The startup life in Ethiopia

Video

Above is my very first experiment in making a timelapse video. It captures the team from Ethiopian educational media company Whiz Kids Workshop setting up a classroom library as part of a crowdfunded project to bring their high-quality educational material to government schools. The social enterprise is known across Ethiopia for their wildly popular educational public television series for kids, Tsehai Loves Learning – a show often referred to as “Ethiopian Sesame Street”.

I recently wrapped up a few months living the startup life with Whiz Kids Workshop in Addis Ababa, where I focused mostly on marketing, communication and grant writing. I also had the chance to do things I had never done before like creating a branding policy and designing packaging. Below is a design I did for a package that includes four educational books and a corresponding DVD.  

The left side promotes the other books, DVDs, posters and flashcards that make up the Tsehai’s Amharic Alphabet Library product line.  Kids can write in their name and details on the left side and use it as a notebook cover that features the character Tsehai from the show.  
I’m still in Addis and currently wrapping up a consulting project for One Planet International School, helping them iron out aspects of their governance, conceptual framework and financing as they prepare to take their school to the next level.

Where the equilibrium in highly-developed North American markets seems to leave itty-bitty opportunities only discernible to the most creative and ambitious entrepreneurs, market the opportunities here in Addis and Ethiopia are as big as canyons.  The only things that stand in the way are the significant friction imposed by government procedures and the need to wrap one’s mind around the informal and rapidly changing networks for getting products and marketing messages to customers.  Not for the faint of heart.

Film on the Pulse Pilot in Ahmedabad

Video

Above is a short film my teammate Karl Oscar Teien put together of some of the key stages we went through in our pilot of the Pulse Active Food Savings concept in the slums of Ahmedabad, India this summer.  Here you will see us as we developed the prototypes, brought them back to users for feedback, and went on to launch a mini-pilot.

I’m back in Canada now and on the hunt for new projects, but tonight I’m heading down to New York City to reunite with the team and support them in their bid to win the $1 million Hult Prize to launch Pulse on a larger scale. The event will be opening the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting and the winner will be chosen heads of Kiva, the WHO, Standard Chartered Bank the World Food Program, Solar Aid and the father of modern microfinance, Professor Muhammad Yunus.

Prototype feedback session participants with the pilot team.  Click for more photos from the pilot.

I’m back in India.

That’s right, again.  A couple months ago I got recruited by a couple classmates to spend the last module of my master’s program in Ahmedabad to help run a pilot of social enterprise they had been working on.  I arrived on Monday morning and will be here until mid-August, from which point I will have to rush back to California for my graduation ceremony and present some work at another Association for Baha’i Studies conference.

Pulse Active Food Savings is a social enterprise that aims to tackle food insecurity in urban slums by offering urban slum dwellers a safe, and reliable way to build up a buffer of savings which can be redeemed for food purchases.

The idea for Pulse came from a group of graduate students at Hult International Business School in San Francisco.  It wasn’t pulled out of thin air.  The team of highly educated and experienced young people from five countries (India, South Africa, Nigeria, Canada and Norway) came to it based on their study of emerging trends in technology, development and social enterprise.  It was also based on their collective experience on the ground.

The team and the idea beat out a host of others that competed at the regional Hult Prize competition.  This included those developed by teams from much more prestigious business schools than ours.  Schools like Stanford, Schulich, Warwick, Berkeley, John Hopkins, NYU, and yes, MIT.

The team has also been getting the support and mentorship of a bunch of smart people who know much about development and social enterprise.  It was also selected by judges representing IBM, Autodesk, Saachi and Saachi, IDEO and McKinsey.

The Hult Prize team

We know that many people don’t have bank accounts, making it difficult to find affordable ways to save money that they can use to plan for the future and face unforeseen challenges.  We know that food security is a serious challenge for many of those same people, taking on many forms.  We also know that the majority of them own or have access to simple mobile phones.  We know that simple SMS technology is being used in different places for amazing things such as community mobilization and supply chain management and health education.

All of this doesn’t change one important fact.  We still don’t know if it will work.  More specifically, we don’t know if it is something that would address the aims it is supposed to (food security and financial stability), and if it is something that people would actually want to use.

That’s why I feel this pilot is so important.  Tomorrow we will start our phase of intensive interviews and observation to find the ideal Pulse client and to engage them in the design process.  From there we are going to launch a test of the service to prototype the user experience and see what effects the service might have on people’s lives and how it should be refined.

