No sooner than I returned from the Middle East, than it was time to dive deep into WaterCredit and prepare for initial strategy, business development and outreach trips.  In less than a month I was (am!) back on the road — this time in east Africa for MFI meetings, followed by Stockholm for World Water Week later this month.  (I’ve got at least one significant international trip every month for the rest of this year which keeps me busy, happy and my passport in good form.  Next: India in mid-September.)

My time in Africa is going extraordinarily well so far; we’ve worked our way through Kenya (Nairobi) and Uganda, with time in rural Nyanza province, western Kenya (where Water.org has its regional office for Africa) and Ethiopia still to come.  The response received from MFIs about WaterCredit is both very encouraging and exciting — there is no shortage of interest! I’ve also had opportunities to see water and sanitation (watsan) projects on the ground; a very eye-opening experience, not least given the oftentimes dire water circumstances to be reckoned with.  Being able to provide small-scale finance to individuals and groups to take ownership of, and accountability for, their own water needs through WaterCredit is tremendously rewarding; the amount of demand is astounding, however, every drop counts!

Other favorite trip experiences so far include flying over Lake Victoria, meeting up with dear IDLO friends in Kampala, receiving an amazing massage from a strong Congolese woman (hearing her tale from Goma was truly inspiring), eating ugali na sukumawiki and fresh mandaazi, and visiting hippo pools.  There’s not a lot of non-working time, but somehow each day brings adventures and explorations that could keep up with the best of my travelogues anyway…

As usual, the best way to follow my day-to-day observations, impressions and Notes From The Road is on Twitter.  I’ve been tweeting up a storm on this trip, so hope you will find it fun to track me there.  I’ll be sure to safari njema!

June was full of wonderful changes:  new professional chapters and travel adventures.

On the former front, I’ve begun my new role as Director of WaterCredit for Water.org.  What is WaterCredit, you ask?  It’s an innovative initiative that applies microfinance tools — small loans, group-based lending models, etc. — to the water and sanitation (watsan) sector.  WaterCredit has been underway since 2003, though it’s now reaching an inflection point that demands greater outreach and strategic development; hence where I come in.  Expect to see more about water + microfinance issues (“H2O+MF” as I like to call it) in future posts, along with more travelogues.  The travel demands will be intense and fun — India, Bangladesh, east Africa, west Africa, Europe… I’m not complaining!

No sooner did I dive deep into WaterCredit for a few weeks, than it was time to hit the road for IDLO.  Destination: Jordan, for the MENA regional microfinance course.  Jerry and I packed up — still proud of the fact that the two of us can fit everything for 3 weeks into one bag together — and headed east.  En route we stopped over in England, for the wedding of a dear friend in the English countryside outside Malvern (Worcestershire).  Perfect weather, copious Pimm’s and fancy hats, and some day-after ambling through hillsides that would make Beatrix Potter and Leonardo Da Vinci both proud.  Stunning and memorable!  A few ramble pictures here.

The IDLO course was held smack on the Dead Sea, with the West Bank directy across; at night we could see the lights of Jerusalem twinkling in the distance.  As usual the IDLO participants were a lively, diverse group coming from 12 countries/territories including Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait (yes, there is microfinance in Kuwait).  Days were spent talking about MFI investment, Islamic finance and the impact of the global financial crisis on microfinance (as the temperature soared above 115 degrees F outside), while evenings were spent staying cool in the multiple pools on hand.  And of course, a dip in the salty Dead Sea for good measure — so fun to just bob and flop around in the buoyancy!

Post-IDLO we took some extra time to explore the rest of the country, easily falling in love with its uber-friendly people and marveling at its diverse and magical geography.  (No comment on the searing heat though.) The first leg was by public transport, a hot dusty 6-hour bus ride south to Petra (and the funky tourist town of Wadi Musa right beside it — it means “Valley of Moses” in Arabic).  Petra did not disappoint, and by all means earns its claim to fame as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.  It’s especially magical at the crack of dawn, when you can have the Siq all to yourself, or late at night when the entire Milky Way opens itself up to you amidst thousands of candlelights and Arabian music wafting beyond.  What’s more, I’ve now done handstands at the majority of these destinations; Petra handstand is #4, and #5 (Colosseum of Rome) is slated for later this year.  Hurray!

