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Monthly Archives June 2020

Why We Need More Women in Engineering

Posted on 3 min read

For a long time in history, Engineering was considered to be a man’s field where a woman would occasionally show up. The image of an engineer was that of a muscular person wearing a helmet and covered with grease or some form of dirt, depending on the field where they were working. That seemed repulsive to the image of what the world wanted an ideal woman to look like. It was supposed to be a man’s world, and it was.

Today, the image of an engineer is quite different. Engineering cuts across many areas of life and it is not just about steam engines and coal power plants. The image of an engineer has changed. However, something still remains the same in most of the developing world. 

A Man’s World

As the world celebrates the International Women in Engineering Day on 23rd June, one thing that is evident is that Engineering still remains to be largely a man’s world, and this has a cost. This is because in meeting scietal and consumer needs, we cannot depend on the views of one gender and expect to come up with solutions that will perfectly solve the problems we are facing. That never works.

It might be the reason why we are so concerned about connecting all schools to the electrical grid before we can think of connecting all of them to water systems. I appreciate the place of electricity (and I am an electrical engineer), but it is a warped thinking to assume that the health and hygiene needs of children are not as critical to the learning of students.

In my engineering class (ten years ago), women constituted less than 10%. I do not think that has changed much, although great strides are being made. However, I would want to add to the case for having more women in engineering, for those who think that it does not matter.

We need Diverse Teams

Diversity is key when it comes to innovation, and this applies also to gender diversity. From design, to manufacturing, to the business side, diverse teams always win.

To effectively build solutions that solve the challenges in the world today, we need both men and women in order to understand those problems, as well as figure out solutions that can work. We also need diversity in terms of backgrounds and if we are solving problems that involve water scarcity in Turkana, we need to have people in Turkana involved. That is how it works.

We cannot build a world where half of the people are not involved. It will not work. 

In my team at Truehost Cloud, which is a technology company, we have a team that has at any point been always 50% women on average, and this has been one key to success. We have a team that deeply understands customer needs because it is diverse. This has been one pillar of our success.

Women are Competent

The skills needed in engineering are not reserved for one gender. We have many women who have excelled in engineering, and the few ladies who were in my class not only continue to excel where they are today, but in many cases, outshine their male colleagues.

Throughout history, we have many examples of women who made remarkable contributions to the world through engineering. Unfortunately, a girl living in rural Kitui may not know much about them to spur enough motivation to be an engineer. This is why we need these stories to be told so that we can spur the next generation of women in engineering, because they are competent.

It is not about adding pretty faces to the engineering world. It is about making the world sustainable and finding solutions that best fit the world today.

Happy Women in Engineering Day.

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The Power of an Opportune Tweet in Marketing

Posted on 2 min read

What is the power of a Tweet?

On a normal day, Stephen Odhiambo works to build furniture along Ngong road. He is good at what he does, based on the video that has been circulating online. But being good is not good enough for business. You need to make a sale. That is what matters.

It is for this reason that Stephen Odhiambo displays his furniture along Ngong road in Nairobi. Like many others of his colleagues, Ngong Road is an established furniture heaven in Nairobi and most do not even formal stalls. It is simply a roadside display of furniture. Willing buyers will see furniture that they like and will stop to buy. That is how it works.

Furniture on Sale along Ngong Road

But is there more to the roadside display? Can these people make more money from other locations outside Ngong Road? It turns out yes, and the tool needed to achieve this is in their hands.

Stephen Odhiambo took a video of his foldable table/seat and shared with potential buyers on WhatsApp. One would expect the clip to circulate in various groups and a few inquiries. But something bigger happened.

The Tweet

The clip got into the hands of one Mohammed Hersi who shared it on Twitter.

The Tweet that Made the Sales

Results

Stephen Odhiambo has received more than 800 orders. In short, orders worth KShs 20 million in just a week! How did that happen?

The person who shared the clip in the Tweet is a well-known figure in the Tourism industry. He also has almost 300 thousand followers on Twitter. These would be people very likely to buy his product. The power of a single Tweet was manifested here.

Lesson

Stephen Odhiambo will need help to fulfill all those orders because it takes him four days to make one piece. He will need a team, and collaboration with other people if he is to meet the demand. This is one of the hardest parts in business. Building a team that can deliver is not easy. I hope he can pull this.

But it is even worth noting that he is not the first to make such a table/bench. There are many videos of it on YouTube. Most likely, he found one online and decided to make it. It is good if you can come up with a new idea, but you are not doomed if you cannot.

