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Back in Africa

It’s been 14 years since I left Africa, way back in February  of 1994 when Forrest Gump won the Oscar for Best Picture . As a newly minted  business undergraduate from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver,  Canada, I had just finished up an extended volunteer term with CAUSE Canada, a  small Canadian relief and development organization, in Sierra Leone, West  Africa. Looking back, I am amazed that I not only survived but thrived in my two  years, especially since I almost did not go. Wracked with doubt, it was an  agonizing decision making process

But intuitively I knew that I had to go. My friends and  family used to ask me “Why Africa?” and it’s not something I could ever easily  explain, even to myself. I think that there are just things in life that you  don’t need to explain, you just do.  So with the odd mixture of fear and bravery  (because you don’t know any better when you are a twenty-something), I arrived  in Sierra Leone, West Africa on October 7, 1991. Over the next two+ years, I  would be involved in projects and activities such as food distributions,  assessments of war torn villages, developing a business plan for a palm kernal  oil mill, managing the offices, and computer training. During this time I also  experienced a military coup, malaria (eight times by my count), TB, and a few  travel horror stories.


So, 14 years later, I’m a content strategist for the Business  Objects Community on the SAP Community Network. I’m also half-way through my  (part-time) MBA from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British  Columbia. Back in December of 2007, I was perusing our school web site and I  came across a volunteer posting for Social Entrepreneurship 101:  Africa. After  going through the application process, I was selected to be part of volunteer  team (15 undergrad students and 2 faculty) to go to Nairobi, Kenya to help  deliver entrepreneurhsip training to a group of Kenyan youth, with the goal of  helping them to start sustainable businesses. It’s been a long haul since the  original selection process and for various reasons, the team has been whittled  down to just two people – Professor Nancy Langton and me. What happened? Let’s  just say that it’s important to recognize and understand the effects of and  motivations behind one’s actions. One day someone should write a case study on  what our group went through.


But the past is the past, as they say, and so I’m going back  to Africa. I am leaving for Nairobi, Kenya late July from Vancouver, Canada. I’m  taking a 3 1/2 hour bus ride (not looking forward to this part) to Seattle,  Washington, then an overnight flight to Europe, and then on to Nairobi,  returning late August. Curiously, I’m a bit non-chalant about the trip, likely  because it has not hit me yet and the fact that I have a lot to do to prepare,  in addition to a full work schedule (and the summer tennis tournament circuit).  I am in the process of overhauling the 250 page curriculum that will be  delivered by a team of Kenyan University students (we’ll be facilitating and  supporting the workshops), so I need to get this out to them by the weekend  (pressure is on). Thankfully, a lot of work has been done by our impressive  contact in Kenya, Jose. He’s been a well-oiled machine in terms of organizing  facilities, students, guest speakers from the business community, among other  things. I really look forward to meeting and working with him. With all the hard  work being done in preparation there, I am hopeful that we will deliver real  value to the students so that they can start up successful micro-businesses that  not only will benefit them, but also their families and communities. I know that  we’re going to be met with a highly enthusiastic group, and so my hope is that  we will be able to live up to their expectations. I try not to focus on what’s  ultimately at stake here but it’s hard not to dwell on the fact that we need to  get this right – deliver the right curriculum in the right way at the right time  – so that real improvements can be made in their lives. Based on my prior  experience in Sierra Leone, West Africa, I became jaded about how much real  progress can be made by non-governmental and governmental agencies but not so in  the present case. Instead of giving a hand out, we’re giving a hand up in terms  of knowledge and I hope that my MBA program and my other life experiences have  prepared me well for this task.


While I am in Kenya, I’ll also be working on my MBA industry  project, which will be on how to measure the success of online communities  (specifically the Business Objects Community). I attended a Community 2.0  conference in the Spring and it struck me how little developed this area is (and  for good reason, it’s difficult!). Hopefully I can pull together the research  along with some solid analysis to present something new and useful. While the  final deadline for the 25+ page paper is January 31, 2009, I need to get it done  much sooner so if anyone has an information that they would like to share about  measuring success, please contact me. All in all, I’ll try to find some downtime  while in Kenya, even though I’ll be teaching/facilitating all day and then  working on my industry project at night, because when I return to Canada, I go  right into classes again, followed by SAP TechEd in Las Vegas (hope to see some  of you there!).


