Welcome to Africa

I’d heard the stories.  Be careful of nighttime taxis in Nairobi, or you might get driven off into the dark and Nairoberried.  So when I arrived at my hotel in Nairobi on Tuesday night and was told there was no room at the inn, I’d have to get in a van with them and drive to another hotel 10 minutes away, I was more than a little apprehensive.  Thirty minutes in Kenya and this was already happening?

But what choice did I have? So I took a gulp, grabbed my two rolling bags and hiking backpack, and boarded a van with four Kenyan youth—why four people were deemed necessary to drive one person in a van, I wasn’t sure.  Could I fight all four of them if it came to that?  Probably not.  Driving off into the abyssal dark of the Nairobian streets, I frantically attempted to type a text to my cousin in the States about where I was going, so that at least someone would know where to look for my body.

And that’s the end of the story.  Because before I could even finish the text (T9? Does that still exist?), the van pulled into the second hotel.  My Kenyan compatriots from the van got my stuff, carried it to the lobby, and I was checked in.

Karibu Kenya.

I’m here because I’m starting work for a solar power startup operating in East Africa, ToughStuff International.  My official station is Kampala, Uganda, but I’m in Nairobi for a week for orientation and training.

Why?  Because 580 million Africans live without access to the electricity grid.  Most of these households use kerosene lamps for lighting, which according to the US Department of Energy costs “150-times more per unit of useful energy services than do those in electrified homes with compact fluorescent lamps (and 600-times more than for traditional incandescent lamps).” Living on less than $1 a day, base of the pyramid (BOP) Africans spend 10% and 25% of their income on fuel; at such prices, families ration kerosene to provide light for cooking at night, leaving little leftover for children to study by.  Moreover, kerosene lamps in Africa release 70 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year—the equivalent of 11 million cars.

It’s not just kerosene.  Tens of millions of Africans use mobile phones, for everything from regular conversation to mobile banking to checking crop prices, but don’t have access to electricity to charge them.  As a result, they must walk miles each day to pay a shopkeeper to charge their phone for them—up to $3 a month (or nearly 10% of a BOP family’s income).

By providing these families with affordable solar power to charge lights, phones, and radios, we can save poor families time and money, improve health, allow children to study at night, light shops so their owners can earn more income at night, and reduce CO2 emissions.  Moreover, by training local entrepreneurs to sell the solar products (ToughStuff’s “Business in a Box” program), we create opportunities for enterprise and sustainable income generation—without the need for donor money.  In the future, the Business in a Box is likely to be the primary distribution channel.

Product demonstration: Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd… or solar energy

For the first few days though, I really only saw grid-connected Africa.  Nairobi is a hectic, bustling city of 4 million, a mash-up of western conveniences with developing world grit.  My hotels have been quite nice, with hot showers, comfortable beds, and free hot breakfast every morning.   The staff is so attentive that, like the van ride, there always seem to be more people present than necessary to do the job—for example, 3 people smile from behind the omelet bar, even though only one of them is ever making an omelet at any given time.  Can you imagine how a Western company would react to such an inefficient sight?

But just a few blocks from this seeming paradise, past the next-door shopping mall and bordering the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, is Kibera: one of Africa’s biggest slums.  Surrounded by walls, as if to keep the destitute inhabitants caged in, I’ve only driven past it, but even the quick glance provided a window onto tin shack-lined mud paths, filled with garbage and refuse.

And a drive around the city to visit prospective clients witnessed further the contrasts.  Driving down a tree-lined boulevard to the central business district full of modern skyscrapers and clubs, we quickly turned onto a dirt road full of potholes, drove past an “open-air car garage”: a lot off the side of the road filled with dozens of cars and mechanics, reeking of gasoline fumes and obscured partly by the black smoke belching from the ancient diesel engines which many of the trucks in the area use.  Most of the sidewalks are dirt, countless shops made of sticks, tin roofs, and trash walls line the streets, and you can’t help but feel a bit dirty walking through the streets.

“Welcome to Kenya” – it’s also what my driver/coworker says every time something distinctively Kenyan happens on the road—our 4WD gets stuck in a pothole climbing a 45% grade dirt road, a local crossing the street darts in front of a car and only barely avoids getting hit, we have to pull over to the shoulder to avoid a head-on collision with a semi-truck driving the wrong way in our lane.  There are no traffic rules—it’s offensive driving (as opposed to defensive), where you have to take your chance each time you want to turn, or else someone else will cut you off.  Sometimes you roll down your window to tell the car next to you your intentions, other times it’s a game of chicken.  But since this slows traffic to a crawl in most places (and the traffic is terrible), I imagine most wrecks are non-fatal.

