The peril of the press release

When critical analysis meets communication channels at the speed of light, press releases are bound to be captured subjectively. For science, media needs to be part of the conversation, as this #circlesq post suggests.


In a famous piece of media analysis, the average length of a soundbite in a US presidential election was found to have collapsed from 43 seconds in 1968 to just nine by 1988. Although the discovery led to plenty of head-scratching and fears about the “dumbing down” of political discourse, in the end it changed very little.

After the first day of the Circling the Square conference, it would be easy to conclude that the communication of science by the media is heading in the same direction.

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Matatu Strike Day 1 – Help? !

A truly un-funny April Fool’s Day to you.

Today’s is particularly grim, with reports of multiple blasts on civilians in Eastleigh and 6 or more people killed in Nairobi County. May they RIP and those injured recover from this grisly attack.

If that were not enough, today is the first day of the second public service bus (matatu) strike in less than 30 days. 

Today, a lot of the minibuses in Kenya are on strike. The government of Kenya’s recent regulatory changes that mean that most multi-seater public service vehicles, including minivans and minibuses, comprising the bulk of the carriers are off the road as they are yet to comply. According to the Standard, a Kenyan daily, only 7,000 of 100,000 vehicles had complied with the rules as of Monday 3/31/14. Those vehicles which had not been fitted with speed governors – among other requirements – were staying off the roads today to protest the speed with which the Government has demanded compliance with the new rules, meant to make the roads safer, and curb the high rates of death and disability from public service vehicle collisions. 

Who really suffers when this kind of thing happens? 

The short answer is – Everyone. But you already know that if you are in Nairobi today – what with the heavy saloon car traffic, and apprehension in the air.

In early March, there was yet another strike in Nairobi by the same matatu operators, who demanded reprieve from a recent hike in parking fees in Nairobi County, instituted by the 2013 elected county executive, led by Governor E. Kidero. On that occasion, vehicles were stoned, and roads widely blocked in a bid to make a case for the maintenance of these fares at the pre-2013 levels. Needlessly, already high insecurity was heightened by the issuance of a security cordon around the Central Business District, and pitched running battles between the protesting public service operators and security personnel

The matatu operators operate on limited cash capacity in this manner: 

Chitere and Kibua (2004) found that this sector provides significant direct employment: 

“In Kenya approximately 40,000 matatus provide 80,000 direct and 80,000 indirect matatu jobs, mostly urban”

This figure is certain to have increased over the last 10 years since their report. However, those employed in this sector live from day to day takings, rather than a significant cash base.

Gleave et al, 2005 add:

In Kampala and Nairobi it is normal for owners to be investors, rather than owner-drivers. Ownership is dispersed: most owners have less than four vehicles. Owners usually hire out the vehicle for a daily fee to a principal driver, who may employ a second driver and one or more conductors. The driver keeps the revenue collected but is responsible for paying the costs of fuel, use of the minibus terminals, the wages of any second driver and conductors, as well as any fines extorted from him by the police or the route associations. Drivers work very long hours, with shifts averaging more than 12 hours a day usually for six or seven days a week, although driving hours are normally nearer 7 to 8 hours. So as to maximize the revenue from each trip the minibus driver will not normally leave the terminal until the vehicle is full.”

In short, if there is no revenue, the driver and whoever else draws income from that vehicle are also sans income. And as the owners, and the drivers exert pressure on commuters by taking the vehicles off the road, so do they also suffer a great deal. 

Everyone suffers.

Here are some things we may well expect for Nairobi County ( I take a leaf from the March 5 Strike news reports):

a) A series of statements from Nairobi’s Governor Kidero and Senator Sonko, and perhaps from Woman Rep Shebesh.

b) A move by Inspector General Kimaiyo of the Kenya Police,

c) Threats to cancel, or actual cancellation of striking vehicle licences by Transport and Infrastructure Cabinet Secretary, Eng. Kamau


Here is what we do not expect – or expect to a very limited extent – and perhaps should pursue: 

a) Development of a more robust carpool.  See 2012 #CarpoolKE roundup by Ushahidi -which noted that online organizing needs to be followed up with offline verification – particularly in verifying safety of offers, and connections between car owners and car pool participants.


b) Consider matching services from Motoring Association of Kenya 


c) Get paid to carry people via Travelbuddy, and save some cash on your fuel budget. 


These thoughts are my effort to crystallize what is going on today, which we all hope will reach a quick resolution, particularly as the implementation of the following rules applies not just to Nairobi, but to all 47 counties. 