In Petra we rented a car from a guy named Said — should we be worried about driving in the Middle East? — and headed down the King’s Highway towards the fabled Wadi Rum desert, aka Lawrence of Arabia’s backyard.  It was hot, hotter than I could have imagined, but apparently not as hot as it can get (we saw 117F, but “that’s nothing” compared to 135F in July I was told).  There were multiple camel traffic jams which were fun to photograph and partake of.  We nearly ran out of gas and that felt really scary.  The landscape is like nothing I’d ever seen — the best I can describe is a surreal combination of the moon, Grand Canyon, Moab (Utah) and the Sahara.  But even that’s not quite right; you’ve got to see it in person to understand its unique immensity.

We baked in Wadi Rum, saw an amazing sunset and feasted on spit-roasted meats grilled over a zerb (Bedouin pit fire). Ah yes, Bedouins — and ah yes again, food!  The Bedouin culture pervades much of Jordan, and their nomadic-tent lifestyle and extraordinary generosity are present at every turn. I found it difficult to determine what is uniquely Bedouin, but anyone from the tribe will promptly let you know.  The diet consists of staples like camel meat, dates and goat’s milk, none of which I got to try (even though I tried hard to find them).  Nevertheless Jordanian cuisine leaves little to be desired — delicious at every turn.  In addition to staples like baba ghanouj and shwarma, favorite dishes include fuul medames (fava beans with chillies and olive oil), shanklish (a cross between chevre and bleu cheese, doused generously with thyme and cracked pepper) and the divine fattoush (salad of tomatoes and cucumber with deep-fried pitta-like croutons and sumac spice).  It was also a cause of much amusement to ask for pitta and get a quizzical look in reply; there it’s not pitta, just khobz (bread).

From Wadi Rum we shot due north along the King’s Highway again (and beyond).  We visited the Crusader castles and ruins at Shobek and Karak, along with the Dana Nature Reserve (and dilapidated village of the same name, clinging precariously to the side of a cliff).  It truly felt like no-person’s land in the middle of the country — so windswept, even if you whistled it blew away — though at the same time close and connected to the entire history of humankind.

We rolled into Madaba late at night, and the next day explored the city’s renowned Roman mosaics (good enough to rival those of Sicily and France), souq and hidden alleyways.  This was followed by an excursion along the Dead Sea Parkway, taking in the Ma’in hot springs, Dead Sea Panorama, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan (where Jesus was baptized) and Mount Nebo (where Moses saw the Promised Land) en route.  It also brought us full circle, back to where we had taught not long before.  The next morning we were homeward bound (almost — still had several days in NYC first).  What a great trip.

So if you’ve made it this far, thanks — and here’s the link to my full Flickr album from the trip.  Enjoy, and stay tuned for more H2O+MF plus travel adventures; for starters I’m headed back to east Africa  at the end of this month.

And yes, Twitter remains the best way to follow my whereabouts and goings-on more frequently…

Madagang tanghali and Selamat siang — or should I rather say (take your pick– I’ve heard them both frequently), “Hello ma’am! Hello mister!”  Said with the utmost of sincerity, a beaming smile, and the seemingly universal wish for me, an ‘exotic species’ in Southeast Asia, to respond.

And so, my adventures continue.  Continue wonderfully, exceptionally well, and unfortunately all to quickly.  The last time you heard from me I had just wrapped up in Viet Nam, and in the month since then I have explored two very different archipelagos, those of The Philippines (Filipinas) and Indonesia (the ‘capital’ island of Java (Jawa) and the paradise-on-earth called Bali).  This installment could also be called The Island Phase, as it has entailed significant island-hopping, endless kilometers of coastline, and yet another new manifestation — and appreciation — of diversity.  This time the diversity is that which has been dictated by geographic distance and remoteness.  While Indonesia as a whole has several aspects in common with Malaysia, both Bali and The Philippines are worlds apart.  I found each of them to be wildly and uniquely fascinating, and all the moreso when put in reference and contrast to the places I’ve already visited.

The Philippines is a Catholic, meat-eating, English-speaking, basketball- and America-obsessed ‘blip’ in Southeast Asia.  The people and the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ rice terraces of North Luzon rank among the best things about the country (see below), and the congested megalopolis of Manila is undoubtedly the worst.  Little idea of the latter did I have upon arrival there.  My first impressions were shaped by traffic, television, armed security guards and artificial ingredients.  To call Manila ‘a big pit’ is an understatement; a 10-km, 1 1/2 hour taxi ride to my guesthouse was ample proof of that.  En route I had plenty of opportunity to view not only the capital’s urban filth, but also the delightful Filipino adaptation known as the Jeepney.  Basically refit, decorated, and blessed-by-the-virgin-Mary US army vehicles, jeepneys are the brightest thing on the road — though they do not provide the most comfortable ride!  Gone were the cyclos and tuk-tuks… Continue Reading »

It’s been far too long since I wrote a proper blogpost.  That’s mostly because I — along with what seems like half the world — tweet rather than blog these days.  You can follow me here.  And my travelogue-library reduxes are still some ways from completion, alas.

