Sunday, July 19, 2009

MATT: Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba (Little by little, fills the measure)

Hello friends and family. Thanks for continuing to support our blog. As the summer rolls on, I am finding it more and more challenging to find the time to write. But my fan club (pretty much just my mom and dad) get on me when I don't write enough, so ... voici un nouveau blog pour mes parents. Even though I bought a digital camera on the way to the airport, I have failed miserably at using it to create stimulating visual content for this blog. However, Courtney and I did go to the the Giraffe Park today and there are a few pictures that she will post in her entry tomorrow (so check back soon).

Everything is still going quite well with GoInnovate for Africa. We have accomplished all of our goals for the summer (establishing a network, vetting our plan and writing our own initial business plan/ model) and still have a few weeks to spare. I am working on gathering clips and pictures (ironic for me to be gathering pictures, I know) for future web content. Hopefully we'll have a website up and running before too long. We also have a few meetings left this coming week with government officials and "wazee" (wise elders in Kenyan culture who can provide many insights on local culture). We'll be meeting with the Director of Economic Affairs for the whole country in the Ministry of Economics on Tuesday and we have two other meetings with high-ranking government officials later on in the week who we hope will be as energized and supportive of our plan as everyone else who we've met. Keep your fingers crossed for us.

Also, we are thinking about making a few changes to our operations relating to financing our entrepreneurs' ventures. A wise professor helped us think through the possibility of making only initial investments and developing a network of venture capital funds that have interest in east Africa to handle the larger growth financing a year or so out. I plan on talking to all of you great finance/ banking brains when I get home (Goldfarb, Zack, Barry, Jessica, Mike, Evan - brace yourselves). If you're interested in hearing more, Courtney and I can send you our new (more polished than the 2-pager we sent many of you) proposal in a week or so for your feedback. Please get in touch with me by leaving a message here or sending me an e-mail at Thanks again to Tom Serres and his team at Piryx for working on "spiffing up" the look and feel of our proposal.

In other news, Courtney's dad arrived on Saturday and it has been great to have another Texan around. We've talked hunting, oil and bar-b-que for about two days straight and I'm starting to miss Texas more than ever. He's going for a safari to the Masai Mara for the next couple of days and I must admit I'm a bit jealous, although, I am planning a small safari of my own with a fellow Swede (a friend of Rachel's, the other roommate, from Harvard) at the end of the month. You can definitely expect a few pictures in my early August post.

And because I know this post has been a bit boring with too many details about our organization, I will leave you with a story to make you laugh and cringe: Our favorite Kenyan (who happens to also be our driver) Robert was telling us about a number of Kenyan things and happened to casually bring up circumcision as an important ceremony and rite of passage for young Kikuyu men. Apparently this is also true for most of the other tribes in east Africa. Anyway, matters of personal privacy are just not as important here as they are back home, so Robert went into a bit too much detail describing the extent of the pain during his own "public initiation ritual" explaining, "We want the pain ... and you cannot show any emotion. It is so perfect". Perfect isn't the word I would use. By the end of it, I was begging to get out of the car ... literally holding back tears with everything I had. Robert, laughing so hard he was starting to cry himself, took one look at my face said I would never be a "real man" in Kenya. I told him I was quite alright with that. He sighed and thought proudly of his own son that would "face the knife" soon. I said a prayer of thanksgiving for my dad.

Ninachoka na ninataka kulala (I am tired and I need to sleep). Thanks for reading.



Thursday, July 9, 2009

MATT: Your cheatin' heart will tell on you

My good friend Jon Cole requested that I add some pictures. I am not so great with photos, but Courtney has some that we will be posting soon. In the meantime, I wanted to share one with you.

Last Friday, we were all celebrating Courtney's birthday at a Churrascaria just down the street (Courtney and I are both Texan and, therefore, ridiculous carnivores even by African standards). After a round of happy birthday by the wait staff, a group of musicians scurried to the front of the restaurant and began performing a number of east African hits. You can imagine how surprised washed over me as a more familiar tune filled the air ... only this was a new version of an old favorite. The lyrics began. "Your cheating heart ... will make you weep". The jazzy style in which they were playing the song as well as the mechanical British/African English voice singing the song nearly gave me a heart attack. I had to step in. You can guess what came next:

Hank would have been proud. Everyone in the restaurant stared in disgust as I gave my twangiest rendition of one of my all time favorites. Hakuna matata.

