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Stepping Down as Ushahidi Executive Director

It is almost 3 years to the day that I sent out a plea to Kenyan bloggers and techies to help me build what would become Ushahidi.

Since then it has been a crazy ride…from producing an incredible open source platform and working towards scale, to building and working with an incredibly talented team, to seeing multiple uses of Ushahidi around the world, to numerous awards and press mentions.
For me, what has always been the most important aspect of the work we do has remained simple, building a tool that makes it easy for individuals and groups to tell their stories, and making it easy for these stories to be mapped/visualized.

Ushahidi has grown to be that and much more, thanks especially to the wider community – which saw potential uses beyond crisis reporting and who largely shaped our growth and direction to date be it through translation efforts (Ushahidi now available in 10 languages!), or custom themes, or pushing for a hosted version (Crowdmap), or challenging us to address the shortcomings of the platform (through tools like SwiftRiver and our community resources page).

Beyond the growth of Ushahidi as a platform and an organization, I always tell people that I am most proud of the fact that the Ushahidi story has provided an inspiration to other techies in Kenya and Africa – an example of the kind of talent the continent holds, but also a reminder that we have just scratched the surface. And so after 3 years of serving as Ushahidi’s Executive Director, I feel it is time for me to take on the next challenge. Those of you who know me well know I’ve got a 1001 ideas floating in my head that I need to get out☺

Ushahidi co-founder Juliana Rotich will be the acting Executive Director. As Program Director (and pretty much since the very beginning of Ushahidi) Juliana has been our key interface with the wider community of techies, implementers of the platform and volunteers. Her ability to be a bridge between the core of Ushahidi and the wider community (along with her uber-geek status!) gives me and the rest of the team every confidence that the transition process will be smooth and bigger things lie ahead for Ushahidi.

Where I am headed? I will be joining Google in the new year as the Policy Manager for Africa. The role will involve developing policy /strategies on a number of areas of relevance to Google and the Internet in Africa and will involve working with different parties including government leaders, policy makers, regulators, industry groups and so on. It is a huge opportunity to bring Google’s resources to bear as far as the growth and development of the internet in Africa (and hopefully a reminder of why I went to law school in the first place!). I’m very excited about the move and I hope I can continue to lean on your support and insight in my new role.

To my co-founders – the ride continues! To the most amazing team, I am watching this space! To our Board of Directors, thank you for your insight and guidance! To our partners, especially those who took a risk on us in the early days, most grateful! To the wonderful readers of Kenyan Pundit, whose stories and willingness to share in those dark days of 2007-8 – you were my inspiration, thank you! To the wonderful wider community of Ushahidi – volunteers, translators, crowdmappers, critics (yes I love you too!), journalists, people who supported us in the early days when people asked Usha-what?, THANK YOU THANK YOU.

Need to reach me….you all know I live on the internets right…find me @kenyanpundit or kenyanpundit-at-gmail

– O

And yet another post on women in tech

The recent “Women in Tech” (disaster) panel at Techcrunch reminded me of a long overdue post I’ve been wanting to write on the absence-of- women-in-tech debate that’s being doing the rounds over the last few months.

Part of it revolves around the far too common prevalence of all (white) male panels/speakers at top tech conferences…a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with (as the pinch-hitter diversity rescuer I seem to be morphing into)… and part of it is around low numbers female-founded start-ups & tech companies.

I’m happy to see that the conversation is moving away from “this is the sorry state of things” to “what practical things can we do.” Not so happy with the siloing of solutions: women-only conferences; women-only panels; etc.