Last week I was in Boston to attend a Gates Foundation-sponsored symposium on savings-led microfinance.  It was held at the Fletcher School, so great to take a trip down memory lane.  Spent time at Harvard and met the founder of SeedingLabs, another social enterprise focusing on in-country scientific research in the developing world and that I am keen to see expand dramatically in the coming years.

My eyes were opened to the power of savings as part of a broader platform of financial products and services for the world’s poor and underserved communities.  I’ve often encountered legal, regulatory and big-picture policy issues related to savings:  what kind of entities can and cannot offer savings, appropriate prudential and non-prudential regulations, and so forth.  But I hadn’t spent much time on the different grassroots, village-based, self-regulating (so unregulated from a governmental perspective) approaches that are taking root around the world.  Although not without their own set of challenges, they offer a robust new tool to deploy as part of a broader financial platform in many countries.  Oxfam’s Savings for Change program is one such example, but there are a surprising number of others.  And there’s clearly a role for linkages among these smaller groups with larger MFIs, though much debate remains as to the appropriate “linkages” to forge, as well as when and how to foster them.

Following the principal gathering day, there was a half-day open space for microfinance practitioners.  Par for the course, it was a highlight of the entire symposium.  We spent time discussing topics as broad as the Psychology of Savings (and how cognitive biases factor in) and how to foster more savings initiatives for youth.  Regarding the latter I learned more about organizations like the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) with savings-led programs in the U.S., and Aflatoun, based in the Netherlands and operating throughout the developing world.  CFED and Aflatoun’s activities resonate with me on multiple levels, not least the connection between Youth + Savings + Education investment.

So as I continue to navigate my current crossroads, even more to think about — how do we spur more action and innovation in this space, especially for future generations (and in a way that gives younger cohorts some control and meaningful responsibility in the process)?

Happy (belated) new year — and then some!

Incredible how time has flown by.  African adventures, holidays, Obama administration and more positive changes on the horizon…

The best way to track me these days (including all of  my African travelogues, which now seem like a long time ago) is still on my Tweetstream.  However I do plan to write a longer, more ‘robust’ narrative in the coming weeks.  No promises as to when it’ll be ready, but whenever it is you’ll be able to find it here.

Quick recap since my last post.  Africa trip highlights are too numerous to list, but here’s a snapshot:

  • Meeting Obama’s grandmother Sarah in the very rural ‘village’ (read: dirt road, mud huts, smiling kids and scrappy dogs) of Kogelo, western Kenya
  • Bicycling down the escarpments of the Great Rift Valley, through banana plantations and ending up on the shores of Lake Nakuru with zebras to my right, wildebeests to my left and a rainbow overhead
  • Feeding giraffes by hand, cruising by a fabled white rhinoceros and viewing lions less than 5 meters away
  • Hiking through a Zanzibari “spice farm” and plucking fresh nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, peppercorns (5 colors), ginger, cacao, annatto, lemongrass, cardamom, tumeric, cinnamon, curry leaf and more from the branches and vines, then eating a simple meal with a village family that used the spices we’d brought
  • Celebrating Jerry’s birthday with spit-roasted goat, green bananas and new Maasai and Chagga friends
  • An impromptu morning concert with about 40 local schoolkids dancing and grooving to their hearts’ delight, with spontaneous portraits captured happily afterward
  • Crossing the equator 4 times in one day — and doing a handstand on it, of course
  • And last but definitely not least, spending several wonderful days teaching at the IDLO law-and-microfinance course in Tanzania with participants from everywhere from Malawi to Madagascar to Nigeria to Uganda and beyond… an amazing, fun, inspirational group and I learned so much too!

Flickr photo albums can be found here:

Returning to San Francisco after a marathon 37-hour journey (which included taxis, boats, buses and planes) was like entering another, faster, chillier, almost surreal world.  Cars went way too fast, there were no large animals grazing at the roadside, and shops were so large and brightly-lit… strange!

Happily it was also the holiday season, so enjoyed that to the fullest.  Then the new year, lovely family visits, some microfinance speeches… and here I am, here we are, so blessed and lucky and thrilled to be alive at this amazing time.  We donned our matching Obama kangas, purchased from a roadside stall in rural Tanzania, proudly throughout the inauguration celebrations — then saw the exact same one greeting Obama in the White House!

On that note, get ready for some hopefully exciting, positive changes on the horizon — in Washington DC, and also closer to home here in San Francisco.  Kwaheri for now!