How are you coping with the Matatu crisis? Share your tips for a less hair-pulling commute? 

Quick! Send in the Holiday Shoes



In a world with intractable problems, shoes are an easy thing to solve, right? Kenyans from all walks of life are gearing up to provide in goods, including shoes to the needy this holiday season in the spirit of Christmas, and for many in the private sector, egged on by corporate social responsibility drives. On the surface, it seems a great way to provide for those who are in need, kill the news stories on foot-related ailments and make us all feel a little better about the less-fortunate in society. Good news Kenyans, we are not alone. The idea of sending shoes to needy Africans is not limited to our festive charities, globalization has made sure of that. As I gear up to do my own holiday giving, my intent to do good is not enough.

Here is a fun fact, if you can access a US retailer, you can buy a pair of TOMS shoes, and another pair is sent to a shoeless African somewhere. If you read widely on development and African issues, this is not news to you. 2009 – 2010 was dominated by reactions to the “band aid” work of TOMS shoes, and the rage against the t-shirt donation machine and we are still not done wondering. The huge hook is that for every pair of shoes you buy, the non-profit sends a pair to kids in Africa who walk around barefoot. Some would say that is good enough, even admirable. I say, it is not good, and not enough for our continent. TOMS is a for-profit company that operates a non-profit subsidiary called Friends of TOMS based in the US. Teddy Ruge, a development and Africa writer and thinker shared his disappointment that Africare is partnering with TOMS Shoes, and I share his sentiments.

Yesterday, Kenya’s leading newspaper Daily Nation reported that 40% of Kenyans still use bushes to relieve themselves, so on the surface, it would behoove one to wear shoes more frequently to prevent spread of disease, more specifically, soil transmitted helminth(WHO) infections. Forgetting for a minute that only about 300,000 of Kenya’s 40+ million population has access to newspapers, this was news indeed. Should we then have shoes sent immediately to 40% of Kenyans? Granted, over the last 2-3 years we have also heard more loud clamor against jigger infestation of citizen’s feet in parts of the country, spearheaded by Ahadi Kenya trust, whose website is aptly named – and I kid you not. Should’nt we send in the shoes now?

Particularly for the often holiday-gift-laden private sector, I think not. 

Teddy’s blog post on why Africare’s partnership with TOMS Shoes is a bust recorded:

“…it is baffling that they thought giving away shoes to communities was a sustainable solution to either hygiene or economic development. Bad bandaid projects are excusable for guilt-ridden start up organizations fueled by good intentions, but they are inexcusable for an organization that has been around since the 1970s.”


TOMS solution is a temporary fix for some larger issues such as lack of adequate access to clean water and sanitation, and grinding poverty. It seems, however, that TOMS partnership with organizations like Africare is the model that a number of private organizations have taken to engaging with global NGOs. I wonder if global private sector organizations are well-informed about ways to champion African issues, or whether TOMS is an outlier among many. Take for instance the September 2013 Private Sector luncheon for Every Woman Every Child initiative, held at the same time as the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, where the commitments included: 

– Sesame Street’s commitment to health education for children and their families to the Zinc Initiative working with mining companies to promote the availability of zinc, an essential intervention along with ORS to treat diarrhoea.

Tom’s Shoes pledged to donate one pair of shoes for every shoe that is bought to help children go to school and women collect water over long distances.

– The Lions Club International dedicated 30 million in financial resources and will use its 1.5 million volunteers to help deliver essential interventions.

These examples are a small sample of …”Between 2010 and mid- 2013, nearly 300 organizations, including more than 50 private sector organizations…” (WHO)” which have made commitments from 2010 – 2013 in support of EWEC. This seems like the way the river is flowing, with large initiatives receiving the support of private sector organizations such as TOMS – even though the model of operation may not respond to the needs on the ground in sustainable ways. Out of the three above, the Zinc Nutrient Initiative (health intervention) and Lions Club International (direct service assistance) make sense, as part of a systematic intervention placed in a network of organizations and individuals.

Shoes for Africans – as implemented by TOMS, seems to be the square peg in the Africa shaped board since around 2009, but it keeps on giving and giving and giving. 

