Education Odyssey: a class of notables: makers of a nation

The Kenyan students airlifts to study in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s could as well been one of the most defining moments of Kenya at the cusp of new independent Kenya. The impact of the airlifts, which boost an incredible alumni pool, has had reverberations for Kenya for decades even after the programme ended. The foresight, dedication of the organizers catapulted Kenya to become one of the few African countries that was ready for post-independence Kenya.

The term ‘class of notables’ is thought to have famously been uttered by Carey Francis, in reference to Alliance High School class of 1945. They blazed the trail to what become one of the most consequential achieving alumni class of that time.

The spillover effect in terms of economic, political and social ramifications for Kenya and the region has been phenomenal to say the least. The airlifts helped Kenya prepare for what happened after independence in 1963. It laid the groundwork for Kenya’s political and economic take-off for the newly independent nation.

Most of them came back and took important positions in the newly formed government. the policies, and strategies put forward by majority of these men and women propelled Kenya to become a leader in the region and Africa as a whole.

It could as well have been Kenya’s finest ‘hour’ in terms quest for education and spearheaded by the late Tom Mboya. Though there were challenges shortly after independence especially with assassination of Tom Mboya and period of slower growth, corruption, ethnic divisions later on, Kenya still laid a firm foundation in terms of ability of Kenya’s to take over from the Brits in terms leadership and steering the country into the future. By 1965, there was a considerable number of people who had a university degree and were absorbed into government ministries and local universities as they came up later in the next decade. Educating the populace, and at a fast pace, was important ingredient to enable the African nations propel their own destiny after independence. DRC, at the time of independence, some studies show that only 16 people had a university education. In Kenya, between 1959-63 more than 500 students were part of the airlifts.

At the Centre of the Airlift was Tom Mboya, Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano and several others.

The period boosts men and women who went on to do great things. All those who went to study abroad during that period were not direct beneficiaries of the airlifts since some like Barack Obama snr went on their own but can be summed up as being part of the airlift generation:

Tom Mboya: Firebrand and main advocate for the programme. even met John F Kennedy, when he was senator who later became president. JFK gave a $100,000 grant. Mboya’s also looped in other key personalities to support the programme: Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson.

Julius Gikonyo Kiano (first kenyan to obtain a doctorate degree, 1956).

Prof Wangari Maathai: Left in the 1961 airlift. first African woman to win Nobel Prize. Also a lecturer at university of Nairobi and later assistant mister in Kibaki’s government in 2002.

Barack Obama Senior: made his own way to US not through the airlift but is considered to be part of period of high number of Kenyans seeking education abroad at the period.

Others who had early influence on African modern education:

Aggrey James: from Ghana, earned a PHd from Columbia university in 1898. Sometimes called, Booker T Washington of Africa or ‘Father of African education’.

Jaramogi also organized other programmes mainly from the Soviet Union.

At the time there was ideological differences about western American versus Soviet education.

anyhow,

‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it’-
― Frantz Fanon

Ability to foresee the new world developments and ensure the people anticipate and are ready is one of core pillars of advancements in modern world. I would marry this viewpoint with generational shift thinking. Either people can be optimistic or pessimistic about the future and they can plan for it or just roll by. When the future is deemed to be better than the present, there is  more rigid planning for it and anticipation. There are also better frameworks, better politics and institutions. When the future seems bleak, there is a culture of taking shortcuts in order to get out as soon as possible before everything comes crumbling down. I think the period 1950s-1960s there was a lot of optimism, followed by pessimism period between 1970s through to early 1990s. The early 2000s were period of optimism leading up to Kibaki coming to power. This was again followed by period of pessimism post election violence and all. I think we might be still in that period but maybe not evenly distributed, i think many might disagree with this.

The organizers,benefactors of the Kenyan Airlift programme did what they deemed fit for themselves and their people. In the end their impact reverberated beyond themselves. We might not know it yet, but our actions now will be judged years to come as to whether we contributed to betterment of ourselves and our people or not. It’s good to have a longer term vision once in a while even if we might not achieve it, but we dared to dream: and that might just be enough.

ed. Note: Although i praise the efforts made to gain formal education, it by no means indicate that there was no education by Kenyans/Africans in general before the European colonisation. It would be very naive to assume/conclude that. Evidence exists to show the technological progress by many African regions prior, eg Ancient Benin City.  But that’s a long story to cover in another post, maybe. However, the gist of this article is appreciating the need for people to harness new realities in order to survive in the modern world. The context is therefore based on and after the independence.