Seulam (Amharic, from Ethiopia) — Hujambo (Kiswahili, from Kenya) — Greetings from East Africa!

I’ve been on the road for almost 2 weeks now, yet due to lack of both quality internet access and time have not been able to blog as much as I’d hoped.  It’s been an amazing journey so far, as I’d hoped and expected… Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and now a small village (no electricity) in rural western Kenya near the Kakamega forest reserve.  I’ve hob-nobbed with cabinet ministers about legal reform for microfinance; seen zebras, giraffes, gazelles and even the fabled white rhino at close range; and experienced family hospitality and microentrepreneurship first-hand.  It’s an extraordinarily rich, diverse, warm and fascinating area, yet saddled with a problematic history (on many levels) and current obstacles to change.  Obama and his legacy live strong here — even 5 year olds know his name, and his portrait is painted on the side of many buildings.  I am delighted to be one of the first unofficial “foreign ambassadors” of the new-administration-to-be and can only hope that the push for meaningful change becomes a truly global movement.

I’ve also come to realize that online connectivity is not one of the region’s strengths.  So it’s probably best not to get my (or anyone else’s) hopes up by promising to blog “live”; rather, I may end up reverting to offline observations and note-taking, to be followed by a more comprehensive travelogue post after-the-fact.  It will depend in part on whether access options get any better in the coming weeks…

Meanwhile I’ve posted many “mini-blogpost” tweets online, which can be found here.  At least they provide a few snippits and insights into what I’ve experienced so far.  Please continue to check back at the same Twitter link, as I intend to update it as often as I can!

Kwaheri for now…

This past week has been incredible. First BarCamp Africa at the Googleplex, then the inaugural SoCap (social capital) conference in SF. My mind is still spinning with ideas. Amazing and inspiring people, tremendous opportunities, so much to be encouraged and enthused about…

I moderated a BarCamp panel on social, cultural, political and development issues in Africa. A fabulous diversity of perspectives — from documentary filmmaker Amie Williams‘ experiences of the Kenyan political violence through the eyes of a teenage girl, to Joseph Nganga’s efforts at alternative energy and rural needs thanks to companies like Vipani, to Josh Goldstein‘s work with Google regarding internet policy and the specific needs of Africa (and a Fletcherite like me!), to Ken Banks‘ initiative to deploy technology to community health workers and hospitals in rural areas, to Kjerstin Erikson’s organization FORGE that works with post-conflict refugees in Zambia and beyond. Other highlight breakout sessions included an African music and dance journey, brainstorming about the likes of the XPrize, and taking an extraordinary Google Maps adventure above, below and around the continent.

Less than 48 hours later, I found myself at SoCap. Along with some 700+ other people — double the original capacity, from what I understand — packing into Fort Mason and eager to meet others interested in going “beyond microfinance” and pushing the double bottom line and social investment envelopes further.

There were more than 50 breakout sessions organized by the SoCap team, plus an unconference day facilitated by Jerry Michalski. Particularly noteworthy organized sessions included New Spin on Old World Development, Design in the Developing World, Venture Philanthropy and International Government Investment, Sustainable Energy Investments for the BOP, New African Capital and Scaling US Social Enterprise (that’s only a small fraction of what was on tap). The day was capped off by an engaging, challenging Oxford-style debate regarding whether profit maximization is the best way to reach and assist the poor. I lost count of how many times I heard the word “philanthrocapitalism”…

I must say — and not only because of my connection to Jerry 🙂 — that the unconference day was the best of all. Not only because it allowed participants to own and direct the discussions themselves, but also because this format finally provided “something different” at this type of conference. A forum to connect with others on one’s own terms and with one’s own thoughts in the open. A chance to let discussions take tangents, which 99% of the time lead to even better things. An opportunity around every corner to be surprised, challenged and reminded about the myriad avenues to build community.

A sampling of the unconference sessions I attended (can we say, custom-tailored to what’s most relevant to me these days?!):

  • “Legal / structuring 101” for social investing (including VC folks, entrepreneurs and a few lawyers for good measure)
  • Social impact metrics and measurement parameters
  • Franchising social enterprises (including e.g., microfranchising)
  • Fortune 500 companies: Can they innovate via social investment?
  • Social investment in Africa
  • Alternative exits, with an emphasis on legacy

I’m looking forward to staying in touch with so many people from SoCap (big question: might we work together someday?) and look forward to SoCap 2009 already. As for BarCamp Africa, I’m not sure if it’s an annual event but definitely think it should be — and its relevance will be felt again quite soon, as exactly 3 weeks from today I’ll be Ethiopia-bound!