Externing at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Part 2 – Tanzania

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This is Dan’s second post about his externship at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Click here to read his first post.

I have just returned from my first work trip for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). I spent ten days crisscrossing Tanzania while performing a deep-dive on the needs of smallholder farmers, focusing on areas where digital technology could have a catalytic impact. Before I get to that fantastic experience, let me catch you up on some of the highlights of my externship so far.

Like Bain, the BMGF has a very steep learning curve and expects employees to consume, digest, and master information rapidly. On my first day here, my boss, David, handed me a four-inch binder with scholarly articles on topics such as “remote sensing & geospatial imaging,” “knowledge exchange through information and communications technology,” and “genomics & modern breeding platforms.” After reading through these materials I interviewed a number of internal colleagues, including Program Officers, Region Directors, and Deputy Directors. I then worked closely with David to build our initial strategy, culminating in buy-in from the President of Global Development. Finally, we held a “Digital Design Kickoff” event, which was attended by approximately 120 colleagues. It was a great opportunity to present my work in front of so many well-respected experts in international development.

One pillar of our strategy depended on deep-dives of digital technology in our “anchor” geographies. These deep dives would require secondary research as well as in-country meetings. After screening our options, we prioritized Tanzania and began working with the Country Director to build out our itinerary. Unfortunately, e-mail and advanced scheduling is not the norm in Tanzania like it is in the US, so by the time we landed, much of our trip was still up in the air.

Nevertheless, once we were on the ground, we were able to pack our schedule with many important players, including: local government officials; the World Bank and USAID; private-sector telecom and mobile financial services firms; and international non-profits. In these meetings, we learned about novel approaches the organizations had devised to solve farmers’ top challenges. It was awe-inspiring to see the passion that these individuals brought to solving societal issues.

Of course, the most important stakeholders are the farmers themselves. During our “off” day, we convinced our driver to take us to Morogoro, a rural agricultural region four hours inland from Dar es Salaam. The highlight of our day was hosting a “farmer focus group” with twelve wheat, maize, and cassava farmers. With the help of our driver to translate Swahili, we were able to pressure-test the assumptions and ideas that we had heard in our earlier meetings. We watched the farmers’ eyes light up while testing an SMS-based system for finding local wheat prices, and I was reminded why I enjoy working in international development. For the first time, these farmers had fingertip access to data that could literally double their incomes.

The purpose of our meetings with the farmers was not only to provide information, but also to listen and learn. The farmers gave us valuable insights into what works and what doesn’t, and helped us to understand their concerns and needs. The importance of customer feedback was familiar to me – after all, Bain’s Net Promoter system is all about learning and improving based on feedback from your customers – but it was in a novel context.

Returning home, I have a deeper understanding of the realities on the ground in Tanzania, a clear set of potential investments, and actionable next steps. I’m energized to continue refining our strategy and to begin implementation.

– Dan, Consultant, Atlanta (written May 2013)

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