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A Tribute to My Friend, Ravi Ramrattan

Me, Sue, and Ravi

This weekend has been difficult. I found out yesterday that a friend was killed in the senseless, horrible attack in Nairobi. He was a great person and meant a lot to many people. He had a profound impact on so many people’s lives that I would not even begin to understand how to chronicle it all. So I will settle for talking about the time I knew him.

I met Ravi early on in my time in Nairobi. I was grabbing a drink at a bar called Sierra Brewery with another guy named Ravi (Ravi Bungoma, after the town he hailed from in Western Kenya) who was applying for a job at my company, and he brought along Ravi Ramrattan (also known as Ravi Mumias). He worked for an organization called Innovations for Poverty Action at the time, and was stationed at a sugar factory in a town called Mumias a few hours outside of Nairobi.  I remember thinking that this guy was exceptionally smart. Subsequently, I found out he had bachelors degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, a masters degree in financial economics from Oxford, and another masters in econometrics and mathematical economics from the London School of Economics. After teaching statistics to graduate students at the London Business School for a year – at the tender age of 26 – he decided to move to Kenya to commit himself to the cause of poverty alleviation.

After six years in London, Ravi moved to Mumias, a rural town of 33,000 people in Western Kenya, where he spent a year and a half implementing an academic study at the Mumias Sugar Factory. Ravi ran a study evaluating the impact of a conditional cash advance and a cell phone based extension system on sugar cane farmers. Using a randomized controlled trial – the methodology used by pharmaceutical companies to determine the efficacy of a drug – Ravi tried to determine whether this particular development intervention generated additional income for the recipients. After picking up three degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, he moved from London to a rural town in Western Kenya to help people he’d never met.

A few months after I met him, he moved from Mumias to the big city to take a job as an economist with an organization called Financial Sector Deepening, which, despite having one of the worst names imaginable, had the noble goal of “supporting the development of financial markets in Kenya as a means to stimulate wealth creation and reduce poverty.”As part of his role at FSD, he worked to develop the capacity of financial institutions in the country in order to make them more inclusive. When I found out he worked with microfinance institutions, I took every opportunity I could to goad him into an argument about whether microfinance worked. This is something I did whenever I met people from Innovations for Poverty Action. But with Ravi, I always left with my ego bruised from the intellectual drubbing he would deal me.

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

As a wannabe economist myself, I took every opportunity I could to take advantage of his incredible wealth of knowledge. During one trip down to Diani Beach on the Kenyan Coast, four of us sat on the terrace of our rented house and waxed philosophical deep into the night about income inequality in America (as we did).  My friend Dylan and I argued one side, while Sean, Ravi’s roommate at the time, argued the other. Ravi sat quietly, and, whenever we would reach an impasse, which happened often, Ravi came in to break the tie. After all, he knew way more than we did and was probably amused at how badly we skewed the facts to our favor.

Another funny thing to me about Ravi was that, somehow, he was a phenomenal dancer. I could never figure out how it was possible that he was able to bust so many incredible moves on the dance floor. I remember one night a big crew of us went out to a club in Nairobi called Gallileo Lounge, which, other than having a star in the logo, had nothing to do with astronomy. I was standing on the dance floor, not dancing, because I’m a terrible and highly self-conscious dancer, watching Ravi dance with our friend Woubie, and thinking to myself “My God – this is amazing.” In a somewhat legendary story, he was supposed to have a dance-off with one of the cab drivers who had been told of his prowess. It never came to fruition, I’m told, but everyone knows who would have won.

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

When I heard the news, I was crushed. I was with my friend Sharon, who lived with Ravi for a few months in Nairobi. For two days, we felt helpless, having to watch from afar. Being together made it easier to deal with the news. We decided to get dinner at an Indian restaurant to honor his memory, and spent the dinner sharing stories. Like his plan to start a hot sauce company, or his nickname, “The Lion of Mumias”, after a halloween costume from years prior, or the fact that he blasted the same Bollywood song all of the time. Even among the crew we’d assembled in Nairobi, which contained some of the more unique people I’ve ever met, he was in a league of his own.

