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Kochia, a sleepy community on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, is caught in the turmoil among traditional ways of life, excitement brought about by development projects and the throes of relentless globalization. Cellphones are spreading HIV and funerals are killing people. Cows are drowning in enormous holes dug by white people. Girls are dropping out of school and children are being rented to orphanages. Crusades and miracle services are blurring the lines between religion and crime. Along with the rapidly declining fish population in the lake, the time to ‘teach people how to fish’ has passed. It is time for direct and decisive action. Obongo, Okello, Sister Phoebe and friends unravel the complexities of community challenges and design practical solutions to address them. From cardboard coffins to toothbrush currencies and professional praising services, the solutions are simple, frugal and ingenious. The Kochia Chronicles take readers headlong into the lives and adventures of people in this quintessential African village as they usher in an era of design, innovation and entrepreneurship.
The Kochia Chronicles owe their genesis to the author’s experiences in conducting research and advancing technology-based social ventures in East Africa over the past decade. They draw heavily from the vast literature on development studies and the work of several innovators and entrepreneurs. The stories weave a compelling web of concepts, approaches, facts, statistics, norms, musings, emotions…and full-page illustrations to help readers empathize with the people, their context, and their choices. The Kochia Chronicles are fictitious narratives that bring to life the paradoxical simplicity and complexity of development challenges with the objective of informing and inspiring innovation that leads to the self-determined improvement of lives and livelihoods.
#1 Obongo’s Scramble for the Signboard
When traveling through East Africa, one cannot miss the bombastic signboards that proclaim businesses, self-help projects and development initiatives. A disproportionate amount of money is spent on erecting signboards years before the projects comes to fruition, if at all. This story introduces the residents of Kochia whose adventures are chronicled in this series. The struggle of collecting monthly dues from members of a community-based organization (CBO) to put up a signboard for a solar power project is described. The story illustrates the importance and ubiquity of rituals and symbols like formal speeches, extravagant feasts, elaborate signboards and expensive SUVs in modern African culture. A brief character and life sketch of the lead actors helps the readers understand their circumstances and choices.
After a year-long screening process, Kochia has been selected for a solar power project. Government officials and Chief Achieng from the Sustainable Utopian Village (SUV) Foundation inform Obongo, the leader of the Empower Kochia Community-based Organization (CBO), that five large solar panels are to be installed for people to recharge their LED lanterns. The CBO members resolve that no expense should be spared to erect a signboard that fits the stature of this project that marks a new chapter in the history of Kochia. After a long tussle, Obongo negotiates the signboard with a professional painter, Godgift, who is infamous for his poor spelling. As we follow Obongo through his long walks and matatu trips trying to collect pending monthly dues from fifteen members, we learn about Kochia, its people, and their way of life. The signboard is finally inaugurated during an elaborate ceremony replete with never-ending speeches, preaching and a grand feast. What Obongo really wants to know is whether Godgift will deliver the promised signboard, whether Chief Achieng will clarify the project’s start date, and whether he will be able to save enough money to enjoy a cold soda with the esteemed guests, assuming they show up!
#2 Janet’s Momentous HIV / AIDS Workshop
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has deeply impacted the social fabric of East Africa. A few million lives have been lost and many more have been burdened with caring for relatives living with HIV. Relatives and voluntary health workers who provide care to HIV patients receive training in workshops sponsored by the government or a variety of non-profit organizations. This story describes the discussions and dynamics at one such educational workshop. Almost half of all new HIV infections occur among young people under the age of 25 and they are mostly caused due to unprotected sex. The controversy pitting abstinence advocacy against educating young people about using condoms is discussed along with steps being taken by various groups to fight the epidemic. HIV/AIDS implicates every single person in Sub-Saharan Africa and understanding the complications and paradoxes presented by the epidemic is absolutely critical.