Think this guy has the birth certificate?  People love Obama here!

While I haven’t seen much crime myself, its pervasiveness is belied by the high walls surrounding nearly every buildings, entered through steel gates watched by security guards at all times; they’re more properly called “compounds” than “buildings.”

It’s also the “cold season” in Nairobi, which means the locals are bundled up in coats and hats to stay warm in the daytime high of 75 (and no humidity), and nighttime low of maybe 65.

So that’s Nairobi.  What have I actually been doing?

Last Wednesday was my first day of work.  I’d flown out of DC on Monday the 18th, Washington Dulles to London Heathrow to Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta.  Luck was on my side: I had an entire middle-aisle row on the way to Heathrow, allowing me to catch a few precious hours of sleep.  From Heathrow to Nairobi I sat next to an Indian from Mombasa and Kenyan who lived in New Jersey but was going home for her son’s wedding.  It was the first time I’d seen the Sahara, and it is a sight from the air: vast stretches of rock and sand, broken only by the sudden shifts from one to another, as stark as the line between ocean and shore, until finally giving way to true desert—nothing but sand blending into white, horizonless sky, as barren as the ocean’s abyssal plane.

After landing on the evening of the 19th, I realized I hadn’t been told what time to show up, so I asked what time the office opened, and arrived then: 8am.

It’s definitely a startup setting—a far cry from the 17th floor office overlooking the Potomac at my old job.  The office is two rooms, dimly lit, with five people besides myself, a few desks, crates stacked in the corner full of solar panels, lights, and power packs, a water cooler and tea crate, and that’s about it.  (We do have one perk over the Waterview office: the janitorial staff cleans our dishes).  Yet despite the Spartan setting, the phones are constantly ringing, and clients and potential partners are constantly coming in and out of the office.  Eddie, a Ugandan pineapple farmer and advertising entrepreneur, popped into the office last week and bought twenty panels to charge his workers’ phones.  And more like him come every day.

It’s four Kenyans—George, Pheobe, Rachel, and Benson—plus a Dutch guy, Rik, who does innovation.  Most days there is the odd sales rep or manager in for the day before heading back to the field.

My boss (technically my boss’s boss) is George Gitau: a big, soft-spoken Kenyan with a high-pitched laugh and totally relaxed demeanor. Having grown up on a coffee farm, the fifth of nine children, you can tell he means business.  As well he should – his Kikuyu tribe has a reputation for being savvy businessmen and tough negotiators.  Before ToughStuff, he rose through the ranks of GlaxoSmithKline, starting as a van rep before rising to head distribution for various regions in Africa.

The first two days were spent reading orientation materials, but on Friday I learned that I would be accompanying Benson, the NGO Manager for Kenya (what I’ll be doing in Uganda) into the field.  So we jumped in his Toyota 4WD and headed to the Kenya Teachers Service Commission—a “Corruption Free Zone” according to the sign on the gate—to explain why they should buy solar panels for every teacher in rural Kenya (80% have no electricity).

From there we headed out to the peri-urban town of Machakos.  It’s only about 60km from Nairobi, but the traffic is so bad it takes 90 minutes to get there.  Along the way you encounter slums, posh new housing developments, tin-and-trash street-side shops, and countless people walking along the roadside, fearless of the rule-free traffic careening past them.  Some are scratching in the roadside dirt with hands or hoes for who knows what, others are women carrying giant burlap sacks over their backs (often with a baby on their breast opposite the burlap), while others seem to be walking for no apparent reason.

Terraced farming on a hillside on the way to Machakos

In Machakos we were meeting with one of the local NGOs that distributes the product.  The name of the NGO is Bidii: it’s a community organization, affiliated with international NGO Christian Aid, that leads sustainable development projects for rural villages (sustainable in the sense that projects continue to function and grow after Bidii steps back its involvement).  Projects include developing clean water supplies and providing locals with new ways to generate income.

But Bidii doesn’t distribute the products like a shop would, with customers showing up to buy solar panels.  Instead, Bidii is helping us to pioneer a model that relies on Solar Village Entrepreneurs (SVEs): locals who run small enterprises selling solar panels to their fellow villagers.  Bidii identifies worthy candidates and places orders for products on their behalf, while we train the SVEs and provide marketing support to create “pull-through.”  This reduces the costs of distributing products to, and managing employees in, remote rural areas, while at the same time creating self-sustaining employment for villagers.  In fact, some of the end customers have spontaneously become entrepreneurs themselves, using the mobile phone chargers they bought to charge others’ phones for 10 Kenyan shillings (about 11 cents)—half the price of a charge at a traditional dealer.

