Tuesday, February 22, 2011


(You'll forgive me for blogging out of chronological order, but I'm afraid to get steamrolled by the march of time and the density of experiences, so I'll try to fill in the last few days asynchronously.)

This project goes zero to sixty on the first day. Leveraging our presence in Nairobi, each of our three subteams were scheduled to present their plans for the month to their clients. All of us had already completed work plans back in our own countries, but its not slandering anyone to say that many of them were pro forma, having either been cribbed from prior CSC teams, assembled hastily, or based upon first impressions rather than detailed research. Nonetheless, our in country consultant Muriuki was clearly very eager for us to make a dramatic first impression, gain the confidence of our customers, and - although he was kind enough not to state it explicitly - dispel any notion that we were just a bunch of spoiled mizungu who wanted to take a safari within the government as well as around the parks. Admirably, all of our teams rose to that challenge. One team made the responsible choice and skipped going out on Sunday night in order to retire their presentation early. My team and one other chose to enjoy dinner together first and then return to the hotel to work, and those two teams were up well past midnight drafting, refining, practicing and recalibrating our slide decks.

First thing Monday morning, we gathered in the lobby in our business finery. Personally, I can't remember the last funeral or wedding I went to that necessitated the wearing of my only suit, but if any of the others were as unaccustomed to the formality as I was, they certainly didn't show it. Muriuki distributed some gifts from Kenya - for me a beaded bracelet in the Kenyan national colors too small for my wrist but perfectly suited for makeshift worry beads. We loaded into the cars and our convoy headed out.

Our first stop was IBM East Africa, a relatively newly constituted subsidiary of IBM that covers Kenya, Uganda, Tanzinia, and some other countries. We met with Tony Mwai, the country general manager, and a small group of his sales, services, and communications staff, who presented a little bit of history about IBM's expansion and strategy in this region. IBM EA has recently made blockbuster headlines by capturing an enormous IT outsourcing deal with Bharti Airtel (finalized yesterday) to the tune of $1.5 Billion US dollars over 10 years. IBM East Africa's annual revenue target is US$30 million dollars. IBM East Africa's largest single prior multiyear deal was US$30 million. So with a single deal, they grew annually by 500% and their largest deal by 5000% . Apart from the eye-popping numbers, Tony, his staff and the IBM office itself were extremely impressive. It's no novelty to say that any of them could meet or exceed the standards of IBM in the United States, because many of them served with IBM in the US previously, including Tony who is a 25-year veteran of IBM in New York, Virginia and elsewhere. Overall, the impression left was one of staggering growth, and an ambitious and highly skilled staff eager to capture it. Another piece of the puzzle in explaining the plenary optimism we have witnessed here.

Upon leaving the office and heading to our first customer presentation, the contrast was bracing. There is no transition from the stylish suits and unmistakable command of the IBMers to the mass of people milling about aimlessly, workers carrying wrought iron carts by hand hoisting 30 gallon drums of lord knows what down the center of the road, and the occasional herd grazing on the road shoulder. It's facile to ask which of these represents the true Kenya because the answer is clearly that both do.

We arrived in the city center at the Posta Kenya building, home to Subteam 1's client the Postal Corporation of Kenya. We filed in to a dingy but formidable lobby, where we were greeted with a large mission statement poster signed by the retired Major General of the Armed Forces, who clearly received his position as Postmaster General as a gratuity for his years in the Army, and not through a recognition of his ambitious plans to reform this dowdy institution. The conference room on the twelfth floor was unremarkable with 1960s decorating style, and broad assortment of chairs in various states of disrepair. The audience was a half dozen or so high ranking postal officials, though it quickly became apparent that there was only one or two who were truly engaged in the discussion, primarily the general manager of financial services. The team presented it's initial ideas on how to revitalize a classic old economy institution into a modern e-commerce staple. The facts are bleak - stamp revenue for PCK is down 90%, their budget is hemorrhaging, their investment in IT is diminishingly small, and they run a cash only business nationwide, unable even to accept credit cards. The GM responded enthusiastically to the global examples of postal rebirth that the team highlighted, and confirmed the unique advantages that PCK has in terms of its broad and deep presence across the country. The question left lingering in the air was if all of these initiatives and ideas resonated so well with these high-ranking PCK officials, then why was the corporation in this sorry state? Nonetheless, the IBM CSC team left with enough confirmation of their stated goals, that they can probably attack even a subset of them, and still deliver their customer a document of tremendous value to them.