After fighting with her husband and consulting with Sister Phoebe, Obongo’s wife Janet decides to postpone a visit to her dying sister in favor of attending an HIV educational workshop. As the workshop starts, readers learn about a host of HIV-related issues including the reasons why twice as many women are HIV positive, how cellphones are rumored to spread HIV, and the socio-economic implications of the stigma associated with AIDS. Later in the story, readers realize that such educational workshops are very valuable but the value is not what most people think it is! The seminars and lectures are helpful for the few first-time participants but the formation of a trusted community with honest discussions and lateral knowledge sharing is much more important. Finally, Janet explains her reasons for delaying her trip to Kisumu and attending the HIV workshop.
#3 Okello’s Foray into Social Business
Funerals are killing the people! They are extremely expensive undertakings and it is not atypical for people to spend ten times their annual income on funerals for their loved ones. The burial place, the rituals, the feasts, the number of cows slaughtered are all accorded cultural and social significance. Honoring the dead leaves the living relatives bankrupt and pushes them further into the vicious cycle of poverty. By shadowing a traditional Luo funeral, this story illustrates the complicated and systemic problems that emerge from cultural traditions and are further aggravated by poverty, colonialism, politics, socio-economics and corruption. Particular attention is given to the impact of funerals on the spread of the HIV epidemic. Readers learn that while traditions and culture present barriers to development, that is exactly where one can find the biggest opportunities for positive social change.
When Obongo’s father dies in a road accident in Nairobi, he must rise to the occasion and organize a funeral befitting one of the most prominent citizens of Kochia. Sister Phoebe and Okello expect their friend to take on a leadership role and set an example by hosting a modest funeral. Obongo is worried that people will question his love for his father and decides to throw an extravagant funeral. As the story unfolds, readers learn about funeral traditions, community fundraising mechanisms and the role of trust and social capital in communities. A better understanding of the genesis of traditions and their implications in modern times can help readers advance from ridiculing local customs to thinking about how they can be leveraged to address community problems. Sister Phoebe and Okello realize the limitations of teaching and preaching. They champion a social innovation process to obsolete unhelpful traditions and build a new identity for their community. The residents of Kochia identify several simple solutions to hold culturally-appropriate yet frugal funerals. Okello conceptualizes environment-friendly cardboard coffins that cost one-sixth of the regular wood coffins. These coffins are substantially lighter and foldable, and hence easy to transport. The funeral is a turning point for Kochia – the end of an historic era that ushered independence and primary education and the beginning of an era of innovation, design and entrepreneurship.
#4 Odhiambo’s Journey to God
Over the past few decades, countless Bible schools have sprung up in East Africa to meet the growing demands for religious education. The established public and private universities offer graduate and post-graduate degrees in theology as a stepping-stone towards a career in ministry. At the other end of the spectrum, Bible schools in rural areas and urban slums operate in tiny poorly-lit tin shacks with students learning the gospel and ministry from uneducated teachers, many of them graduates of similar fly-by-night operations. These vocational schools churn out pastors of small churches and preachers that ply their trade on streets, busses, matatus, or any other place where people congregate. Collectively, this is a multi-million shilling industry that provides employment and entrepreneurship opportunities as well as spiritual support to a multitude of people. This story illustrates the importance of religion, especially amongst disenfranchised and impoverished people. Crusades, miracle services and the prosperity gospel are just a few examples of how religion is being abused and hijacked by self-serving individuals. The intersections of power, crime and religion are described in an honest and humorous manner.
Inspired by his cousin who preaches in busses around Nairobi and makes as much money in a day as he earns in a month, Odhiambo decides to become a preacher. He wants to earn a decent living while helping people at the same time. His early exploration of the profession is unsuccessful as the Reverend yells at him while an angry matatu preacher packs him into the next vehicle and sends him home with a warning that he should never return to Homa Bay. He realizes that most preaching opportunities will require him to leave his family behind and migrate to the city. Incidentally, his pregnant wife goads Odhiambo into attending a crusade by Bishop Mwangi of the Moneymaker church…and then Okello arranges a direct meeting with the Bishop himself. The Bishop offers to help Odhiambo establish a branch of the Moneymaker church in Kochia and make him the pastor. Odhiambo must decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life…and the expensive black leather-bound Bible with the shining golden cross on it.
