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TEDxRhodesU: The Tea Stop that taught me to listen

14 Aug

This is the transcript of the talk I gave at TEDxRhodesU – a summary version of this story already exists on the blog but this one expands the story as well as makes reference to new examples from other countries. Would love to hear your thoughts!

I was born in Port Elizabeth, studied at Rhodes and as all good BA students do when I graduated I went out to save the world. Being proudly South African I was keen on starting at home in my continent of birth and so off I went naively into the world. 10 years on I’ve travelled in Europe, the UK and all over Africa and these are some of the places that surprised me most. Can you guess where they are?

Surprised? So was I, but I was in for a lot of surprises working across Africa. The next surprise was less shock and more dawning realization that contrary to what I had been taught, Africa’s most valuable resources are in fact not its wildlife or minerals but rather its people. I have learnt that the most unrecognized and under-utilised resource in Africa is its people – particularly its women. Even today as the narrative of Africa is changing, the tales of the next great investment frontier focus on our gold, oil, diamonds, coal and gas. Maybe it’s just the “curse of the commodities”, but the people of our continent are as undervalued as ever. This manifests itself in our exclusion in the formation and management of aid programs, financial systems and even the monitoring of governance in our own countries.

However the few who have recognized this, and unleashed as well as nurtured this potential are reaping rewards, far greater than could ever have been expected. And so today I will be sharing with you this very simple lesson: if you want to work in a place (in any capacity: NGO, start-up, whatever) you need to listen to its people. I’m sure you’d all agree that all of us in this room are much more empowered than your average African.  But when last were you asked what needed to be done to improve infrastructure in your neighbourhood? Asked to rate your postal service? When last were you given the opportunity to nominate a Nobel Prize laureate? When last did one of the multitude of NGOs who regularly ask you for money, ask you how you would like it spent?  Or even account to you for how they spend it?

Sure, it sounds really simple. Obvious, even.  And yet so few governments, NGOs, corporations, anyone is doing so? Our continent is full of dynamic, strong, innovative, entrepreneurial people and yet we don’t seem to listen to one another. And of course this lesson applies globally – but I believe more so in Africa where the people are more often than not treated as nothing more than a source of labour – much as it was centuries ago.

The people who taught me to listen?  Their names are Anastasia and Esther, a Ugandan and a Kenyan who were my neighbours in Ngong, Kenya in 2008/2009.  Ngong is a township just outside Nairobi – about 25-30km from the city centre.  We lived in a ginormous 6 bedroom house, ironically a small house by Ngong standards.  Now don’t get me wrong, there were and are plenty of poor people living in tin shacks in Ngong – our neighbours across the road were 4 families sharing 3 shacks – BUT our neighbour to the right was a politician living in an 18 bedroom house.  It was all shacks and mansions, with nothing in between.…

So, sadly, we were living in a vastly unjust society where those who were trapped in poverty had very few options or opportunities to free themselves from its grip.  When a friend of mine came to visit us in Kenya, and wanted to do some volunteer work while there, I decided it was time to at least attempt to make some sort of difference in our neighbourhood.  My friend agreed, and a few days after she arrived we were sitting down to lunch with the two women I knew best in the community.  Enter Anastasia and Esther.  Both women were mothers and did not have jobs, yet they never described themselves as unemployed.  No Kenyan does, because even if you don’t have a job, you are always trying to start a business, sell something or do whatever piecemeal work you can find to keep you and your family alive.  Anastasia and Esther were no different.

The researcher in me quickly turned our lunch into a qualitative focus group, and the first surprising thing we learnt was that the primary barrier to employment or starting a business for these women was…any guesses? It wasn’t because of a lack of ideas, or a lack of access to funding.  Even though they lived in shacks it was not infrastructure issues that stopped them – it was a lack of affordable and trustworthy childcare.  Neither of these women had any family in Ngong, and any of their plans or activities needed to take this into account above everything else.  We explained that we each had R500 (Ksh5,000) to contribute to a business for them, and quite quickly they identified a gap in the market as well as some ideas on how to take advantage of this opportunity.  But before I tell you about all this there are a few things you need to know…

  1. Kenyans drink huge amounts of tea, as often as a cup is available
  2. This tea must be made in a very specific way to be considered proper tea by Kenyans.  Start with a pot of half water, half milk, add the teabags while this is still cold and then bring it all to the boil.  Once boiled add plenty of sugar – and there you go, the perfect cuppa!

Despite these two cultural characteristics the only place really to buy tea on the go was Nairobi Java House (the Kenyan equivalent of Mugg & Bean), and at a cost equivalent to about 40% of the monthly minimum wage per cup!  So the average Kenyan could not get tea on the go at all.  Anastasia and Esther suggested selling proper Kenyan tea, firstly from Esther’s home which was halfway up a long hill and close to several construction sites (and, we thought, thirsty construction workers) and secondly from mobile sites at taxi and bus ranks early in the morning and in the evenings to catch rush hour commuters. We even came up with a name, ‘The Tea Stop’ all before our first lunch together had even ended.