I’ll be blogging during my time in Kenya to let you know how  things are going. Stay tuned.

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  • Hi Kirby:

    Thank you for sharing this.  It’s interesting, and it’s inspiring.  Please update us on your adventure while it’s going on, if you get the chance. 

    I have a personal interest in Africa, also. My wife is on the board of the Asante Africa Foundation ( which focuses on secondary school education in Kenya and Tanzania (build schools, sponsor kids to attend school, etc.)… as you say, not a hand-out but a hand up thru education.  We were in Kenya and Tanzania in February 2008 (what an amazing place!).  We have special Maasai warrior and Maasai chief friends in Maasai Mara Kenya, who visited us in May of this year and will be visiting again in September (they help raise awareness and funds when they are visiting us in California)… they came to SAP in Palo Alto California to lead a riveting discussion largely on retaining the best of their culture, and updating certain practices, while the world speeds forward around them.

    On a somewhat related note, readers of your blog should know that we — all of the 1.3 million members of the SDN, BPX, and Business Objects communities — are working with the United Nations and their World Food Program to help feed and educate children in three countries on three continents. Simply by contributing their knowledge in the way of discussion forum answers, blogs, wiki contributions, presentations at TechEd, and the like, they help this important cause.  The more knowledge-sharing by the community members with other community members, the more SAP will donate to the U.N. program.  Anyone can see details here ( and can track our collective progress on the SDN and BPX homepages.  

    We will be interested in your project and wish you the best of success in this important work.

    Mark Yolton

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your support and for reminding me and the rest of the SCN community about our affiliation with the UN program. Like any other community, with each of us doing our small part, collectively we can effect real change.

      I will read about the Asante Africa Foundation with interest since we are always looking at different and better ways of empowering through education. It is good to be aware of groups such as the Asante Africa Foundation, which share a similar or common mandate, because it does indeed “take a village” to solve real problems. Professor Langton’s vision for the SE 101 program is for it to be a broad-based community supported program whereby government, businesses, and non-profit groups each have a unique role in supporting and mentoring entrepreneurs.

      The program has been running for about 1 1/2 weeks now and already I am seeing the change in the students. They have gone from being shy and unsure of themselves to enthusiastically teaching each other how to do financial projections (that happened just today). Fortunately, they are grasping business plans much faster than I can grasp Swahili.



      • Hi Daniel

        Yes, I can still remember at least some of my Swahili although I’m surprised how much I have forgotten already.

        Their appetite for technology was quite surprising to me. It seemed like everyone had at least one cell phone, and more often than not, two. And I could comment about their passion computers, Internet cafes, and the like.

        My plan so far is to incorporate a guided independent study course in my MBA program. The course will involve revamping the curriculum based on what we learned this past summer. Some ideas that I’d like to see implemented include an exporting, a “how to run a business”, and  consulting modules. These are big ideas which may not be possible for next summer, but hopefully over the next two/three summers. We had an enthusiastic response; in fact, we had requests to offer the program twice a year so that’s another testament to their voracious appetite for knowledge.




  • Hi Kirby

    Congratulations, great initiative. Would love to hear more about the programme you are delivering in Kenya. Will you be delivering via web 2,0 or helping to set up such knowledge communities there. I am not sure of the rate of connectivity there though I know it is rising rapidly throughout Africa.

    There is a great deal of shared interest here at the SAP group in sustainability 2.0 – and by that I mean SAP Corporate Citizenship and I believe I speak for Business Objects Community also.

    Businesses are necessarily becoming more responsive to the externalities and citizens and activists are quickly enabled and empowered on web 2.0 For example, spontaneous citizen protests against FARC appeared on FB as soon as Spanish language capability was introduced, students protests against HSBC and successful minority shareholder activism bids on FB in your home base in Canada.

    Here is article I co wrote with Steve Rochlin from AccountAbility on the topic.   Are you on twitter? Maybe we can follow you during your month away .. it seems you maybe too busy for detailed blog downloads?

    When you get back maybe it would be good to connect if you haven’t already with Pat Bjerrisgaard and the team in Vancouver? I am sure we can learn much from your experience as a social entrepreneur as we work together to make our collective employee engagement efforts as impactful and enriching as possible right across the SAP group and also across the ecosystem by meaningful social media engagement for corporate citizenship.