Our challenge in carrying this out is adopt a humble posture of learning that has been coined the beginner’s mind.  This is to “approach a subject with excitement, an open mind, and no preconceptions, regardless of how much knowledge they have gained about a subject.” (source)

Fehmida Malik of Sambodh, myself and Sanyanth

Fehmida Malik of Sambodh, myself and Sanyanth

Using simple cell phone technology that people can use to save money and boost food security.  It’s a deceptively simple idea that has already generated lots of excitement.

We set up a page on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe to help translate that excitement into action on the ground.  So far there has been a very encouraging show of support.  Classmates, family members, friends and strangers have been throwing in what they can to make it happen.  Right now we are making one more push so that we can meet the budget on our very lean operation.

If this is an idea you are as excited about as we are, we want to invite you to be a part of it.  Please visit the GoFundMe page for more information on the fun rewards and to support.

This is mostly a repost from my team’s collective blog.  We will be using it over the next few weeks to share photos, videos, stories and reflections from the field.

“Fortress” by MJ Cyr

Video

Last weekend my old friend MJ Cyr came to the Bay Area to perform the amazing songs she has been making based on the writings of the Baha’i Faith.  I shot the above video at her last house concert in the area.  It’s called “Fortress” and it uses words of a following prayer by ‘Abdu’l-Baha:

O compassionate God! Thanks be to Thee for Thou hast awakened and made me conscious. Thou hast given me a seeing eye and favored me with a hearing ear, hast led me to Thy kingdom and guided me to Thy path. Thou hast shown me the right way and caused me to enter the ark of deliverance.

O God! Keep me steadfast and make me firm and staunch. Protect me from violent tests, and preserve and shelter me in the strongly fortified fortress of Thy Covenant and Testament. Thou art the Powerful. Thou art the Seeing. Thou art the Hearing.

O Thou the Compassionate God. Bestow upon me a heart which, like unto glass, may be illumined with the light of Thy love, and confer upon me thoughts which may change this world into a rose garden through the outpourings of heavenly grace.

Thou art the Compassionate, the Merciful. Thou art the Great Beneficent God.

If you haven’t heard her album Canopy yet, you should check it out.  As someone who openly dislikes most Baha’i music he hears, please know that I mean it when I say that Canopy is great.  It’s available to preview, buy and download now on Bandcamp

Here’s my very favorite track from the album.

Announcing Apraila Murkha

Table Land in Panchgani. Photo credit: “Waiting for master” by Flickr user Sindhur Reddy

In March 2011 I was living in Panchgani, India doing some work with the Baha’i Academy. At that same time my mother was doing community development work with the Baha’is of Slovenia and my dad and sister were back home in Ottawa.

Just before going to bed on 30 March I send my family a very carefully-worded email with the subject line ‘Big news!’.

Dear mum and dad (and Julie and Fanfan, too),

I want to apologize for not being in very much touch over the past couple of weeks, but soon you will understand. I have some really big news. The day you worried would never arrive has finally come.

See, just less than two very eventful weeks ago I went to Table Land in the evening to meet some friends and ride on the horses they have there. There I met this young woman named Apraila Murkha and we immediately hit it off. We started spending almost all of our time together just talking about everything. She’s from a village called Nakali here in Maharashtra and studied dance and singing at a college in Pune. We have lots in common, like we’re both vegetarians, like India, and are kinda short.

Anyways the idea of getting married came up exactly three days ago and we are both really excited about the possibility. That’s why I’m writing.

Its a little complicated because she is still technically married to this guy she married when she was 13 who is actually also her first cousin. Doesn’t really count because it was an arranged marriage and she hasn’t even seen him in like two weeks. She is just now arranging for the divorce.

Her parents are cool with it, so I’m writing you guys to see if you want to come over within a few weeks to meet her or if you are cool with giving the okay remotely and sequestering some carbon in the process. Although if you want to come, that would be cool – you could probably stay here at the Academy, there’s lots of bunk beds.

I’ll tell you a bit more right now to maybe answer some of your questions before you need to ask them and make the whole process a bit faster. Let’s see… we are planning on living with her parents in Nakali and taking care of their strawberry farm while Apraila sometimes goes into Mumbai to audition for films. They also have cows and onions. She’s a 36 years old, but she looks like she could be 15, which is weird. What else do you need to know? That’s all I can think of.

As exciting as this big news is, please don’t tell a soul just yet. I would prefer to do myself. And besides, you guys haven’t even said yes yet!