My two cents on this debate:

– I think many of the top conferences do try to be more diverse, but those of us who would like to see better representation need to do our part by building referral lists; working on our public speaking skills and confidence; getting out there more. Those of you who follow me on twitter or FB know I travel quite a fair bit mostly as a conference speaker – it takes its toll; its hard to juggle the travel with family and work etc. – but I can’t tell you how many times I’ll say yes to a trip half-way around the world to make sure that there is a diversity of opinion; or in appreciation of a conference organizers attempt to reach out; or just in the hope that my visibility will encourage other women…we need more women doing this…even though the immediate return is unclear. When a conference organizer comes calling I should have a long list of women to recommend…

– We need to move away from the idea that women can only / can best be mentored by other women (not just in tech but other fields as well). Not just because of the numbers issue, but because its limiting. Anyone who has been successful and has knowledge to share is a potential mentor. 90% of my mentors have been male most of them with very little in common with me on a personal level – from life experience, work experience, backgrounds etc. – what they have had is an interest in seeing me succeed in what I do and that’s been enough. If I had sat around and waited for inspiration / mentorship from “someone I can relate to” no telling where I’d be. Besides, to the extent that we are still largely living in a man’s world…where better to get advice on how to navigate that world.

– Finally, I’m a fan of Clay Shirky’s rant about women. Something I can totally relate to. I remember when my undergrad adviser / mentor read my first draft of my law school application personal statement, he was like what the hell is this crap? I had totally undersold myself (and subsequently learned to get my writing on point). Then in law school, there was the phenomenon of most women turning in middle of the road performances because our exam answers were too “safe” (unless we figured out the rules of the game, which was the best way to get an A was not to know the law inside out, but to come up with as many bullshit ways apply it in a fact pattern and hopefully the professor is impressed by your ingenuity…guys apparently had no problem with that). Then in my professional life l find myself occasionally being talked down to in a way that wouldn’t happen with a guy…and then spending hours agonizing on how to respond without landing the you-know-its-coming “what a bitch!” response.

Clay Shirky writes:

Some of the most important opportunities we have are in two-sided markets: education and employment, contracts and loans, grants and prizes. And the institutions that offer these opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.

That in turn correlates with many of the skills the candidate will need to actually do the work — to recruit colleagues and raise money, to motivate participants and convince skeptics, to persevere in the face of both obstacles and ridicule. Institutions assessing the fitness of candidates, in other words, often select self-promoters because self-promotion is tied to other characteristics needed for success.

It’s tempting to imagine that women could be forceful and self-confident without being arrogant or jerky, but that’s a false hope, because it’s other people who get to decide when they think you’re a jerk, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction.

He adds:

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We’re in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage men to be better listeners and more sensitive partners, to take more account of others’ feelings and to let out our own feelings more. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching women strategies for self-defense, including direct physical aggression. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.

A bit over-the-top? Perhaps. But you get the idea.

The average guy wakes up everyday, looks in the mirror, and thinks “I’m so awesome” previous fuck-ups notwithstanding (and has no problem reminding other people of said awesomeness by the way).

Getting a little bit of that attitude is what I’m working on…rather than thinking of all the things I need to fix when my day starts (which is what happens most of the time).


On Greece and the Kenyan economy (well sort of)

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating article in Open Democracy about the collapse of the Greek economy and what it will take to fix it. While Greece and Kenya are fundamentally different countries, I was struck by how well the author unpacked the underlying dysfunction of Greece as a country and an economy and how some of the issues apply to the Kenyan economy today.

Don’t have anything clever to add to the article’s analysis, just want to point out the things that stood out for me.

For starters, the author notes:

In a small-scale economy households make different choices from those in an economy of salaried employees and large organizations. The family will seek stability in polyergy: in having varied sources of income, as many as it can find and appropriate.

How many Kenyans do we know who have a side hustle? Banker by day, butchery/hair salon owner by side…. Even during the times we have experienced growth – it’s been a false growth, barely any trickle-down (hence Kibaki and his cronies shock in ’07 when his re-election wasn’t guaranteed based on economic growth).

Author goes on:

In a small-ownership economy household saving and investment is also different. It is channeled, quite rationally, into real estate and into education. In western economies savings are invested collectively through pension funds, mutual funds and bank deposits. They end up funding industry, technology, infrastructure, and in general, sizeable organizations. In the Greek micro-economy monetary savings have few reliable collective outlets.

