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All-Hands in Kenya (Another Travelogue)

· 8 min read

We are staring at a concrete block. We are hot, a little bewildered, deeply impressed.

Enouce just laughs (he does that a lot) and leads us up a flight of unfinished stairs, all rough concrete and exposed metal.

It is light and airy now, the last embers of the summer sun fill the empty stairwell as we climb. When we return in an hour or so, it'll be pitch dark and we'll be picking out planets in the clear night sky.

We are in Kenya for our annual company retreat. We do this at least once a year: gathering our team from across Africa and Europe to meet face-to-face, old-school, all-analog (baby). We share a week of smiles, playlists, brainstorms and understanding.

Most of the OpenFn team overlooking the Great Rift Valley
Most of the OpenFn team overlooking the Great Rift Valley

Actually, specifically right now, we're a little ways east of Nairobi, at the new Vijana Amani Pamoja (Peace Together Youth) community centre.

VAP uses sport to empower and uplift kids and young adults across Kenya. That means kids get to kick around a football on a decent pitch, but also get opportunities for HIV testing, vocational skills training, gender-based violence recovery, and more. They get to spend time with adults who care.

VAP recognises that the real power of sport is its power to mobilize, to connect, to inspire.

Enouce and his partner Nancy built all this from nothing. Well, okay, twenty years of sweat and toil and giving a damn and strategic partnerships and fundraising and dreaming big, oh so big. But on this small patch of earth, Enouce is building a base to shelter kids and help them build better lives for themselves.

This is grassroots aid, Kenyans helping Kenyans.

And they're not even close to stopping. Right now, they are lodging a bid to host the Homeless World Cup. I hope they get it — but there's a lot of work to do. We actually came to play some five-a-side, but the pitch was dug up for renovation that very morning.

Taylor Downs (OpenFn) and Enouce Ndeche (VAP)
Taylor Downs (OpenFn) and Enouce Ndeche (VAP)

VAP is one of the reasons we travel all this way, hopping trains and catching planes from London, Lisbon, Cape Town, Riga, Dakar, Budapest et al; why we put up with Murder Birds screaming all night long; why we get the vaccinations and stare down hippos and wonder if we can drink the water from the taps and leave behind everyone we love.

We come here to observe, understand and discuss our impact on the world. We come here to check in on the mission (since you ask — increasing the efficiency of the social sector: we automate rote tasks, saving time and money for NGOs and governments across the Global South while increasing the quality of service delivery).

And of course, the opportunity to meet each other, to communicate face to face, is irresistible. Priceless. Our team is totally remote, almost each of us in a different country, so far apart that we measure it in time. We make the most of every minute.

The launch of OpenFn v2 (codenamed Lightning ⚡) dominates the agenda, of course. We plan how to bring our next-gen open source workflow automation software to market; work out how to talk about it; list what is left to be done.

Team Meal at Lake Naivasha
Team Meal at Lake Naivasha

We discuss ambitious "moonshot" ideas, dreaming about AI-assisted workflows, seamless onboarding, live playgrounds. We recap the mission — not that we really need to — and remind ourselves why what we do matters. We set context for each other, learn about each other.

We somehow pack ourselves and our luggage into a van that can't possibly fit us and yet somehow does (shoutouts to driver and miracle worker Dixon and the hotel staff that agreed to look after his subwoofers for the weeekend). A two-hour drive takes almost the whole day.

We cycle across Hell's Gate National Park (some of us more up than across); we swim in sulphurous hot springs; we feed giraffes, watch fish eagles soar and dive. We are burgled by a baboon (not even joking) and hippos graze outside our cabins at night.

Our CEO Taylor Downs walks around wrapped in a blanket, looking like a late-era Luke Skywalker, doing chameleon impressions across the grass.

We order so much Tusker and Stoney that our hotel throws a complimentary cocktail hour for us.

Loading the van
Loading the van

Everything is great. Co-working in the real is a joy. Decisions are getting made. Kenya is paradise.

But something is wrong with this picture.

Time and again it strikes me that, busy as we are - running around, packing buses, climbing stairs, cramming meetings - the world around us moves at a very different pace.

We drive down red, rocky roads, lined with people just... waiting. No-one rushes. Staff at our hotel work dawn to dust and beyond — longer than we do. Our driver takes us to the office and, with nothing better to do, waits around on-site, washing the bus, chatting with the security guards.

When Dave Graeber wrote about "bullshit jobs", I don't think this is what he meant.

There seems to be a lot of spare time here. I wonder about that. We at OpenFn are obsessed with efficiency - a certain kind of efficiency, anyway. But this lifestyle doesn't seem to be inefficient. Nor is it wasteful.

If I ever work out what any of this means, I'll let you know.

Maybe this is the real reason we're here. We spend our lives fighting inequality, in our own small, specialised way, reducing inefficiency in parts of the world where every dollar, every drop of water, is precious.

Maybe the only way to understand our impact is to immerse ourselves in places like this. Maybe this is how we understand the mission.

AkiraChix HQ
AkiraChix HQ

Hang on, I'm trying to round off this ramble into some kind of point but I haven't even told you about AkiraChix yet. That's the best bit.

The AkiraChix HQ hosts us for our working conference. They are a sort of a sister organisation for us as we are both funded (in part) by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and Steele Foundation for Hope.

The heart of AkiraChix is the codeHive program: a one year, live-in coding bootcamp for young adult women. The students live and learn on the beautiful campus in the Nairobi district of Karen, learning about front-end web development, dev-ops, distributed systems, game development, and more. All accommodation, tuition and food costs are covered.

When their training is completed they go off and work in industry (they cite an 80% placement rate last year), but also come back to the campus to teach and support the next cohort.

We are lucky enough to speak to some of these young women. The students are quiet, polite, softly spoken, curious. The graduates are bold, outspoken, switched-on. The difference is night and day, the transformation remarkable.

This is a lifeline in a world where tech roles tend to be inaccessible and intimidating to women, where girls are driven away from science, maths and computing and towards family, fashion and art. It's an endemic cultural problem in "the west" and even worse in many parts of Africa, where crippling poverty and inequality exacerbates the problem, chokes the pool of opportunity.

Maybe the proof is in the pudding. Long before we knew just what AkiraChix were up to here in Nairobi, we actually hired one of their graduates. Not for the sake of the mission, not to prove a point, not because someone asked us to: because she was just that good.

Speaking of pudding - I have to say, the food they served every day was incredible: colourful, varied, imaginative, playful. A range of dishes, each perfectly executed. I've never eaten better. Our Frank nearly went vegetarian. We came from a dozen major cities across Europe and Africa and none of us could shut up about how good the food in this place was.

The contrast between the luxury of AkiraChix and the shanty towns of Nairobi is stark. Kenya can be a Paradise. For me, in my privilege, it was - but I mean for everyone. By driving at this wedge of inequality, by empowering individuals, civil society and governments with technology — really good, careful, considerate technology — they can chart their own futures.

Just like AkiraChix and Vijana Amani Pamoja are doing today.

The more we can enable organisations like these, the faster we get there. I can't wait until my next family dinner in a healthier, safer, more equitable, and even more inspiring Kenya.

Tuko pamoja.

Your writer in a silly hat
Your writer in a silly hat