Friday, June 27, 2008

Out of the bush, back to The Office

After a week of work, I have come to the following conclusions: a) everyone is really smart here, b) intelligence does not equate to organization or efficiency.

Sometimes in the whirlwind of high-speed internet, high profile publications, visionary strategy meetings and prestigious awards, it takes a moment to remember that I am still in a developing country. The Board of Directors of the foundation I am tasked with evaluating is a short list of some of the most accomplished businesspeople in India - Forbes Asia businessmen of the year, Fortune's most powerful women in business, Yale world fellows, chairpeople of prestigious bank boards. Staff at the institute have articles published and are considered area experts in almost all of the major national media sources.

Fortunately, that "developing country" reminder still appears frequently. I am supposed to be issued a laptop, but am borrowing my boss' personal computer for the foreseeable future because of a mix-up in the IT department. I am currently stationed at the desk of someone who is in the field for the week because there are no open workstations; the group was scheduled to move into a bigger office today. But, there was a miscommunication and the size of the new office was apparently measured by some metric other than "workstations", so it is unclear when we will move or when I will get a desk of my own. The power tends to go out once or twice towards the end of the day, and the phone lines are inconsistent enough that you often have to contact the operator in order to call out, instead of dialing directly.

There's no doubt this is a step up from the office environment in Kenya, but it's certainly not Boston. And again I am reminded of how precisely this experience is a cross between my two previous jobs.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Day 1 1/2

Got myself switched to the proper hotel. AC, fridge, queen-sized bed, flat screen TV with digital cable, room service and the aforementioned in-room computer with internet.

India 8,000, Kenya 3.

First impressions

I'm going to keep a running tally of my initial experiences in India vs. those in Kenya.

Day 1 observations:

1. Airport pickup. Greeted by a driver with my name on a placard, and whisked into an AC-filled taxi direct to my destination. Particularly convenient considering it was 3:30am.
India 1, Kenya 0

2. Planning. Despite being assured that I had a reservation at a specific hotel (equipped with an in-room internet enabled computer), I was driven to a different hostel, where they had no idea who I was.
India 1, Kenya 1

3. English. The mamas in my village and the 8-year-0ld street kids in Kenya spoke far better English than the receptionist at the hostel.
India 1, Kenya 2

4. Accommodation. Surprisingly similar - down to the same types of shower pipes, the same quality of bed. I think our first Nairobi hostel had mosquito nets, but this one had fans, so it's a wash.
India 1, Kenya 2

5. Weather. The rumors were true: it is bloody hot and humid here. My glasses fogged up immediately when I got out of the taxi, comically welcoming me to equatorial India.
India 1, Kenya 3

6. Soundtrack. In Nairobi you get cars and drunk men outside your window all night. In Chennai, you get howler monkeys.
India 2, Kenya 3

So net, Kenya is up so far. Which is perhaps surprising considering the ups and downs of my recent visit there. But maybe I should give it more than the 2 hours I've been here.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Kwa heri Kenya

I spent three and a half hectic, emotional days touring around Kenya and (hopefully) getting some closure on my experience there this week. I haven't slept in the same bed twice for 7 nights, and 3 of those nights were spent on planes. I know, I know, you're jealous. Some reflections on the week:

1. Nairobi is the same. Couldn't tell a difference if I tried.

2. Kisumu looks half-normal, half like a battleground. Several prominent buildings downtown were torched (Ukwala Supermarket, Punjabi Electronics), and not much effort has been made to clean them up. It's almost like a bizarre monument to the violence, reminding Kenyans of what they went through and, one would hope, strengthening their determination to move past it. If only that was really why they were still there, rather than just because it's expensive to knock them down.

3. Going to my site was... hard. "Emotional rollercoaster" is an understatement. Shockingly, the kids in the village all remembered me (although it could just be that I taught them to call me Joanne instead of mzungu/odiero/"white man", and consequently got them yelling "Joanne, Joanne!" at every white person they saw). I had a very uneventful reunion with my family members, and a very eventful one with my dog. Apparently the family got in a big dispute over the distribution of the items in my house, which is so sadly typical that I had trouble feeling sad to leave them. Almost no one was around even though they had been informed of my coming, so I spent an hour on the compound and saw each person for about 5 minutes as I was leaving. Ah well.
4. My dog is almost twice the size she was before, and has the longest neck I've ever seen. She looks like this crazy type of antelope we saw on safari called the gerenuk - I swear this is a mirror image. She recognized me and jumped all over me and has the exact same personality as before, which made it even harder to leave her behind (waiting to decide whether it's feasible to bring her to Chennai, and otherwise I may or may not send her home to my parents).
5. A note to south Nyanza PCVs: I was thrilled to discover just outside of Narok that the Narok-Nairobi road, otherwise known as the Road-from-hell-that-always-has-construction-but-never-improves, had finally been repaved! Smooth tarmac, two full lanes - I was thrilled.
Then, 5 minutes later, the paved road ended and we were back to potholes and dust again. The repaving lasted about 3 miles. And I was, again, reminded that I was in Kenya.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Chennai Fun Facts

Some interesting facts about my new home. And some not so interesting ones.

