Tag Archives: base of the pyramid

A Trip to Bridge International Academies

A child in class at the Bridge International Academy in Embu, Kenya

After one year living in Kenya, my time here is fast approaching its end.  In a few weeks, I finish work with Bridge International Academies.  I am heading to Southeast Asia for a few weeks of rest and relaxation before moving to San Francisco to help my brother launch a start-up for the summer.  After that, I am returning to school to pursue an MBA.  And so ends my two and a half years on the road.  This weekend, as I visited one of our schools, I was reminded about what a rewarding experience this has been.

I have lived in three countries – the Philippines, Ghana, and Kenya – and traveled to many, many more.  I have learned an incredible amount and experienced things I never imagined I would experience.  Much of it is documented on this blog.  But the most rewarding parts have been the work and the people.  Being a part of organizations whose missions have been to make things better for others less fortunate has been a privilege.  Working with the folks who commit themselves and their time to realize the vision has been rich and rewarding.

This weekend, I had a chance to go see the grand opening of our 65th school in the town of Embu in the Central region of Kenya.  I shared a taxi with a group of seven from the head office – members of the IT, research, government relations, training, and marketing departments were present.  Embu is three hours from Nairobi and the scenery was pleasant.  Once you leave Thika Road, the Chinese-built superhighway that is emblematic of the surge in investment in Africa from the East, and pass through Ruiru, the landscape becomes more rural and green.  The rolling green hills felt more like Rwanda and Uganda, where flat ground is hard to find.

Rainfall – particularly during the rainy season in April – is high and the floodplains are ideal for growing rice.  We passed the Del Monte pineapple farm, which made the farms I visited in Ghana look like the herb garden I had on my balcony in Boston.  The lime-green rice paddies that followed reminded me of the rural areas on Negros Island in the Philippines, where I used to ride on the back of motorbikes and tricycles to visit borrowers.  When we finally reached the school, everyone was excited to stretch their legs and get to work.

Construction on half the school continued as we helped with last minute preparations for the grand opening ceremony.  Kids lined up to see the face painters, parents spoke to the teachers to learn more about the school, prospective children sat in class and went through lessons, and the community elders filed in to dedicate the school.  It was great to be a part of such an important event.

Me with the newest teachers at Bridge International Academies

My days at work consist of sitting in an office, analyzing data, managing our longitudinal student testing, and generally sitting in front of my two computer screens, looking at Excel spreadsheets and word documents.  When that is your job, it is easy to lose sight of what you are doing and why you are doing it.  So visiting the school, watching the kids learning and seeing the excitement on the faces of the parents was important for me.

As I wind down my time here in Kenya, I am proud of the work Bridge International Academies is doing and the impact we are having on informal settlements and poor communities.  Bridge has the potential to create a minimum standard of education for every child in the world that is much higher than it is today.  Hands-down, it is the most innovative company in the education space at the base of the pyramid and has created a model that will be studied and replicated by organizations across the world.  I will be sad to leave, but I am optimistic that the company will change the world.  Loyal readers know that a cynic like me is hesitant to use that expression for anything.  Mine has been an exciting and meaningful experience, and the trip yesterday really drove that point home.

Here are some of the photos of the trip:

Develop Economies Music Recommendation

How to Use Data to Better Serve the BoP Market

Develop Economies, age 42.

When I was a kid, my parents enrolled me in a program called “Science by Mail” through the Museum of Science in Boston.  The Museum would send me a kit.  Once I received a box containing balsa wood and glue with instructions to build a bridge that could hold as many pennies as possible.

Fast forward 20 years, and I am pretty much doing the same thing.  For the last two years, I have been working at different non-profits and companies, trying to figure out how to use data to maximize effectiveness.  While I think relying on data too heavily without taking into account externalities that make us human risks making bad decisions, I do believe that data is a powerful tool to make good decisions.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things I have learned about using data in the context of non-profit, social enterprise, and all other endeavors at the base of the economic pyramid.

1.  Choose a Problem-Solving Framework

McKinsey, the management consulting firm, has an approach to problem-solving called MECE.  It stands for “mutually-exclusive, completely exhaustive.” The idea is to first come up with a question you want to answer, and then deconstruct all of the elements of that question to its most fundamental elements.  Then, once you have those bite-sized questions, you approach answering them methodically.  This is particularly useful when you have a big data set and a wide scope of questions you could answer.

