4 months. Such a short period of time – especially for a work placement. During my first WhatsApp call with Simon (one of Kwangu Kwako’s co-founders) back in September 2016, he mentioned through our broken internet connection how he wasn’t a fan of short term placements. You spend 4 months adjusting to a new work environment, a new country (and in my case a different continent), figuring out who is who and what is what, and then poof – you’re gone. The potential for impact is limited. Regardless, Simon took a chance on me.
I found Kwangu Kwako online while perusing through the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada website last summer. They were EWB’s newest venture – one of the many seed stage startups that the organization invests in through financial capital and volunteers like myself. But to me, Kwangu Kwako was unique – the only venture under EWB’s portfolio that applied infrastructural development and civil engineering to an international development context, something that I’m extremely passionate about and hope to do with my career. So, I emailed them, spoke with Simon, and 8 months later after more calls, interviews and pre-departure training I was finally on a flight to Nairobi as Kwangu Kwako’s first EWB Junior Fellow.
Thrown into the Deep End
The main purpose of my placement was to gain an organizational understanding of Kwangu Kwako and be able to effectively communicate their message – who is Kwangu Kwako? What do we do? Why were we founded? Who do we serve? What are our challenges? What are our plans for growth? My first two weeks were spent learning about the ins and outs of Kwangu Kwako, our product, our business model and our customers. On my second day I was out visiting potential partners with Simon and Winnie. I watched as the masters strode into different offices, opened up their well-crafted slide deck and give their Kwangu Kwako pitch: safe, secure and affordable housing in informal settlements, resisting the spread of fires and improving the standard of living for people in Nairobi’s slums. Three days later, I got to meet some of the people we serve. On my 5th day I visited Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, doing community engagement with Simon and Winnie.
My third and fourth days were spent with my coworkers, Chris and Symon, at the Kwangu Kwako manufacturing site in Athi River, affectionately known as the “chicken shed,” where all the magic happens. In the months before arriving in Nairobi, I had researched Kwangu Kwako and seen pictures of their houses and the Sketch Up models of their designs, but seeing it live, up close and personal was something else. Kwangu Kwako’s homes are made from individual precast concrete panels that fit together like Lego pieces – sounds simple enough, right? What I was stunned to learn was that Kwangu Kwako actually, at the time, had 64 different panel types, multiple mould parts and an intricate manufacturing process that allow them to build quality houses of different sizes and designs. (Worth noting is that Kwangu Kwako only has 16 panel types thanks to the smart thinking of one Chis Morgan, Kwangu Kwako’s Long Term Fellow from EWB!)
The team told me on multiple occasions during my orientation week that they were taking it slow with me. That didn’t stop my brain from exploding with all the information it had just downloaded. My placement was filled with many more similar experiences– visits to informal settlements, trips to the chicken shed, engagements with external stakeholders, conversations with Simon and Winnie about our business – all of which added a piece here and there to the Kwangu Kwako puzzle I was building in my head. Four months in, I don’t believe that I have the full picture, but it’s enough to see where we’re at, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there and where I fit into all of that. So how does my 4 months fit into the Kwangu Kwako puzzle?
Creating Impact – What did I actually do?
My placement was divided into four work streams: inventory, research & development, fundraising and communications. So, naturally, I did inventory, researched & developed, fundraised and communicated. Each project was a different challenge and required a different piece of organizational knowledge. To build an inventory system from scratch, I needed to understand of our manufacturing and construction processes, our warehouse, our tools and (most difficult) the people who were in charge of all of it. It was a practice of human centered design that I wasn’t expecting – for every feature I added or process I created I needed to check back with Chris, Symon and Simon for feedback, to see if they understood it, liked it and could work with it. Whether it was tracking minimum quantity levels, ordering more raw materials or converting raw materials to concrete panels in the inventory system, I had to engage with them because at the end of the day they were (unexpectedly) my end user. I say unexpectedly because I thought all the work I’d be doing would directly affect Kwangu Kwako’s end user – informal settlement families. Luckily, my R&D project did just that. I was tasked with solving a problem that had been bugging Kwangu Kwako for a while – sharing back walls on a row of houses. The picture below will help me explain the problem. See how each unit shares a side wall? That’s intentional! Instead of building two individual units right next to each other and having two walls, we combine those two inner walls into one. My job was to take it to the next level – how can we take a row of house (like the one below) and build another row back to back with a shared back wall? Sounds simple enough right?
