Saturday, July 31, 2010

My First Real Matatu Ride (A Visit to Bondo University College)

This afternoon, Tom and I went to Bondo to meet Professor Agong, who is running the brand new Bondo University College, which will have several different schools, though the one I am most interested in is the School of Engineering, which will focus on renewable energy and doing work that will support the local community. We traveled there via matatu, which was relatively uneventful, other than the crazy guy that was bothering me while we waited and the fact that when we were almost to our destination, the matatu driver decided to change his route and take a turn. Such is life in Kenya. So we walked the rest of the way, probably 1-2 kilometers. Tom suggested that I take a motorbike, but I don't think I'm ready for that quite yet, so I said that we could just walk.

When we arrived, we were greeted very warmly by Professor Agong, and we went into his office. His assistant from Maseno University had come with him to Bondo, so it was nice to see her again as well. While I mainly brought Tom with me for help and protection, I also wanted him to come and meet Professor Agong because I am trying to help them work together and form some sort of formal collaboration. I am not sure what form that will take, but Professor Agong has already said that he wants to come visit the Fab Lab while I am here to further discuss the collaboration, which I think would be really great for the Fab Lab because they would have access to more students and to increased funding. Since they are not attached to any university, it is difficult for them to get any public funds in Kenya. However, if Bondo University were to get funds, they could allocate some to the Fab Lab.

Professor Agong seemed very happy to see me again, and has already invited me to become a junior lecturer at Bondo University, which I think would be a lot of fun. He has also asked that I come to stay at Bondo for next Monday and Tuesday, and even offered to accommodate me free of charge, which was very kind. So I'll be headed there early next week to discuss things a bit more with him. I think there is great potential for this collaboration, as the lab here could certainly use some more support and it would be a great place for the Bondo University students to do their practicals or to work on projects.

Professor Agong gave us a ride back because he was headed into Kisumu, and Tom and I went to check with Patrick, who had been working with the solar cells that I brought over from the U.S. Tomorrow he will be starting to do some testing to see if the batteries I brought can be charged using the solar cells and then determine how many LEDs we can light and for how many hours. This will be helpful for them as they move forward with their LED lamp project. Currently they have an inexpensive model that is electricity-charged but provides about 25 hours of light on one charge, which is much better than the similarly-priced lamps made in China. However, in order to really get the local community to accept the lamps, Tom and Patrick want them to be recharged by solar energy so that once a family buys a lamp, there is no additional cost unless something breaks, i.e. they don't have to pay for recharging. These lamps are meant to be an improvement over kerosene or paraffin lamps, which are health hazards and over time are very expensive. The reason they remain popular is because the up-front cost of one lamp and of the fuel is very low, whereas with the LED lamps the up-front cost is great (Ksh 20, 200 per week for fuel vs. Ksh 1500).

The rest of the evening I just relaxed in the Fab Lab, which was fun. I talked with some students and wrote this post. I also spoke to Aggre, Clarice's nephew, whom I met last time, and we will hopefully meet up tomorrow in Kisumu. I'll be there for the day at the trade show, since the Fab Lab has a table there, and I will also be able to meet some people from Kisumu Polytechnic. The Fab Lab at ARO collaborates with the polytechnic, so students come from there to be interns here. Hopefully it will be a fun day, and I'm excited to catch up with Aggre, especially since we can't communicate while I'm in the U.S.

Well, that's all I've done so far. I'm also making some plans for the 14th, when I will be in Nairobi for the day. Most likely I will see Tosh, and I'll also be meeting up with Claudia, another friend Ilana, and a professor and students from University of Hartford. Should be a fun day. If it turns out I have finished my research earlier than expected, I may head to Nairobi sooner. I would love to be able to have a night out at the clubs before I come back home.

My Introduction to the Fab Lab

At the airport, I met a girl from Australia, who was also flying to Kisumu. She said she was going to be volunteering for some NGO nearby. It seemed like she had been traveling for a long time, since she had been in Europe for some time, then flew from Athens to Dubai to Nairobi and then straight to Kisumu. She seemed a bit nervous about flying on Kenya Airways, but I reassured her that it was a safe airline, and that seemed to help. We saw a lady with the best shoes I've ever seen board the plane to Mombasa that left just before our flight. They were glittery leopard-print pumps. Does it get better than that?