You do not need to be the inventor of something to benefit from it. You can implement many ideas that exist because the world is big enough and there will still be a market.

I am sure today almost every other furniture maker is busy trying to replicate what Stephen Odhiambo did, and soon the supply will be flooding. May the best win.

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Education Challenge in Northern Kenya

Posted on 3 min read

In an agricultural based economy, any area that receives low amounts of rainfall and lacks access to underground or surface water for irrigation ends up with very limited options. One such area is Northern Kenya which is characterized by annual average amounts of 150 – 450 mm, making it majorly suitable for nomadic pastoralism.

The Bigger Kenya

Northern Kenya houses 38% of the Kenyan population and covers 70% of total landmass in Kenya. The distinct characteristics of this vast land is the abundance of development challenges such as poverty, hunger, lack of quality health services, limited number of schools, gender inequality and many others.

With limited resources and options for improving the quality of life, one of the easiest ways to escape poverty is through education. However, this has always proved to be a challenge in Northern Kenya.

More than 50% of children in Northern Kenya live more than 11 km from a secondary school, making it very hard for students to make it to school and back home every day. Consequently, there are so many children who are out of school at any given point. A survey of 3 counties in the region once found that more than 50% of households had a child out of school.

There are many factors that contribute to low school enrollment in Northern Kenya and many of these would require multiple solutions cutting across different sectors. For example, the opportunity cost for education in the region is too high. If one enrolls in school, they miss out on being trained on the most relevant skill in the area – keeping cattle. Due to other factors, students may not do well in school and are not likely to get into the formal job market, thus they are neither useful in their home places and cannot sustain themselves in urban areas.

Thus, telling a child to go to school in some parts of Northern Kenya could be equivalent of telling a child from a working class family to venture into football instead of education. Success could come, but as an exception.

Although there is no silver bullet that can solve all the problems, one gap that needs to be exploited in the simplest way possible is use of simple digital technologies.

Mobile Connectivity

At the moment, Safaricom which has the widest network coverage in Kenya has 96% of the population covered with 2G network and 93% with 3G network. In Northern Kenya, the government has intervened to have telcos put up mobile networks in some non-profitable areas like very remote locations and majority of the population have some access to the network.

The area lacks access to electricity but receives a lot of sunshine with at least 8 hours of sunshine every day and this makes it ideal for use of solar power. Generally, solar power would be adequate to power most digital technology devices in Northern Kenya all year round.

With mobile network and possible source of power, what can be done to help improve the quality of education?

Some of the challenges that need to be solved are:

  • Low population density making it to have schools within the reach of every child.
  • Nomadic lifestyle that means families are sometimes on the move.
  • Poor infrastructure making it hard to provide and monitor services.
  • Social inequalities making girls less likely to attend school.
  • High opportunity cost of education.
  • Rampant insecurity and cattle rustling.
  • Shortage of teachers, and low quality of teaching due to many untrained teachers.

Most of these problems require government intervention and a long term strategy, but there is a place for engineers to design products that can fit people in these areas. This could be:

  • Creating apps that can help these kids learn English in a language that they understand, such as M-Lugha has done.
  • Creating digital mentorship channels to encourage young people to stay to school and show them possibilities in education – a sort of penpals.
  • Labs that are powered by solar.
  • Using content loaded tablets to empower teachers like it is being done by Bridge.
  • Using climate data and satellite images to predict where pastoralists will be moving to and thus plan appropriately to keep the children learning.

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Why Satire Matters

Posted on 2 min read

What’s the Point of Satire and why should it matter?

Satire can be defined as the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

From Wikipedia, satire is defined as a genre of literature and performing arts, usually fiction and less frequently in non-fiction, in which vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement.

Not Just a Laughing Matter

From the definition above, satire’s primary goal is not just to entertain. It should cause a society to reflect on its follies and even make a positive adjustment. It provides a way to speak about societal ills in a funny but serious way.

This is the reason why every word must be well thought out and every exaggeration must have an objective. In a world where common sense is not very common, satire can help people wake up from the slumber of folly and think.

The Downside of Satire

However, satire may not always produce the desired results. This could be the case when people believe that whatever is written is true. For this reason, satire needs to be utterly absurd or ridiculous (preposterous).

The other argument against satire is that it can numb people to the ills in the society. This is especially the case when when so much evil is happening until nothing is absurd anymore.

Whatever the case, satire is here for life.

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