Thursday, February 20, 2014

Essays: Feedback Loops + Insight into Value Chain Development

A partnership between Global Giving and Feedback Labs was announced in the form of an internship. This is an essay I wrote in response to the following prompt for the intern application:


The essay was supposed to be based off of the idea of feedback loops. Upon my research, I came across this article in Wired Magazine: Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops.

The article provided ample insight into the concept of feedback loops. According to Wired, a feedback loop involves four distinct stages:
  1. Data: A behavior must be measured, captured, and stored. This is the evidence stage. 
  2. Relevance: the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant.  
  3. Consequence: The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead. 
  4. Action: There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch us closer to our goals.
The article goes into much deeper detail into the different facets of feedback loops. It is quite the interesting read. It inspired my mobile money platform based response essay below. You are welcome to take a look at what I came up with!

At the end of the essay, I also provide brief Author's notes as I wanted to have my essay reviewed before submission. About 1 year ago, I got in contact with a professional who has done a great deal of work in Value Chain Development (great stuff!) and it's role in new business model generation. The notes allude to her work. It's important that international development not only focus on new ideas and innovation such as feedback loops but also whether these concepts actually create value.

Looking at my fictional experiment through the lens of value creation could provide some insight into human-centered service/product design.

What do you think?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Beyond cutesy jewelry and Social Enterprise: Building off of Etsy’s creative economy

Many social enterprises aim to sell “marketable” items using labor from economically disadvantaged demographics. However, the crux of many of these business is that the so-called  “bottom of the pyramid” worker is depending on the Western consumer to accept services and goods from them so that they can have a livelihood.

The truth of the marketplace is that no one needs to buy 48 dollar baskets just because it’s going to help poor women. It is a noble idea indeed but I myself began to question this social enterprise practice of “buy for pity”. Tal Dehtiar of Oliberte Footwear became very hyper-sensitive to this trend when he first headed up a footwear line sourced and produced in Africa:

When we first started, I didn’t want to do the Africa angle,” he says, a seemingly strange statement about a company that markets the continent in its tagline. “Our first ad was very stereotypical Africa. It was a picture of an African face—a Maasi warrior. I hated it.” He stopped using the ad the following year. “We’ve gone from portraying a very stereotypical image of Africa to now selling pride instead of pity. But it’s a challenge, because some stores want the stereotypical Africa branding.
The balance,” says Dehtiar, “is how do I do the Africa angle without doing the part I hate: ‘Buy because you feel bad about Africa.

Dehtiar admits that he is still developing his business model but what may set him apart from the seemingly do-gooder social entrepreneur is that because he is not relying on simple marketing tropes he has the incentive to innovate. “When it comes to footwear,” Dehtiar says, “we don’t want people to think of Africa as the next China. We want them to think of it as the next Italy—think quality.” Perhaps Dehtiar is making the first step in acknowledging what really appeals to the “Western consumer”.

Patrick Hanlon writes in Forbes article Consumerism: From Mass To Micro-Consumer: “Just as China leaps forward to develop their 1.3 billion population into the largest mass consumer market in the world, paradoxically the USA lurches toward its next evolution of capitalist chic: micro-consumerism.”

Is the key to unlocking this rising micro-consumerism in the form of buzzwords such as  “mass customization” and “customer co-creation”? Stateside enterprises such as Etsy have already succeeded in developing these kinds of models for consumer value creation. Thousands of merchants are able to design, develop and sell their products to the specifications of their customers in bundles or in a single product. In order for social enterprises to be treated as more than another "do good invention" with niche marketing strategies, we must surrender to the fact that brands such as Oliberte are emerging market/developing country brands and they must fight for respect in the marketplace. This can be done also through innovative value creation.

Jack Hughes of Harvard Business Review writes about “What Value Creation Will Look Like in the Future”:

“Value creation in the future will be based on economies of creativity: mass customization and the high value of bringing a new product or service improvement to market; the ability to find a solution to a vexing customer problem; or, the way a new product or service is sold and delivered.”

We can provide jobs for economically disadvantaged women in Kenya or Ecuador. That’s great! But are we finding innovative ways to source materials? Why are you only selling/marketing your bracelets to people OUTSIDE of the country you are doing business in? Are there not potential business partners in the cities of Nairobi and Quito who would be willing to buy some aspect of your product and have you as a supplier?