From your son and future daughter-in-law,

Samuel and Apraila

The reason I would send my parents an email like this is that I am a Baha’i and to have a Baha’i marriage, I would need the consent of all the parents to go through with it.

Out of my excitement I couldn’t resist sharing this announcement with a few of my friends even while I waited for my parents reaction.

Hey guys, I just shared some really big news with my parents and I was too excited to wait for their response not to tell you guys.  Way too excited!  Don’t tell anyone yet, though.

I was excited to check my email the next morning to see the reactions from my family and friends in Europe and Canada.  Among those friends, one was disappointed by how obvious the prank was.  This critic, who knows who she is, had this to say:

Really, Sam? You couldn’t even provide some pics of you and April Fool’s Day fiancee to make this more convincing?

You’ve lost your touch.

…No you’re NOT supposed the crank the ridiculous dial! The best part about pranks is make them subtle enough to be believable! MASS FALLOUT.

My BFF and renowned egg punster Chloe Filson replied:

Nice one, April Fool.  I mean, ZOMG I CAN’T WAIT TO MEET HER SHE SOUNDS SO AWESOME AND TINY CONGRATULATIONS YAAAY!

The effect I was going for was to make it plausible on first glance, but then to reveal itself as an obvious joke by the second reading.  I didn’t want anyone to suffer of a heart attack.  I put in many details that were meant to raise the suspicion of anyone who knows me well.  And who knows me better than my parents, right?

Let’s review:  I sent an email to my parents asking them to hurry to India to meet a woman ten years my senior, but only looks 15, “which is weird”.   I have only known her for two weeks.  She’s married, but she hasn’t seen her husband in awhile. Two weeks, in fact.  It has been suggested that my parents can either give their blessing remotely or come on over to stay in some bunk beds.

Another April Fool’s day wasted on an obvious joke.  Better luck next year.

My classmate Niketa playing the role of Apraila

A few hours later I finally heard from someone in my family.  My sister Julie wrote:

Ok, now is the time to say “April fools!” because I just called dad and it hadn’t even occured to him that you could be joking and I think I caught him mid-heart attack.  You are joking right?!?

Apparently she didn’t buy the story, but my dad totally did.  She called him and found him to be very perturbed.  She said that he was practically hyperventilating.  He was totally consumed with trying to get in touch with my mom in Slovenia to figure out what to do now that their son had gone off the deep end.  He emailed her:

I do not have a good feeling about this.  Please Skype me as soon as you get this.

In the meantime, Julie did her homework.  Using Google Translate, she realized that the name of my fiance-to-be, Apraila Murkha is April fool in Hindi.  Her village Nakali is the word fake.  She emailed me again:

Well you didn’t get me but your poor dad!!!  You are going to have to talk to him on the phone to fully appreciate your achievement.

When Julie pointed out to him that it must be a joke, he was incredulous.  “No!  He would never do that to us!” he said.  Julie had him read it again to see how far fetched it was and he came around.  The two of them decided to join on the fun and wait until they be together to see my mother’s reaction over Skype.

It turns out she was duped too and was sent into same panic as my father, all by herself in Slovenia.  It took them a few long hours for them to all meet up and reveal the truth.  My mother quickly transitioned from panic, to anger, then embarrassment, laughter, and finally revenge.

Back in India, I was going through my own personal hell waiting to hear back from my parents.  Finally, I reciecieved a very serious email from my mother.

Dear Sam,

Daddy and I have consulted on Skype about your Big News. We have not been able to reach Julie for her reaction, unfortunately.

We are quite concerned about your idea for several reasons.
Please don’t think that we will be coming to meet Apraila in the very near future, because we have too many questions that would need responses before we take on such an expense. Also, Daddy would have trouble getting away from work again, He was just here in Slovenia for 2 weeks.

A this point we don’t have a good feeling about this plan, Sam. We are grateful for the marriage law that you are being obedient to. We will not give consent without meeting Apraila and maybe even her family, so you are going to have to imagine a longish wait for all that to happen.

We hope this is not too painful for you to read. We think there will be wisdom in waiting.

We love you and will pray for a good outcome to all this.

Much love,

Mum and Dad

I rushed to call my mother and put end to this before my parents disown me forever for being such a brat.  When I finally got through to her I fessed up straight away that I was just kidding.  She giggled with glee as she told me that she was kidding too.  She got the last laugh and has been dining out on the story ever since.