I find it deeply ironic that Ravi would end up having his life taken by the people he most wanted to help. He spent a good part of his life studying economics, training himself to not only understand, but quantify the impact of development interventions on poverty alleviation. If you implement a project – whether it is microfinance, clean water, or education – it might work, and it might not. But, more importantly, if you don’t understand the results, you are destined to potentially throw money and people at the wrong solution. Ravi’s work, in particular, uncovered the true impact of these interventions, providing the academic foundation to replicate them around the world.

On this blog, I have spent many posts pontificating about the links between poverty and terrorism. I thought a lot about why this work is important, and what broader impacts it would have beyond just improving lives.  For people living hand-to-mouth, life is a series of struggles often ending in tragedy.  Anger, resentment, and despair are a volatile combination in the minds of young men and women who see little hope for escaping their situation.  For Al-Shabab, these young minds can be manipulated to pick up arms.  By stoking latent frustrations at the injustice of poverty and promising a sense of a community, brotherhood, and commitment to a higher cause, a recruiter can more easily convince a young man to become a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Unlike incomes or educational attainment, likelihood of radicalization is not something you can quantify. But I do believe that its real. And, though I never talked to Ravi about it, I’m sure he’d agree. He committed himself to serving the poor, and made the choice to move to Kenya for years to help the less fortunate. He moved to a small town in Western Kenya to study the roots of poverty, and returned to Nairobi to work for an organization whose mandate was to promote financial inclusion across the country. I have no doubt that Ravi would have continued this journey, taking it to the highest levels and influencing global development policy in one way or another.

But his life was cut short by evil men. Whether they’d been manipulated or radicalized doesn’t matter much to me. They took from the world a great person who wanted to make the world a better, more inclusive and equitable place for the most downtrodden and marginalized people. He could have done anything, but he chose this life. He chose to help people he’d never met to attain something better for themselves and their families. A nobler cause, I do not know.

Over the last few days, the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.  While the good works he did will remain, the community that has rallied around him over the last few days perhaps reflect his greatest legacy.  As the people who knew him – from his youth in Trinidad and Tobago, his college and grad school in London, or his years in Nairobi, when I came to know him – have moved to different parts of the world, they have kept him in their memories.  And this week, the diaspora of people whose lives were touched by Ravi are getting together all over the world to remember him.  That, to me, is a source of comfort.

Impromptu gatherings to remember him have popped up in Boston, New York, and Washington DC. When I tried to organize one in San Francisco, I was worried Sharon and I would be the only ones around.  Within a few minutes, I was added to an email chain of 10 people who had already begun to plan one. Right now the count stands at 25.

So, if you are in San Francisco this Friday, we are going to celebrate his life over dinner, and then go dancing at Little Baobab – a fitting tribute for such a great guy.

My deepest condolences go out to his family and the friends who loved him.


ravi in the fields


ravi and woubie2







Rest in peace, my friend.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Desperation in the Slums of Nairobi

SLUM LIFE: A girl stood outside a school in the Mukuru kwa Njenga slum in Nairobi, Kenya. An Amnesty International Report says the government has failed to incorporate slums, leaving women vulnerable to sexual and other attacks. (Tony Karumba/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

On Thursday, I shadowed a colleague of mine as he conducted a survey of one of the slum communities where we have several schools.  For the last few months, I have been analyzing data about the communities where we build schools and understand where demand is highest.  Having spent months looking at scatter plots, I hoped the trip would provide better context and illuminate some of the nuances hidden within the data.  As it turned out, the trip did more than that – it exposed me to the worst poverty I have ever seen.

I met Dickens, a research associate with the company, near the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi.  After a quick breakfast, we walked a half hour through markets, past the bus station where a group of al-Shabaab sympathizers recently threw four grenades into a crowd of people, killing four and wounding dozens more.   We picked up a matatu heading to Lunga Lunga, the densely-populated slum in the industrial area near the airport, arriving at around 9 in the morning.  This is the same slum where a leaking gas line exploded, killing 75 people.  Once you step away from the main road and down into the slums, you find yourself in a maze of narrow roads and alleys surrounded on all sides by shacks made of corrugated iron sheets.

