Lessons I Learned from my Trip to Nairobi

When I first made my decision to leave healthcare and change my career, I didn’t know I would end up working in technology. I was at a crossroads in my life and the most certainty I had was that I wanted to solve real problems. With day-to-day commitments, it can be easy to forget what initially inspired my career change. Which is why I am thankful for opportunities at Solstice like its Impact Program, which reaffirms that I made the right career decision.

The Impact Program started at Solstice in 2014 and works to provide Solsties an opportunity to deliver on inspiring projects outside client work in the Silicon Savannah. This year our philanthropic efforts took us to Nairobi, Kenya, to work alongside one of the city’s fastest emerging tech startups, Twiga. Twiga is leading a wave of new services that have the potential to overcome the impacts of the food crisis in Kenya and stands as a catalyst for change within the retail and agtech sector by connecting farmers with vendors.

Since returning from Nairobi, it seemed appropriate to pause, do a little introspection, and share some of my learnings.

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Understanding requires context

Before we arrived in Kenya we still had a lot of ambiguity around the end-to-end experience. While I was in Kenya I grew an appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between design and anthropology — they need each other to truly flourish. I started to focus on taking in the sights and sounds. Looking above and below my phone, as well as beyond my natural eye level. A wonderful observation gained from doing this was noticing the street art that lingers just above our normal eye level.

I also delighted in seeing the way locals live and taking in the sounds of the cityscape. Being in Nairobi and seeing the community's challenges first-hand really helped our team offer more holistic solutions. For example, when we saw what a typical trip to the market looked like, we could understand the value that Twiga offered to its customers. Realizing how hot it got by noon, we could understand why the sales teams preferred to do their deliveries at 5 a.m. When we listened to customers who had minimal storage and refrigeration, we could understand why they would only order their fresh produce in small increments. It was also incredible seeing the lengths Twiga went in owning the responsibility of storing the produce for its customers. Had we not been able to visit Nairobi, I fear our lack of context could have led us to make some risky assumptions about the user group and the product.

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Each new experience expanded our understanding, whether it was the act of buying items from street vendors, listening to what was said on the radio, talking to people on the streets, or hearing our drivers' stories. Through offering an ear to people's challenges and being open to new experiences, I gained a deeper sense of empathy to the users’ day-to-day challenges. I learned a lot from listening and observing and what at first may not seem beautiful, but becomes so.

 

Empowering others is key to sustainability

Sustainability and long term value were two elements our team identified in the early phases of the engagement and influenced the way we directed our engagement. Knowing we wanted our teams to be able to implement and uphold any new processes we suggested, we placed more emphasis on coaching and educational offerings. Part of our process included service design assessments, prioritization frameworks for creating a backlog, as well as process efficiency strategies. While we were onsite we also engaged in ethnographic research and innovation workshops, which allowed us to demonstrate our process.

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People are your primary concern

One of my fondest memories was a day trip we took to visit the banana farms for ethnographic research. Kenyans can be soft-spoken at first but during a conversation with one of the farmers, I learned that Twiga had created a lot of new opportunities for them.

The farmer informed me that Twiga enabled him to earn a stable income, increase his credit rating, and make him eligible for a loan. With the loan he was able to expand his farm, increasing his production and in turn his income. In that brief moment, it became clear that the domino effect of this endeavor is much larger than connecting farmers to retailers.

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The importance of ad hoc facilitation

When people ask me what I enjoyed most about the process I always come back to the extended, languorous collaboration with the team.

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A lot of “the work” wasn’t done during normal office hours or in the office but over the course of site visits, carpools, field trips, conversations over dinner, making new friends, sharing meals and more. It really was a gift. Not only were we learning a lot about Twiga, but we were also learning a lot about Kenya, a country none of us had visited before.