Cue the ubiquitous Kenyan dream of owning a plot and investing in your kids education. NSSF is widely regarded as a rip-off, and other forms of investment and saving (e.g. stock market) are only taking hold fairly recently.

And does this sound all too familiar?

But clientelism and favoritism have been inherent in the modern Greek state since its inception, and the state has always been a major player in the economy. Distributing political rents was a necessary means of legitimation of politicians in the eyes of the electorate, and harvesting rents was a major egoistic reason for becoming a politician.

And wonder why we don’t hear of enough success stories from Kenyan entrepreneurs – very few can tell the story of how they got from A to point Z without some murky stories or connections in the middle – usually related to government connections or at minimum great skill at navigating the political rent space. Try pitching your open source solution to a government official, unlikely to move anywhere because no fat budget attached.

Business strategy: if businesses can make high profits from government contracts or from other privileges, they will invest more to gain the privileges than to become competitive in an open market. Over time this distorts their whole mode of operation: a good salesman is one who can build personal relationships with bureaucrats, a good engineer is one who can draw out a project to make it more expensive. It is rare for a state-dependent enterprise to be also competitive. This was true for the big so-called ‘national suppliers’, as well as for the small I.T. companies, in which many bright engineers wasted their youth working on useless R&D projects funded by EU Programmes.

And finally, I think this captures the essence of why I think it is – generally – tough to transition big/large scale companies successfully in Kenya and to translate the innovation that we see all around into tangible (profitable) businessess – we work hard, but are loathe to collaborate, because someone inevitably stabs you in the back and there is no penalty – legal or social (as in they’ll be catching pints next to you in the bar a week later as if nothing happened). So most of that innovation and entrepreneurship bubbling around either doesn’t transcend the individual or the small scale – you cannot grow in an environment that lacks trust or that is full of what the author calls low-trust opportunism (I am so adapting this phrase!).

Maybe Greeks will work as hard as westerners when given the same set of choices; but they will not collaborate as well.In game theory an opportunist is one who grasps the chance to make a good profit today, even if that may have negative repercussions tomorrow. Usually, he will break a rule or spoil a collaboration to make the ‘grasp’ (αρπαχτή – ‘arpachti’, from the verb αρπάζω, to grasp).

Those with Nothing?

So I was busy admiring the photographs taken by Jessica Hilltout in the NYTimes that are part of her book, Amen, where she explores “grassroots soccer” where “the beautiful game exists in its purest form” when something about the article that accompanied the images bothered me.

At first, I was like there you go again you sensitive African…the book does after all capture the ingenuity of young kids who come up with beautiful soccer balls from the most improbable materials.

…and then via (the-fantastic-blog-you-all-should-read) Africa is a Country, I read Jessica’s introduction to the book:

Africa is a world like no other. The people have simple needs and huge hearts. They accept their lot in life with a supreme calmness. […] Africa is a land where the superfluous and superficial seem stripped away, a place where the fundamentals shine through. What makes it so special is that this vast continent accepts its fate with elegance and grace, head held high. Here, I was constantly amazed at the strength of humankind. Here, nothing is a problem, despite money always being one. Yes, Africans may be poor, but poverty does not bring misery. A state of mind alone can bring happiness.

Oh boy.

So what bothered me was a missed opportunity to frame the images purely as look how creative these young kids are, without the “they-are-so-simple-and-happy-in-their-poverty” BS.

See e.g. Anand Giridharadas writing recently about the jugaad spirit in India.

Yes the kids photographed made their balls from scrap, but so I suspect do kids in many other parts of the world and I suspect it’s much more complex then being about “accepting your lot in life.”

When (and where I grew up), most kids in my neighbourhood didn’t have toys…the philosophy our parents had was pretty much go outside and figure something out with the rest of the other kids. And so we did. And it was fun. And it was complex.

For instance, we could all pretty much put together scrap for soccer balls or typically for girls “kati” (a version of dodgeball), but every neighborhood had “the” boy or girl who made the best ball…who knew how to tie the string just right, who knew that every good ball started with wet newspapers balled up in the middle, who knew how to ensure longevity. And that earned them street cred in the neighbourhood and currency to negotiate other favours…no one wanted to piss off the maker of the best balls.

