Rapid learning

We had a couple more busy days in Nairobi. Amazing what good use you make of time when you’re aware that it’s limited (I used the word “aware” intentionally — our time is always limited, we just pretend that it isn’t so that fear of the distant future doesn’t paralyze us)


Running — Dave, Ani, and I caused a scene when the three of us ran through streets of Nairobi few foreigners have ever been. We got a couple of shouts, and one guy pretended to run with us.

Emery — Met with a Congolese guy who seemed to be a jack-of-all-trades: he was a translator, did work in sanitation, and had a business of some sort. He was very helpful for getting further connections, but his interest in any one thing seemed to be somewhat shallow.
Had lunch at an authentic downtown Nairobi restaurant: Highlands grill. Apparently it’s one of Judy’s favorites. Definitely the only foreigners in the restaurant. Had a bunch of interesting bean dishes, some potato things, some kale, and a bitter vegetable called namasaka.

Judy – Met with a staff member of Ecotact (Acumen, etc. funded toilet company) who gave us tours of a couple of toilets downtown. The units were square cement structures with 3 stalls and 3 urinals, and one shower (on the men’s side). It cost 5 Shillings to enter (7 cents), and the busier units typically see about 5000 customers per day.

Visiting toilets in downtown Nairobi.
Visiting toilets in downtown Nairobi.

There were a total of 6 tanks holding 1000L of water in case of water shortages. A busy unit (5000 customers per day) would use about 3000L of water. The music playing inside was a nice touch. There were also shoe-shining stalls out back where another company leased the space to set up their business.

Wandering — we then left and wandered through the city aimlessly, stopping at bus stop, book store, fruit stand, and American Hilton (which had a metal detector that everyone set off, but none of the security guards ever reacted to it)

Beer — we found a place called Simmers with live music (Congolese? Kenyans playing Latin music?) and grabbed some Kenyan beers and watched the people interact. There were suspiciously large numbers of single women wearing (relatively) provocative clothing and throwing glances around. Hmm…. nightlife indeed

Vimala (MIT) came in early in the morning and traveled around with us to a couple of meetings throughout the day. Impressive that she was able to stay awake…

Justin — a really cool post-MBA working for SC Johnson to make a toilet cleaning service using their products. He spent about 3 years setting up the program (2.5 abroad, 0.5 in Kenya), and has gotten it to the point where he can recruit motivated entrepreneurs from the slums to start cleaning service businesses. A very revealing meeting that told us a lot about doing business in Kenya.

Lunch in weird mall — we met Justin in a strange mall that felt oddly like America with the multi-ethnic mix of customers. We ordered food from the food court, which despite the appearance, was anything but fast food. Indian food was tasty, but may have caused some gastro-intestinal distress.

Jackson — met with Jackson of the Clinton Foundation, who sat patiently with us for two hours in a room that gradually rose in temperature explaining extremely useful details about various markets and businesses in Kenya.

Meeting with Jackson.

Another mall — we then headed to another mall to meet up with a couple of recently returned young Kenyans who were starting a consulting business. They offered to help us out with our pilot. They seemed like really cool guys, and I think we’ll hang out on Tuesday night.

MIT people — leaving the bathroom we ran into a couple people working in the MIT mobility lab. One recognized me from the Kiva meeting last month.

Dinner adventure – we then drove around for what felt like 2 hours looking for a restaurant. Finally found one, but barely any veggie options. I felt pretty bad for some reason and fell asleep.

More police — we had a more serious run in with the cops. Our driver Edwin made the mistake of heading down the same road as Monday, but this time with 4 people in the back seat. We got waved to the side by the cops, who were excited in that “well lookey what we have here”-type voice. They proceeded to BS us with the law and how serious our infraction was and that they were going to take us to jail for the night. We got a bit nervous when our driver wasn’t able to pull the “tribe card” again, and more cops began to emerge from nowhere (with AK47s) to circle around the fresh kill like sharks. Ani and Dave got a bit agitated and a bit antagonistic, which didn’t help the situation considering that the cops were just looking for an excuse to go on a power trip and threaten us some more. Edwin, our driver, got out of the car (never do that in the US!) to try to smooth talk them. He was back there for some time, and in the meantime, one of the cops attempted to extort 2000KSH ($25) each from the 4 people in the back row. We said no way, but had to wait about 15 minutes before Edwin finally negotiated a bribe of 1200KSH ($15) total. Not a pleasant experience, and we ended up not going to the party we wanted to go to. Eh, life is still wonderful.

My feelings at the end of the day are that there is definitely a need for the sanitation services we want to provide, and that there is clearly a market for the outputs we aim to generate from the waste, but the big questions that remain are:

Execution (will we be able to commit the time in-country to get it done? Is it possible given the various constraints?)
Scale (is there really enough energy content in the waste to support rapid scaling? Is it even possible to scale rapidly in these types of environments?)

Profitability (will we really be able to generate the revenues we claim we should be able to?)
Tomorrow looks to be another exciting day — we’ll be visiting Mathare settlement (slum) to see how IkoToilet differs between urban and slum areas.

Also, free housing with locals has resulted in the following sleeping situation:

Hey, it beats wasting grant money!
Hey, it beats wasting grant money!

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