This project required an understanding of the product – how do we make our panels? What are our 64 (or now 16) different panel types? How do they interlock? How do we make side-by-side units share walls? Could I use that same idea to make back to back units share walls too? As it turns out, I could! Now, with a design for a shared back wall, we are able to use 18% less panels on row houses and make our houses even more affordable. The project was the definition of instant gratification – from time I thought of the idea it took less than a week for me to test it, prototype it, see that it worked and write a report about it (Of course, that’s excluding the 2-3 weeks I spent learning about our product, it’s design and multiple panel types). That project was particularly fulfilling, yet I think the most important thing I did at Kwangu Kwako was fundraising and communications. This was a love-hate relationship. Love because as I wrote grant applications and blog posts, met with partners and stakeholders in the community, and pitched our organization, I could feel my knowledge of Kwangu Kwako growing. I was asking questions and challenging the way we present ourselves, and more importantly, the way we operate. Being in a startup, with Simon and Winnie receptive to new ideas, there was always room for discussion about the direction of the organization, and by extension the nature of my pitch. But then there’s the hate. The reality is grant writing and fundraising sucks (at least in my opinion). Where my R&D project was instant gratification, fundraising is the complete opposite. It will be months before I find out if we get the grants that I applied for or if the partnerships I started will pan out, and even then, I’m only likely to get about 5% of them. And each grant needs to be crafted and tailored to the specific organization’s cause. Yet, the rush I got from hitting submit on an application I took weeks to write or hearing back from that potential partner organization that I spent weeks bugging, and the learning I gained from each one of those interactions was worth the effort.
Takeaways – What did I learn from Kwangu Kwako?
My goals for my placement with Kwangu Kwako were all about personal growth and learning – what is it like working in the ambiguous, challenging world of social entrepreneurship? Do civil engineering and international development really mix? Is this the place for me? The answer I found is, yes. At Kwangu Kwako, I see why I’ve had a difficult time finding an organization the blends my passions for infrastructure and social change – because it’s hard. Affordable housing specifically is a tough sector to crack, but it’s also a necessary one. Working at Kwangu Kwako these past four months has been a blast! I’ve had the chance to work on challenging and fulfilling projects and have learned so much about how to run a social enterprise and the dynamics of working in informal settlements. I believe that Kwangu Kwako is poised to shake the foundations of the affordable housing market in Nairobi and East Africa, and impact the lives of thousands of people. I’m excited to see what Kwangu Kwako has in store for the future, and hope to be a part of it one way or another!
Food For Thought
Perhaps, my biggest takeaway came from walking through informal settlements and meeting the different people Kwangu Kwako aims to serve. One of the people I met was a woman who lives with her daughter in a one room mud-clay house in Kibagare, one of the many slums in Nairobi. She is saving money in the hopes of moving to a better home one day, but the fires and crime that plague her community often are holding her back, and her current house isn’t equipped to deal with any of it. She is an example of many people living in informal settlements – tough and resilient, but held back by inadequate housing and the lack opportunities to get better housing in the near future (among other things). When addressing poverty or inequality or in the case of Kwangu Kwako, housing, it is important to recognize that the people we serve are smart, driven, entrepreneurial people who have been disenfranchised by the systems and markets around them. Our job is to empower them, by altering those systems and markets to make them accessible. Kwangu Kwako does just that, and I am confident that they will keep doing it for a very long time. And I hope there will be room for me in two years when I graduate so I can come back to Nairobi and continue to be a part of Kwangu Kwako’s story.
Highlights (Appreciate the Little Things)
Here are some of my highlights and a few of the small things I’ll miss about working at Kwangu Kwako.
- Weekly Team Meetings: our Monday morning team meetings would last hours, but they’d always be full of fun. The office banter peaked at these meetings!
- Having Symon and Simon in the office – seeing both their heads turn when you call “Simon” was always hilarious
- 10 o’clock mandazi and samosas. We had these every day, delivered fresh by Leah a.k.a the Mandazi Lady. It was like clockwork. I became addicted.
- Athi River adventures with Chris and Symon
- Watching Kenya rugby games live with Simon and Winnie
- Pitching in front of Simon (his was actually very challenging since he would pull funny faces to throw me off and cringe visibly when I messed up)