17 3 / 2013
It’s late afternoon, it’s hot, we’re tired, and we’ve been locked in this conference room for hours. Everyone’s here: the IT team, our software vendor team, and occasionally when we successfully lure them into the room, our head of operations and head of finance. We’ve been here all day. Just like yesterday. And the day before. Just like we’ll be here tomorrow.
We work and debate and discuss and decide. It is exhausting. But. We get so much done. And we laugh so hard. And it’s my favorite way to work with a team. It always has been. It probably always will be.
What is it about being locked in a small space for hours on end that makes a team so productive? We don’t get distracted by the responsibilities and work commitments made outside the room. That helps for sure. But there’s something else.
When you spend hours on end with a group of people, you can’t help but catch a glimpse of the real version of each of them in those moments and spaces that happen between the work. There’s something about sharing a big, ugly problem and working together for days to solve the problem that allows people to let their guard down, to laugh (mostly at each other) and to start to build the kind of bonds that make it not only more productive to work together, but just more pleasant. Wouldn’t you much rather work with someone who you’ve shared a meal with, who you’ve shared a drink with, who you’ve shared a huge, belly-grabbing, I can’t stop crying, I might pee my pants laugh with?
Every last one of my dearest friends from past jobs all shared cramped, exhausting conference room moments with me. They make up some of my very favorite memories.
Because in those brief moments when the whole group is clicking and we’ve forgotten that what we’re working on is actually work, well, that’s when the transition happens. We are no longer just co-workers, we have become a team.
08 3 / 2013
“Wait, so you ate a giant steak two nights in a row?” I ask my friend, who has been at a banking conference in the states. “Don’t you think that’s a bit much?”
“Well of course it’s a bit much. But you know how it is at these conferences. Everyone is trying to sell you so they woo you with fancy steak dinners.”
Meanwhile on that same day on other side of the world, my team is also trying to woo new customers and sell them on the financial services that Juhudi can provide. But the courting process is a bit different.
Instead of wearing suits, we put on our Juhudi Kilimo t-shirts. And instead of flying to a conference filled with other bankers wearing suits and vendors, we pile nine people (yes, nine) into a pickup truck and bounce along dusty roads looking for farmers.
Some call it outreach, some call it sales and marketing. But whatever you call it the goal is the same: to get the word out about Juhudi and to find new groups of farmers who want to take loans from us. No TV ads, no mailings, no elaborate website. Just old fashioned door-to-door sales.
It’s hot, dusty, exhausting work. We drive deep into the countryside and park the truck in a village market. Then the team disperses and introduces themselves to the shopkeepers and patrons and they explain how Juhudi works and they hand out flyers. We glue Juhudi posters to the walls of shops and we take down names and phone numbers of all the interested clients we meet. We pile back into the truck and bump along to the next market but stop anytime we pass farmers on the road. The loan officers lean out of the truck to talk with them. More names, more numbers. We repeat this scene over and over for the entire day, until the staff are exhausted and we’ve run out of flyers.
Our newest salesman, posing under collateral
And when our team is hungry we stop to eat. But no ribeyes for us. We buy mangoes on the side of the road.
When your target customer is a rural farmer deep in the interior of the Kenyan countryside it takes a lot of effort just to get to them. Let alone educate them on your services, answer their questions, train them on group methodology and ultimately help them manage loans.
So we’re trying to reduce friction. We’re putting in a customer management system so the loan officers can easily track all the names they’ve scribbled on a piece of paper and follow up on their sales with more efficiency. We’re installing a new backoffice IT system so that once these clients are on board the loan officers spend less time processing paperwork and more time accessing all the client data they need real-time through their tablets.
But I can’t help but feel that this technology is a bit like pain medication – treating the symptom but not the cause. The real issue seems to be infrastructure. It simply shouldn’t take two hours to travel 40 kilometers. But it does. Regularly. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but just imagine if we did. Imagine if we could unstick the flow of goods to and from the rural areas. I think if we could figure this out there’d be ribeyes galore.