Our next stop was just around the corner at the Kenya ICT Board. The Tale of Two Cities continued as we contrasted their gleaming modern offices, which could have exchanged unnoticed with any avant garde Silicon Valley powerhouse, with what we had just seen at PCK. A striking view overlooking all of downtown Nairobi was the backdrop for Subteam 2's presentation regarding the development and retention of high end ICT talent to reduce the reliance on expensive expatriate workers for Kenya's most complex technology undertakings. The audience was a selection of ICT staffers, let by the Kenya ICT Board chair, Paul Kukubo,
a polished marketer charged with the limitless mandate of supercharging Kenya's ICT economy and presenting a professional and commanding presence in the room. Subteam 2 faced the difficulty of a flighty scope which seemed to shift or change with each attendee's feedback. At one point it could seem like Mr. Kukubo directly contradicted the team's impressions, at other times his staff contradicted him. Everything was very collegial, but progress was choppy.

It was at this point that we experienced a true Africa moment. Arriving in the middle of the meeting was the Permanent Secretary Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the head of the Ministry of Information and Communication. As the PS walked in, the environment shifted instantaneously,  all of the oxygen had suddenly been sucked out of the room. Dr. Ndemo was a striking figure, seemingly casting a greater aura than any Kenyan we had met previously, somehow more formidable with a density that exceeded any notion of Western gravitas I had previously experienced. Paul Kukubo, who had until now presented a confident and Alpha persona, quickly shifted over from his place at the head of the table, commanded one of this underlings to provide the PS with a drink, and kowtowed immediately, scribbling notes as soon as the PS spoke. In some cases, people literally averted their eyes. A taste of the African Big Man, and not one that I'll soon forget.

Dr. Ndemo was soft-spoken, insightful and direct, giving the team much clearer feedback than they had had previously, and was extraordinarily gracious in taking pictures with the group. I ended up next to him in the photo, and hearing that I was from Washington, DC, he inquired if I was a Redskins fan. I informed him of my Philadelphia roots and my Eagles allegiance, and he shook my hand, congratulated me on my choice of teams and revealed that he is an avid Minnesota Vikings fan. In an act of uncharacteristic good judgement, I refrained from trash-talking Brett Farve.

The presentation concluded, we enjoyed a tasty buffet lunch of genuine African delicacies courtesy of the ICT Board adjacent the pool at the posh Intercontinental Hotel.

En route to our next meeting, we passed by the infamous Nyayo House which sent chills up my spine. It was it the sublevels of this building that the storied torture of the Moi regime were housed. Innumerable confessions were extracted here - sometimes for offenses as slight to our Western ears as criticizing the administration - by standing people up against walls and pummeling them with the stream from open fire hoses, housing prisoners with rotting human corpses, forcing them to consume their own urine and feces, and crushing their testicles with hammers. Some of those who still refused to yield were simply tossed off the 24th floor to their deaths, which were blandly labeled suicides. Whatever the foibles of the current government, these outrages are now complete anathema, though astoundingly an elderly Daniel arap Moi still lives in this country with no justice or retribution sought against him.

We walked through the city center past the Parliament building, and arrived at Harambee House, the Kenya White House, the office of President Mwai Kibaki and his staff. It's located directly across the street from the office of the Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the President's main rival.

We entered a chaotic lobby, where some Kenyan military security officers made an elaborate show of registering our laptops and ushering us through metal detectors whose loud beeping they promptly ignored. We ascended a dilapidated staircase into a non-descript hallway where we found our presentation space and our client, Dr. Katherine Wanjiru Getao, the presidentially appointed head of eGovernment in Kenya. While much of the discussion was simply confirmed what we had discussed over the phone previously, the experience of meeting her in person met all of our expectations. She was engaging, sharp, modest, collaborative, funny, and extremely committed. I look forward to working with her over the course of the next month as we attempt to put her efforts on strong legal footing and, by doing so, position Information Technology as a powerful force for eliminating the opportunities for corruption, streamlining the experience that Kenyan citizens have making it more equitable across all regions and income levels, increasing government efficiency, and ultimately for returning the power of the government of Kenya to the hands of the people.

Throughout the day, we were buoyed by the exhortations on our behalf of Muriuki who held forth at every sight regarding "the POWer and the PASSion of IBM" that the clients were witnessing before him. He has been a tremendous asset for us, and will be a lynchpin our all our projects' successes.

We had a pleasant debrief back at the Country Lodge where we also received our cell phones, and planned our departure for Nyeri. Although much of the team was up for dinner, drinks and dancing, I was jet-lagging hard, and retired to my room for a very enjoyable Skype with Deb and the kids and Elana and Shelly who are visiting from Philly. Got to hear about sleepovers, Shabbas, movie night, school, Brookville gardens and the thoroughly enjoyed Maple Sugar festival (pictures below). I then promptly passed out.

1 comment:

  1. What a day of contrast and exeriences! The blog was an enjoyable informative read, thank you. Not to mention how cute the kids are! Luv ya.