Well, he did warn me

(Note, for the purposes of this story, that the current exchange rate from Kenyan Shillings to American dollars is around 90:1.)

Taxi driver: Almost every country around Kenya has had war. And so we have had people from those countries coming to Kenya. Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda…

Fellow passenger Danae: Tanzania didn’t have war.

Taxi driver: That’s true. But in general Kenya is the stable place. And especially now, when things are getting better.

Me: Do you find that they are?

Taxi driver: Oh, yes. The current government is much better, and so the roads are better, the police are less corrupt… it is good. Especially in Nairobi.

Me: Have you always lived in Nairobi?

Taxi driver: Yes, I was born here. It is a good place to be.

Me: Yes, it seems to be.

Taxi driver: But don’t trust anybody.

Me: Yeah. We keep hearing that.

We arrive at our destination and everyone piles out of the back of the cab. I stay in the front seat to sort out payment.

Me (looking at Kevin fishing for bills in his pocket): Did you guys agree on a fare?

Taxi driver: No, he didn’t tell me. It should be 500.

Kevin passes 300 Shillings through the cab window, a little dismissively. The guy rifles through the bills with a slight air of incredulity.

Me: Here (giving him the extra 200). Thanks. (I get out of cab and walks into the restaurant with the group.)

Kevin: What was that?

Me: I gave him an extra 200. He said you hadn’t agreed on a fare?

Kevin (exasperated): We agreed at the beginning! We agreed on 300!

Me: ...oh. Sad. I guess he proved his point, there, didn’t he?

What I'm working on in Africa (Kevin Edition)

I’m working with Juhudi Kilimo, which is a small microfinance institution. What they do differently than other places is:

  • They give out assets, not cash.
  • They focus on rural areas. (Most MFIs focus on urban or at least in-a-small-city areas.)
  • They focus on agriculture.
  • The loans are for a “business in a box” designed to start generating cash immediately.

In short, this usually translates to people taking out a loan, and receiving a dairy cow, along with business guidance on how to farm the cow, where to sell the milk, and so on. Microfinance is based around the idea of group lending, which means that a group of people get together and guarantee as a group to repay the loan of any individual, thus reducing the risk of the loan and providing social pressure for group members to repay. Our lending groups each focus on a single type of farming (like dairy), so that everyone in the group learns more about farming from each other. Because of our asset-based nature, when loans go south and someone defaults, the situation for Juhudi and the client is overall much better, since the cow can be repossessed, rather than having to take the group’s savings or repossess someone’s home. (In fact, when we do have to collect, we usually end up giving the client money, because the sale of the cow often covers more than the remaining balance.) And Juhudi’s rural aspect means that we’re helping some of the poorest people with the fewest opportunities, and thus helping to prevent migration from the countryside into the city’s slums, which generally helps no-one.

Izika, a coworker of mine, tagging a cow during a trip to one of our field offices. I did not tag any cows.

What I’m doing: I’m building a system for the loan officers in the field to use, to help make them more efficient at their job, and able to manage more loans. Currently, the loan officers maintain everything on paper, with a handwritten ledger. That means when it’s time to attend a group meeting, the officer has to go through the financial records of 20 to 30 clients, and sum up how much savings they each have, calculate who owes a loan payment, and for how much. The loan officers do all this paperwork, even though the computer in the head office has all of this loan, client, and repayment information in a database. Since a typical loan officer attends 40 or more group meetings a month, this work really starts to add up.

To help address this, I’m building an Android application that can hold all of the client information that a loan officer needs, that synchronizes automatically over the Internet. The application runs on a sub-$100 Ideos phone, and to save costs, holds all the information offline, so that no connectivity is needed to look up a client’s balance or a group’s repayment schedule. The goal of the application is to ultimately make it so that the loan officer does not need to record anything on paper, by giving them current information on all their ~300-600 clients, automatically updated each morning.