26 2 / 2013
When 150 pounds of barbell and shiny metal plates crash onto a metal cage, it’s really loud. Even when they only have 8 inches to fall. It’s loud enough that the people on the elliptical look at you in disgust. And loud enough that the local “trainers” (whose job is ostensibly to help people get fitter but whose actual job seems to be to chit chat with one another while occasionally doing their own set of not-fully-locked-out pullups) will walk over and scold you in a very angry voice. “Madam! Please! Why are you trying to lift these weights? You should not carry any weight that you cannot easily lift!”
Some of you know that I crossfit. And I’ve gotten many requests from friends and family who also crossfit to blog about my experience trying to keep up with training while in Nairobi.
But let’s be honest. Talking about crossfit, or any other form of exercise for that matter (I’m looking at you marathoners), is insanely boring to those who don’t participate. So I’ve resisted until today. But this post, I promise, has nothing to do with crossfit.
If you haven’t drunk the koolaid here’s the context: Crossfit mixes power and Olympic weightlifting with bodyweight and gymnastic exercise. I won’t get into details, but if you’ve ever seen someone at your gym lifting a bunch of heavy weights and then timing themselves as they run around for 7-12 minutes doing really weird shit like jumping on boxes, swinging kettlebells and flinging themselves on the floor before jumping up to clap their hands (we lovingly call this a “burpee”) then you’ve seen us at work.
Crossfit can be transformative for people. It has been for me. The workouts push people to their absolute limits and then, if you let them, they push you just a little bit farther. There is tangible growth. Watching someone who, six months ago, couldn’t do a single pullup bang out 10 in a row is amazing. Witnessing internal dialogues shift from “I can’t do this” to “I will try my damnedest to do this” is simply beautiful.
Because that’s the kind of change that stays with you far beyond the gym. You put in the effort and you are guaranteed to get equal results in both mind and spirit. This ain’t no spin class.
So back to my scolding.
I was at the very end of what felt like one bajllion heavy squats. And one of the disadvantages of my gym here is that they don’t have bumper plates – which means if I have to drop the metal weight I’m lifting, it lands on a metal cage. This is good for the gym floor. This is bad in terms of noise pollution.
Last rep in my very last set. I squatted deep but it was one squat too many and I got stuck on the way up. So as all crossfitters are taught, rather than hurt myself I safely dumped the weight behind me. Where it crashed. Loudly.
“Madam! Please! You should only use weights which you know you can lift!”
I look at this guy, very confused. And I tell him that the purpose of the cage is to catch the barbell when someone has to drop it. He tells me, again, that I must not drop it. I ask him, “But if I never fail, how will I ever get stronger?”
And he tells me that I’ll get stronger by lifting the weights that I already know I can lift.
Which is just about the silliest thing I have ever heard.
Is that how I’m going to live my life? By only lifting weights I already know I can lift? If that were my approach I’d still be curling 5lb dumbbells. And what about in real life? Should I only do things that I’ve done before? Should I only take on challenges that I am 100% positive I can overcome?
Of course not. That’s absurd.
Failing (at anything) sucks. It can hurt, or be embarrassing, or it can just be incredibly humbling. But it’s how you get better. If you don’t put yourself out there, and try to do more or be more, well then you’re just treading water. I don’t want to tread water. I want to do all the things in life that scare the crap out of me. I want to take the harder job, tell you what I’m scared to tell you, make the hard decision and do the things that excite me but make me incredibly uncomfortable.
I always want to be just a little bit in over my head. Because that’s where growth happens. That’s where we become better versions of ourselves. Doesn’t the rest of the world deserve the very best version of me that I can be? Doesn’t the world deserve the very best version of you?
Only lift weight I know I can lift?
No thanks. I’d rather fail.
25 2 / 2013
His name is Josiah and he is a hustler.
I first met Josiah a few weeks ago, when he proudly showed off his farm to us. With help from Juhudi loans he runs a thriving dairy farm selling milk to the local market, using tea revenues to fund his children’s school fees, and giving us a new definition of “green” by powering his home completely with biogas made from cow dung and a few solar panels.
