Fellows Friday with Joshua Wanyama

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After studying architecture in Minnesota, Joshua Wanyama established his own Kenya-based digital marketing agency, Pamoja Media. Happily back home in Nairobi, Joshua uses his company to tackle some of Africa’s most daunting social challenges — including climate change, hunger, and AIDS — while also maintaining a photography website dedicated to helping Africans tell their own story of the continent.

Tell us about your digital marketing agency, Pamoja Media.

“Pamoja” is a Swahili word for “together.” I started Pamoja Media in the U.S. with my business partner, Benin Brown. Our initial idea was to create an African ad network for marketers who were thinking to reach out to Africans in the Diaspora and on the continent. We thought that if we could monetize more of the African inventory that exists out there, maybe we could improve the African economy by increasing the value of trading online.

But when I came back home to Kenya, I ended up discovering how the web is treated differently than in the U.S. Over here, most people start and end their web experiences on social platforms like Facebook and hi5. Corporations and government are not really using the web effectively. For example, we don’t have an automated payment system in most of Africa. We don’t have ways that people can actually use the web so they can leverage the functions of government — public services and things like that. So the original Pamoja Media model did not work out. We found that we could not market a website when people can’t do anything on those sites. That’s not a sustainable business model.

So the thing that we needed to start addressing was building the capacity for corporations, organizations, and maybe government to be able to look at the web a little differently. The web should be a platform where they can move processes, reduce costs, and serve a greater number of people efficiently. We ended up incorporating online strategy, creative development of some of the solutions we offer, online PR, social media marketing, media buying and placement.

I think Pamoja has the best of both worlds: Benin and I have seen how the web works in the U.S. I’d say the web here in Africa is about how it was in the West in 2002 or 2003. So we’ve actually seen the process of what’s happened in the West in terms of automation, efficiency, web 2.0 and all those things. With that in hindsight, we’re able to advise our clients a little better.

And then we also are able to add the local perspective to our projects. We train our employees as they’re coming out of college here in Kenya. They are fresh, young, hungry and inventive and they keep me on my toes. So I think that it’s a good mix.

A soccer match at an Eldoret recreational ground. (Photo: Joshua Wanyama)

What first drew you to digital marketing?

Well, I went to school for architecture at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. And when I got close to graduating, I wanted to branch out and do my own thing and be independent. I didn’t want to get typical employment.

I figured out that design is design, regardless of which platform you use: whether it’s product design, website design, or designing a working space. The web was the easiest industry that I could get into with no money and lacking experience. I already had a client who was paying me for web design while I was still in school.

I built a web development team there in Minneapolis. I had an American partner, and we worked with some of the brightest high school kids in Minneapolis. Kids who were 15, 16 years old, who were really good at math, we trained them how to program websites and things like that. And then I started working on African projects, and that’s what ultimately brought me back home.

What do you find most fulfilling about your work?

If we can touch and solve one key problem that’s affecting the lives of a good percentage of Africans, I think I will be more satisfied. We are already seeing some of that, but I think we can do a whole lot more.

One of the projects we are working on is developing an online platform to promote the research and development of African agriculture’s resilience to climate change. With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, we are creating a kind of LinkedIn-Facebook-Yellow Pages hybrid, to help researchers and organizations share their knowledge on African agriculture.

Goats on a farm in Nyeri, Kenya. (Photo: Joshua Wanyama)

We’ve also worked with an organization called Wildlife Direct. They work with a number of wildlife conservationists across Africa, Asia and South America. We built a new site for them. They already had a model where they were bringing in people and were able to raise donations from them. Working on that project and helping these rangers and conservationists directly access a wider audience to support them was something wonderful for me.

Another group we’ve been collaborating with is Hivos, a Dutch grant-making organization. Our work involved training five organizations in East Africa in the use of ICT in improving their service delivery. Two of these organizations work on AIDS, two are farmer information networks in rural Uganda, and the other is a women’s violence-prevention organization in northwest Tanzania.

We help these organizations work on ICT strategy — basically how they’ll convey the information — and general communication and marketing to achieve their goals. You can begin to see how these organizations are now starting to take the suggestions, starting to practice the strategy that we were laying for them. You just consider the scale of impact of what they can do. And that is pretty fulfilling.

I think when we talk tech, a lot of people only talk about the sleek, sexy stuff, kind of like the Ferrari. Something like, “I have something with the mobile phone that’s connected with Apple,” and things like that. And we tend to forget that a good percentage of Africans with mobile access is through the old generation of mobile phones. Most of them don’t have web connection. Some of the questions we are exploring include, “How do you offer people these mobile solutions when they have an area of influence of about 30 kilometers around them?”

Those are some of the things that we’ve started looking at. I think the more we play in this space, the more we work at some of these problems, the wider and more impactful our use of technology to help our people will be.

If I can be of use to a farmer, or if I can work on hunger or health — it could be any of those things — if we can just be able to use our knowledge and skills to impact the lives of people in Africa, I think we’ll have done something great.

You sound very passionate about your work. Does that mean you don’t miss architecture and you’re happy with the direction you went?

Very, very happy. I was raised to believe that when you go to a place, try and leave it a little bit better than you found it. Building houses is good, but I think the satisfaction that I get from my current work … I don’t know if I would ever have the same impact if I was designing buildings.

I don’t regret my decisions and it’s been wonderful doing my work — especially my decision of coming back home to Africa. As a Kenyan, I’ve always been very passionate about Africa. So when I think, “How can I improve Kenya with the basic knowledge that I have?” I’m also thinking, “How can I then I also do the same thing for the rest of Africa?”

