Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Fashion: Diana Opoti's #100DaysOfAfricanFashion

Here's a fun project by my fellow blogger Julia Opoti (aka the brains behind Kenya Imagine)'s sister Diana Opoti. Diana, a fashion PR and brand strategist, is wearing and photographing an outfit by a different African fashion designer every day for 100 days.

The photographs are featured on her instagram account (@dianaopoti) under the hashtag #100DaysOfAfricanFashion.

Here's one of my favorites--per her description, it's a "midi flared skirt from South Africa's @thulasindi" with a "(t)ee from @enzifootwear made in Kenya by our ethical production friends @wildlifeworks."

Kenya: Google's Move to Replace Cash With Transit Cards is a Bad Idea. Here's Why.

A matatu in Runda, Nairobi. (c) Jonathan Harris, 2009.
In a classic Jeff Gettleman piece (i.e. one with lots of color, for better or worse*), last Tuesday's NYT featured a story on Google's attempt to replace Kenya's cash-based transport sector (an informal, semi-regulated and privately owned bus [matatu]) system  with a prepaid card system. The cards, which are connected to a Google payment system called BebaPay and tied to the Android operating system, can be preloaded with a cash value and used to pay for bus rides in Nairobi and beyond. The user pre-loads the card at an Equity Bank location, via M-Pesa somehow, or kiosk (though this might be expanded soon) and shows it to the conductor, who scans the card using his (sorry to gender this, but it's more than likely a man) Android phone and BebaPay app to collect the payment. 

There are a few reasons why this sort of program might be attractive.

1) Ease of transaction: who likes having to carry around all that cash? Kenya already has potential for a cashless economy with the ubiquity of mobile phones and m-pesa. (A recent article in Businessweek exaggerates the extent to which you can use it, but it makes it obvious that there is plenty of opportunity there).Why not push ahead and make the technological leap?

2) Cut down on corruption: Matatu riders complain about drivers and conductors jacking up prices for riders based on appearance, time of day, weather, and the like. There's also a persistent concern about crime and the organized crime groups that control some parts of the matatu sector, including mungiki. Paying conductors or drivers a set rate would prevent ripoffs and hostage-taking that happens when corruption and crime rule.

3) Allow the government to access data collected by Google. Learning frequency of ridership and route use has obvious benefits for transportation planning. In theory, it will also allow the government to more easily collect taxes to pay for road maintenance.

OK, great. So what's the problem? If you've ever lived in Kenya, you probably reacted to this with a mix of, "What?" "Hilarious." "No way." and deep suspicion.

First, it's not likely to make riding matatus all that much easier. As the article mentions, matatus are privately owned and operated and only loosely publicly regulated. The extent of public regulation really only extends as far as traffic laws (which are applied arbitrarily, in my experience). It will be nearly impossible to get all owner/operators on board. And on the customer/UX end, riders will have to go out of their way to get another card to top up at select entities--so far, it looks like the main retailer is Equity Bank and affiliates. Google seems to forget that people need to ride a bus and walk to get to these outlets. It's a pain. If they want to build their own e-payment service to compete with M-Pesa, at least make it incredibly easy to top up and use. **EDIT: It looks like you can use M-Pesa to top up your card. I still think it's a hassle to have to buy a separate card, but this is a little better than I imagined on first read.

In terms of regulating the wild west of crime and corruption in Kenya's transit sector, what's to stop operators from asking for more in cash? It's still off the books, and Kenya, despite reports to the contrary, is still very much a cash economy. The police are in on the corruption--particularly in traffic situations--so it seems even more unlikely that a card payment system will fix those problems as long as you can still give a cop kitu kidogo or, you know, a little chai.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, even though the matatu system is dysfunctional in many ways and clearly needs some sort of regulation and improvement**, it seems shortsighted to turn over the keys to regulation to a private company headquartered overseas. Here, Google could be acting like a foreign government providing aid--they want to collect the data, create a market and products that fit the data and are therefore irresistible because they are necessary, and then, presumably, resell that product back to the government that needs them most. Only in this case, they are operating without the government entirely because the system is already privatized.

As much as one can rightly criticize the Kenyan government for its many shortcomings, corruption, shortsightedness, and the like, setting up a system that perpetuates operation by and large outside of government control solidifies the privatized system and prevents any future good government from regulating the transport sector properly. A vote of no confidence in the Kenyan government is one thing--but stopping the much needed process of government regulation in the longer term is odious.

The technology and its potential to make life easier is tempting and exciting. But the libertarian-tinged ethos--and arrogance--of Silicon Valley can be a destructive force both at home and in the developing world.