#5 The Message for Sister Phoebe
The Kenyan economy loses 70 billion shillings every year to counterfeiters. Counterfeit products cost manufacturers millions of dollars in lost sales and the government millions more in lost tax revenues. Economic opportunities for everyone are compromised, as is the incentive for entrepreneurs and companies to work hard, find innovative solutions to problems, and launch products. Customers, especially impoverished people in rural areas, are probably the ones who are hurt the most by this menace. This story explores the impact of counterfeit solar technologies and cellphones on the residents of Kochia. Besides the extremely high capital cost, lack of education about the capabilities of solar panels is a barrier to their larger adoption. Common misunderstandings and people’s expectations from solar-powered lanterns are discussed, and can help readers understand the microeconomics of their usage.
The story starts with Sister Phoebe getting a cryptic message on her cellphone. She readily attributes the message to God and resolves to decipher its meaning. When she meets up with Obongo, the strange functionality of his solar panel doubles up the mystery, and leads to a larger conversation about solar power. Depending on their worldview, the message is interpreted by various individuals as a coffin, a church, an HIV-related message, a windmill, and even a Chevrolet SUV! As the story unfolds, readers learn about counterfeit products, their impact on the economy, and how to tell them apart from original products. Okello finally solves the mystery of the solar panel as well as the message from God. Everyone comes to terms with the situation and finds a reason to be happy. Janet is overjoyed that she was cheated!
#6 Mr. Jackson’s Secret to Success
Millions of children have been orphaned due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa. Traditionally, in African society, extended families take care of children who have lost their parents. However, the prevalence of HIV has deeply impacted traditional family relationships. The most productive members of society succumb to AIDS. Grandparents and extended family are unable to take care of the needs of every child. Thousands of orphanages have emerged to fill this void and provide children with shelter, food, education, and most importantly, love and hope. At the same time, running an orphanage has become a highly profitable business and the children’s welfare is often compromised to the lure of money. While the corrupt orphanage owners are often the primary offenders, western donors and volunteers are also to blame for unwittingly supporting such operations.
Sister Phoebe spends a couple of days at the Clean Hope Orphanage run by the dynamic Mr. Jackson. Mr. Jackson owns ten orphanages in Western Kenya and is in the process of building many more. Sister Phoebe is puzzled by the happenings at Clean Hope – the children jubilate when informed that they won’t be served dinner, toothbrushes keep vanishing from the store room, children are not allowed to play with their toys, and the entire place is strewn with trash cans! Most children are not even orphans and some of them have both their parents alive! The American volunteers are visibly sad about their stay at Clean Hope and insist that Mr. Jackson is a corrupt man. On the other hand, the staff and the children consider him their hero. When Mr. Jackson is finally cornered, he proudly reveals the secrets of his success in the orphanage business.
#7 The Headmaster’s Harambee MBA
Free primary education in many African countries has fueled the demand for quality secondary education. For the thousands of students who are not accepted to the government secondary schools and cannot afford private schools, community (Harambee) schools offer the only alternative. Such schools operate on student fees and charitable donations, both of which are unpredictable and keep the school in constant financial tension. Secondary schools face several systemic challenges including large class sizes, poor educational facilities, chalk and talk pedagogy, and lack of motivation amongst students and teachers. Girls are disadvantaged compared to boys in all aspects of access, participation and performance at the secondary level. This story delves into the myriad challenges with secondary schools and describes how the residents of Kochia come together to address them.
The headmaster of Strong Bamboo secondary school, Mr. Masinde, will have to shut down the school unless he is able to solve the massive fiscal challenges in the next two months. He reluctantly reaches out to Okello, Obongo, Sister Phoebe and Mr. Jackson in a last-bid effort to save the school. The four of them swing into action and start researching the problems in an indepth manner. The walls are crumbling, the black boards have chipped off, the donors died, half the students have not paid their fees, and girls are dropping out of school! Some teachers never show up for classes while others are counting the days until they can get a transfer to an urban area. Sister Phoebe gets to the root of the girls’ problems while Okello and Mr. Jackson strive to understand and address the fiscal challenges. A boisterous group of boys playing with a bicycle tire take Obongo back in time and inspire him to devise a novel approach to motivate the students and teachers alike.