You ask me, why is it wrong? TOMS supply of shoes – upsets the balance of trade by upending the competitiveness of delicate small scale businesses, some of which are sustained by the very women and children the shoes are intended to assist,  and shoe-production domestic industry – the kind that cannot compete with freebies, which sometimes provide employment to Africans and support where they live, work and play. There are other issues, with the model TOMS uses – outlined by Teddy’s article and further in Good Intentions are Not Enough

My issue is that in the area of providing material goods made in Africa – are there organizations that can provide an alternative to default selection of TOMS. The simple answer is – Yes. Do we know about these organizations on a global level? Yes, Teddy mentions:  Liberian Women’s Sewing Project. – which even appeared on CNN, one cannot say one does not know better than TOMS.

The biggest question for me, is – how do you redirect the default – how do you harness the increased ability of Africans telling their own stories (My Africa Is – digital short films on Africa, and Africa Knows – providing African images to the world) on the outside to tell the stories of others like the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project. Furthermore, on the inside corridors of private sector commitment, how do you find champions for these alternatives, who are able to inform the decision-making and steer their firms to solutions that appeal to their shareholders, that make sense for Africa and are sustainable – a not-so-new concept called the Triple Bottom Line – 

Triple Bottom Line – John Elkington (1997) – “a traditional measure of corporate profit—the “bottom line” of the profit and loss account. The second is the bottom line of a company’s “people account”—a measure in some shape or form of how socially responsible an organisation has been throughout its operations. The third is the bottom line of the company’s “planet” account—a measure of how environmentally responsible it has been.”

However, because the Triple Bottom Line – expanded further by Savitz and Williard cannot be measured in terms of cash profit, what then can Africans, and others concerned about Africa do to change the conversation when private sector impact is limited to financial terms? 

I venture that our concern as Africans, has been and will be to:

economic (Dambisa Moyo, Economist and Author, Dead Aid) 
political (Mahmood Mamdani, Politics and Government Thinker) 


  • continue to curate and write about solutions that work, and those that do not, particularly leaning on Africans and friends of Africa in the continent and abroad to exchange ideas, work together and move forward.

But for goodness sake, let us not just send in more shoes. That includes us Kenyans.

Or just be in Africa to make a profit, and that might be the best way to do good

(PS: Thanks to Teddy Ruge for the posts that prompted this extended response) – Photo: 3-in-1 jewelry Box Set/India – Credit/ @sunnykay

Morning Musings


Switch on your radio today and no doubt your ears hearken to those danceable beats of that song, what is it called? Anyway, you cruise the broadband searching for a station to suit your mood and after a short time you hear a song you last heard as a small child in the village. No wait, *Snap!* your uncle comes in and switches to the BBC local frequency saying, “My child, that is noise, listen to this glorious music…” You hear the announcer tell the listeners it is Tchaikovsky. Uncle never fails to remind you to learn the name spelling of each composer. Bringing oneself to the realization that our culture has changed is like slowly getting accustomed to altitude change inflight.  The only thing is that you never quite retrace your steps, and realize that the move is not just about music, but you also find that one day you cannot quite live where you used to live, and that things as you knew them, and loved them, will never be the same way again. So you cannot wait to leave for the day.

Looking around the neighborhood from the window, you see snatches of color as people dash to school and office, trying to beat the clock. 3 piece suits, designer ties and those pointed ladies heels pierce your still sleepy mind as you get ready to join the column headed to the city swiftly. None that you can see is dressed in traditional attire, or African print, although a local manufacturer and a smattering of designers have tried to popularize African attire as office wear. Like the first travelers to the great Rome, we have embraced the corporate world dress code wholly, identifying ourselves with others globally and wear the same uniform. It is with this heightened awareness that the morning chill is thawed by the strange glances as you sport a blood-red kitenge dress. The consensus of the glances that you must have missed the memo or seek a life in the creative economy.

Just another morning in Nairobi. 

Blogging at 2012 Mashable Social Good Conference

I’m live this weekend from the 3 Day Mashable Social Good conference sponsored by UN Foundation, Ericsson, Mashable, 92Y, UNDP and the Gates Foundation. I will be penning posts for Pulse + Signal which is ‘Highlighting New Ideas and Innovation’

In the 5 hours since we started, Peter Gabriel, women in wrestling, diplomats who tweet, pediatricians, Jeffersonian scholars, entrepreneurs, the man who champions ‘Reaspora‘ TMS Ruge, globe trotters and many more leaders have graced the stage.

Behind the packed house, is a team of translators live streaming 7 languages and a host of guests. We are live around the world trying to understand how technology can be used for good, ad hot to solve great global issues, from drought in the US and abroad, environmental awareness and malaria.

Follow the discussion via #SGSglobal and watch this space for more updates.