We visited with him again last week and asked him about his dreams.
His mother died when he was 12. And his father. Well. He “wasn’t a very good man, he drank too much alcohol.” So Josiah became head of the household after his mother died and wasn’t able to go to school and get his degree.
So now, as a proud father of seven children (five boys and two twin girls), he says his dream is for every one of his children to get a degree. “They will all get a diploma,” he says. And when we ask about his youngest, his two twin girls he says, “Will they get a degree? Of course! All my children will have a degree so they can choose their work. They won’t have to be farmers unless they choose to.”
And I was struck by Josiah as I’m struck by so many Kenyans that I meet. Despite the odds - whether it’s an alcoholic father and a dying mother or the oppressive corruption from the police and politicians - so many business people I meet here just keep moving. They keep working. They keep hustling.
Josiah’s kids will no doubt have more choices waiting them as they enter adulthood than Josiah had himself. And why? Because their dad is a hustler - taking loans to buy cows, and using the cow dung to power his home and using the biogas waste to fertilize the grass which he grows to then feed the cows. Dig a tilapia pond, plant more tea, build a bigger chicken coop. Hustle, hustle, hustle.
And his reward? Seven educated children, with the choices of the world laid out before them.
19 2 / 2013
"No, this trick won’t work…How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as love?"
18 2 / 2013
Remember that time when I wrote that blog about how sometimes working at Juhudi isn’t really much different than working in the US but sometimes it’s really quite different? Silly Nicole. I should have waited a day before posting.
The day after I posted that blog we were headed to our branch in Nyamira to conduct refresher training for Salesforce.com, which the loan officers are using to track and manage their sales leads. On their tablets. (Yup, pretty fancy) But en route we get a call from the branch manager who would like to repurpose our visit and make use of the corporate pick-up truck which is currently transporting us. You see, it’s the 29th and the branches are all doing a final push on recoveries so they can collect as many late payments as possible before end of month reporting. Keeping a healthy portfolio is critical for operations. Fewer write-offs means more cash to avail as loans to the creditworthy farmers who actually are making good use of the loans to build their family’s assets.
But I digress.
The incidence of late payment at Juhudi is quite low – only 3%. And when a farmer is late in their payment the other members of her group (who guarantee the loan) work to secure the payments and remit to Juhudi. Most of the time that works, but sometimes they need our help. And if even Juhudi staff can’t get the repayment, then we have no recourse but to repossess the asset we financed and sell it at the market to recoup some cash.
Sometimes they need a heavy. With a pickup truck.
So instead of conducting IT training, we pile into the pickup truck and visit a farmer who is late on his very first loan, despite the fact that as the chairman of his group he is supposed to be the role model and mentor to his other group members. As the hours pass the Swahili gets more and more heated – and although I can’t make out exactly what is being said, I don’t have to. I can follow every negotiation tactic without even speaking the language. Or so I think.
After a while our branch manager finally begins untethering the dairy cow this farmer has financed and she begins making arrangements to take the cow to market in the back of our truck.
The prospect of losing his cow seems to finally be the motivation he needs, and suddenly our farmer finds the cash Juhudi is owed.
But I am still a little confused. Because during the exchange I had heard our driver say “mzungu” a few times and well, I am the only mzungu there.
“Isika,” I said, “were you talking about me when you were negotiating?”
“Who me?” he says, making his most innocent face.
“Yeah you! I heard you say ‘mzungu.’”
“Oh. I did. I told the guy that you were the owner of the money and you had come to see why he hadn’t paid. And I told him that you said he looked very healthy and the cow looked healthy too so you didn’t understand why he wasn’t paying his loan.”
I just stare at him.
“Well it worked didn’t it?”
“Oh don’t worry Nicole, I think he was much more scared of losing his cow than he was of you.”
You don’t say. Me, the girl who had come to talk about Salesforce…
15 2 / 2013
29 1 / 2013
“Wasn’t she saying that she only took photos of livestock?”
“Seriously? Do I look like I’d be caught dead on a farm? Someone should tell her we share over 98% of our genes.”