* It's hard for me to avoid a little meta-commentary on Gettleman's word choice because his tendency toward verbal excess is nothing new. See, e.g. "[M]ost Rwandans are still peasants swinging muddy hoes," and the hyperbolic opener, "the battle for Kenya’s future may come down to Hitler versus Google." There's a reason my reporter buddy and I used to call him Jeff "crushed skulls" Gettleman. Feb 2, 2009: "[T]he Lord’s Resistance Army has machine guns, mortar bombs and a penchant for crushing skulls." Feb 6, 2009: "The Lord’s Resistance Army is now on the loose, moving from village to village, seemingly unhindered, leaving a wake of scorched huts and crushed skulls." And this quotation from his piece in Lapham's Quaterly: "At least there was still Nairobi, home to those Internet startups and investment banks housed in gleaming skyscrapers. But when I returned home, corpses with crushed skulls were sprawled in the street not far from the leafy reaches where I live." Oh, then there's his "Africa's Forever Wars" piece...(see commentary in the (still) fabulous Wronging Rights blog.)

**As far as orderliness goes, other countries in the region are worse. I remember on one of my first visits to Kenya after living in Tanzania for a year being completely shocked at how people actually formed queues to get on the bus. In Dar es Salaam, you might have to jump on through a back window to get a seat. No such thing as a queue!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Diversity in Tech Hiring: Image is (Far From) Everything

'Round these parts there's been plenty of hubub following the release of hiring data from Facebook, Google, and Yahoo showing abysmal diversity figures.

For companies that make a big splash about "disruption" and innovation, the big companies seem remarkably conservative in their approach to fixing their diversity problems: to the public, at least, they're tackling the image issue without getting serious about changing their hiring practices.

On NPR's All Tech Considered Tuesday, reporter Aarti Shahani covered some of the investments Google has made into the diversity pipeline problem in tech. Leaving aside some of my pet peeves with the reporting,* it looks like The Goog is investing in nonprofits that train black and Latino youth in some basic computer programming skills in the hope that they will be able to use those skills to find work in the new economy. That's great, but whose problem does it solve?

It might help solve Google's image problem, to some extent. But at the most basic level, it means very little if these companies are relying on nonprofits to train or retrain new employees rather than investing in public education. Moreover, without real commitments to hire more people of color and women, these companies not really creating opportunity for youth.

The idea seems to be that anyone can take this training and go into business for themselves--for example, building websites for local companies. First--the big companies know better: there are enough DIY platforms  (SquareSpace, WordPress--even Google's own platforms like Blogger and Plus) out there that this is not really a viable business model on its own for most people. As useful as they are, basic web and programming skills on their own are not enough to build a business or even land most sorts of computer-based jobs now, even outside of tech.

Second, if these companies are expecting young black and Latino youth to go out and become tech entrepreneurs with their new skills gained in nonprofit training, they're missing a few key pieces of information. As others have pointed out, it's not just a skills gap: it's a network gap. You need to know people who can afford your services or refer you to someone who does in order to get clients. Some of that is confidence and chutzpah, but a large part of it is tied to race, gender, and economic circumstances. It's notoriously difficult for anyone to get a job at Google: how is someone from a non-privileged background with a lack of connections supposed to figure it out?

These companies can begin to build bigger networks for people of color by making a serious effort to recruit people of color into their companies instead of trusting that they will work their way up as entrepreneurs.

Without purposeful commitment to hiring diverse employees, investments like Google's are little more than self-serving pomp.

*Is Oakland "next to" Silicon Valley? Or what about this stinker--in the live radio piece, Shahani stated that "hack" was "slang for making money in tech." Since when? Glad to see that edited out of the written article.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself

For anyone new to this blog:

I started blogging at Nairobi Notes to chronicle the somewhat bizarre life I led as an expat journalist in East and Southern Africa. I stopped blogging and removed old posts when I started law school back in the States in 2009.

I moved back to East Africa for work after years of working and living there before in another context. I was an exchange student through Brown University in Dar es Salaam from 2004-2005 and spent some time doing nonprofit media work on fellowship in 2006 before returning to work for an international media company in DC (and later Liberia). I took a two year assignment in Kenya and got involved in the tech scene while covering tech developments for work. I joined forces with the Bloggers' Association of Kenya: they provided amazing social support, advice, and networking opportunities. I found some longtime friends through that group, and I'm happy to see they (appear to be) thriving.

