Saturday, March 19, 2011

Never forget

Had the opportunity today to stop by the U.S. Embassy Memorial in Nairobi. With 9/11 happening not long after, many people have forgotten about August 7, 1998 - when U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were both targeted with bomb attacks. Al Qaeda was responsible for the coordinated efforts, which had been planned years in advance. Kenya was the most dreadful, with 291 people killed and nearly 5,000 injured.

The U.S. Embassy in Kenya has now moved, while the memorial and visitor's center remains at the site. It was nice to see in person, and re-acquaint myself with this part of our (and Kenya's) history.

Masai Market

On weekends in Nairobi, an outdoor market is set up downtown, where all the local artisans and tribes can sell their wares. Being the last full day here, I had to stop in and check it out. Now I have seen markets and bartering before, but this was at a whole new level.

When you first come near the market, a number of young men surround you and offer to help you along the way. Turns out these are 'brokers' of sorts that walk with you, pick out everything you may want, then negotiate summarily at the end of the process. I don't know if this was absolutely mandatory - but it was certainly an experience, so I was all in.

This guy and his 'assistant' walked with me - telling me about the crafts, tribes and anything else. If I was potentially interested in something, the assistant would speak Swahili to the shop owner and put it in a bag. At one point, I actually saw them exchaging some kind of ID number - which makes me think this is bit more structured than it is made to feel.

Once the shopping is done, the fun begins. We find a place in the shade, where they lay out the few items I am interested in. They then proceed to pull out a notebook (no lie), and write down their 'number'. I've seen this act before - so my move was to just walk away. The dance begins - back and forth we go - I walk away a few more times, which drops the price 15-20% every clip. In the end, we seal the deal with handshake and a smile, as it worked out fair for both of us. Overall, an interesting experience - not for everyone, I'm sure - but just another story from our time here.

It's a wrap

Well, presentation day was as hectic as expected, but well worth the effort.

Team Twiga was up first, with a 9:00 date with our friends at Posta Kenya. The presentation went well - even with some pretty strong words from our team on the urgency of their organizational change. They are not alone, however - postal corporations around the world are struggling, so the common theme is evolve or become extinct. Posta has clear challenges ahead - but with some support from the government and the right leadership, they have a chance to do some great things in the new Kenya. They were very thankful for all our work, and we exchanged some nice words and gifts before we left.

Then it was off to a meeting with the P.S. (permanent secretary) to share our work, then right into Team 3's presentation at the ICT board.

We wrapped the day with a team dinner at the Carnivore restaurant - ironic that at least one member of our team is a vegetarian. Very cool place - and the food is as exotic as you would think. From ostrich (very good) to crocodile to camel - it was all in play!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pitch Day

Hard to believe our presentation today will be the summation of 4 weeks worth of work. These projects seemed to overtake our lives while we have been here. When we weren't working in our 'war room' at the hotel, we were in the field conducting interviews, doing research - or traveling back and forth to Nairobi for client meetings. We usually converged on the terrace or hotel bar after dinner (the only two places that had internet access), and continued to work until 11 or 12. With the drastic time difference, after 11 was the only time to catch up with the kids after school as well. It was a special treat to see there smiling faces on Skype.

The first team completed their project yesterday, and the final two presentations take place today. For my team, it's off to Posta Kenya to present our findings. They have been a great client this far - and we look forward to sharing our ideas with them.

Team Twiga on the 'war terrace'.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Go Time

Today is our final day in Nyeri, our home for the past few weeks. We will definitely miss the hospitality of the local citizens.

Yesterday, our Posta Kenya contact, Jane called to let us know that the regional postmaster would like for us to stop by for tea in the afternoon. We stopped in for a visit, and were greeted by them with gifts for the team - local handicrafts, and even official Posta Kenya caps. We also had some IBM gifts for their team as well. It was a great way to close out with the local Postal team that was of so much assistance in our project.

Tomorrow, we depart for Nairobi, and the first of our team presentations. Time to pack once again...


Another fact you may not know about Kenya.