1. Population = 7.5 million. And it's only the 4th largest city in the country. This is 20% of California, people - do not complain to me about congestion in your city.

2. Also known as "The Detroit of Southern Asia" because of its car manufacturing, which comprises 30% of India's auto industry. My old GM client would be so proud.

3. Previously named Madras, this actually is the namesake of that preppy patterned fabric you can buy at J Crew (so named because it is traditionally produced in that part of the country). Dartmouth, I have come full circle.
Incidentally, the massive hand-looming industry is also the reason there is a spinning wheel at the center of the Indian flag. Yes, believe it or not, this is supposed to be a spinning wheel.

4. Located on the thermal equator, which means it has the highest mean annual temperature of its longitude. Truly a statistic to be proud of.

5. Home to the large, and clearly globally acclaimed, Tamil movie industry of Kollywood. That's right, Kollywood. At some point these LA references are going to get out of control. (In the interest of actually providing some non-satirical facts in this post: Tamil is the native tribe of the Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital. Tamil is also the local language, although both English and Hindi are taught in school.)

6. Lastly, Chennai is the sister city of Denver, Colorado! This is particularly auspicious since my non-profit business partner, Vanessa, lives in Denver. (Non-profit business partner, what? Details to come.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008


In the buildup to my move to Chennai, I’ve taken the opportunity to learn about my future home whenever it has arisen, by chatting with people who are from there, have visited or have lived there. People have been extremely forthcoming with information about India, but the funny thing is that the information never varies. Apparently, Chennai (and more generally, India) has three qualities:

1) Hot
2) Crowded
3) Really Spicy Food

Fortunately, I:

1) Have Been Living in Africa For the Past 1.5 Years
2) Like Cities
3) Enjoy Chili and Curry

None of these make me anywhere near prepared, but they do give me slightly more peace of mind. If anyone has any other indications of what the place might be like, I would welcome the insight.

Travel schedule

For anyone interested, my schedule for the next few weeks look something like this:

6/12: departing the SF bay area for LA
6/12-6/15: LA for my brother’s college graduation (yes, he is actually graduating! Just kidding Paul:)
6/15: fly LA-Kenya (Kenya? I thought you were moving to India.)
6/17-6/20: run around Kenya saying hellos and goodbyes to friends and family and colleagues. And possibly picking up my dog, although this is looking less likely by the day
6/20: fly Nairobi-Chennai
6/21-6/22: spend two days in a mad rush trying to get things settled in Chennai (like, starting the apartment search)
6/23: start Work. !!

You're going WHERE? You're doing WHAT?

A reiteration of my last post in my previous (Kenya) blog, explaining in far too much detail what I will be doing in India.

So, I'm moving to India. What I’m going to be doing there is about the most confusing thing I’ve ever had to explain in casual conversation. Recently when most strangers ask me, “so what will you be doing in India?” they quickly regret that they asked. The short answer is “business development consulting.” The medium-length answer is “a business strategy evaluation for a foundation that is investing in rural enterprise development.” I can’t imagine anyone would want the long answer, but since I have for some reason been asked for it multiple times, I have laid it out below. Read on at your own risk.

I’ve taken a job with the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR), a business school located in Chennai (southeast corner of the country). I’ll be working for the Center for Development Finance (CDF), one of several action-research centers at the school focused on improving living standards in India, alleviating poverty, creating a middle class, etc. – all those things that give you that “feel good” feeling.

Unrelatedly, a foundation was established in October with the goal of increasing “access to markets” (namely, financial services) to rural low-income households – that whole creation of a middle class thing. They are operating on a skeletal organizational structure and are in need a lot of intellectual capital from similar organizations in the area, and they sought out CDF.

So, in response to this need for strategic services, CDF has just started a new program called the – are you ready for this? – Strategy & Implementation Evaluation Research Unit (SIERU). It will basically be a consulting group tasked with evaluating the philosophical/academic strategies and the implementation plans of its clients. The foundation will be its first client, and it is hoping to attract more in the future as there seems to be high demand for this type of service.

This is where I, finally, come in. The SIERU unit will be co-run by two managers: one on the academic strategy evaluation side (a guy who already has an MBA and just graduated from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard), and one on the business strategy/implementation evaluation side (yours truly). Am I qualified for this, you ask? Not in the least. Am I totally intimidated? Yes indeed.

So that’s it in a very, very large nutshell. I am extremely excited about this career opportunity, and the chance to move to India and join the bandwagon of capitalizing on the potential of such an amazing country.

Alternate namings

I really wanted to name this blog "India Joanne and the Temple of Development," but was wisely advised against it. Please send your thanks to my more mature and professional alter ego.