When I was trying to figure out how Bridge could expand our reach to as many students as possible, I started breaking the question down to its components.  How do get more students in school?  You can do it two ways: attract more students, retain the ones you have, or both.  I decided to focus on retention, since the data I had could more easily be used to answer that question.  I broke off a sub-question – why do students leave?  Well, that can be broken off into preventable reasons – poor quality education, parent preference – and non-preventable ones – money, moving upcountry, etc.  You can continue breaking these questions down to make your analysis more manageable.

The visual representation of this process is a decision tree, which is typically used when you have a series of binary, fork-in-the-road decisions.  There are other ways of looking at problems – scenario analysis, etc.  Breaking down complex problems this way is an easy way to make these questions a lot more manageable.

2.  Start with what you want to know

Sometimes, you don’t have enough data.  Sometimes, you have too much data.  Believe it or not, the latter can sometimes cause more problems than the former.  A couple months ago, the World Bank and the Kenyan government launched “Open Kenya,” an online database containing every bit of government data that could be digitized.  As the first African government to open its data to the public, Kenya was considered to be at the vanguard.  And, working at the iHub, I had good fortune of seeing the World Bank’s “Open Data Evangelist,” Tariq Khokar, speak to software developers about how to use this Open Data website for good.

He cautioned the group of mostly researchers and developers about a problem that many people who love data don’t often think about: what to do when you have too much data.  You can easily get lost if you try to boil the ocean.  One approach is to look at the data, see what you have, and decide which questions you want to answer.  Another, more enlightened approach, according to Tariq, is to step back, think about what you want to do, then seek out the data you need.

This is good advice.  Data can’t tell you everything.  But it can tell you how to optimize a process, think about the most lucrative market, the most cost-effective way of doing things, etc.  This is particularly important when you are trying to balance two dimensions of creating products and services for the base of the pyramid market: affordability and quality/utility.  There is a point where these two lines cross – the maximum people will pay for a certain value – that can be identified by taking a look at the data.

3.  Take It With a Grain of Salt

The current financial crisis has at least some of its roots in financial engineering, also known as computation finance, which tries to “precisely determine the financial risk that certain financial instruments create.” The problem with this goal, of course, is that it is completely impossible.  What distinguishes human beings – sentient beings with feelings and emotions – from, say, gravity, is that sometimes we behave irrationally.  What you end up with are a bunch of mortgage-backed securities and derivatives with AAA ratings from Moody’s and Standard & Poors that become collectively known as “toxic assets.”  Another case of when keeping it real with data goes wrong.

My point is that data can only tell you so much.  I happen to rely on it quite a bit in my job, but I know that, to understand the nuance behind the data, I need to speak with people who understand what is happening on the ground.  Parents living in the slums and earning $60 a month have a much different idea of what “quality” means than a parent living in a posh suburb of Nairobi.  And, even more importantly, parents living in Baba Dogo (a slum in Nairobi) have a different concept of quality than those in Mathare (another slum in Nairobi).  Unless you understand what motivates those parents to make education decisions and ask them why they choose to send their students to one school over another, your data will be useless.

These are three things to consider when thinking about how to use data in running your social enterprise or non-profit.  Go to work.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

Electric Dirt

It is called “Dirt Power.”  Or, more specifically, as the scientists call it, a microbial fuel cell.  A team of undergraduate researchers at Harvard, a small liberal-arts university in New England, invented a battery that runs on dirt.  Actually, it runs on microbes that like to hang out and dine on the decaying organic matter that exists in the dirt.  The team that invented this technology – an organization called Lebone – won the MIT IDEAS competition and, recently, their creation was called one of the 10 most brilliant inventions of 2009 by Popular Mechanics.  First, the problem:

There is currently a dramatic shortage of electrical power in Africa. One billion Africans, constituting a sixth of the world’s population, generate only 4% of global electricity. In most African countries, 95% of the population is living off-grid with no access to electricity (World Bank Millennium Goals Report, 2006). This has a devastating effect on socio-economic development, education, health, and safety. Imagine a village at night in which students are walking to distant highways to study under streetlights, where small merchants are investing half of their resources to pay for kerosene lighting to run their operations, and where emergency health workers, if operating at all, are trying to stitch up wounds and perform surgeries by candlelight. Lack of energy is one of the Africa’s biggest obstacles to development, and a major deterrent for foreign investors. Continue reading