They use business cards. A lot. Business is conducted in a formal manner in Kenya – with established hierarchies and roles. Much pride is taken in promotions, and proper respect conveyed. There is a process for the exchange of cards – the proper technique is to present and receive business cards with both hands.

Business cards are almost a lost art in the United States these days – it was nice to step back a little bit and not enter a cell phone number directly on a BlackBerry. Just one of the little things that makes this country special.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The art of the Samosa

In one of first official meetings here in Kenya at the ICT Board – we were treated to tea and a local Kenyan treat called Samosas. They are kind of a baked or fried pastry, filled with anything from beef to vegetables – and oh so good. Since then, as only a team of IBMers can do, we have taken these delicacies to a new level – conducting our own market research if you will, to find the best samosas in the country.  From fine establishments to roadside stands, we have tried them all. Interestingly, and as with many experiences, there is nothing quite like the first time – and the ICT Board fare remains the nzuri, as they say in Swahili.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Home Stretch

Forgive the U.S-Centric metaphor, but I've just about had enough Premiere League Soccer and Cricket - and Opening Day is right around the corner.

We now enter our fourth and final week in Kenya, and the itinerary does not any get any easier. All of our projects are moving along – with interim presentations happening last week, and our final work coming together for presentations at the end of this week.

Every now and then as we scramble for one more piece of research, the magnitude of our work dawns on me. The final presentations will be attended by some of the top Kenyan business and political leaders, including the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communications. Coming into an assignment like this, I wasn’t sure if the work was something that would be appreciated – but subsequently placed on the back-burner for future consideration. But it has been proven to us in many ways how our work will help to drive the information agenda for the country.

After spending so much time here and getting to the know the people and culture – whether it’s IBM, or anyone else, I do hope (and know) that Kenya is about to round third into a new era for the country-

Friday, March 11, 2011

Coffee anyone?

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the frustrating aspects of Kenya (for coffee lovers anyway) is that here in the Central Highlands region, we are literally surrounded by coffee plantations, yet you cannot get a fresh cup of brewed coffee - as tea is the drink of choice.

So, when faced with a daunting challenge, you have to go right to the source, right? One of our CSC project contacts is the local postmaster here in Nyeri – a tireless professional and overall nice guy. He agreed to introduce us to one of the local plantations - so we could look around, talk to the proprietors and maybe even sample some of the product.

Thanks to our contacts, we were actually able to visit operations for both coffee and tea – both huge natural cash crops for Kenya. The bonus being this was both project related and fun – as we got to see firsthand how two of the primary local businesses operate. Both were fascinating – we first visited Gathaitha tea company, one of the biggest producers in Kenya. We saw the production process from beginning to end – from withering and drying, to cutting and fermenting, packing and shipping. Our Italian colleague Francesco, (a connoisseur of these things from the home country) of course tried his hand at the tasting process.

Then it was off to Central Kenya Coffee Mills, a Kenyan leader in production and enablement of co-op growers. We toured the fields and plants, and saw the operation for processing and shipping to Nairobi. That is where the beans are sold at auction to one of many worldwide producers like Starbucks. Interestingly, both tea and coffee work in this way in Kenya - with the auction market dictating the price and demand. Then it was off to the tasting room, which smelled of pure heaven. We were treated to some of the freshest and most delicious coffee in the world.

“Molto bene!”, as Francisco would say...


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tick tock...

Our teams have been in Kenya now for almost 3 weeks - amazing how the time has passed so quickly. If there is something I would say about this group of people - it is that we do not leave one minute on the table. We are either working on our projects, coordinating community activities, organizing weekend plans -  but no time is wasted, and I'm sure we will greatly appreciate that as we look back on this experience.

Yesterday, we traveled to Nairobi for a midterm review of our project with the client team. Overall, they are a good client and really appreciate the work that we are doing. They recognize the state of the world in postal services - and know that if they do not inherently change the work they work, they will be left too far behind to recover (and even now it is a question). I do hope we can be a catalyst in all this. Either way, I will leave Kenya proud of the work we have done.