The industrial slum – also known as Mukuru Kwa Njenga – is actually one of the better slums in Nairobi, which is not saying much.  It’s proximity to manufacturing facilities – we surveyed a woman whose home literally bordered a 10-meter wall surrounding a factory – means the residents of the slums have better access to casual manual labor and, if they are lucky, salaried employment.  This access to economic opportunities is one of the main reasons people move to this slum in the first place.

Dickens is a field guy.  He began working at the company a few months ago after a stint running a survey team with a public health organization.   He has a deep knowledge of the conditions in both the rural areas and the urban slums.  When our GPS device failed to give us directions to the school, we stopped to ask a group of a boy and two girls in their late teens.  The girls were drunk and standing outside of a church, where they were picking up their ARVs – the anti-retroviral drugs that prevent HIV from turning into full-blown AIDS and reduce the risk of transmission.

At 6.7%, the HIV rate in Kenya is low compared to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.  But transmission rates in the slums are high; an estimated 14% of the residents of Korogocho, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, are HIV-positive.  In this slum, where men are paid more frequently, it may even be higher.  Because of the stigma attached to positive status, people prefer to pick up their ARVs from churches rather than hospitals.  We thanked them for the directions and went to find the school.

These slums were one of the first places where we opened our schools.  We have more than five in an area of only a few square kilometers.  Our school in Lunga Lunga is one of the most successful in our network, and watching the children run around the playground and gave some much-needed tangible meaning to the work I am doing.  After meeting the school manager, Patrick, we walked past the school and over a rickety bridge spanning a trash- and sewage-filled stream toward the community where we would continue our research.

residents in the usual conditions of Nairobi's Mukuru-kwa-Njenga slum. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

While Dickens conducted the survey in Kiswahili, the local language, I jotted down observations and questions in my notebook, not wanting to influence the answers of the respondents.  When a person sees a white person conducting a survey in the slums, they may have an incentive to make their situation seem more desperate in order to secure money.  Whether or not this was the case, I kept my distance during most interviews.

After an interview conducted in a small alleyway, we stepped back into the main road running through the slum –barely wide enough to fit a car – where we saw a young man in his late teens or early twenties being held and pushed by five other men.  Dickens shook his head and speculated that the man had been caught stealing.  “This is not going to end well,” he said.  In the slums, where people are already consumed by stress and on edge from the sheer desperation, mob justice often trumps the formal legal channels.  In the best case scenario, the police would intervene before anything could happen.  More likely, the men took him to the place where he was accused of stealing and beat him mercilessly, possibly to death.  In Kenyan slums, death by beating, stoning, or necklacing for the crime of stealing is not uncommon.  In this case, I don’t know what happened, and I am not sure I want to.

After Dickens finished the surveys, I asked if we could find our school in a part of the slum known as Tassia.  I wanted to see how the school was situated in the community in order to understand how location influences the number of students.  As we walked further down the road, Dickens and I noticed the number of people outside their homes growing smaller until it finally became empty.  When the street opened up into a massive dumpsite filled with burning trash, it became quickly apparent why this part of town was empty.  Dumpsites are notoriously dangerous, as idle youths mill around, drinking chang-a, the local brew, and robbing anyone who happens to venture too close.  Dickens made the decision to go back, and I agreed.  So we turned around and exited the slum along the same road from which we entered.  We caught a matatu back to town and called it a day.

The Dandora waste dumping site is an unrestricted dumping site that contains many hazardous materials. The United Nations did a study of more than 300 schoolchildren near Dandora and found that about 50% of them had respiratory problems. Also, 30% had blood abnormalities that signaled heavy-metal poisoning. (Photo Credit: Brendan Bannon)

The slums of Nairobi are a horrible place to live.  They are cramped, unsanitary, and dangerous.  Girls walking home from school risk being raped along the way, and murders go unnoticed by the media.  Life is as cheap as the rent, which is next to nothing.  I have been to the rural areas of Ghana and the Philippines and seen poverty of a different sort, where people still live hand-to-mouth, but still live a decent, if not difficult, existence.