“Social enterprise” is still a emerging field and only time will tell which directions it will go in but I believe we must err on the side of caution to prevent from it becoming another form of charity.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Understanding the emerging (African) market consumer --- Never NOT acknowledging the informal market

Vahid Monadjem of new company Nomanini, has developed a product that dispenses prepaid airtime (instead of the scratch card) which he believes will adequately build upon/revolutionize how the informal market does business. Given the increasing interest in ICT for Development, there is seeming disregard for how these emerging market or BoP populations actually use technology. Monadjem, having done research as a Mckinsey & Company’s global fellow for emerging market product development, explains his hypothesis for the real origins of Africa's "mobile revolution"
I think the scratch card has really opened up the possibility to serve deeper and deeper into underserved markets… I don’t think the mobile revolution in Africa would have happened without the scratch card… That was the best method available and that was kind of the benchmark we were trying to improve against.
Nomanini helps traders print airtime simply from different retailers
It's been purported that about 70 percent of the "bottom billion" live in Africa , most notably by Dr. Paul Collier of Oxford. Yet, the informal economy accounts for 80 percent of new jobs across the continent and is a major contributor to wealth. So who are we making products for and what do entrepreneurs have in mind when they make products for these people? It seems Mr. Monadjem has given the world real insight into the "bottom billion" with his Nomanini product. Even the word Nomanini--which means "anytime" in Zulu--is testament to the idea that the bottom billion may be much more variable than the "living on $2 a day" characteristic.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hodge Podge August : 1 year revisited

culture is nothing new. From the nooks and crannies of the "bottom billion" to the attics of perceived "social recluse" kids, the act of backyard product development has long been a testament to human ingenuity. However, the motivations for "making" for those in less than underserved communities could be taken as being noticeably different than those who are in a comfortable position to "tinker" away at their homemade gadgets.

Nonetheless, education is the equalizer in both instances. We have three stories: The Georgia Tech Makerspace, Alex Odundo of Kenya and his rural made machines and the Beat Making Lab. The story of Georgia Tech's maker lab and its' quest to "democratize" the practice of engineering says that amid the debate over the future of colleges/universities (Are they necessary? Do they really prepare students? More online classes!), physical institutions of higher learning provide the necessary knowledge transfer environment to revolutionize they way learning is done.  All three examples presented --- were either created  or enhanced by some interaction with a University. When Mr. Odundo found out that one his prototypes that he had been working for years was already being crowd funded by another company, he was staying with Stanford PhD material science candidate Andrew Byrnes in Menlo Park. He was convinced to do an Indiegogo crowdfunding project for the Victoria Innovation Center. The Beat Making Lab is a creation of UNC Chapel Hill.

The Chicago Boys story is hailed as a "striking example of an organized transfer of ideology" and how ideas can penetrate more than aid in the development and non profit space. Whether Beijing can follow (or want to follow) in Chile's footsteps remains to be seen as more emerging markets work together.

In a micro scale example, Toyota trained an under-equipped food bank in New York in its' Kaizen supply chain method resulting in increased delivery capacity and shortened lines.

I have created a TUMBLR offshoot as a part of my "rebranding" effort. Hopefully it gives me the opportunity to condense information that I come across on a daily basis. You can follow me at

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Unlimited & Unleashed: Visualizing the gaps in African movements...and my own career

Comparing Africa to the United States is like "comparing a 300-year-old man with a 50-year-old child".  A highly fragmented and ever evolving child at that.

During the opening address of the 2012 Africa Gathering DC conference (which I had the pleasure of attending), Her Excellency Tebelelo Seretse, Ambassador of Botswana made it a point to demonstrate that the constant "contradiction" of glossing over every African nation as an entire conglomerate country rife with war, famine and poverty hurts the advancement of the region. It also hinders nuanced perceptions of African stories/history as well as ignores the goal of creating customized development solutions.

Africa Gathering DC was a series of break-out sessions and discussions driven by critical thinking. Ambassador Seretse, herself used the case of her own Botswana's history with democracy. "Botswana is the only country in Africa that has stayed democratic since Independence". This "kgotla" system is made-up of community-based traditional democratic councils. As a result of this system, Botswana even has a Global Peace Index higher than the United States. I wonder how many people know that!

