7 Takeaways from an Immersive Learning Journey to East Africa

In August 2023 a group of 35 ICG consultants from 9 countries embarked on a learning journey to Kenya and Rwanda. We visited numerous people and organizations in the private, public as well as NGO sector to learn from them and gain new perspectives. Let us take you with us on part of this journey and share with you some of the insights we gained and inspiring stories we heard.


Our 7 takeaways

Diagram with 7 takeaways


1) #designthinking
Relentlessly focus on your customers and listen to them 

Safaricom PLC and the development of mobile money in Eastern Africa is a prime example of a company learning by listening to its customers: Customers loaded prepaid airtime onto their phones to transfer value. This created a new „currency“. Safaricom picked up on this and created a whole new business model on the premise of transferring mobile money – now called M-Pesa – through cell phones. A technology that leapfrogged the traditional banking system and enabled an entire ecosystem: Mobile money has been a huge success, changing the way people pay for goods and services and how they send money home. Today it also serves as an enabler for entire business models, such as pay-per-use lightening solutions or digitized government services.


2) #effectuation
Make the most of the resources you have, don’t focus too much on what you don’t have 

What does it take to run a successful business? Sometimes not that much, just a clear focus on what you have at hand. In the case of Nai Nami, which organizes storytelling tours in downtown Nairobi, the founders needed nothing more than their own life stories and the ambition to make something of them. During the tours the guides share how they survived as street kids and how they managed to escape the vicious circle of life on the streets by telling their stories. To us, a perfect example of effectuation –rely on the resources you have rather than focus on what you don’t have. This of course includes realizing that what you have actually is a resource: In the case of the Nai Nami guides it turned a difficult childhood into an opportunity.

3) #12principles
Invest in support systems to help people through major changes 

Rwanda may be a small and still relatively poor country. However, it has managed to become a frontrunner in digitization of public services. The technology company Irembo has played a critical role in this impressive transformative journey as technology provider for a digital Rwanda. Despite the fact that only 30% of the population has access to the Internet, by 2024 more than 400 public services will be delivered online rather than face-to-face in offices. What is more, this change has been implemented from one day to the next, without even a transition period. You may be wondering how this is possible. Doesn’t this mean that a lot of people will be excluded from services altogether? Or not know how to get what they need? The key is local agents: These 7000+ self-employed “consultants”, who also run other businesses on the side, serve as an intersection between people and the e-government platform, enabling Rwanda’s transition to full digitization of government services. It is through this support that this radical change towards digitization is made possible.

4) #impact
Focus on impact above all – solutions for the now, not for the distant future 

It is often not the long-term solutions that have the most impact but rather the ones that work for now. Many of the companies we visited were living by this mantra. One of them is CrossBoundary Energy, which focuses on mini-grids. Rather than waiting for the central power grid to reach even the most remote communities, CrossBoundary invests in small, decentralized grids for small villages, providing them with enough energy for their local businesses or electricity for lighting and cooking.  This makes a huge difference in the number of productive hours and amount of green energy used. The health service provider Maisha Meds also addresses the lack of infrastructure and offers quick fixes – in this case the lack of medical infrastructure. Pharmacies in rural East Africa serve as primary care providers, where doctors are not available. As a result, medications are often prescribed too fast without medical examinations, leading to antibiotic resistance and other problems. Instead of focusing on how to break this pattern, Maisha Meds works with these pharmacies by providing subsidized malaria and HIV tests to ensure medication is given when actually needed. A quick fix for the here and now.

5) #pragmatic
It doesn’t always have to be the best solution, sometimes the one that works is enough

Many times, trainings and education programs go beyond what is actually needed to do a specific job or earn an income. Funding is provided to enable people to pursue higher education, such as at universities or in training programs that last a year or more. Tunapanda takes a different approach: They focus on 3-month long hands-on web development and content creation courses in a bootcamp-format, that allows participants to gain practical skills fast and immediately use them in a work environment. For these participants, most of them come from the slum Kibera, where the organization is based – opportunity costs of foregoing work in favor of education is simply too high. Another example is d.light. Rather than focusing on the creation of the most advanced technology for its customers, they provide functional and easy-to-use devices for a small amount of money. This makes these products affordable and easily accessible. The company offers various kinds of solar-powered lamps, cooking stoves and even televisions. This not only transforms daily life but allows small and medium businesses to thrive by extending productive time well beyond 6pm, when the sun sets.

6) #innovation
Don’t focus on why something might not work, but why it could 

Think of e-commerce, including last-mile delivery, in a country with only 8% of paved roads. Many companies would question the sense of engaging in such an endeavor. Not so Copia. This pioneering e-commerce and last-mile delivery platform has made significant strides in transforming the lives of rural and underserved communities in Kenya. Founded in 2013, Copia has harnessed the power of technology to bridge the gap between urban centers and rural areas, ensuring that essential products and services are accessible to all, regardless of their geographic location. Copia’s logistics network overcomes the challenges of rural delivery. They have designed a system, using a fleet of motorcycles and delivery vans, to reach even the most remote locations. In these locations they again rely on agents as multipliers – a solution that might sound familiar to you by now.
Ampersand didn’t get discouraged by the lack of infrastructure either: They offer affordable electric scooters to taxi drivers in countries without an existing network of charging stations. How do they do that? Ampersand’s battery swapping system allows users to access batteries anywhere in the network of stations the company has built. The swapping process takes no longer than gassing up. They also take care of maintenance, repairs and spare parts, and offer financing to lower the threshold even further.

7) #openness
Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly, keep an open mind 

Having arrived with certain stereotypes and images in our minds, we left with very different impressions. Europeans need to realize how much hidden talent can be found outside of their regular labor markets and the opportunities Eastern Africa can offer. About 80% of its population is under the age of 35 and eager to work.

This makes it all the more important to nurture this talent. Andela is a key player here. The talent incubator trains developers and connects them to global roles, fostering diversity and remote work opportunities. Also, Code of Africa is committed to developing young talent. While European companies are desperate for skilled IT experts, East Africa has that talent to offer. Code of Africa is just one of many companies offering remote IT expertise at a lower cost and only one hour time difference. Definitely a win-win for clients and local talent.

If there was one overall takeaway, it would be this: Avoid underestimating the importance of reevaluating your assumptions when confronted with the unknown.

Our journey to Nairobi is based on an initiative by Karin Krobath, partner at identifire, and Hans Stoisser, managing director of Ecotec. The two have been conducting Learning Journeys to Silicon Savannah & Digital Rwanda since 2018. If you are interested in taking a look beyond the continent’s edge, you can find the current travel dates here: NextAfrica.