Upon arrival to Kisumu, about 30 minutes late, I met Tom, the Fab Lab manager, as well as Dr. Wasuna, manager of ARC-Kenya, an NGO that is run out of the ARO Centre, where the Fab Lab is located. There were also two university students, Frederick and Marvin, who had been with Tom and Dr. Wasuna at the trade show in Kisumu for the day, so they rode with us to Majiwa. Majiwa is just outside of Bondo, Kenya, about an hour west of Kisumu on the highway. The car trip took a bit longer than that because the road from Kisumu up to the Kisian junction was so bad. Once we got onto Bondo road, the conditions were much better, probably because the Prime Minister is from Bondo – at least that's what I was told! By the time we reached the ARO Centre it was a bit late, so I had dinner and went to my room to get settled. The lady who is taking care of me is Susan. I told her that my mom's name is also Susan, which she thought was very funny. She has been making my meals and she cleans my room, so much like a real mother.

This morning I was to meet Dr. Wasuna and Tom at 9 am, so I had my breakfast and went to the meeting-place, which is near the center of the compound. The ARO Centre has close ties with a Norwegian NGO, and one of the projects they did was to build a large water tank to collect rainwater. On top of the tank, they built a great gazebo-like structure, which serves as a meeting-place. Also, they put in solar-powered water pumps to pump the water from the collection tank to the other buildings in the compound.

When I met Tom and Dr. Wasuna, I also met Michael and Patrick, two other guys who work at the ARO Centre. Michael is in charge of VCT, and does HIV testing and sex education, and Patrick is in charge of the Solar department, where he works on solar energy at the centre. Michael took me on a tour of most of the compound, introducing me to all of the other men and women who work here. They have a group of women who do weaving, a traditional medicine center, the VCT office where Michael works, a tractor and microfinance department that rents out a tractor for plowing and towing and provides loans, a childcare department that cares for orphans, a small and not well-equipped hospital, a guy who takes care of the dairy goats and chickens, a catering department, and then the solar department.

And, I almost forgot, they also have the Fab Lab. This was my last stop, where I sat and talked with Tom for quite a while, asking about the various projects going on and just trying to get to know him a bit. Patrick and Michael also sat with us for some time. I don't want to start doing any formal interviewing until I am acclimated and feeling more comfortable in my surroundings. Also, I don't think it would be good to jump right in and start hounding people I have just met with questions. I will be arranging interviews starting next week. Besides, I am under strict instructions from Clarice to lay low this weekend in case there are any flare-ups due to the coming referendum, which takes place next Wednesday. She just doesn't want me in any public places, though I'm sure I will be fine since she tends to be a bit overprotective. Not that that's a bad thing – I really appreciate her support while I'm here and she keeps telling me that if I ever think I am headed for danger, I should call her immediately, so that's really comforting.

3 (Short) Days in Nairobi

Monday morning I woke up early for breakfast, then rested for the remainder of the morning. I was exhausted from the flight and slept for 10 hours straight, which is really unusual for me. In the afternoon, I made plans to visit my friend Erik Hersman, who was a speaker at Better World '08 (the first year of the conference), and also an organizer of Maker Faire Africa. He has recently moved to Nairobi, where his company, Ushahidi, is based. He runs the company out of the new space he manages, called the iHub. The iHub is a workspace and incubator for small, mostly software, companies. The space is almost completely outfitted, though they have some touch-ups to do, and they will be renting out desk space to small companies in the coming months. They also have a great little cafe.

Monday night I met up with my friend Claudia, who works for a local NGO that does conflict resolution. They mostly work in the northeastern and northwestern parts of the country, so she often goes on field trips. Luckily, she had just returned from teaching a week-long workshop, so we were able to get together. We went to Java, a local cafe/coffee shop. Many of the people who go there are foreigners or the more cosmopolitan Kenyans, only due to the fact that most Kenyans don't drink coffee, so why go to a coffee shop? Everyone here drinks tea with lots of milk and sugar, which is great because I love tea. The best is the kind with lemongrass. It was great catching up with her, and so strange to hang out with a Brown friend while in Kenya, of all places.

Tuesday I ventured out of the guest house for a walk to the city centre, to use the ATM – big trip, I know! During the daytime, many people are out walking to or from work or taking a stroll during lunch hour. Only one guy hassled me about going on safari while I was out, so I consider myself lucky. After I returned and had lunch, I heard from Clarice, whom I had called the previous day. We arranged to meet the next day in the early afternoon. Then I headed to University of Nairobi to check out the Fab Lab there. I was able to network my way in, thanks to Steve, who got me in touch with Dominic Wanjihia, who works closely with the lab manager, Dr. Gachigi. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet Dominic or Dr. Gachigi during the one hour that I had to stop by the Fab Lab, but worked out with them that I would return later in the afternoon.