The long term goal of the system is to make a loan officer’s job easier, so that they can handle an increased number of clients. The cost of loan officers’ salaries is usually is the largest operating expense of a microfinance institution. If you can allow an officer to handle twice the number of clients, you can cut operational costs significantly, reducing the operating expense ratio— and a low operating expense ratio is usually the most important factor in getting increased investment from external sources.

My hope for the system is that in the average case, it will help Juhudi scale as an organization, allowing them to grow to 2 to 4 times as large in the next year or two, and thus be able to help that many more people. In the best case, though, I hope that this system can have a much larger impact. The application is open source, and it is free for any microfinance institution to use. I’ve designed the system it so that it’s easy to adapt to any institution: just plug a few SQL queries into the configuration file, run it on a computer in your office, and you should be good to go. Any loan officer can then start using it immediately.

It also feels good to be able to help the kind, smart people I’ve met who are out there working hard every day to help Kenya’s poor, but who are doing it without any of the technology that the rest of us take for granted. Everyone should get a chance to use technology to make their lives easier—not just those who work in the wealthiest industries or countries. I mean, imagine if I told you that tomorrow, you are going to have to head out into the countryside, and manage the savings accounts and loans of 600 people, spread across 40 groups, armed only with a pencil, a notebook, and a calculator?

But a picture is worth a thousand words (and is usually a lot more fun). So, here’s some screen shots of the application in action:

When you first install the application, it asks you to select a loan officer. It then synchronizes all the data for that officer from the Internet.

Next, once an officer is synchronized, you select the officer and lending group that you’d like to work with.

In the application’s main screen, you can see the collection sheet, which tells you how much each client should pay that month, as well as the receipt view, which shows how much you collected from the group treasurer last month.

Finally, the client detail view allows you to see the active and completed loans for each client, as well as the transaction history of each deposit and withdrawal.

If you’d like to read a little more about Juhudi and understand how we’re helping people in Kenya, you can check out this recent journal entry from Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of Acumen Fund and the author of The Blue Sweater, who visited our Kitale office last month. (The part about Juhudi starts on Page 9.)

Kultural konnektions: 10 funny things about Nairobi

Nairobi is a big cosmopolitan city, where many residents – and all Western expats – enjoy a pretty high standard of living. Running water; access to fresh fruits and vegetables; the occasional rooftop bar with blue Star Trek lighting, martinis, and lounge furniture. Most apartments come with some level of daily housekeeping – ours is considered fairly minimalist, but two ladies come in every day except Sunday to make the bed, wash the towels and wipe down the surfaces. So we’re hardly roughing it. And yet, there are frequent cross-cultural surprises. In no particular order, here are 10 points of interest in our Nairobi life:

1. Despite the size of the city and the volume of its traffic, there are few stoplights. This is sort of surprising, for a place that looks like this:

How does it work? … you may wonder. And the cynical answer is that it sort of doesn’t. Traffic is awful, and driving conditions often resemble a game of bumper cars in a dry riverbed. But the practical answer is: roundabouts. In fact, most of the few stoplights Nairobi does have are auxiliary, generally ignored guidance devices adorning a roundabout. Sometimes, in addition to the usual flow of the roundabout and the metering attempts of the lights, there will be an additional traffic cop directing the flow, often in contradiction of whatever the lights indicate. But, anyway, there are very few lights. Considering how unreliable the power is, though, the absence of traffic lights sort of makes sense. If traffic depended on the lights working… I hadn’t really been trying to think of ways to make the city’s traffic worse, but I think I just hit on one. Anyway, here is the surprising thing I’m building to: In Nairobi, tow trucks just hang out at intersections, waiting for business.

2. So, plenty of tow trucks. What we hardly ever see are fire trucks or ambulances. Not never, but very rarely, and we have heard a siren maybe twice since we got here. Also: specialty service vehicles like ambulances and school buses are often just white vans labeled “Ambulance” or “School bus” on the hood.