The urban slums are another kind of poverty altogether.  They are the product of poorly-planned urbanization, corruption, and general indifference on the part of those who could do something about it.  Half of the population of Nairobi – about 2 million people – lives in an area that covers only 5% of the land.  And most people are trapped, forced to grind out a miserable existence or move back to the country, to a different kind of poverty.

I’m glad I went out to the slums, since it gave me perspective, both in my work and my life.  Some people have it bad.  And I am thankful I am not one of them.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

M-PESA and Mobile Money in Kenya

I’ve now been in Nairobi for two weeks and have settled in well.  I moved into my fairly upscale apartment in Kilimani, a section of Nairobi that is the beating heart of the tech and social enterprise scene here.  Up until last Saturday, I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor.  The landlord wanted to deliver a new bed frame, so I needed to let the movers into the apartment.  It was a total gong show getting this frame up the stairs, and I had to help them move it.  When it was all done, I was instructed to call the landlord and confirm that the job was finished.  After I hung up, the phone of the lead mover made a sound, they all smiled and went on their way.  In the ten seconds that elapsed after my call, the landlord successfully paid the movers via M-PESA, the ubiquitous mobile money platform in Kenya.

For those have never heard of mobile money, it is exactly as it sounds: money that can be transferred from on cell-phone to another via an SMS platform.  The most popular platform is called M-PESA, offered by Safaricom, the leading telecom provider in Kenya with almost 80% market share.  Created in March 2007, M-PESA is a dominant force in the country.  As of late 2009, an estimated two-thirds of the households in Kenya had at least one person using M-PESA.  A recent report titled “Mobile Money: The Economics of M-PESA” details a research effort that surveyed 3,000 users.  Here, the authors, William Jack and Tavneet Suri, describe the model:

Safaricom accepts deposits of cash from customers with a Safaricom cell phone SIM card and who have registered as M?PESA users. Registration is simple, requiring an official form of identification (typically the national ID card held by all Kenyans, or a passport) but no other validation documents that are typically necessary when a bank account is opened. Formally, in exchange for cash deposits, Safaricom issues a commodity known as e?float or e?money, measured in the same units as money, which is held I an account under the user’s name. This account is operated and managed by M?PESA, and records the quantity of e?float owned by a customer at a given time. There is no charge for depositing funds, but a sliding tariff is levied on withdrawals (for example, the cost of withdrawing $100 is about $1).

E?float can be transferred from one customer’s M?PESA account to another using SMS technology, or sold back to Safaricom in exchange for money. Originally, transfers of e?float sent from one user to another were expected to primarily reflect unrequited remittances, but nowadays, while remittances are still a very important use of M?PESA, e?float transfers are often used to pay directly for goods and services, from electricity bills to taxi?cab fares. The sender of e?float is charged a flat fee of about 40 US cents, but the recipient only pays when s/he withdraws the funds.

It is effectively a system of cashless payments and money transfers without the need for a bank account.  In essence, it functions as either a replacement for or a compliment to a traditional current account.  Much of the country, however, has limited access to bank branches or ATMs, making M-PESA the alternative to opening an account with a bank that may be located far away.

Customers can register for service on their phones and deposit money at one of the 25,000+ agents located throughout the country.  Agents can be independent retailers, stores, or any other business establishment.  The person gives the money to the agent, who then transfers the e-money to their phone.  The person can then transfer money to another M-PESA user or pay for goods or services rendered from a business.  Some people use it to pay school fees, or electric bills, or even taxi fare.

The impact on the country has been significant, and will continue to be a model for future mobile money programs.  According to the authors, M-PESA has had several rippling effects that have changed the way the country operates. Continue reading