Most of the time has been spent on the road so far traveling to similar sites.  It’s not that we’re going that far, but the rural roads are so bad that it takes hours to travel short distances—and once you get back to Nairobi, the traffic jam is so bad that there are street vendors who walk amongst the hopelessly still cars selling everything from peanuts to magazines (since your car isn’t moving, it’s a great chance to read).  We spent last Wednesday night in the provincial capital Embu to avoid wasting time driving back to Nairobi; 1500 Kenyan shillings (about $17) at the Maina Highway Hotel in Embu gets you a decent bed with a mosquito net, cold shower, and free breakfast.

View from the Maina Highway Hotel in Embu

Driving through the countryside, you see first-hand that most people are employed directly in the production and distribution of food: teenagers driving donkey-pulled carts laden with hay, women carrying water buckets on their head, men and women bent over at 90-degree angles harvesting rice, knee deep in the race paddy waters.  Here the wealth of a region is measured in shades of green and brown, fertility and dryness; “in the north there is famine, but here there is FOOD!” my colleague says, himself the son of two doctors.  “Bananas, maize, tomatoes, pineapples, mangos—there is so much food.”

And indeed, you can never go hungry driving through the Kenyan countryside—at least in fertile Central Province and the Rift Valley.  Everywhere there are busy markets and enterprising street vendors hawking the land’s produce; stop the car on the highway, and you are swarmed by 10+ women jockeying for position to sell their fruit.  And it is cheap: 20 cents gets you four delicious bananas.  A dollar buys you three pineapples, two sack-fulls of passionfruit, or about 15 oranges.  My colleagues laugh at my incredulity at the prices, while warning me that if the vendors see my white face, we might be charged Mzungu prices.  And in one minute you’re back on the road, munching on sweet, organic, locally-grown fruit.  It was a week of fruit.

Bananas… not quite ripe

One less appetizing feature of rural Kenya is that trash is everywhere, making already muddy streets and markets even dirtier.  It’s an unfortunate consequence of Western packaged goods meeting a lack of sanitation infrastructure to remove the used packaging.  It makes you realize that the main difference in development levels between Africa and the West isn’t the vibrancy of the private sector—Africans are VERY entrepreneurial, evidenced by the people selling things everywhere—but rather the lack of reliable government services.  So the next time somebody praises “small government,” just think of the trash strewn streets of Kenya.

I should mention, I visited the Nairobi National Park one Sunday.  It’s maybe the only place in the world where you can go on a safari and see a modern skyline in the background, behind the giraffes and rhinos and gazelle.  (No lions though—despite the driver taking us around for an extra hour, well past dark, they had just run off into the bush).

Nairobi National Park: Savannah and Skyscrapers

Can you spot the three rhinos in this picture?

And that pretty much wraps up orientation in Kenya.  Friday morning (July 29) I took a bus from Nairobi to Kampala; it left at 7:30am, and after miles of the worst roads I’ve ever driven on, a 2 hour breakdown in the tea country town of Kericho, and customs at the chaotic border crossing, finally arrived in Kampala round 10pm.   Needless to say, the $9 extra I paid for a “first class” seat was worth it.  And incredibly enough, so was the bus ride.   The scenery in the Rift Valley was beautiful (although the bumpy ride made picture-taking a blurry affair).  When the bus stopped at Kericho, surrounded by rolling green hills covered in tea bushes, produce vendors swarmed into the bus selling roast corn on the cob, peanuts, bananas, and tea.

Great Rift Valley from my bus window

Kericho… these kids were hilarious

And driving through the Ugandan countryside at night, you realize exactly why people need solar—it is pitch black, the night punctuated only by the flickering light of countless kerosene lamps, softly twinkling from the shop windows and cornfields.

Stay tuned for future updates now that I’m in Kampala.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Nat Perdue on August 2, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    Phenomenal blog Andrew. Both Dave and I have read this. Good work. Keep us posted.


  2. Posted by Charles FP on August 2, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    Glad to hear food is still abundant in the rift valley. Something about that would have been sad if there wasn’t, like a cynical parable about the fate of man, who had forsaken the valley from whence they came.

    Don’t tell about that interesting neighborhood with walls that you didn’t enter–get in there, man! Else, Afrikent need hire itself an urban correspondent.

    Beautiful work, tho, I’m definitely sitting in traffic right there with you. Mine lacks pineapple vendors.


  3. Posted by DCK on August 3, 2011 at 3:52 am

    Great report, Andrew. We’ll keep watching for the next one! — DCK


  4. Posted by Sharone on August 4, 2011 at 4:08 am

    Loved reading your blog! 20 cents for delicious bananas??? I’d be in heaven:). Can’t wait for more updates!


  5. Andrew you are still 100% my biggest hero right now.


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