By the way a big thanks to Tom Serres for all of his help! If you don't know about Piryx, you've got to check it out. It's truly empowering non-profits and political organizations (on both sides of the aisle) in an astoundingly helpful way!

Hope you're all well. PV,


COURTNEY: An excerpt from Courtney’s journal- I have been such a slacker with this I have lost count of the days

Well, I realize I have not written in 3 weeks, and for that I apologize. So much has happened, and it is difficult for me to pick what to write about. Well, for one, I lost a week due to a bacterial infection which is a shame since time is so precious here. Thank goodness for Zithromax! What else? Oh yes, of course. Ian came to visit for a week which gave me an excuse to do all kinds of touristy Kenyan things. We went to see some baby elephants and a baby rhino, and I bribed a guard to let me pet a cheetah. The cheetah incident was actually a bit funny at the time, but now that I look back on it I am not sure if I am as amused. I had heard that to pet the cheetah you had to get in good with the guards first because it is not allowed, so I practiced saying “Tu na weza kuana chezi?” (We can see Cheetah?) so that I would sound like a local. The guard that I first approached told me he didn’t want to know anything about the cheetah, but the more opportunistic guard standing next to him told me he would take us immediately. Sometimes corruption can be quite convenient.

The funny bit was that the first cheetah we saw in the pen was the wrong one. He actually had to shoo the first cheetah away and get the tame one. So, technically I was in a pen with a wild cheetah which is a pretty good story. What I didn’t realize is how much cheetahs are like dogs- the guard actually made the cheetah sit for us. I thought they would be more like cats. I think the cheetah liked me though- it licked my hand…or maybe it was just tasting me to see if it wanted to take a bite. Who knows. I also got to see a very cute baby rhino whose favorite thing to do was charge the crowd and scare everyone half to death. I almost decided to quit this whole NGO business to start an animal orphanage of my own. Then I could play with baby cheetahs and rhinos all day.

Then of course I remembered why I am doing this. We went to a slum called Kawangware yesterday. I went to the slums in January, so this was not a new experience but it is always powerful nonetheless. The kids stepping barefoot in open sewage, the trash piled higher than the houses, the torn uniforms and snotty noses and rotting teeth. It’s a sad sight, but this time I saw a bit more than I did last time. This time I saw the joy- the giggles of the kids running up and down the street shouting “Wazungu!” (white people!) and chanting “How are you? How are you? How are you?” over and over because its the only English words they know. They find joy in the smallest things, and I think it is just as important for us to see this part of their lives- equally as important for us to celebrate their joy as it is for us to mourn their sorrow.

Our work has been going incredibly well. We have now completed nearly 40 interviews and received nothing but very positive feedback. We have begun the process of fundraising and are completing our final business plan in both powerpoint and word. The work is invigorating, and we are both trying to figure out how we will manage to keep this pace while still passing our classes next year. Today, one of the banks we talked to told us, “Well you should be lauded for what you are attempting, but I wonder if you know exactly how big of thing you are getting yourselves into.” Sometimes it is hard to think of this as something that should be praised when it is so far removed from the smiling children in the slums who need our help the most. But, I know this to be true- a job is worth far more than a handout. And, the parents of these children need a job to pay for their meals and uniforms and books and shots. So, I will keep working in hopes that through me God will give at least one child in Kawangware a better chance at life.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MATT: Patience is a virtue. I'm working on it.

Hello blog readers! The last week has flown by so quickly! I went to Mombasa (on the east coast of Kenya) the weekend before last with Courtney and Robert to enjoy a weekend in a beach resort. My expectations were absolutely shattered. The beaches were perfect; blew the Texas gulf beaches right out of the water. I’m sure you’ll all enjoy the image of me lounging in my fishing shirt (with the big Texas vent in the back), sipping on diet coke, reading French novels, and speaking broken Swahili with anyone who would listen.