The title and overview is partly inspired  by the book: Kenyan Airlifts to America 1959-1961 An educational odyssey. more here.

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Skin in the game

In his ongoing war with journalists, policy makers, bankers, Nobel prize for economics winners, the establishment and New York Times, Nassim Nicholas Taleb outlines why majority of  people who have immense control over a lot of people have no real ‘skin in the game’;meaning that they only benefit from upsides and not the downside. The book can be alienating and I find it hard to agree with everything but also eye-opening into understanding dynamics.

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Let me summarize what stood out for me:

  1. when thinking about solutions, think about how they relate with each other, asymmetries. for example, in international intervention policies, think about local alternative not international standard

2. bureaucrats and decision making. some who give advice/make policy have no downside to the decisions made but only upside. He makes a close linkage between financial crisis of 2008. banks get bailed out by taxpayers when they make unsound decisions, so ordinary people face downsides for bad decisions made by managers, but manager get paid nonetheless. Also, when politics become so detached from the ground, it ends up being about policies that have nothing to do with welfare of people it was meant to serve in the fist place; and become a game of musical chairs for the elite and bureaucrats.

3. Always look out for ‘what’s in their portfolio’. ie why people like hedge fund managers are best winners when their fund succeed and also losers when it fails: because they have put their money in the fund. So look out for biases when receiving/giving advice.

4. Don’t tell me about your politics, show me how you live your life. It is very easy to become political without really doing anything about it.

5. Decentralization reduces large structured asymmetries. When responsibility is spread over large area, ownership of projects, communities, it increases stability of the system, same with political systems, should work from the ground up.

6. On Solutions: interventionist solutions are not as good as they are painted to be. Most times, the solution is simple and direct. If you have to make countless presentations, graphs, completely altering the way people live and behave, it’s probably not the most appropriate solution.

7. What matters is not how many times you are right about outcomes, but how much gains are achieved when you are right.

8. Peer reviews: beware of making things to impress peers, colleagues and missing the real target audience. Same with some donor policies, architects to impress other architects and so on..

9. have deep understanding of the problem before writing the equation.

10. TORTS; common law regulating how people relate with each other is better than complicated bureaucratic regulations that only seek to create more ‘positions’ for bureaucrats when they are solving the cases. This is particularly in the case of new industries. When we are not aware of all the consequences, sometimes it’s better to have sandboxes, rather than outright ban and those that harm others are directly held responsible not blanket regulations: this is cue to crypto. lol , beware of ‘administrator’ whose job is to over complicate a problem in order to benefit from interpreting it.

11. Sometimes, better fences make better neighbours/ you are more likely to get along with your neighbour than your roommate.

12. Word of mouth from a genuine and satisfied users beats any ads all the time. This is the ultimate goal when making any product.

13. You can be different things at different stages/states.

14. we are prone to transfer risk from present to the future, even if the future is catastrophic. delaying risk somehow makes us think, it wouldn’t happen.

15. Minority rule: we live my minority rule, they are the revolutionaries, the change makers, from food industry, activists, etc. It just takes time, but they are usually the spark. Never underestimate the power of active, intolerant and courageous minority.

16. Asymmetries of life: for things that move,(eg market forces) the average does not matter. The extreme outcomes shatter all the preconceived expectations

17. Observe things in dynamics not statics alone. Relationships with each other rather than one-sided. Not everything is black or white. Just because you don’t see/understand it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. argumentum ad ignorantiam: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. sometimes it could mean that no careful research has been done yet, or not the right tools were used.

18. Freedom is never free, it entails some level of risk.

19. In ever changing and dynamic world of work, aim to be judged by your outputs not inputs. Because of asymmetries/power laws, sometimes inputs are not directly related to outputs. Sometimes outputs can be 10x. Outputs and inputs only work for structured work; machine like.