The same went for other games we played, there was always someone who was the expert at making the best cooking stove out of a tin can, at making the best cars for mock car rallies, at putting the blada together ( a complex game that starts off with pieces of rubber tyre tied together), at collecting the best bottle tops for kati, at figuring out the best hiding places for hide and seek etc.

The way I read this now as an adult was that all this was not just about making do with nothing, but about each child bringing something to the table (or rather community playground), there was an expectation that for us to have the best time playing and for you to get in to that best time playing, you had to figure out a particular skill that makes you valuable to the community of neighbourhood kids. Extra bonus points for you being the most creative. The seeds of ingenuity and the importance of making a contribution to the community were being nurtured at an early age…we just didn’t know it.

And now I look at the world my kids are growing up in…where they will certainly almost never make their own toys, where they struggle to occupy themselves without props, where games and toys prop the individual, where it’s about who has the latest Xbox and Wii…and I can’t help but wonder what they are missing out on.

So my point is (I did have one) is that this I wish Jessica Hilltout’s book (or the editorializing accompanying the images) was not framed in the language of Africans accepting their fate…it seems to me that we are constantly challenging it.

On Loving Football

If you’ve been following my tweets lately you can tell that World Cup fever has set in for me. And it’s not just because I’m living in Johannesburg.

I’ve had a long love affair with football thanks to my late father. You see I was *the* quintessential daddy’s girl (in many ways I’ve inherited both his best and worst traits) and for the first few years of my life I was pretty much attached to his hip…all his workmates at the airport knew me, all the waiters at his favorite drinking spots knew me (especially at the Thorn Tree in the then New Stanley where he liked to have a beer or two in the late afternoon with his fellow night shift airport pals), and all the people close to the AFC Leopards team – of which he was a FANATIC – knew me.

I mean FANATIC, as in following them around during East Africa Central games, as in dancing with the isukuti group in “Russia” (and occasionally “financing them”), as in West End in Nairobi West regular, as in the AFC-Gor games were a major event in our household (…if AFC won that was the best time to ask for stuff that would be vetoed and if Gor won everyone was in bed by 8:00 pm because to call his mood foul was an understatement. He even got stoned in the face once by a Gor fan because he was so out of pocket with his taunting…that was scary.

I remember hanging out in our Mada balcony waving the AFC flag (I had a special mini-one) as the isukuti entourage swept through from Kibera on their way to City Stadium or Nyayo Stadium. For a while I was the unofficial AFC mascot, with my Adidas tracksuit, welcoming them at the airport when they arrived with a regional victory (I need to scour the Daily Nation archives for pictures). When I got older and decided that was cheesy, I still went to games with him, but then stopped because I used to get so panicked about his antics. How a normally reserved serious guy went ballistic in the stadium was beyond me.

I knew the songs, the taunts (anyone remember Asante-Kutoka against Ghana), hated Peter Dawo and Peter “Bassanga” Otieno, and assumed major bragging rights among my peers because JJ Masiga was our next door neighbour and I had shaken Kadenge, Mickey Weche and Mahmoud Abbas’ hand. And yes I watched Football made in Germany, my favorite team was Stuttgart.

One day I guess my father felt he needed to grow up and calm down :-) and he stopped being so crazy, but his love for football and AFC was always there and was passed on to him.

From him I learned how important it was to be passionate and devoted to something no matter what, and what being a true fan was. Something I hope to pass on to the girls (actually I don’t think they have much of a choice between me and their dad).

ICC sees African Women Counsel

[please share]

Last week the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Bar Association (IBA) jointly launched a six-month campaign to increase the number of women lawyers authorised to represent defendants or victims at the International Criminal Court (ICC). In this first phase the campaign will focus on African countries.