Mombasa is like no place I have ever been. The beaches are similar to the beauty of what I saw in Thailand, the food is a mix of seafood and more traditional African fare and the people take in life like French people savor fine cuisine. If you have ever seen the Lion King, you know that “hakuna matata” (although the more common expression here is “hakuna shida”) is a way of life for some Africans. Kenya, frankly, moves at a slower pace than most places in the USA in terms of business, technology and customer service. It takes us an hour to eat at even the fastest of fast food restaurants. Getting the bill is like pulling teeth and any adverse reaction to pokiness is generally ignored. Mombasa is the home of “hakuna shida”. We were met in the covered, outdoor lobby of our resort hotel by a group of 6 tribal dancers who we enjoyed very much. Apparently the staff did, too, because they were unable to assist us in checking in until after the 15-minute performance was complete. And that was just the beginning. After being given a walking tour of the hotel, walked through the manager’s suggested daily routine, informed about the beach and towel policies and questioned about our travels, we were finally checked into our rooms an hour and a half after our arrival. The weekend carried on this way with ferries that broke down for several hours, meals that lasted for up to 4 hours due to waiting/ food preparation/ check delivery times, and bar tenders who got around to serving is whenever they felt like it. The only thing that seemed ready to move quickly was the German warship stationed in the harbor awaiting notice of Somali pirate activity. Anyway, I learned to slow down, breathe and adjust my pace, but my patience was clearly eroded by the time the weekend was over. In short, Mombasa is a beautiful place that is meant to be admired and taken in, not rushed through by impatient American tourists. Hakuna shida.

I have received a request to talk a little about exactly what it is that I eat here. I expected to find few things that I enjoy and lots of things that scare me. I have been pleasantly surprised. Basically, Courtney and I love a place called Nairobi Java where we can get pseudo-American cuisine and enjoy free internet. I have also taken up cooking dinner at home about three nights a week. However, every now and then we try something new with Kenyan flare. Here are my observations to date: Starches are present at every meal in some form or another, but generally as rice, ugali (a cornstarch/ maize flour dish that is the consistency of firm mashed potatoes) or boiled potatoes. The dishes themselves, though, are as diverse as the people and history of this intriguing country. The Kikuyu, Abaluha and Luo tribes have contributed many elements to Kenyan cuisine like seared/ roasted corn, irio (corn, beans and Kale) and potatoes. The British (most of you know Kenya was an imperial British colony) brought teas, coffees and pastries and the Indians have contributed samosas, chai (which is also the Swahili word for tea), spices and masala. Most dishes are very simple: some protein that has been grilled and seasoned with a light sauce or gravy served with a heaping scoop of one of the starches I mentioned above. A custom that Courtney and I love is that any time is a good time for tea and coffee in Kenya. At literally every meeting we are offered tea, and we just love the unique flavor of Kenyan chai.

All is well on the business front. We are still moving ahead with our busy meeting schedule. We have now met with well over 50 Kenyans in top positions with organizations and businesses that are important to the success of our venture, and we’ve really only had one or two meetings that we can’t say were over-the-top positive (and both of those meetings were actually still very good). We’re still working through the mess of branding, logo, website design (which we need to get more serious about) and especially a fleshed-out, finalized business plan of our own with clear details about where we are getting our funding, how much everything will cost and how we will operate as an institution. We have a month of precious “Kenya time” left to pull together an impressive final draft of our plan. Keep us in your prayers.

Lastly, we’re planning a small 4th of July shindig and are quite excited at the prospects of being obnoxiously proud Americans for a few hours. We’ve got some great British friends here who we have asked to wear red coats to the event. Hope they’ll take us up on it.

I look forward to hearing from you all … your encouraging e-mails and phone calls have meant the world to me. Although I am not terribly homesick, I do (as is always the case when I am away) miss Texas. As Pat Green says of songs about the lone star state, “I wish I could follow them back to the homeland every time I hear one on my radio”.



Thursday, June 18, 2009

MATT: Cookin' with the heat on

This week has literally flown by. We now have several student interns working with us from each of the universities we are partnering with, and we have been really trying to come up with a firm brand name for our project. For now, we really like the name "Go Innovate International" as our global brand, with our local sub-brands as "Go Innovate Africa" and "Go Innovate Asia", etc.

Courtney and I both would love to hear your thoughts on our brand name. We feel like we have to decide soon, though, because the more momentum the project gets, the harder it is to not have a firm brand name, a website and business cards.