Just a snapshot of issues covered at the gathering:
  • Who really benefits from the arising "Tech Boom"?
  • Can we move production through technology?
  • "Pitching Traditional African Media is particularly important".
  • "Men need to engage other men [in health and wellness of women]".
  • What rifts do the African Neo-Diaspora (most recent immigrants) have with countrymen back home?

Underneath all of these ideas and well-founded concerns, there lies a quite penetrating issue that seemed to gather. This issue could shape the future socio-economic development of the African region if it is to take advantage of its' steady growth. And that is the organizational development of inclusive, innovative African-grown organizations and social innovation movements. Upon my own research, it seems that the concept of organizational development can take quite fluid definitions:

“Organization Development is the attempt to influence the members of an organization to expand their candidness with each other about their views of the organization and their experience in it, and to take greater responsibility for their own actions as organization members. The assumption behind OD is that when people pursue both of these objectives simultaneously, they are likely to discover new ways of working together..."-- Neilsen, “Becoming an OD Practitioner”, Englewood Cliffs, CA: Prentice-Hall, 1984, pp. 2-3.
"Organization Development is a body of knowledge and practice that enhances organizational performance and individual development, viewing the organization as a complex system of systems that exist within a larger system, each of which has its own attributes and degrees of alignment. OD interventions in these systems are inclusive methodologies and approaches..." -- Matt Minahan, MM & Associates, Silver Spring, Maryland

Photo from Angola “Woman carrying books”
An attempt to put it simply: organizational development could be described as the "management of change". This practice may seem quite naive and less-than-pragmatic for an entire region but at its' core it is really precisely what I overhear most people emphasize regarding African-based organizations, especially African governments. However, in recent years the focus has shifted away from government but instead to African-led movements in the larger community. With all of these ideas generating and springing up, in what ways can they be efficiently integrated for the benefit of bridging gaps between societies of people? I think this is where access to information and knowledge can play a role. A simple library book challenged a boy by the name of William Kamkwamba of Malawi to build a windmill in his backyard despite having limited English language skills or engineering training. Of course these stories are treated as exceptions to the rule like here but are they really all that surprising in the developing world? I have recently thought about the possibility of constant streams of “transformative” information that can lead to stable, progressive change. Furthermore, the role that information access has on the fostering of entrepreneurship is quite penetrating. Looking from a the angle of information and communications technology alone: "the benefits range from giving small businesses the ability to access new markets, obtain knowledge and skills they need adopt more ef´Čücient cultivation of crops and increase their competitiveness by offering better goods and services" (Sajda Qureshi, As the global digital divide narrows, who is being left behind?). Moreover, as the title of Qureshi's article suggests, those who are left behind can also benefit from being connected. It is therefore imperative that the innovative thought processes coming out of the hubs and incubators of urban Africa are reaching those who can benefit the most because widespread entrepreneurial activity depends on the intersection of technologies and culture in its' surrounding environment.

Personally, I hope to become a "curator" of such information which I believe can give the poorest and most underserved the freedom to express themselves SUCCESSFULLY (so that can provide for their communities) and without fear. Whether that information is big data or vibrant visuals: KNOWLEDGE is power.

-N. R. M

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Tech Hub : An African-Driven Innovation?

For about half of the year, I read nothing but the word "Tech Hub" or "Tech Lab".

Adam Jackson of TechCrunch recently wrote an article entitled "If Start-ups can be built in Ghana, Africa They can be built in Cleveland, Ohio". The title, while offering congratulation to the MEST Incubator center in Ghana, in the same token seems slightly demeaning to African accomplishment. As one commenter put it:

I feel like people should stop downplaying Africa, like it isn't a multifaceted continent, with people of different backgrounds and capabilities. The Moors of Egypt had one of the most fascinating civilizations prior to being conquered (which took hundreds of years to do). There are villagers to billionaires in Africa, so stop with the "if Ghana can do it, then people in Cleveland can." Of course they can! That is what is so fascinating about the web and mobile market. No one is limited by location anymore.

And I completely agree.