Tomorrow, we will travel to a local coffee plantation for a combination of work and also pure curiosity. We will be talking to the owners about their business, but I am definitely also looking forward to seeing the operation and hopefully tasting some of the freshest brewed coffee in the world.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Having toiled over the past couple weeks on spreadsheets, presentations and endless data collection - the team split up this past weekend for some Kenya fun. Half the team departed to Mombasa, the legendary resort city on the Indian Ocean. The rest of us stayed local in Nyeri to enjoy some of the local culture.

On Saturday, we visited the Aberdares, a beautiful area of hills, plains and native wildlife. We were treated to a walking tour of the area - with a ranger armed with what looked like a world war II shotgun. I'm not sure if the gun would have stopped a wild cat, less a rhino, from charging - but the cool factor alone was worth it in my book.

We had seen many animals on our journey thus far, but it is a different experience altogether to be in their midst. In safari vehicles, the animals almost forget you are there, going about their business. When walking, they always have an eye on you - and seem to automatically keep a safe distance away. Anyway, it was a great afternoon, and just another experience here in Africa that I won't soon forget.


Our guide doing his best to look like a bad man.
Us, doing our best (and succeeding) in looking like tourists.
If you look closely, you can see the White Rhino charging me from behind.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Career Change?

No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to leave my day job behind...

The local external relations lead contacted me over the weekend, letting me know that a team from CNBC Africa would be joining the team Monday, to do some filming for a documentary video and segment on the network. The topic (as it always these days) is Africa: the last real growth market. We did some filming of our team, with some of our community contacts and of course for the actual CSC work. We had previously set up a meeting with a local PCK branch, so took the opportunity to have the crew join us and see in person what exactly we were doing out here in the middle of Kenya.

The filming went well - we spoke to everyone, from employees and customers to people on the street. My colleague Eva and I had a chance to provide some project context to the camera as well. It felt good to be in 'production' mode again - as much as this consulting work is engaging and challenging, I don't think I'll be changing my career anytime soon.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reaching new heights

One of the many things our team wanted to do while in Kenya was see Mount Kenya up close - our home base in Nyeri is set in the Central Highlands, and some would say in the shadow of he 2nd highest peak in Africa (5199 meters).

We finally had the chance to get out for a (quick?) hike on Sunday. While it takes several days to actually summit the mountain, we chose the less-strenuous and more work-friendly method of a weekend day hike. But when the trail head is at 2400 meters (higher than most peaks in Colorado), the thin air gets to you right away. We all had to work for our lunch, that's for sure - but 10K and 600 vertical meters later, we were rewarded with a beautiful vista of African countryside.

10 things you didn't know about Kenya

10. As far as I can tell, Coke is the Official Sponsor of Kenya (and all of Africa for that matter). They have branded the entire continent, and it is the only soda everywhere and anywhere.

9. Kenyans drive on the left side of the road - actually, they drive on all sides. It is customary to pass at high speeds, using various blinker and high beam combinations to communicate with oncoming traffic.

8. Coffee plantations are everywhere, but all you can get is instant Nestle coffee (another company that has seized the branding high-ground here). Kenya is a tea culture - and business relationships are not sealed until tea is 'taken' together.

7. Pole Pole means "slowly slowly", and is the unofficial tagline of Kenya. Things here are task-driven, rather than time-driven - so long meetings or lunches are to be expected.

6. National Parks are enclosed safe havens for wildlife, and no one is allowed to live there. National Reserves are open land where people and wildlife live together. And yes, the giraffes, zebras and other animals roam freely around the countryside. Amazing, really.

5. Kenya is a very proud country and rightly so. Education is taken very seriously from early years.

4. The infrastructure is a major challenge, yet the omnipresent construction is one of the many signs of progress.

3. Some context to 4 above - Kenya was first declared an independent country in 1963! The US has had a 200 year head start on establishing our country, rules and infrastructure.