To date, women counsel are still under-represented on the ICC List of Counsel. In particular, the ICC recognises the need to increase the number of women counsel from African countries, including those countries with situations under investigation before the ICC. Currently, less than four per cent of all members of the ICC List of Counsel are African women. Until the end of 2010, applications from qualified African female lawyers will be given priority

Signing up is a straightforward process: Comprehensive information packages will be distributed via law societies and national bar associations in African countries. In addition, special information events will be organised by the ICC and national bar associations in both African and European countries.

In the meantime, electronic copies of information packages can be downloaded from the website: www.icc-cpi.int or requested from e-mail: femalecounsel-at-icc-cpi.int.

Requests for further information may also be sent by post to the following address:

Registry of the International Criminal Court
Counsel Support Section
(Ref: List of Counsel or List of Assistants to Counsel as applicable)
PO Box 19519
2500 CM The Hague
The Netherlands

Kwani Call for Submissions – The Africa I Live In

Kwani Trust invites you to submit short stories of between 3000-8000
WORDS, that focus on Africa and the experiences of African people,
with a particular focus on Africans born after 1978. The theme of the
call out is ‘THE AFRICA I LIVE IN’. Published authors will be paid a fee of $100.

If you are interested in participating in this exciting initiative, please send your creative work to myafrica.kwani@gmail.com for consideration.


Visit our Kwani for more details.

African Entrepreneurs You Should Know

I spent the last few days at the World Economic Forum Africa in Dar-es-Salaam. The larger plenary sessions mainly comprised of platitudes and a restating of the challenges facing Africa – I think the format just doesn’t allow for anything else. The smaller sessions I managed to attend were interesting, as in past WEF conferences I’ve attended, people tended to speak openly (with a few exceptions) about their experiences either in business, government, or social entrepreneurship…I and I learned new things especially when I attended sessions that didn’t automatically jive with my interests or passions. As always, the best part of the conference are the random conversations had in corridors, on the buffet line, while waiting for the shuttle, etc. One thing that struck me this year (and last) were all the young entrepreneurial Africans who’d managed to circumvent the perennial challenges we complain about when it comes to doing business in Africa, who’d managed to build strong, profitable, businesses , and who the had ambition to scale even further heights. And this are not just businesses that make money but that touch on critical sectors for the future of Africa – media/information; technology; infrastructure; agriculture.

The kind of stuff that makes you want to run back to your hotel room and start putting a business plan together instead of tweeting in my case :-)

Anyway, I thought I’d share the profiles of some of these entrepreneurs with you…always important to keep telling the success stories, no?

First is Erik Charas (@erikcharas), he is the president of @Verdade (the truth), which is Mozambique’s biggest circulation newspaper. @Verdade reaches more than 400 000 people in Mozambique and is the country’s first high-quality, free newspaper. Charas is also the founder and CEO of Charas LDA, an investment company that invests in Mozambican entrepreneurs. Erik runs a profitable *free* newspaper. How so, one wonders? Well, to hear him tell it a few days ago (and I’m sure I’m butchering the story), after realizing that most of Mozambique’s population can’t afford to spend money on a daily newspaper, he decided to offer if free to people who could not afford to buy one (his paper is literally hand-distributed), everyone else is told to go online. Because of the exclusivity of the paper as it were, advertisers scramble to get their ads in, and he also has other revenue channels through the integration of mobile and social media. Perhaps he should be advising American newspapers on alternative media models?

Next is Michael Macharia founder of Seven Seas Technology a software solutions provider. The company’s revenue in 2008 stood at $15 million. What’s always struck me about SST is the deliberate strategy to go regional – something Kenyan companies only do tentatively or when they “are big.” Mike’s goal is to go public in 2011.

Demonstrating that finding your niche and capitalizing on local knowledge is key is, Kola Karim, CEO of Shoreline Group. Doing big thing in infrastructure in Nigeria and West Africa.

Finally, it was great to reconnect with Eleni – last time I saw her was at TED Arusha (we both marveled at how monumental that conference was still). What was just an idea then – the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange – is now a reality and helping shape agricultural markets in Ethiopia.

We build…