Our reunion when I came home many months later.  I insisted on not telling anyone when I was coming home from India, which my mother did not appreciate.  I finally showed up part way through my nephew's birthday party at my sister's place.

Click here to read about how my friend Eric and I celebrated April Fool’s Day 2012.

Pledge to Professor Mike Edwards

Video

This is a video from the last module in my Master of Social Entrepreneurship program at Hult International Business School. I worked a couple of my classmates to organize this surprise pledge at the end of our last class with a professor to thank him for coming to teach us.

Over a few months and lectures, Mike Edwards took the class through a systematic exploration of the crushing problems currently facing humanity. In the process we were all forced to challenge our beliefs about economic activity and how change happens.

At one point in the pledge we say that we ‘are ready to be the naked dancing guy or at least one of his first followers’.  This is a reference the below video that a couple of our professors have shown us to underline the role of first followers in leadership.

We also mention that ‘playing the didgeridoo in an electronic music group is a legitimate career choice’.  Besides the fact that this is a true statement, it was a reference to the fact that for a chunk of Professor Edward’s career, he dropped out of his profession as a scientist to tour in an electronic music group playing, that’s right, the didgeridoo.  Now he does both teaching and performing and recording music with his band Didjitalis.

Benoit-James-Seleger family GIF

I just moved down to San Francisco for grad school and before I left Ottawa in the wee hours of Sunday morning my family got together for a photo shoot and dinne at a nearby South Indian restaurant.

My mom and dad have been pestering me to email them the photos from shoot, so instead I spent the time that would have taken and more to make this GIF for you, the Internet.

For more GIFs on this site, see:

The Brothers Farr sing for ‘Abdu’l-Baha in Montreal

Video

Yesterday members of the Baha’i community were invited to join the congregation of St. James United Church in downtown Montreal for special Sunday service.  It was nearly 100 years ago to the day that a 68 year old Persian spiritual leader spoke in the same church on the evolution of religion.

From 239 Days in America:

Perhaps it was unexpected that a voice calling for modern religion came from the East. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá argued that religious truth must change along with the evolving needs of society. Rather than deny the existence of a creator, or the benefits religion had given humanity, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke of the need for a reformation so that modern religion could meet the needs of an increasingly complex world. [Full post]

‘Abdu’l-Baha is a central figure of the Baha’i Faith who’s epic journey to North America is being celebrated by Baha’is across the continent this year.

Yesterday’s service closed with two original songs from my friends Eric and James Farr of the band Honeyman and the Brothers Farr with Jacque Proulx accompanying them on the violin.  These wonderful videos were filmed by their friend Clara Haskell at the church before the event.  Here is the other song they performed yesterday morning, it’s called “Children of His Journey”.

To follow the story of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s trip, I highly recommend checking out 239 Days.  It’s a social media documentary that shares a  fantastically well-written post every day that tells you roughly where ‘Abdu’l-Baha was at in his journey 100 years ago to the day.  I’m subscribed to it by email to be notified as articles are posted.

It’s been great to follow this story every day — especially in the run up to these centenary events in Montreal that I got to attend. Coincidentally I am going to be moving from here in Eastern Canada to San Francisco this Sunday to begin graduate studies at around the same time ‘Abdu’l-Baha visited the same city 100 years ago on 3 October 1912.  I feel like one of those devoted fans who follows their favorite band while they are on tour, only 100 years late.

Finally, here is a short clip of the response of the audience and of the Reverend Arlen John Bonnar to performance.

Status updates from a bike tour (and friendship) unravelling

We made it!Right now my friend Eric Farr (of Honeyman and the Brothers Farr and the Hidden Words) is working with the International Development and Relief Foundation and his main job is running the Mother’s Day Bike Challenge that will take a group of volunteers from different faiths from Toronto to Ottawa to raise money the organization’s maternal health work in Asia and Africa.  Just a few weeks ago I joined Eric on on a bike ride to run through the route and marry Eric’s foolish optimism with my actual experience planning bike tours with the Otesha Project.

The tour turned out to be a total disaster that cost us our friendship and very nearly our very lives.  Unlike many Facebook users who use their profiles that project a version of their lives that is filled only with weddings, concerts and puppy dogs, Eric and I had the courage to say petty things about each other to all our friends.

For all you people who prefer to wait for your show’s season to end so that you can download the whole thing and blast through it in just a few sittings, here now is every episode of this story in order with some of our favorite comments. Continue reading