20. Lindy effect: the longer you wait, the more you will be expected to wait. or simply, for a technology, idea, book, art, that has been existence for 100 years, any additional time that it exists means  extension of life span for a longer period.

21. If you want peace, make people trade with each other.

 

 

 

 

Africa can also create solutions for the world

The phrase ‘we are living in interesting times’ could never be truer. We indeed are. My ability to write these words on this site such that anyone located anywhere in the world with access to internet can read was something that was just starting to be conceived 20 years ago but was inconceivable to vast majority of the human population. Even now, it is still incomprehensible to almost half of global population how the internet works. A whole new economy has emerged on the internet redefining how we communicate, work and live. And it is only just beginning.

In this new digital revolution age, there is nothing stopping Africans from creating solutions for the rest of world despite our state of economies. This does not mean that we neglect or fail to solve the current problems pervading the continent: food shortages, healthcare, poor infrastructure and the rest. We should of course dedicate major resources to solving these. However, I also think that the new technological revolution powered by technologies such as internet, blockchain, internet of things, smart cities can also be contributed by Africans and be used in different parts of the world. I think It is therefore okay not to think local when developing something or thinking about a solution. With these new technologies the possibilities of new careers has been stretched further.

I think this possible because new economies will be powered by whole new business models some of which do not exist yet or have not become mainstream yet. Furthermore, the new developments are powered by digital technologies which are not limited by current national boundaries. Young people have a chance to learn these and apply them anywhere. The definition of work boundaries is rapidly changing. Someone can work with a client in another continent without setting foot in a plane.  The convergence of digital technologies that are powering the third industrial revolution, will change how people work and geopolitical boundaries will be redefined. This is already happening. For example, a computer programmer, a graphic designer, a writer can work for a company in USA from Kenya. A blockchain developer or miner can be part of a global interconnected crypto community and using computers to verify transactions for a person halfway around the world. There is no reason why a developer in any part of Africa cannot build software that is deployed or used in another part of the continent and beyond. The interconnected nature of the new world is such that we can learn about what is happening in another part of the world almost instantaneously. Knowledge and information is now decentralized like never before. When a new way of doing things is discovered in one part of the world, it easily spreads to other parts of the world. Therefore a young person living in Kenya can develop expertise about a particular subject and use that know-how to provide skills to another person or company  regardless of geographical location.

The convergence is also being powered by ability of people to work and collaborate over vast distances through peer to peer networks. Authority and influence is also shifting from vertical to horizontal. Unlike the past industrial revolutions that were highly resource intensive and could only work in a centralized manner, the new digital connectivity means information is fast and the cost of production brought down significantly, at least for virtual related world. Barriers to entry such as technical know-how and capital have significantly been reduced in new digital era.

Smart governments understand this and are laying the groundwork to anticipate these changes. The initial infrastructural costs of powering these developments will be very important in setting the ball rolling.  This will further inform better policy rather than outright banning or copy-pasting policy. For example, the way Kenyan government set out to lay the ambitious undersea internet cable was a leeway for increased connectivity rates, at least in urban areas that has unleashed opportunities in the internet space.

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Africa Undersea cables, 2014. image courtesy of mybroadband

Government players, institutions such as universities, research bodies should be intentional about wanting to facilitate these developments.  Funds will need to be directed to research, training and awareness  on these new areas:fast and affordable internet, internet of things, smart grids systems, distributed systems. The knowledge gained in these areas can be used globally especially for blockchains which adopts a decentralized architecture. If our people are equipped with that mindset, nothing stops us from using our skills and opportunities to work and collaborate and build solutions for people across boundaries notwithstanding local situations.

It is hard to stop an old system all at once, but what we can do is begin to channels state and local funds. At some point the economy will be made up of hybrid populace both in terms of skills and world-view. We will have a section of the population that reside locally but work for a company in SA for example, with colleagues in Seattle, Shenzhen and Buenos Aires. Instead of just waiting for free-market forces to dictate the way forward, intentional steering while allowing for creativity and innovation around these areas would push us forward. This would also make us not just consumers of these new technological products but also makers of them and hopefully bringing the African experience to the world stage.

 

Documentaries

In this post, I share some of recent documentaries I have enjoyed. They are not based on any particular topic but areas of general interest.

