Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Silicon Savannah

By Marcos de Matos M’17.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page.” Saint Augustine

I arrived at Babson in mid-May 2016, ready for the One-Year MBA. In 3 months, I managed to navigate 15 courses along with my new 37-member family of fellow one-years. I had no time to spare, but one month into my MBA, a volunteer opportunity in Tanzania caught my attention. I did not expect that I would end up spending a full month in Africa during the winter break.

At the beginning of this adventure, I realized three things: the trip to Africa is so long that I could not stay only one week; the winter in Boston is brutally cold and I did not want to spend most of my break between 4 walls; and it is a great opportunity to have more than 1 month of vacation and I had to make the most of this time in my life. My schedule for my winter break was complete:

  • 1 week teaching entrepreneurship in Tanzania
  • 1 week climbing Kilimanjaro
  • 2 weeks as an intern at Spire, a startup in the Silicon Savannah (Nairobi, Kenya)

1st stop: BELA (Babson’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy) Program

The volunteer program (BELA) was amazing! I was in a large room teaching more than 120 students. Also, each teacher had a 10-student group to go deeper into the concepts of the bigger room. This group of teenagers were very smart and motivated, and they were eager to extract every kilowatt of energy from my brain!

BELA Program – Team 9.

It is fair to say I was exhausted after every session and that sometimes I felt I was learning more than what I was teaching. In one of the finance classes, they learned the importance of profit and savings. They realized if they opened a profitable fruit cart, they would be able to pay their debts and save money to open more and more fruit carts. This was an incredible moment because they discovered the formula to generate wealth and positively impact their communities. They felt that they could do it!

In the end, I noticed that children in the community were happy and grateful for their lives, even if they had fewer opportunities than others. Takeaway #1: we can be happy with less.

2nd stop: Above 19,000 feet: The roof of Africa

Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet above sea level. By far, this has been the most difficult, challenging, and exciting experience I’ve had in my life. We reserved a 6-day trek: 4.5 days to go up and 1.5 days to descend.

I was so focused on surviving that not showering for 6 days wasn’t even an issue. I trained a lot beforehand by running 6 miles/day, and I was sure I was prepared to climb Kili. I was completely wrong.

This was Kili:

Day 1 6-hour trek through rainforest to Machame Camp (9,301 feet above sea level).

Day 2 6-hour very steep trek through moorland to Shira Cave Camp (12,303 feet).

Day 3 7-hour trek through moorland and alpine dessert passing through Lava Tower (15,092 feet) and Barranco Camp (12,795 feet). At Lava Tower, my body was suffering more because of the altitude.

Day 4 8-hour trek through moorland and alpine dessert passing through Karanga Camp (13,107 feet) and Barafu Camp (15,627 feet ). This was a very long day and we arrived at Barafu (base camp) at 4:30 pm.

Day 5 The extreme!

Going up. We woke up at 11pm and began to walk at midnight. It was really cold and we took over 7 hours to reach Uhuru Peak (Freedom Peak). The altitude during the peak is 19,341 feet and there is less than the half of the amount of oxygen one would find at sea level. The weather is artic and the summit feels between -5F and 10F. I could not believe when we achieved the summit, it was amazing!

Kili team @ the summit!

Going down. With every step going down we could breathe better and the trek was more manageable. I took three hours to get back to Barafu where we rested for 1 hour. We continued down, passing through High Camp (12,959 feet), and arrived at Mweka Camp (10,171 feet). The entire journey down took close to 7 hours.

Day 6 After sleeping more than ten hours in a tent, we were ready to finish our last trek. After 3 more hours, we finally arrived at Mweka Gate, the end of our adventure. It took us 44 hours over 6 days to summit and return.

I am from Brazil and the highest mountain in my country is 9,186 feet and the altitude was not something I was fully prepared to deal with. It came to a point where I just had to keep reminding myself to take the next step; if I thought about the summit, I would simply collapse. I did not give up, even if part of me wanted to. It is amazing how a motivated team can make six unprepared foreigners climb the highest mountain in Africa. Takeaway #2: Life is a marathon, not a sprint. If you ran your fastest now, there would not be enough energy to complete the task.

3rd stop: Silicon Savannah: Internship at Spire

My last adventure in Africa was inspired by my desire to avoid some of the Boston winter weather. A couple of Brazilian friends connected me with the CEO of a startup in Kenya where I landed a 2-week internship in Nairobi, Silicon Savannah. Spire is a Kenyan company that creates learning courses that develop employees’ professional skills.

Spire coaching session.

I had two weeks to generate value in a startup that was struggling to grow in a challenging scenario. The CEO (my boss) is responsible for everything (sales, marketing, hiring, motivation, finance, and attracting new investors) and he doesn’t have time to take on anything new. Leveraging my finance background, I was asked to analyze the company’s projections and strategy, and restructure the company’s financials. Also, I was planning to recommend changes in the business model and the day-to-day operations.

In my first couple of days, I realized that the company had developed a consistent methodology for training (staff, process, content) and it could increase sales by putting the company’s operational leverage into practice. The CEO and key employees must be more closely involved in the sales process to bring new projects. Moreover, the Kenyan economy is growing very fast and the lack of a qualified workforce is one of the biggest bottlenecks for Kenya’s growth. Spire has a market potential to help other growing companies substantially improve the quality of their workforce.

In terms of financials, Spire had already received a venture capital investment in 2016 and it intends to receive new investments in 2017. Considering this context, I helped to restructure the company’s financial process, results, and forecasting. After some changes, it was not only easier to analyze and forecast Spire’s financials, but this exercise also provided the company with a tool to be able to see gaps within the company, share these insights with the CEO, and discuss next steps to sustainable growth.

Finally, I also realized that the culture in a startup is key to motivating the team and growing in a sustainable way. Spire’s culture is amazing and they have many symbols to represent the family environment they create. The team has certain traditions in the day-to day operations: Friday lunch, different ways to say hello and thank you, and Wednesday Spire popcorn. Also, they incentivize sincere and mature feedback, promoting good practices. In two weeks at Spire, I felt welcomed into a big and warm family.

Spire Thursdays’ African attire.

Compared to developed economies, Kenya is very unstable politically and economically. This makes the traditional path for a startup much more challenging. Growing sustainably (focus on sales), understanding the financials and strategy, and incentivizing a unique and warm culture are some very important actions that a company must have to become successful. Takeaway #3: A startup needs everything, however a clearly defined employee culture along with a sharp focus on sales are mandatory for success.

I had an amazing experience in Africa, meeting new people in different places and living very happy moments that I will carry my whole life. During the highest levels of stress at Kilimanjaro, I remembered a friend’s quote “Smile at life and life will smile back at you.”