We met with the IFC (which is a branch of the World Bank) SME Solution Center. We were initially worried that they would see us as a competitor as they provide many of the products and services we are looking to provide our entrepreneurs. It turns out, though, that the center really doesn't work with (or plan to) start-ups, which is our whole focus. In fact, the center has all kinds of terrific resources that they just offered us on the spot like physical classroom space, curriculum, and even a database of successful business mentors and Kenyan consultants. And we feel like all of our meetings are going this well. Everyone seems so willing and ready to contribute to a legitimate organization that will stimulate entrepreneurship and job growth in east Africa.

Another fun meeting that we had was with a total character who has made a big splash in the financial markets here in Nairobi. He has written several books, hosts an entrepreneurial seminar for promising young businesspeople, is one of the few providers of financial/trading data for the Kenyan stock exchange, writes a financial column in local and national newspapers and has quite possibly one of the biggest personalities I've ever encountered. Clearly, we got along very well. He was all but ready to turn our concept into a reality TV show (an idea that Courtney had thrown out months ago) to encourage investment and really get the country excited about entrepreneurship. The difference between a guy like this coming up with an idea is that he actually has the network and know-how to make it happen.

It has really been a whirlwind. So many people want to contribute to our project and we're just truly blessed. We remain cautiosly optimistic about this whole endeavor, but can't say thanks enough to those who have been contributing thoughts, advice and prayers (an especially big thanks from my end to my Uncle Jim, Johan, Matt R, Sheena and Buck for your insights).

This weekend, we are probably going to Mombasa with our friends from the State Department. My buddy, Robert Stobaugh, from McKinsey, is also coming to visit here in Nairobi. It is sure to be a great time. I'll be sure to take pictures and post them.

Last but not least, thanks to my roomates for not burning down my house in Dallas and thanks to Stephen Goldfarb for general awesomeness. That's all for now ... we're meeting with another bank executive tomorrow morning early (and those of you who know me best, know exactly how well I tolerate early mornings).

Hakuna matata, PV,


COURTNEY: An excerpt from Courtney’s journal: Day 12

Total and complete immersion. That’s what everyone says you have to do to really understand a new culture. I look around my room. It's bigger than my room in Boston which is not small. I have a King sized bed, beautifully made wooden floors, and my own marble bathtub. Somehow, I think I might be missing out on this whole immersion business. To compensate, Matt, Rachel and I began taking Swahili lessons. They are going ok except that Matt keeps tormenting our teacher by asking her things like, “now, is that the same as the second person present perfect?”….poor thing probably won’t last a week.

Anyway, we went through a phase where we were kind of beating ourselves up for being so American. I think Americans have a habit of doing this when they are in other countries. Like when I go to a restaurant, I always feel bad about asking them if they wash their vegetables with purified water…I always ask it while apologizing one hundred times and hanging my head like I’ve committed some sort of cultural faux pas. The other day we were sitting in Robert’s car, and the Kenyan equivalent of PBS reported that “Britney Spears was recently found on a stripper pole with fake tattoos on her boobies.” Hearing a Kenyan reporter trying very hard to say that last sentence in a serious tone is a very funny thing to listen to, but it does make you a little sad that this is the news that crosses the ocean and represents our country and identity. So, this went on for a while- Matt and I going through a continuous self-flagellation process for being “Soooo American”. Then, it all changed.

“Es como heaven!” I yell. “Es como el cielo”, Matt corrects me. Matt and I have this deal now where we speak Spanish to each other in normal conversation and practice Swahili during lunch. When I don’t know a word like “heaven”, I usually just say it in English as Mexican sounding as I can. Matt always corrects me. “Its like..its like…its like..TARGET!!” I continue with elation. We are standing in front of the Nakumatt.