Shenzhen: silicon valley of Hardware: Shenzhen’s approach to innovation and building companies is quite different from Silicon Valley’s. The major prevailing notion is that Shenzhen and generally China’s innovation is based on copycat mentality. But this documentary explores this idea more to show that it is rooted on idea and opinions on open-source and intellectual property and that instead of always building things from scratch, sometimes it is easier, faster and more efficient to make improvements on existing products. Funny how the concept of open source seemed far-fetched but is now going mainstream especially with things such as public blockchains. Also some other things like the inevitable process of gentrification that is as a result of government trying to ‘upgrade’ a place.

Another closely related documentary is: Holy Land: Startup Nations, Israel’s innovation  amidst the prevailing conflicts with Palestine which has also its own share of innovation and how innovation permeates the prevailing social/political situation in the region. Other themes include influence of military training on innovation- most young people first join military at 18 before proceeding to college. Click here for the full video. Innovation and ideology are closely tied.

 The revenge of electric car: story of the complicated journey of start, almost failure and re-birth of electric cars. What many might not know is that GM was actually first to manufacture electric car long before Tesla, then stopped, saying they would never work, and that’s just in 2005. Then later, the launch of Tesla in 2008 revamped the excited from other manufacturers and now mainstream electric cars seem a reality more than ever.

 

The men who built America: A three part docu-series about a small group of industrialists pioneered various industries. John Rockefeller(Standard Oil), Cornelius Vanderbilt(Railroads), JP Morgan(banking), Andrew Carnegie(steel industry) and Henry ford (cars).

 

 modern urban cities: Abu Dhabi, with all its glory. The storyline of this documentary is showing the progress, the exquisiteness of a modern advanced city. But you can also feel the underlying story of  intersection of high city life and ordinary people, especially small scale traders, which is a story of almost any major upcoming city in developing world.

 

The India’s smart city plan is also a notable view.

blog classics

I am a sucker for good old wisdom and to see how people were thinking then and relate it to now. There are some archived blogs that i find interesting.

Let’s start locally, Ory Okolloh’s blog has insights about her views on politics, social justice na kadhalika as she calls it. Last blog post was in 2010. Gives you a feel of kenya, africa and global affairs between 2005-2010 especially.

The immediate former CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick has an old blog called swooshing that was last updated in 2010. It offers his insights on startups, investing and technology in general. One post even predicted what would happen to a company once its reputation is in question, especially in relation to past dealings. for example this quote is lifted from one of the blogs ‘ But I think that reputation is anything but dead, and instead will become more important than ever. With more data and info getting on the net, and as the tools to decipher fact from fiction get better, reputation becomes more accurate, and significantly more valuable‘.

If you are into technology, startups and related insights i find Mark Essien of Hotels.ng  , Mark Cuban and Fabrice Grinda’s equally thrilling.  These are still updated once in a while.

would love to hear your suggestions on favourite old blogs that are not updated anymore.

GAME THEORIES/FUN WITH ECONOMICS

PRISONER’S DILEMMA- occurs when two completely rational individuals fail to cooperate even if it would seem that cooperating would lead to favourable outcome for both. ie when two prisoners are in jail and asked to betray each other. Betraying each other would make each of them worse off, remaining silent would make each of them better of.  However, since they do not know how the other party will react, they are most likely to try and betray the other person and end up being worse off: longer jail time.

lesson: in market economics, cooperation is sometimes better than non-cooperation. If one party protects themselves at the expense of another party, there is greater chance of greater losses if the other party also makes a decision. 

RACE TO THE BOTTOM- government undertakes measures to deregulate the business environment through measures such as tax cuts in order to retain economic activity by attracting investments in a certain region. The consequence, if not well monitored could be poor standards. In corporations, happens when competitors attempt to undercut the other by lowering standards such as safety standards in order to make a product more affordable. It is referred to as race to the bottom  because it could be destructive/unethical since some of the safety/product specifications are ignored thereby harming of society in general and even the corporation in the long run. As competition intensifies, some companies may adopt policies that ensure costs of production are reduced at all cost- eg low pay, ignoring some safety standards etc in order to offer low product prices to undercut the other competitor.