3. Supermarkets here are very much on the model of supermarkets in the U.S. Less fancy, but large, and with diverse inventory. The two markets within walking distance of our place comprise smaller electronics and furniture stores, for instance, and you can buy lots of kinds of pots and pans, glassware, etc. there too. The merchandise isn’t of particularly high quality, but the stores themselves are pretty comprehensive and one-stop shop. At Nakumatt, the slightly fancier supermarket, you can even buy camel milk. (Friends of Kevin Gibbs will be unsurprised to learn that he’s trying to arrange for a group tasting.) But it’s clear that we in the U.S. benefit from a ton of packaging research and optimization that is not at work here. The plastic packaging on stuff here is so flimsy that the bag containing our sandwich bread rips when we pick up the loaf. And things that would be re-sealable in the U.S., like cereal boxes, are not re-sealable. Also, within the packaging, product quality really varies. We bought a bug zapper that just didn’t turn on. And this week we bought some butter that proved to be riddled with gray spots and carrying a strong odor of cheese.

4. Speaking of which, let’s talk about cheese. NOT a thing here. Almost all the cheese brands are waxy and terrible. We asked a Kenyan coworker if he ever ate cheese, and from his reaction (“No. NO! No.”) you might think we’d asked if he regularly ate horse anus. If you come to Kenya, here is the reasonable brand of cheese: Brown’s. That’s it. Of course, there are plenty of societies in the world that do not enjoy cheese, but the local aversion is interesting because a) British colonial influence is evident in other areas of Kenyan culinary life; there’s tons of tea drinking, and affection for pastry and meat pies. And b) Kenya has huge dairy production! I have never seen so many kinds of yogurt available. So it’s not dairy that’s the horse anus. It’s cheese.

5. Also, cereal! Not popular with Kenyans, we’re told, and as a possible consequence, it’s a strange facsimile of the breakfast cereals we’re accustomed to. The oddities vary: some corn flakes we got are merely bland and thick, but I got some Rice Krispies-style cereal that has a strange oily quality. Two bites, and the roof of your mouth is coated with a thin layer of what feels like cold Crisco.
So I guess points 3-5 have all been the same point: Our shopping has been hit-and-miss.

6. Recycling! Perhaps unsurprisingly, recycling is not particularly big in Kenya. Not that environmentalism is unknown here – nearby Rwanda has banned plastic bags, and checks you at the border to make sure none enter the country. But there isn’t really the infrastructure to support a comprehensive recycling program here. I mean, there’s barely mail service. So we were excited when we learned we could return beer bottles – not wine bottles, not water bottles, but at least beer bottles – to the less-fancy local supermarket, Uchumi. But then it was explained that we could only return as many bottles as we were buying. Something to do with planning the proper stocking of crates? So there is not actually bottle return, but there is one-to-one bottle exchange. Huh.

7. The teenaged grocery bagger who kindly explained to me about the bottle exchange was, at the same time, trying to put my groceries into plastic bags, while I was trying to politely direct my purchases into the reusable cloth bags I’d brought for the purpose. (Even bringing your own bags only does so much good, because each individual produce purchase has to be put in its own plastic bag and sealed with its price sticker. This makes me itchy, but them’s the rules.) The bagger obliged me for my regular purchases, but pushed back when it came to the big jugs of bottled water. He pointed out that these would not fit in my bags. I pointed out that the jugs have handles. He was unimpressed. I said I already had enough bags at home. And then he smiled knowingly. “Ah,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. “En-vi-ron-ment.” I laughed. “Yeah, OK, you got me. Environment.” He clearly thought I was nuts, but we had a nice moment.

8. We are staying in a nice furnished apartment. The décor is a little weird, but overall it’s a nice place by any global standard. A few of its features – the little washing machine in the kitchen, the excellent super-high shower head, the wide built-in window seat – are actually improvements over our usual standard of living. But there are no smoke alarms. And if this worries you, we definitely shouldn’t tell you about how the front door can only be locked and unlocked with the key – meaning that we have to lock ourselves in, and in an emergency would have to find the key in order to get out.

