Month: November 2019

Finding sustainable solutions through technology in Nairobi

I took part in the Technology for Social Good trip to Nairobi.

Technology provides many opportunities in creating these solutions to sustainability issues. We saw many innovative applications, both improving current solutions and developing and distributing new ones. Technology can be a key enabler in building scale and replication through standardisation, which in turn reduces the cost to provide the product. It can also play a pivotal role in accessing people who would otherwise be hard to reach.

M-Pesa, a phone app for money transfers, financing and micro-financing, is an inspiring example of this. Now, nearly 50% of Kenya’s GDP – of which 35% comes from the informal economy— is transacted on its platform and it has lifted 2% of Kenyan households out of poverty.

Technology can also be used to harness the power of data and analysis, whether it be in providing famers with better information about how and where to use fertiliser (Lentera), allowing micro-insurance to be paid on monthly rather than yearly (Blue Wave), or improving education provision (Whizz).

Technology needs to be carefully chosen to ensure that it maximises impact. Many of the businesses we met were not implementing the latest innovations but deploying clever applications of technology already in existence. As we often heard, it is important to consider the local context when determining the intended impact: start with the problem and find the most effective and cost-efficient technology to provide a solution for maximum impact. As Blue Wave highlighted to us, “innovate simply, and at the point of need.”

I was struck by some of the business models we saw, which play a key role in securing the viability of the companies and creating impact at the same time. Azuri is improving access to electricity by using a market hybrid model and offering payment terms on solar panels, lights and televisions to people too poor to afford the capital expense and factoring the receivables to fund its working capital. This is being operated on a commercial basis, even after receiving only 60c for every dollar’s worth of equipment provided.

These companies started out with a clear social mission and purpose and determined a business model to make it work. There must be a fit between the business model and strategic thinking, and so for those businesses looking for social impact starting with a definition of intended purpose and then innovating around the business model to create a viable business is more likely to be successful. It is unlikely that BRCK’s business model would have maximised the impact opportunity in focusing on value spillover if its only ambition was to provide internet access in Nairobi; it manages to offer free wifi to Kenyans by charging companies for using the data storage attached to the routers. It takes an impact-focused way of thinking to consider growing a viable business whose model is based on forgoing 40% of potential revenues as Azuri does.

Many companies were also using collaborations and partnerships as a growth strategy. This helps address obstacles to transactions by reducing distribution costs, improving access and bundling products to increase willingness to pay. Organisational theorist Henry Chesbrough explained the powerful network benefits of using open innovation for idea generation and go-to-market strategies, and we saw plenty of examples of this in action to maximise the social impact of the companies we met.

Freddie Woolfe, Executive MBA (2020)

Full-time MBA integration week – Block I

86 people. 14 companies. 4 days. 1 final showdown.

What does that line get you thinking? Analysis? Time? Game? Research? Competition? Tension? Whatever you are thinking, you are right.

That represents the stats of our integration week. Block I of our Full-time MBA came to an end on 25th of October 2019 with this incredible week.

The rules were simple:

  • 86 people are split in 14 teams
  • Each team
    • Is assigned a company
    • Analyses the assigned company on three fronts – strategic, financial and organisational behavioural
    • Prepares a 15-minute presentation to answer given questions
    • Answers questions by experts for 10 minutes

And that was probably the greatest catch – the simpler the rules, the wider the scope.

This week taught me importance of:

  1. Precision

When time is scarce, it is important to avoid beating around the bush and boil down the content to what is asked for. Let me try to simplify this by an example:

Question: Tell me who you are and how can you get better at what you are?

Answer #1: “When I was a 3-year-old child, I saw this movie that showcased life of a marathon runner. This inspired me to be a runner myself. I started training pretty early in my life. I used to get up early in the morning every day and go for a run in a park near my home. Sometimes I missed my classes to get better at my running time and speed. But you know, that really did not work out that well. My running times are not that good today, although my stamina and endurance improved over time. Strangely enough, I have been working at it for over 10 years now and I still feel the thrill of running. I have been good at sports all my life. I was even part of my school relay team! I think I should buy a proximity clock. I saw one of those at a store the other day, with a robust terminal, one that’s ISO certified. It also came with a clocking-in machine solution with holiday and sickness calculations. Yeah, I think having one of these will be a good way to improve myself.”

Answer #2: “I am an inspired marathon runner, although my greatest strengths are stamina and endurance, I need to work on my timing – an absolute key for success. A possible solution is to invest in a proximity clock and stop relying on guesswork so that my training is put to a better use.”

Answer #3: “I am runner. I can better myself by buying a proximity clock.”

You want to be Answer #2. First one is unstructured, has a lot of unnecessary information, goes off tangent, and does not correlate. Third one is simple and straight but does not provide a complete picture.

You should be able to balance storytelling and precision. Precision is what your audience is looking for, storytelling is what keeps their attention and binds things together.

  1. Teamwork

I know it is cliché to mention the importance of teamwork. You might ask, am I not ignoring my first rule of being precise? I want to highlight what will happen if team does not work well together:

It is crystal clear that you will end up not being the best. If you do not understand teamwork and do not work well in cohesion, you will:

    • Paint an unprofessional image of not only yourself, but also your teammates
    • End up having an uncomfortable work environment, to the extent that you feel like leaving the room is better than working with people in it
    • May risk your future of being someone nobody wants to work with
    • Feel disengaged, demotivated and burdened your team instead of being part of it

For anyone who is looking out for leadership roles, getting people from different backgrounds to work together efficiently is an immensely important skill. Develop it by using every opportunity provided.

  1. Hard work

There have been plentiful debates and there are roughly three million research journals about smart work vs hard work. From what I witnessed in this one week, given the time crunch, smart work is important. But nothing beats the hard work. The hardest working teams were the ones that won. It is taught to us time and again that “correlation is not causation”. So, this might not be the reason, but it definitely correlates.

 

 

If you want something, you need to work hard to get it. In my experience, there is no substitute for hard work. Yes, smart work complements hard work very well, but does not replace it.

It was a great pleasure to be part of this amazing week. Looking forward to Block II’s integration week.

 

Sushmita “Sushi” Nad, Full-time MBA (2020)

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