FREE RIDER PROBLEM/TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS : free rider problem occurs when people are able to use a public resource without paying for it. For example through taxes. It occurs when consumption cannot be restricted eg, use of a public road, public library etc. Free rider problem is basically when the public tend to shrink/ignore their responsibilities at the expense of others, leading to Tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons happens when people seek personal gain at the expense of the society. For example, overusing a public resource and ending up depleting it completely leading to a scenario whereby no one is using it. Examples would probably be-traffic jams. Roads are meant to be used by general public and everyone would try to maximize their payoff by using the road. what happens when public transport system becomes unreliable? People buy their own cars in order to get to work faster. But it ends up clogging the roads and everyone gets stuck. One way to solve is ensuring decision makers have direct consequence over the decisions. ie. those responsible for public resources should be using them in the first place, what Nassim Taleb called skin in the Game. This could result in some urgency in fixing the problem.

ZERO SUM VERSUS NON-ZERO SUM GAME: simply put, zero-sum games happens when one person’s gain equals to another person’s loss. meaning that the net change in wealth or benefit is zero. Zero sum game is not necessarily a bad thing if it is positive zero sum game, for example trade. When two people trade, there is exchange -one person loses something and other gains, but both are happy participants, and have anticipated gains from the engagement. Buying and selling options and futures is zero sum game,one has to lose for the other to gain. Everyone cannot outperform the market, some will have to lose. Stock market is not zero sum game. Non-zero sum game occurs when the aggregate gains and losses are less or more than zero.

EXTERNALITIES in economics can be either a cost or benefit incurred or received by a third party who has no control over its production. The basic and most straightforward example is pollution, when a company pollutes and the people who have no association with the company end up paying for it-by damaged health. There could also be positive externalities such as clean environment, healthcare system that ensures a healthy population that is able to contribute positively to nation building. Knowledge accumulation by population is also positive externality. R&D by corporations could be positive externality.

Butterfly effect : is the concept that a simple thing can cause far more impactful/unseen and even unintended consequences. The concept is imagined that when a butterfly is flapping its wings, it is causing a typhoon. Ofcourse, a butterfly cannot cause a typhoon.  It is mainly used in chaos theory. Some small acts of people may cause far greater consequences than intended. In history of the world, it is assumed that it is great events than caused great impact but in reality, it is small acts of people that spread like wildfire. In markets and business, sometimes it is hard to predict because sometimes things happen from what appears to chaotic behaviour partly because everything is highly interconnected.

ACTING IN SELF INTEREST IS THE INVISIBLE HAND THAT RUNS THE ECONOMY: when a person acts in self-interest and ends up benefiting others. for example, a farmer who plants in order to sell and get money, ends up creating a whole ecosystem from farm to processing industries, to transport, to logistics, to restaurants to the person buying the food. The farmer most probably did not intend to affect all that, he/she wanted to feed their family, get some money. Acting in self-interest does not therefore necessarily mean something bad. It is this principle that underpins blockchain. For the blockchain transactions to be verified, mining has to take place(verification of transactions). Miniers do so in order to earn some tokens/coins not necessarily in order to help the blockchain ecosystem, but in them doing so, end up sustaining the blockchain ecosystem. So in order to get even millions of people to cooperate even without them knowing or intending to, look out for their self interests. Another quote says ‘incentives run the world, understand incentives, direct or indirect and you understand people’. The good thing is that people can cooperate in millions even without government control or a structure as long as each party is benefiting. Self-interest and competition are what Adam Smith termed as ‘invisible hand’ that runs the economy. Self-interest is the motivator while competition is the regulator.

The blockchain promise

I have not been able to post on this blog for a while. I took time to work on a few projects one of which is CoinWeez . It is a platform for sharing information, news, reviews and all things blockchain. Together with a few friends, we thought of starting the site after we realized there was not much being discussed about blockchain especially from Kenyan/African perspective. The site will also try and focus more on the broader blockchain ecosystem to analyze the opportunities as well existing challenges in this technology. It is still a work in progress but it is something we think is exciting to watch. coinweez Yellow

Everyone has a different angle, opinion about the blockchain. It is okay to appreciate individual biases in any article/opinion expressed about blockchain. Notwithstanding, in the last couple of years, we have observed many industries coming up with the intention of disrupting the middlemen in various industries. Airbnb, Uber, Alibaba, Amazon etc all have one agenda: to eliminate the costly middleman and use a centralized software to aggregate the marketplace and connect buyer and seller in a more efficient way. That has been the model of many consumer facing startups in e Commerce, travel and marketplaces. Marc Anderson even penned the now famous article ‘software is eating the world‘ as a pointer to how internet-based businesses have been thriving and even co-founded a venture capital firm a16z with the same mission statement.