9. Also, refrigerators here come with locks. We’re not sure whom these locks are intended to bar – one’s children, one’s maid, oneself? This has not been explained.

10. Here’s a nice one. In the building where we both work – which is a one-level U-shaped building around a central courtyard, surrounded by lush overgrown gardens containing hibiscus bushes and a guava tree – Baraza, the kind of office support-staff dude, makes big carafes of Kenyan tea with milk twice a day, and everyone crowds into the kitchen for a mug. There are sodas available in the fridge for about 30 cents. And every day around 10, a woman from a nearby canteen comes by to sell delicious hot chapattis, meat samosas and unsweetened doughnuts called mendazi. Mendazi and chapatti cost about a penny and a nickel respectively, while the samosa is about 30 cents. We may not get out of here with our pants fitting, but I will really miss the Convivial Cheap Tasty Snack portion of Kenyan office life. By comparison a vending machine just seems sad.

The cumulative effect here is that I swing back and forth a lot in my enjoyment of Nairobi. Sometimes I’m really tickled by the surprises, appreciative of the warmth and patience of the people, and feel just massively grateful to be having this eye-opening experience of living in another country and being racially in the minority and adjusting to a slightly unfamiliar set of customs. And then sometimes I think that the second I get back to the U.S. I’m going to go to, like, Home Depot, and lie down on its flat clean* floor among its satisfaction-guaranteed wares and hug the ground. The good news is, the latter feeling doesn’t really interfere with the former – even when I’m uncomfortable and long for familiarity and ease, it’s clear that coming here was the right thing to do, that I’m going to be greatly the better for having spent time here. So on the whole I think it’s a win.

* Oh yes it is.

Malacca! /Pictures of us eating stuff

We had a hot and lovely time in the rich-in-history, colonized-by-everybody Malacca (sometimes called Melaka). Malacca has interesting architecture and museums, but that didn’t stop us from spending most of our time there eating. You know how, when it’s really hot, you don’t really want to eat? I think that doesn’t happen to us.

Peep all the Malacca photos here. Then, quick like a 6-hour bus, we are over into Singapore for another installment of The Sundowner Report, and then we’ll finally be in Nairobi in earnest. Just 6 weeks after our arrival!

Favorite song

Based on the music we hear in taxis, at the supermarket and flowing out of the open windows of passing cars, here’s who’s Big In Kenya:

• Chris Brown
• Bobby Brown
• Michael Bolton
• Rihanna
• Dolly Parton
• Whitney Houston
• Celine Dion
• Bruno Mars

But also, there is this local guy Jaguar. This song, which is my favorite, is everywhere. Apparently it’s about backstabbers — which is rather borne out by the themes of the video — but I still dance around. I am considering trying to learn it as a boost to my (paltry) Swahili, so that by the time I leave I can complain about all the people backstabbing me and how fierce my Beemer is.

Things you cannot transport on a scooter: revisited

Strike one thing from the list:

  • a cow.

What it's like to live in Nairobi

Page and I have now been living in Nairobi for a little over a month. Over that time, I’ve been writing down some notes: about what things feel different in Nairobi, and what details give insight into what it’s like to live here.

I do want to say, from the top, though: I like it here. Nairobi has a lot of ups, and a lot of downs, but ultimately Nairobi feels like the underdog that you can’t help rooting for.

