from a network of artists that Sam already has in place.  While a business case isn't as clear, we're excited to enable connections within the local creative community and further test our system.  

Aside from the meetings in town, we also caught up on some administrative work in WishVast HQ (Duncan's office in the CYEC). We have new instruction cards to pass out around town that are available in both English and Swahili.  We’ll be using these as tomorrow as we give presentations, conduct research, and carry out business development activities.

 Our next step is to refocus on our ad hoc labor hiring group to enable as many connections and daily jobs as possible.  We'll keep you posted on our progress in and around town.

1-10 of 15