This was the first store we had found that sold things like plastic hooks and hangers AND food all in one giant amazing space….we had actually found an American style supermarket. We were running through the store like little kids who had just been introduced to Toys R Us. We went to the food aisle and I gasped, “No way.” “What?”, Matt asked. “Macaroni and Cheese.” We both stared at the stack of boxes on display- I thought I might cry. It wasn’t Kraft, but it was a direct copycat and had the word “Scrumpdelicious!” written across the front of it. God bless scrumpdelicious mac and cheese. “Three!” Matt yelled. We grabbed three boxes and threw them in the cart. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, I saw it - - Jiffy peanut butter. I stroked the jar tenderly and delicately put it in the basket for fear that it would break and my joy would be shattered. I was also on the hunt for a plastic shower rod- you would not believe how hard it is to find a plastic shower rod here. Matt asked the local attendant if they had shower rods. He pointed up to the second floor to a sign that read, “Bathroom Mania.” I thought this could possibly be the best day of my life. I yelled Matt’s name on the down escalator and triumphantly waved the shower rod to and fro like I was holding the US flag at the Olympic games. $200 later we are leaving the Nakumatt. We stopped to get Gelato on our way out (yes, they have gelato!). “God bless gelato” I thought as I wiped the remainder from my face.
And then I had an epiphany. Yes, I like cheese slices that are individually wrapped. And yes, I like re-sealable zipper packaging. And yes, I like sanitized water that doesn’t make me run for the bathroom every five minutes. And yes, I like American style bathrooms with a bath and a shower. Why? Because it makes so much sense. Sandwiches are so much easier to make when cheese slices are individually wrapped. So, Yes, I am American, and there is not a darn thing wrong with that.

God bless the Nakumatt, and God bless America.

Monday, June 15, 2009

MATT: Settling in

I'll start this post by issuing a formal apology for the political nuances in my first two posts. For those of you who read the original versions, please note that any and all mentions of my political philosophy have now been removed and know that it was not my intent to offend anyone's sensitivities. I wrote those entries before the blog was a joint blog that was being used to discuss the details of our NGO and, therefore, did not censor my strong political convictions while writing my posts. Please forgive me.

Now onto the good stuff. Today we went shopping at a place that I wouldn't have dreamed could possibly exist in Nairobi after having spent a couple of weeks here. The Nakumatt is an extremely western-style mall not too far from our house where Courtney and I were able to find all sorts of outrageous American luxuries. We spent way too much time and money, but we came home with exactly what we needed: gelato, oatmeal, a pound and a half cut of filet mignon, nivea aftershave and Apple Os cereal. I'll never take Central Market (or how about clean water) for granted again.

My favorite development is that the three of us (including Rachel, our ridiculously cool third roommate) have hired a Swahili teacher. Her name is Kemmy and she comes twice a week for two hours to teach us the ins and outs of this fascinating language (heavily semetic with strong Bantu influences). Almost better than learning the language itself is the constant laughter that results from our somewhat unorthodox "learning requests". Allow me to explain. We live in a wonderful, guarded condominium complex with a shared, exterior atrium space. The facade of the building, as well as the ground, are almost entirely stone and concrete, so sounds echo loudly and reverberate throughout the entire complex. You can understand, then, why it is that the three of us are so fed up with the 5-6 children that repeateldy shreak at the top of their lungs and and insist on dribbling a basketball at all hours of the night. Now back to the language lessons. As we started learning the basic verbs, we happened upon the word "to beat" (ku-piga in Swahili). It is a useful word in Swahili as it is used idiomatically in a number of ways (for instance, "to iron" is "piga-pasi" ... and there are many other verbs which use "piga" as an auxillary of some sort). However, Courtney, Rachel and I looked at each other immediately upon coming to this word and burst out in raucus laughter. Our poor teacher was so confused ... but we calmed down and were able to move on. However, when we came to the word, "to hurt" only a few more words down the list, we couldn't help ourselves. It was 10 minutes of outright hysteria. I am sure you can see where I am going with this. We can now all say in perfect Swahili, "Excuse me ma'am, I am going to beat (or hurt, whichever seems more appropriate at the moment) your chilren". Our teacher's response was priceless: "In Kenya, it is considered very bad to hurt someone else's children." Well, in America, it is totally unacceptable, as well.

Our work here continues to go well. We'll post again Wednesday with more details about how our NGO is developing. Please, please, please continue sending your comments, prayers and contacts. We are so blessed to receive all three.

Warm regards from Kenya. PV,


PS Today we learned from Robert, our trusty driver, that "piga" in the way we are using it actually means something more like "to cain". Courtney and I laughed until we cried again in the whole way to the office. Can you imagine some poor mother's horrified face as some foreigner yells down from the balcony, "I am going to cain your children!"? Anyway, for absolute clarity's sake, please know that we would never dream of actually hurting a child :)