One month in, here’s how Nairobi feels to me:

  • People. In my day-to-day movements, I think I interact with more people here than at home. Even in my first few weeks here, I found that most days I’d greet and have a short conversation with: our security guard Jeffrey; our apartment-building manager Marion; our cab driver Amos; and our office support staff Njambi, Izeka, and Braza — on top of everyone I directly work with daily. On a typical day in SF, I might talk only to 5-6 people in my office who I work with directly, and that’s it. Now, there are two factors playing bit roles here. One is that in Nairobi, we’re wide-eyed visitors, trying to meet people and understand Kenya better, so of course we’re chatting with people more than we might back home. And the other thing you can’t miss is the radically lower cost of labor here. It very often makes sense to hire a live-in security guard, cook, and house cleaner here, because the cost is low, and you’re providing someone with a job. Similarly, most restaurants we go to have a ton of waitstaff. So it feels like there are a lot of people to talk to everywhere you go. With all of that said, though, I still think that the culture is a little different here. People by and large are kind, friendly, and believe in saying hello. Without fail, every person in the office comes by and shakes my hand each morning — which is the standard Kenyan greeting for someone you know, rather than a hollered out “Hello” or a wave. (A wave is even a little bit offensive, I’ve come to understand.) Here, I feel surrounded by people, and that nobody is a face or a neighbor that I just politely ignore each morning.
  • Thinner margin for error. Fast cars zoom by you while you walk down a tiny dirt shoulder-sidewalk, with only 2 inches to spare. This is normal. Everywhere you go in Nairobi, it feels like things are running much closer to the redline than we’re used to. Cars drive within millimeters of each other, and swerve rapidly once every few minutes or so. Concertina wire might be coiled inches from your face — don’t trip! Once you’re used to it all, it feels safe, and not terribly problematic or even something you think much about. But you need to keep your senses honed a bit sharper than you might in the U.S.
  • Middle class. White is the minority here. Almost no place you go — the airport, the fancy mall, a nice restaurant, anywhere — is it entirely white. That feels good. Nairobi has a large Kenyan middle class, and this contributes a lot towards Nairobi’s feeling comfortable to me. You don’t feel like you’re in an expat bubble when Kenyans are rubbing elbows with you at the nice brunch place and the Lebanese restaurant. If all of us do-gooder gringos, Chinese embassy attachés, and multi-national management consultants left, daily life in Nairobi would go on, largely without skipping a beat. By contrast, visiting post-apartheid South Africa (which we did — more on this soon) felt radically different. There, I instantly felt like the oppressor. In Kenya, though, I feel like a visitor, and like I can have interactions as an equal — a relationship that feels reciprocal with how it would feel if a Kenyan was visiting my work in San Francisco.
  • Tunnel from place to place. It’s really not that easy to get around in Nairobi. The distances are too far too walk, usually, and often impassable for pedestrians. And after dusk, it’s not safe to walk much of anywhere, even if it’s only a few minutes away. Driving, conversely, is not for the faint of heart. (As a side note, I’ve never seen drivers more aggressive than Nairobi drivers— not in Boston, not in Vietnam, not anywhere.) So, the outcome of all of this, is that you take a lot of cabs in Nairobi. A lot. There’s not really any other way to get around. Because of that, it feels a bit like everything in Nairobi is connected by a series of underground tunnels. The tunnels are not that hard to take, but they aren’t scenic (you can’t see much out of the tinted windows), and they take some planning (a cab usually takes 20 minutes to arrive, and 30 minutes to take you where you’re going). For the first few weeks, I think these taxi tunnels made me feel a little trapped. “I just want to go down the street! It’s going to take an hour! I’m stuck here!” After the third week, though, it started to feel normal, and acceptable. But now I understand why people in Nairobi talk wistfully about being able to walk at night.
  • Trust. Trust is different here. Some Kenyan coworkers have explained to me that by default, people here are assumed to be not trustworthy, until proven otherwise. They see this as the opposite from how we think in the U.S., where we tend to be open and trust people easily, until we see something questionable. The example they cited was the process of applying for a job: When you apply for a job in the U.S., they might call your references, but often they won’t. And no one will expect you to bring a copy of your diploma with you to an interview, whereas here apparently that’s common. At the same time, here in Nairobi, when someone decides that they do trust you, they trust you far more than we would in the States. As an example, take the place where we get lunch, a little canteen near the office where most of the local office and NGO workers go. If you’ve been there a few times before, and you don’t happen to have enough to pay for lunch, they don’t bat an eye, and tell you to pay next time. They’re not taking any notes, and I’m sure they’ve forgotten once you walk away. But they trust you’ll pay. Similarly, when we rented our apartment here, in a building where another co-worker of mine also lives, our landlord let us move in, and then gave us a lease to sign later. She never bugged us about it. We gave it to her a few weeks later.