At 3, I headed to the IBM Nairobi office, where I met Tony Mwai, Country General Manager for IBM in Kenya, who also manages all operations in the East African region, which includes about 6 countries. He is a Kenyan, who lived and worked in the U.S. for 25 years, before being repatriated back to Kenya by IBM. He was a very nice guy and we had an interesting discussion, so I will definitely have a few things to look into once I return to the U.S. and to regular and speedy internet access. Most of the IBM websites won't load at the speeds I have been able to access here. After my meeting with Tony, I headed back to the University of Nairobi to try and meet Dr. Gachigi. When I arrived, I found Dominic there, and he told me about the biogas project he is working on, which sounds really great. There are pictures and more info on Erik Hersman's blog at

Finally, about an hour later, Dr. Gachigi arrived, and we spoke a bit about the projects going on in the lab as well as some of his goals as the lab manager. There are many students who use the lab, as well as some community members. They are also doing a program to incubate businesses started by students and other community members. Dr. Gachigi invited me to come back the next day in the late morning to hear more about some of the businesses, because they were going to be having a session about presenting to potential funders.

Wednesday I had to pack everything up in the morning and check out, as I would be flying out to Kisumu in the early evening. I hung around the reception area for a while, then called a cab to pick me up and bring me to the university. I think I forgot to mention that the driver that I used for most of the time in Nairobi was name Elephant. When I asked his name, he said, “Elephant.” I said, “Excuse me?” And he repeated, “Elephant.” I said, “Could you spell that?” He started to spell, “E-L-E...” and I interrupted. “Like the animal?” “Yes.” And then we both laughed. Anyway, he was very nice and took good care of me. While at the university, I learned more about the different businesses that were being incubated at the Fab Lab, mostly software and mobile applications, but there was also Dominic's company, which works on tools for rural development, as well as a company developing sanitary pads from local materials. (Julie, if you're reading this, I got her card for you!) I thought it was SHE, but it turned out to be a different social enterprise. I also met two Americans who had recently moved to Nairobi to start a venture capital firm. They'll be funding middle-level companies, who fall between SMEs and the very large corporations, which is very exciting for Kenya, as there is great demand for this type of funding.

Afterwards, I met Clarice back at the guest house and we (of course) went to Java for chicken and chips, a tradition from last summer. It was really fun to see her, and we had a great time catching up. She even brought me maize! I was so happy. We called Alice (her daughter) after lunch to say hi, and I wish she had been there with us. Then I had to go to the airport already. My time in Nairobi went too fast, as always seems to happen. Getting things done quickly is difficult, especially with all of the traffic and the fact that everyone is always late, but such is life. It was a fun three days.

The Saga Continues...One Year Later

I can't believe it's been a year since my last trip! I'm very excited to be back in Kenya. I feel much more comfortable here the second time, and I know how to get around and what to expect, which is great.

The trip to Kenya was very long and a bit stressful, but once I arrived at the Nairobi airport, got my phone working, and bought my plane tickets to Kisumu, I felt much better. The guy sitting next to me on the flight to Dubai was very talkative, and it turns out he runs a jewelry-making business in Jaipur, India. He was a Texan guy who had been living in India for at least 10 years, and was married to and Indian woman, yet he still referred to Jaipur as “a dump,” which I found interesting. I guess his business is there because that region is known for stone cutting. Still, one would think that since he now calls Jaipur his home, he might have a bit more respect for the place. Oh well.

The Dubai airport was a very cosmopolitan place. More duty-free shops than I've ever seen in one place plus an equal number of jewelry shops selling gold jewelry. I couldn't see much of the city from the plane, due to the haze, but I could just make out the outline of that really tall building, which (of course) I can't remember the name of. Side Note: If anyone is considering flying Emirates, do it! They have the best movie selection of any airline I have been on. Anyway, after Dubai, it was onward to Nairobi, just a short 5 hours. I managed to get a new SIM card, buy plane tickets, and get a cab to my guest house, so things went very smoothly, and there was even very little traffic on the way back into the city centre, which was so lucky. The roundabouts are what really cause trouble, especially during rush hour. There is traffic at all hours of the day, but it is much worse during rush hour times. Most of the roundabouts are controlled by police officers, but because they do not communicate with one another, the traffic situation is probably made worse due to the fact that they are there.

By the time I arrived at my guest house, it was after 4 pm. I was so happy to take a shower! I settled in for a little while, then arranged to meet up with my friend Tosh, who I met in Ghana last summer when I was at Maker Faire. He lives in Nairobi, and works for a program called Nairobits, which teaches ICT and design skills to young people in Kibera (one of the largest slums in Africa). He is a freelance print and web designer as well, so he does plenty of that on the side. We got pizza and hung out for a while – it was really nice to see a familiar face after such a long trip.