The "Fake Expatriate" pseudonym probably requires a little explanation. When I returned to East Africa for work I felt intruigued by the expatriate community and yet also outside of it. I spoke Swahili and had gone to school in the region; I already had a network of peers (primarily in Tanzania) who were dear friends, colleagues, and sometime roommates. I didn't need the network offered by the expat community. At the same time, I was interested in the expat culture--particularly around Nairobi. Huge villas, golf and horse racing, racial segregation, gossip and intrigue, school runs, and mommy blogging. It was better than reality TV. I can't pretend I don't enjoy creature comforts and gossip. Anyway, the username, silly as it is, describes how I felt at the time--e.g. "I'm an expat, but I'm just pretending," and, some days, "this is my home, but I'm pretending at that too."

I'm back in my home state of California now (jimbo la CA) in the middle of Second Coming of Tech. Things have changed so much here in the 10 years I've been away. The economy and culture of this place are experiencing dramatic shifts. That old feeling of being a stranger in my own home has returned with fervor. I'm a fake expatriate again, and It's time to write.

I'll be posting a little about that, mixed in with odds and ends and scraps of international news. Comments, discussion, and suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

South Sudan: “The driver for the present conflict is corruption."

Researcher Abraham Awolich, quoted in South Africa's Mail & Guardian:
The few South Sudanese that do not complain belong to the new elite, comprising of politicians and generals. They are enormously wealthy. “The driver for the present conflict is corruption”, concludes SSUD researcher Awolich.  It is therefore important for the leaders in South Sudan to keep or get the power because that alone guarantees access to the wealth of the country. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Building Roads Isn't Enough to Combat Somali Piracy

In Somalia, road building might lessen the immediate impact of piracy, but will actually enable even more people to participate in extortion and robbery. The solution to Somalia’s piracy troubles is more complicated but no less worthy of attention: reimagine the state, recognize Somaliland, and support functional self-governance.

In a forthcoming paper and recent post on The Monkey Cage, King’s College researchers Anja Shortland and Federico Varese propose building road infrastructure instead of focusing on statebuilding to combat piracy off Somalia’s troubled shores. At first glance, it is a rational economic solution to a serious and crippling problem: if people can trade amongst themselves, piracy won’t reign supreme as the source of income for many communities in the region. And roads are good for many more obvious reasons. Roads will allow people to access medical care, for example, and possibly widen trade opportunities within the greater East African region.

The researchers’ glaring omission, however, is what happens when the pirates take their crime on the roads. The authors are quick to point out that Somalia is largely governed by an informal tax system based on clan allegiance. The tax system, they write, more closely resembles extortion than a formal tax. But what happens when the tax income comes from a different source? Arguably, those with power will try to control the channels of transport by any means necessary to ensure they can maintain the income necessary to sustain their power—and the livelihood of their communities.

Many people with experience traveling in the region know that extortion on the road, from hijacking to corruption at government checkpoints is a scourge and hindrance to trade. With more goods moving by road in Somalia, more people will have an incentive to block that trade to extract their piece of the new influx of money to the interior.

How, then, can a sort of rule of law be enforced without a state—or state building?
The  international community needs to give up the seemingly futile task of state building without abandoning its commitment to the rule of law. To do so, donor nations and institutions should effort to support existing structures insofar as they do not violate international law and human rights. This can be accomplished in two major ways:

1) Reimagine the state.
Many Somali communities are organized by clan rather than region. Despite their occasionally criminal means of obtaining income, Somali clan leaders benevolent dictators, distributing food and money to people under their domain and helping resolve intercommunity disputes. If the international community views these communities as microstates, they might have more success at building semi-formalized institutions that work for everyone—including women and other marginalized members of society.

2) Recognize Somaliland statehood.
Somaliland has long sought regocnition of its self-declared statehood. It is the most “developed” region of Somalia in part due to its commitment to a rule of law based in its own legal system, which is a hybrid of colonial codes from India from the time of British rule and Xeer, the system of collective justice in which elders enforce collective judgment based on a sort of common law based in community knowledge and values. Somalia has long fought the separation of Somaliland from the rest of the country because Somaliland is the only thriving region in the country. Recognizing Somaliland’s statehood may threaten and provoke Somalia and Puntland to institutionalize in a way that works for them in order to gain their own economic power again.

Somalia needs infrastructure and security. But simply building roads and ignoring the rule of law altogether will be disastrous. Instead, the international community should invest in helping Somalia make effective and fair use of existing community structures and create incentives for neighboring regions by recognizing Somaliland’s independence.

Reviving the Blog

I'm bringing this back on Blogspot (Blogger, what what?) to get into the habit of writing again. You can still find me on twitter @nairobinotes.