I love Nairobi. It’s not perfect, and in many ways, it’s not comfortable or easy. But it has a lot of heart. It’s a real, successful African city — by Africans, for Africans, and you can feel that when you are there. It’s large enough to be a proper city. It’s prosperous enough to have basic and high-end services, and to not be completely stumped by poverty. Of course, plenty of people here do live in poverty, in slums and peri-urban areas. But it feels like the government is likely stable and functional enough to allow the city’s prosperity relative to grow and continue.

So, in the final analysis: Page and I are doing just fine. We even like it here. And, perhaps more importantly, we have a guest room. Come visit!

And now for a public-service announcement

Based on the public-service announcements we heard on English-language radio, here are things that concern Malaysia: lateness, and toilet flushing.

On our drive from Kuala Lumpur to the old port city of Malacca, we heard an American-style rap encouraging listeners to be on time. I wish I could remember the specific rhymes, but the basic message was, be realistic about how long it will take you to get to your appointment! If you’re traveling at rush hour, assume there will be traffic! (Sidebar: It is true that traffic in Malaysian cities is formidable. Upon arriving in Malacca, it took us about an hour to travel a mile and a half.) Most importantly, if you’re going to be late, be honest about it! Call ahead! The best bit was at the end, when Generic Imitation Rapper rapped, “This has been a punctuation rap by Super Fly G.”

So, that’s interesting, I thought. Malaysia not only has English-language radio, but English-language radio has enough listeners that someone is making PSAs for that market. Also Super Fly G (or whatever his name was) may need a punctuation vs. punctuality explainer.

But THEN: toilet flushing. Apparently this is a problem. We’ve seen signs reminding people to flush the toilet pretty frequently on this trip, but Malaysia is escalating the campaign to radio. So here’s the pro-flushing ad, as best I can recall and transcribe.

<<_Sound of peeing. Sound of peeing concludes._>>

Announcer: OK, now go! You can do it!

Whiny girl: I caaaaaaaannnnnn’t!

Announcer: You can!

Whiny girl: It’s too haaaaaarrrd!

Announcer: If you can do it at home, you can do it here! Come along now!

Whiny girl: Hmmph. Oka-ayyy… uuuuUUUUUUUNNNNNNNHHHHHHHH!!!!!

<<_Sound of a toilet flushing._>>

Announcer: Way to go!

Whiny girl: Whew! <<_Sound of a small fart._>>

Really! Squeaky little fart noise!

I have no idea what this is about. The flushing bit I get. Maybe polls indicate that perceived difficulty is the reason people don’t flush public toilets? Surprising, but OK. But why is the passing of gas included? Why are we poking fun at the bodily functions of someone who has just done what we asked them to do? It seems like negative reinforcement. Though it is memorable.

Speaking of social norms, intestinal gas, and Malaysia — who knew we had so much material here? — Kevin also read a local newspaper editorial exhorting people to move away from other people if they need to pass gas. Don’t fart next to your friends! Go downwind!

It’s funny, because we were in Malaysia when Osama bin Laden was killed, and, because Malaysia is a Muslim country, we wondered if there was going to be a ton of news coverage, or outrage, or something. And there was some news coverage, but probably about as much as there was everywhere else in the news-having world. All the fart coverage made a more lasting impression.

Here are our pictures from Kuala Lumpur! Most of them are of food, but none of them is of anyone farting.