Now there seems to be a new aspect: blockchain could further change this dynamic by introducing decentralized ledger system instead of centralized software.  The decentralized system adopts the concept of peer-to-peer networks and therefore running the system through nodes within a network.  To make it work, the community is incentivized to run the network through the process of mining which is basically verifying transactions.  Blockchain achieves two inherent goals: ability to build trust and data sharing without the need of a centralized system or meeting the other party. Another interesting facet is smart contracts. They could represent the final puzzle in order to enable two parties to enter into a binding agreement without need to meet and is all enforced on the blockchain as a well a variety of other digital assets. Smart contracts especially, are promising because of the ability to build decentralized applications on top of Ethereum blockchain and this could bring forth new applications/industries. Check out more articles on coinweez exploring different dynamics of blockchain.

The biggest focus has of course been on Bitcoin, the decentralized cryptocurrency introduced in 2009. The prices have been skyrocketing like crazy and there are two completely different camps on this. Some believe that Bitcoin is going to be adopted world over while others believe it is a scam/hype that is going to die down and it is a bubble. This is a long discussion and that could probably be a subject for another post.  However, I am intrigued by the concept that is blockchain and what it could mean for various industries. In terms of investing in  cryptocurrencies (they are in thousands now), that is based on personal research just like any other investment. In every technology, there are innovators, early adopter, early majority, late majority. The biggest challenge of any technology is crossing the chasm  which is the stage between early adopters and the early majority. For the vast majority to use a new technology or just about anything, people need assurance, stability and such like things. I think Bitcoin and blockchain  in general will appeal to more with continued improvements in aspects such as application, stability, ease of use. In the meantime, there is lot of volatility.  We will see what happens. Back to investing, i think Barbel strategy is a good strategy to use when investing in anything.  I came across it from Nassim Taleb. Taleb advocates that 85% of your earning should be put in ‘safer investments’ such as money markets, Saccos, fixed deposits, bonds etc.
Then 10-15% into ‘risky investments’ such as venture capital, equity investments and probably now cryptocurrencies. With time, one can then raise their portfolios based on experience in the industry and other improvements. When one side starts winning, then you double down.

Barbell

It’s like playing both attack and defensive football. The way Jose Mourinho approaches footballing-extreme on both fronts but nothing in the middle. You can score goals but not likely to lose and if you win, it is a win that many are not expecting. Like Ferguson says, ‘Attack wins you matches but defence wins you titles’.Being conservative but when you have a chance, even slight, you go for the kill.

Moving on, Mark Cuban advice to  Vanity fair employees is to diversify and if you are a true adventurer, things like Bitcoins, limit it to lower percentages, it’s like being an art collector- if you are more intrigued by it, then you will not mind the price point placed on it.  I think this is a reasonable way to approach investing. Actually that is how venture capital works. A venture capital portfolio consists of a group of companies. Most likely not all of them will succeed but ones that do have greater upside thus offsetting the not so good returns. In startup investing, for example Y Combinator  invests in early stage startups in batches. Each year YC invests in more than 200 startups a year.  Of Course most do not go on to become great but the breakthroughs have such a large upside that it offsets the losses. Take for example, the market cap of all YC companies so far is about $80 billion. Airbnb, Stripe, DropBox all which came out Y Combinator make more than half of that market cap. I think it’s a good strategy to try in smaller scale but nothing is bulletproof of course.

But overall, blockchain is an interesting space  to explore and that is what we’ll be doing at CoinWeez. I will resume  posting  articles on this site on all things, startups, ideas, innovation, the world, Africa rising etc. I have many drafts that i have not really edited but will try to post- generally curating based on what i am gathering on all these aspects.

2018 up next