That aside, the article points out a growing facet of the African/emerging markets growth story. And it involves technology. The African mobile landscape has proved a viable investment for developing business start-ups. I think the slight advantage that emerging markets have over its' more developed counterparts is that they possibly have the benefit of developing (albeit from behind) in a more efficient and socially beneficially manner.

Where the government has failed its' African citizens, the rapid advancement of Web 2.0 puts the power in the hands of a younger generation. Whether it is testing out cards for transportation or creating whole transformational platforms like Ms. Juliana Rotich of Ushahidi has done for Kenya and abroad.

oAfrica has an effective breakdown of The World Bank report, "Information and Communications for Development 2012: Maximizing Mobile" HERE, which outlines the future of mobile and it's role in emerging

There is a void in the market to fill here and hopefully it can be properly scaled and replicated for the benefit of many citizens.

Monday, August 6, 2012

HODGE PODGE AUGUST: A collection of ideas and sources

Yes... I am quite ashamed of myself for not keeping up with this darling but schoolwork (a.k.a my life) caught up with me quite drastically. But that hasn't stopped my brain from raking up with ideas and personal projects. I'm going to try to put together a culmination post  including all of  the inspirational obsessions that I have come across these past two months including my own take on certain issues as well. Well let's get started:

In my previous post, I expressed the need for viable artist/artisan collections centres in Africa. This is a need that has been addressed on many levels throughout the region. Of course, textiles are also apart of this. I remember one evening I was watching a CNBC documentary on J. Crew and its' turnaround as a company. There was a particular scene, where CEO Mickey Drexler goes to Italy to pick out fabrics at one of Milan's textile warehouses.  There were fabrics/textiles swatches dating back to as far as the 1700s held in a large collections of books. This to me signifies in part the reason why European/American fashion is so penetrating in our everyday lives. There is a sustained heritage. It's not so much about Gucci as it is about Italian leather. It's not so much about Chanel as it is about French silk. Not so much about Levi's as it about American denim or the white cotton tee. 

Africa in terms of economics, has always been able to produce its' own goods and in terms of fashion it can offer something other than a trend. SUNO, founded by Max Osterweis  is a micro-scale example of what can happen when African fashion focuses on developing and collecting local textiles/techniques to produce unique luxury brands through the use of vintage Kenyan kangas. Most importantly, developing African-made textiles is necessary to establishing African design as an innovative force to reckoned with. Online consultancies such as AfricanFashionGuide and Source4Style are at the forefront of this growing industry. Picture sources (from left to right): 1,2,3

Sources (L to R): 1,2,3
Two months ago, I read an article in WIRED UK, on the rising influence of pop star Lady Gaga's manager Troy Carter. After years of working the music business, Carter along with the help of several key Silicon Valley developers formulated a social media model called Backplane based on online fanbase communities. The first Backplane-powered site was that of (for Lady Gaga). The site requires a login similar to GILT GROUPE and is set to provide Miss Gaga with a platform to pass on important information. I began thinking immediately of how a Backplane-powered site could be used to connect farmers/collectives in "FAIRTRADE" countries to suppliers everywhere. There are times when I think that FAIRTRADE has become a marketing route for selling products to the "hipsters and tree-huggers" (as the conservative base would call them) of the developed nations. Who says that consumers in emerging markets don't want to buy fairtrade--or organic--too? Or that a small-scale farmer in Ecuador can't competitively bargain with a grocery owner in Botswana and vice versa? Perhaps a social media outlet such as a Backplane-powered site can help to expand the power of fairtrade among small commerce. While trading sites such as the Chinese Alibaba already provide hubs for business-to-business transactions, whether or not subscribers are certified FAIRTRADE isn't immediately verifiable. Not to mention, an online community could provide farmers with a to trade equipment and tips as well as enhance the usage of mobile banking.

Being that developing a social-value based high end brand is one of those things I have sketched in my composition book of dreams, I found this list to be quite informative. Here are some bits and pieces that I found interesting:

There were definitely other innovative things that caught my eye these past two months, that I can't quite think of at the moment but I will be sure to cover those in subsequent posts (hopefully without such a long period of absence this time!)

By the way be sure to follow me: TUMBLR | TWITTER