Acacia trees cover a dusty road on the way to Nakuru, Kenya. (Photo: Joshua Wanyama)

Some people decide not to return to Africa after studying and working in the U.S. How did you make the decision to move back to Kenya?

It was actually a very practical decision for me. I was running a company that was concentrating on selling online advertising inventory in Africa. But we were sitting in the U.S. Eighty-five percent of what we were selling was in the continent of Africa, while we were sitting in the U.S. and telling people, “Here’s why you should buy.” With a lot of African businesses, someone just wants to shake your hand, and they want to look at you in the face. It’s a lot easier to actually do things if you’re on the ground here, and you have a presence here, than if you’re in the West.

And I have to say, I’d been away for eleven years, and I was missing home … it was a lot easier making that decision, actually, than I thought it would be. Before I returned to Africa, though, I felt that I had to build a business that I could take back with me. With my business, as long as you have a web connection, you can run it from anywhere.

Your website, “Africa Knows” has some stunning photos. Is photography one of your passions?

Yes, it’s a hobby of mine. Growing up I used to draw and paint. I tried becoming a painter, but of course there is no money in that. Because of the talent I had, going to architecture school made a lot of sense, because then I could take art, combine it with critical thinking, and maybe I’d make money in my life.

But then when I was in the U.S., I discovered a little bit about photography. I started shooting, and it just gave me great pleasure. The moment I picked up the camera, I put down the pencil and paintbrush. So I stopped painting and drawing, and now I put all my creative talent into my photography hobby.

I’m actually expanding now into lots of other things, including Africa Knows. When I got back to Nairobi, Sheila Ochugboju, one of the other TED Long Beach 2009 Fellows, was in Nairobi at that time. We ended up discovering we both absolutely love photography. We said it was such a disadvantage that there was not enough African photography that’s getting out there on the world stage. African photography, that is, that’s taken by Africans, telling our story.

Pedestrians walk the streets of Kampala, Uganda as the sun sets. (Photo: Joshua Wanyama)

If you look at the photography that’s out there in the world, we have wildlife, tropical beaches, etc. which is what I would call the positive story of Africa. On the negative, we have guns, wars, starvation … there are a whole lot of these negative images. If you ask anybody about Africa, that’s all they think about. That’s because the images that have actually gone out in the public area have showed that side.

So we thought of a project that we call “Africa Knows.” We pull together a number of photographers and give them a platform where they are able to share their stories. Hopefully soon we will add creative content like poems, text, creative writing. We want to teach people about some of the different things that are happening in Africa.

African masks adorn the wall of a store in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Joshua Wanyama)

We call it “Africa Knows” because we want Africa to tell the world its own story that it already knows. The continent’s past and it’s own future. We should be able to tell our own story. So we built the site and invited people who have different photos of Africa to submit them. Then we sell them as stock photos. Newspapers, marketers, web developers, advertising agencies and non-profit agencies, for example, can buy the images, and then repackage them for their communication purposes.

Pillars along a Jinja street are reflected off the window of a vehicle. (Photo: Joshua Wanyama)

If we can get these positive images across to a lot of people that are helping show the whole picture of Africa, and not only one side of it, then hopefully five, ten years from now, we’ll actually have started impacting the conversation of Africa.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes?
Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

The first thing that I would say is you absolutely have to believe in what you are working on. Because of the many nights and many days when it will be the only thing that will be able to get you to wake up the next day and go back to work.

If you can build on your connections, meet people who share your vision, be nice to them, be considerate of what they’re doing, and also be able to take a part and share in their vision, you should be able to build your network. That network will be very helpful in helping you achieve your goals.

You have to be diligent. You have to be able to clearly communicate what you are working on. You might not have money, but if you are able to express yourself, and you are able to put yourself in the right circles for you to communicate, eventually you will find success.

How did the TED Fellowship influence your work?

Wow. It’s done a number of things. I think one of the biggest things is that TED showed me how to present well, and that there is great value in that.

Going across the world to a TED Conference and seeing how it’s run, seeing the people who are put on stage and the people who are able to talk to you … there is great value in being able to see a system that can run and function well.

TED also gives you access to a lot of great people, who are also passionate about some of the things you’re passionate about. And the beauty of it is, some of the things might not necessarily be what you are doing, but you learn from their experience in building systems, companies, organizations, or otherwise turning dreams into reality.

I think to me, those are some of the greatest things about it: being able to network, and viewing a beautiful system come into play. Then, being able to get the people who are actually doing these things, to help you build yours.

Do you have any thoughts about where the future of African digital media might be headed?

I’d probably say that it’s positive. It’s kind of shifting and changing. There is one group who believes in that “sexy vehicle” idea I mentioned — and who are trying to come up with this ultimate, grand and beautiful vision, that might be the game changer for the whole world. And there is nothing wrong with that. But I think if I have a sexy vehicle, and I’m the only person who can afford the sexy vehicle, then I have to look for a new market.

For African digital media to have greater say and relevance in the world, it actually has to be like the now famous mobile money system, M-PESA. Because that was a technological solution that addressed the bottom market in Kenya. The technology gained traction, and now others are able to see how they can use it.

**** Interactive Fellows Friday Feature! ****
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook.

This week, Joshua asks:

“In what area of the Millennium Development Goals can technology have the greatest impact in the shortest time frame in Africa?”

Click here to respond!