#8 The Fisherman’s Sweet Fate
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” says a time-honored adage. While it is true in spirit, it is actually impractical in many parts of the world where highly-skilled fishermen cannot access the millions of fish in their vicinity due to a variety of cultural, economic or political reasons. This story delves into the challenges faced by millions of fishermen who depend on Lake Victoria and other lakes for their lives and livelihoods. One of their big problems is water hyacinth, a weed that grows extremely fast, suffocates the fish, and makes it difficult for the fishing boats to go into the water. This story explores the challenges to sustainable aquaculture and the importance of community-based natural resource management systems. Instead of considering the hyacinth as a weed, can it be leveraged as an ingredient to make fertilizers and fuel? Resource-driven entrepreneurial opportunities and lean business strategies to realize these opportunities are presented. This story sets the stage for further exploration into design, manufacturing and entrepreneurship in the second set of Kochia Chronicles.
Phillip, a fisherman from Kochia, has been missing for over a year and his brothers have searched for him everywhere. When they approach Obongo for help, the search shifts into high gear. As they start exploring the circumstances around Phillip’s disappearance, they discover the diverse challenges faced by fishermen and fisheries officials. When they learn that Phillip’s nets were confiscated and he was last seen with a Kikuyu woman, they are convinced that he has left Kochia and decide to abandon the search. Just as they are walking away, a dispute between the fishermen and a stranger concerning the removal of the water hyacinth provides a fresh lead in their quest. The story rapidly travels from the shores of the lake, to the highlands of Central Kenya, and back to the sugarcane plantations of Rongo, before settling down at Okello’s residence! Phillip is finally found and tells his incredible story of coordinating sugarcane famers and using the hyacinth to make money. Okello, a classic systems thinker, helps Phillip develop a more inclusive business model and resolve the dispute with the fishermen.
#9 Mzungu Memories: A Conversation over Busaa
Busaa is a fermented porridge made from sorghum, maize, or millet flour. It is as much of a nutritious food as an alcoholic drink and is served during social and religious ceremonies. This story captures conversations held over a busaa session about the people’s encounters with westerners. Foreigners, specifically white people, are called “mzungus” in Kiswahili which literally translates to “confused people.” The first mzungus in East Africa were explorers who went round and round trying to find and climb tall mountains and locate the sources of rivers. The Africans never quite understood the purpose of all these harsh journeys and called them “mzungus,” or the confused people who wander aimlessly. Though centuries have passed since the early explorers’ wanderings, the locals are still confused about the mzungus’ projects and ways of working. Foreigners have their own conceptions of development, poverty, innovation and honesty and rarely seek to understand the local frameworks of these concepts. Unlike the mzungus, the personal and professional relationships of the Africans are closely intertwined and cemented together with trust and respect. An understanding of these relationships is essential for foreigners so that they do not inadvertently harm the people through their naive projects and actions.
Phillip’s family and friends gather at the Lake View Hotel in Homa Bay to welcome him home and celebrate his engagement to Wambui. On Sister Phoebe’s insistence, the brutal spirit, chang’aa, is struck off the menu but the attendees can still enjoy soda, beer and the traditional alcoholic drink, busaa. Odhiambo, Phillip, Obongo, Okello, Reverend Ndiege, Chief Achieng, the fisheries officer, Benson and a few others pull up chairs outside the hotel to sip their busaa and exchange stories about their encounters with white people. Chief Achieng narrates how the mzungu bosses in his non-profit spent KSh 4 million to gather data and two million more to buy new furniture and computers but refused to release a paltry sum of KSh 40,000 for a group of farmers who had asked for assistance. Rev. Ndiege recounts his experience of getting caught in the crossfire between a coffee cooperative and a mzungu group help marketing their coffee in the US. Sister Phoebe tells her harrowing tale of being falsely accused of misappropriating funds while Odhiambo, in his characteristic style, entertains the group with his story about the girls who came to dig an enormous hole next to his Moneymaker toilets. The story ends with everyone questioning the mzungus’ understanding of relationships and wondering why they have to travel so far to find spiritual, mental and physical intimacy.