“This doesn’t normally happen around here,” My new boss explained, a little worried.
It was the first day at my apprenticeship in Nairobi, Kenya. The police had tear-bombed a mob in the busy slum of Kawangware where our office was located. The rumour was that someone had been shot, so the mob had circled around there, essentially sectioning off the cops from getting access. So, as any rational law enforcement body would do, the police tear-bombed the area to disperse the crowd.
There was a lot of scampering around us. The braver ones in our tiny office rushed over to the window to get a glimpse of the commotion. The tear gas only scarcely made it into our room as we were on the second floor. It was enough to get our eyes all misty, but not enough to have to pull them out of our sockets.
Nairobi was supposedly my last stop before I headed to India. But right now, I am in a coffee shop in London. Not quite India, but the ‘plan’ is still in place. I’ll get to it.
After over a year in Guatemala, nine months longer than ‘planned’, I knew that my stint in East Africa had to be a little more constrained — no more than six months. If the goal is to start something in India, I can’t just keep frolicking around the globe, delaying the inevitable. But working in Sub-Saharan Africa seemed like an important step in this custom MBA of mine.
Shoddy as this sounds, the income per capita, the infant mortality rates, and disease-inflicted deaths in parts of Africa are among the gravest. Add that to the exploding youth population, the lack of jobs, and the rising temperatures, and what the continent is drifting towards is a largely young population of two billion by 2050, struggling to find employment as the world boils over. There could be a lot of other things that boil over as well.
But don’t get me wrong — there has been a ton of progress over the last few decades. Overall, as much as we shouldn’t generalize, African countries are freer and more developed than they have ever been. There has been innovation and expression, a better quality of life, and a Twitterverse exploding with opinion. It’s better, but there is still a long way to go. And that’s why there is a lot of game-changing work being done there, especially in the social sector. So, I had to work there. This time I was looking for more depth — i.e. working more closely with a couple of entrepreneurs, rather than at a more superficial level with many entrepreneurs, which was the case in Guatemala.
A random spam-ish email landed in my inbox that talked about a certain Amani Institute. It was new but what I liked about a program they offered was that it involved a four-month apprenticeship in Nairobi with local social enterprises / NGOs. It also promised just enough coursework in some of the softer skills that I had been craving, but wouldn’t necessarily stretch for — leadership, management — some of the soft stuff that had haunted me towards the end of my stint in New York. Bingo. I applied and soon thereafter, I was on my way to Nairobi as an Amani Fellow. I would have gone either way, but I was glad to go there with some structure.
The six months in Nairobi were intense. We worked for three days a week and had classes three days a week. The Sunday that was left hanging, left us fellows only wanting to hang around and do nothing. I was apprenticing with a social enterprise that was trying to fight poverty through job creation in the urban slums of Kenya — yes, the one I was tear-bombed at on the first day. More importantly, they are trying to do similar things to what I want to do in India. So, the learning curve was as steep and healthy as any wealthy education, if not more. They did a lot of things well, but where they struggled was in finding operational prowess. Sadly, in the impact space, this is common.
While there is a ton of passion and drive in the social sector, there aren’t enough seasoned operators or technical folk. Add all that to the meagre pay, and what you’re left with are inefficient organizations with tiny technical expertise and gigantic hearts. Burn out is more common than you’d imagine and it happens without any splurging compensation that at least some of the corporate burnouts can fall back on.
The six months whizzed by. But it felt like I had been there an eternity, making new relationships and adapting to a new culture. It’s strange how time loses it structure as we sway from one perspective to the next. I left Nairobi more ready than ever. I felt both validated and enlightened. I might have been extorted by bad cops with a gun in broad daylight, but I acquired a deep experience that has geared me up for my next steps. I want to champion the change I want to see in the impact space — this asymmetry of incentives, operational weakness and a lack of scalability and sustainability.
But I have also learnt that this is going to be hard. Starting a successful for-profit is in itself a probabilistic minority. Add the cost of impact to that and what I have signed up for becomes exponentially harder. But that’s okay. I am not doing this because it’s supposed to be easy. I am fortunate to not have to worry about going hungry, and morally, it’s hard to argue against marrying what I should do and what I want to do. For the last two years, I have been closing the gap between the moral ‘ought’ and my internal want, and surprise surprise, I have never been happier, more content, more focused and more determined. The honeymoon phase should have passed by now, so what has remained is clarity that only consistency can fuel.
So, what am I doing in London? Remember the lack of operational prowess and technical expertise in the impact space I was talking about? Well, I don’t want to be that cliché or at least that is my current rationalization. Yes, I can sing some decent finance tunes, but that might not be enough. One thing I realized in Nairobi is that I know enough about working in the impact space to start something on my own, but what I might be missing is some more technicality. I found this immersive Data Science course that General Assembly offers in London. It’s a twelve-week bootcamp that tries to download at rapid speed everything it can about Machine Learning and Data Science. Magically, I had twelve weeks to spare, so here I am. I am halfway through the course, and I feel like I have opened a new box of possibilities that is so empowering. I am not going to be a Data Scientist, but I want to use Data Science to make better decisions — to do better research, better monitoring and evaluation, and most importantly, to better allocate resources to solving this shitshow of a problem that is poverty. And as a bonus, I get to spend three months living with my best friend. When else am I going to get a chance to do that at this age?
It’s not all hunky dory though. One of my mentors called me out on this — Anish, are you just delaying going to India and starting something? While he makes a fair point, it’s only three months and I am not technically delaying when I go to India. According to the ‘plan’, 2020 was when I was supposed to be in India, and my tickets are already booked. I reach India on the 21st of December, 2019. I am excited, so friggin’ excited.
But I am also scared. There is this massive cloud of uncertainty hovering around — what will I be exactly doing in India? When will I find out? When will there be some stability? And here’s the kicker, this current uncertainty is essential. If I knew it all, there would be a high probability that I was delusional, or at least being naïve. I am going to be spending the first year in India researching, prototyping and validating different solutions that holistically address the problem. I can’t rush this but at the same time I can’t take forever. This is a long-term game that I am playing and that implies unrushed progression while always finding the right range of balance between the extremes. Delayed gratification is the secret to life, however hard it sometimes is to not give into immediate temptation.
At the same time, maybe, I am attaching myself to this idea that I am going to find the ideal solution. That’s not smart either — I might be setting myself up for cognitive hell. So, I am trying to focus on starting small. I am trying to disconnect from building up something that might be too idealistic to process. I am trying to train my morality to account for all the distractions that might scuttle me. And the best part about this is that this is exactly what I want to be trying to do.
Nairobi played its part like a perfectly written textbook for what I wanted to learn. I added some beautiful people to my network of love. I also felt the bitter sting of immorality, hoping to come out stronger. I might have been tear-bombed and extorted, but I also danced on the beaches of where nature might be as wild as we can imagine. For all that and more, I am only better, yet aware that there is still a long way to go.