A week later the 3 of us were off on a bus to Karen circle, where a large gathering of commuters could be found, to give the mobile tea stand its first go. In the week leading up to this point we’d designed a logo, printed stickers for all equipment; bought trays and bags to transport everything around in, enough ingredients for about 1000 cups of tea, the equipment to make it in and finally a secure trunk for all this to be stored in. The permanent stand had also been set up outside of Esther’s home and so while we headed off to Karen, Esther stayed at home running this store and importantly looking after Anastasia’s children.

We only stayed 30 minutes that first session – we had a few logistical issues that made staying any longer not worth the time – but despite the limited time and despite the logistical issues Anastasia sold 35 cups at Ksh40 each, just 2 silver coins and made Ksh1400. Considering the minimum monthly wage for Kenya at the time was Ksh5500 (R550) this was a mind-blowing amount even when divided by two.

Each day was then split into two two hour shifts, one for each  rush hour, and each woman did one shift per day. This meant they were never away from their children for too long; had trustworthy and free child care in each other close by, and could continue their small home-based vegetable businesses as before.

Three months later they were earning R1200 (Ksh12000) per month working 2 hours a day each. This was more than twice the minimum wage then, and much more than both them and their employed husbands combined had earned before. And all this from a really small start-up investment and a willingness to treat the people involved as experts of their own context.

Anastasia and Esther continued to run ‘The Tea Stop’ for a further 2 years until they both moved out of Ngong. Their families average income increased by R70 per month during this time, not only because of ‘The Tea Stop’ but also because of the resources of time and seed money they could draw on  to embark on other endeavours, now that basic needs were taken care of.  Both were still running businesses when we last had contact in early 2011 – Esther was running a tailor and ‘design studio’ in the Lake Victoria region and Anastasia was a farmer in the Aberdares.

The project was a success overall, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were challenges and failures. One that stands out is that the project did not continue beyond Anastasia and Esther. We as a group failed to share or pass on our learnings, ideas and success. We proved it could be done with them but we didn’t take it beyond them. The permanent stand outside of Esther’s home did not work and soon closed and so we had wasted money on equipment for the permanent stand, which in hindsight was unnecessary. Yes despite all this the project still proves that the most important resource was not the cash available, nor any sort of corporate backing nor an extensive marketing machine, but rather the people involved. The key to this project’s success lay in understanding the beneficiary’s actual circumstances and tapping into their extensive local knowledge and insight.

One story is not enough to prove the point though and so let’s look at another…from Ghana. When the local knowledge and insight of the employees of Blue Skies Ghana was accessed they not only saved the company, diversified the product line and created a new market but also increased revenues to record highs. In 2007 Blue Skies Ghana was a fruit juice and canned fruit company who, because of their focus on exports to Europe, were suffering massive financial losses as the recession withered up their market. After several failed turnaround attempts management called the staff together to inform them that the company would have to close.  The staff, consisting mainly of fruit processors and machine operators, asked management to hold off on this for 3 weeks while they attempted to find a solution. The next day they came back suggesting that the company scale down on their tinned fruit and juice production for Europe and instead sell fresh fruit locally.  Management said this would never work – ‘we have no local distribution network, no drivers, no trucks…’, so that day each employee took home two boxes of fruit and sold them in their local neighbourhoods.  They did this for a week before collecting together all the cash accumulated and handing it over to an astonished management, who now had not only more cash in hand than they had had in months but also a new business model and market! This type of success lies waiting for all who work in Africa and are prepared to listen.

The consequences for failing to listen go far beyond the possible closure of businesses – it can cost human lives.  This has been seen throughout Africa in the fight against malaria.  Nets are distributed but are turned into fishing nets and animal traps almost as soon as they are handed over and so the very well-intended fundraising and distribution of these anti-malarial products have very little effect on rates of infection at all. Because as 45 year old Kenyan Duncan Nyambega puts it: “Dying from Malaria is much quicker and less painful than dying from hunger.”  The exact figures vary from country to country,  but use of mosquito nets for their intended purpose ranges from 26% – 51% at very most. And let’s be honest here, they’re not the best way to spend money if you’re trying to enhance food security either.

So by not taking the time to understand the beneficiaries or their local context, millions of dollars in equipment and hours worked are wasted, which in turn means unnecessary lives are lost – just because nobody listened.

There is a Swahili proverb that says ‘Listening is the most difficult skill to learn and the most important to have.’ I’d go further and say without it no project can be truly sustainable nor impactful.  It’s important to be clear that when I talk of listening I mean the broad definition of ‘to pay attention, to heed’ and not simply the biological process of hearing sound. It involves gaining an extensive understanding of the specific local context you will be working in. This would preferably be gained first hand by living local (local local not expat local –  that means not living in the one expat subrubs with all the other foreigners, it means buying your food where everyone else does, using public transport even just occasionally, socialising with your neighbours, consulting the local news and learning at least the basics of the local language/languages). If you really can’t do all this yourself then at least recognize the need heavily to involve local expertise.

Make sure you take the time to involve beneficiaries at every level,and really talk to them, so you understand their actual circumstances and the real barriers they encounter to overcoming these circumstances.  If you do these two simple things, the potential for progress and success is massive, but even bigger will be the new opportunities for you also to learn and grow at a personal level.

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