2. Mobile banking is widespread in Kenya - maybe moreso than in any other country.

1. Over 80% of Kenya's college graduates move on to work in other countries. Retaining and attracting top talent is a major issue, especially in the ICT industry.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kimathi University

As part of our community efforts, we had reached out to Kimathi University School of Technology - a college local to our home base in Nyeri. The students and administration were terrific in helping us put together a program that would benefit all.

We started out by introducing DOT, our partner in Kenya - and then followed with a brief update on IBM, including our Centennial and celebrating 100 years of innovations. After sharing the 100x100 video, my colleague Dave Sloan did a great job on articulating smarter planet, and what it means to everyone in the room  - it's not about servers, but issues that affect us all, like energy, healthcare and cities.The theatre was full of stident and faculty, a testament to the 'marketing' our university partners had done.

After the presentation, we had 3 breakout sessions - career skills, led by our resident HR expert Reka, Digital Whiteboard presentation led by Francesco, and a continuation of the smart planet dialog, including a discussion on Watson, led by Dave.

I would say the day was a great success. The students were receptive, curious and asked all the right questions. I would say the future is bright for the Kenya technology landscape.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Africa will change you."

That is a quote from my friend Cindy, upon finding out that I was to be deployed to Kenya for a month as part of the IBM CSC. She had recently returned from an extended trip to Africa – and said it was nothing short of amazing.

To date, our work here has been focused on our client projects. This alone has been a great experience - to be working in an emerging market on issues that many countries around the world are also facing. But the “S” in CSC stands for service – so we as team decided early to be very involved with our host communities. So even before we arrived in Africa, we had done some research and coordinated some team visits to community organizations.

Today, we visited Allamano school, a home and education facility for mentally disabled children. The reception was amazing – we were greeted by the head of the facility, Sr. Jane – who promptly led us out to the soccer pitch, where the children were already playing. They we so happy to see us, and promptly swarmed us as we approached. It wasn’t long before a game of soccer (ok, futbol…) broke out – and let me tell you, these kids weren’t pushovers. Some might say we were doing a bit too much huffing and puffing for a pickup game – and I will go down swinging saying it was the altitude (1,900 meters).

We were treated to a tour of the school, and then presented them with a number of gifts from the team – including a laptop computer loaded for bear with educational and fun software. The children performed some amazing songs for us, and there was a lot of time to just hang and have fun.

In the afternoon, we visited an orphanage in the town of Mweiga – another great facility (if you would call it that – it was really just a couple small buildings), with terrific people running the show. We spent the time singing, dancing, playing games – just being there with these great kids.

As with most people, I have done some community work and of course been exposed to different situations. But something about these children and the setting was different. Really an amazing experience overall. I could tell by the smiles on faces all around when we left (both us and the students), that “change” was in fact the right word.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hot, Flat and Crowded?

Well, Kenya has the hot covered. Crowded? In Nairobi - absolutely. The infrastructure cannot keep up with the growing population. Traffic is already a major issue, and data shows it will only multiply in the years to come. Flat? Hardly. Especially when you make the drive from Nairobi to Nyeri. The combination of old roads, new construction and a steady climb to higher elevation makes this a white-knuckle commute every time. We're still getting used to the driving customs - such as flashing high-beams to indicate you have the right of way (and blinding all oncoming traffic in the process). Really makes you appreciate some of the basic infrastructure luxuries from home. But that is what all the change is about here - putting Kenya back in the fast lane (if you will).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

IBM100 Icons of Progress

The IBM Corporate Service Corps is highlighted in the latest IBM100 Icons of Progress series:

"It had been raining for 20 days straight when, on May 20, 2010, Piotr Uszok, the mayor of the industrial city of Katowice, Poland, kicked off a five-hour meeting with a group of IBMers. The mayor had been awake since 3 a.m., and parts of the city were flooded, but he insisted that the situation was under control. This meeting was too important to miss. The IBM team—drawn from around the world—was to present recommendations on how Katowice could compete more successfully in the global economy. One day later, the mayor explained that he had previously known IBM only as a leader in the computer field. Now, he said, “we have seen the other face of IBM, which is connected with solving the problems of our contemporary world."