The Acumen Fund East Africa Fellows at their third seminar
“That’s one beautiful sunset”, I thought, standing on the balcony of a building near the beach in Diani, South coast of Mombasa. As I watched the orange orb gracefully drop beneath the coconut trees, my mind went back to the experience we had just had in our third seminar as the inaugural class of Acumen Fund East Africa Fellows.
Since being admitted to this pioneer class, we have attended two seminars which were just pure awesomeness.
The first seminar helped us define what it means to be an Acumen Fund Fellow and a leader in the world. There was an introduction to Acumen’s leadership philosophy, and we also set goals for the year ahead.
Ultimately we left the first seminar questioning and challenging our assumptions, unafraid to ask difficult questions, and equipped with strategic analysis tools to help us tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.
Our second seminar focused on Adaptive Leadership. If we thought the first seminar was great, then this second one really messed us up. First, it changed our view of leadership. We realized that in most cases we were not leaders as such but rather Authority figures.
It took us some time to come around that.
Then, last weekend, we got to the third seminar–Financial Skills.
For most people, figures are an anathema. The EA fellows are no different going by the scared faces I saw when I checked in at Brackenhurst Conference Centre. To add to our trepidation, Suraj, Acumen Fund’s East Africa Fellows Manager, had scared the hell out of us by asking that we only come with calculators and not laptops. Now you can understand our fear, if the last time you used a calculator was in your Quantitative Skills101 class 6 years ago.
Despite our fears, the first item on the agenda was a very enlightening session on Ethics and morality, moderated by Acumen Fund’s Chief Management Officer, Ann MacDougall, and Tom Mboya, Governance, anti-corruption specialist and Deputy CEO of Inuka Kenya, two very intelligent and accommodating individuals.
Here the group grappled with various questions: what is ethics, what is morality, is morality absolute? Who sets the ethical standards that someone is supposed to adhere to? Are there ethical/moral dilemmas that pit the individual against the society?
After some of the Fellows shared their personal experiences relating to ethical and moral challenges, the group had more questions than answers.
A takeaway from that session came from the moderators, who said that given the diverse nature of the challenges and experiences we had faced as individuals, it was only we who had the answers to the ethical questions perplexing us. But we were to remember that, a la Abraham Lincoln, “…evil flourishes only if good men do nothing”. So even if it seems that the system is very corrupt and not accommodating, let’s stick to doing the right thing…it may seem like a drop in the ocean, but the ripple effect will be felt somewhere.
Ann gave the team a tool for ethical decision making, which goes by the acronym RICE
R-Recognize the issue at hand
I-Identify the facts and options
C-Consult, consult, consult
E-Embrace the solution with confidence
As the day came to a close, two ladies came in to a rousing welcome, but unbeknownst to us poor folks they were the financial trainers!
Early on the second day, a tall bespectacled lady stood and introduced herself. She was the leader of “the death squad” aka the Financial skills trainers.
But something was different here. First she was jovial—now most financial management lecturers always have this scrunched face as they slowly kill you with jargon and financial calculations.
Our dear lady thus introduced herself as Ms. Winnie Ouko. Along with the other trainer, Eliza Helweg Larsen, Winnie was there to take us through a basic financial skills course. Our expectations for the session ranged from wanting to know how to read financial statements to how to heal from trauma inflicted on us by financial lecturers of days gone past.
The training was different from most financial training, as it was through a game, somehow akin to monopoly. Little did we know that Eliza was the co-founder and inventor of a family of simulation games to teach finance. Each group was given a board and some “cash” -$80,000 – representing our equity. We bought land, machines and started on production. We then ran those companies for “12 months”. After every month we had to close our books and produce the financial statements. Learning finance had never been this sweeeeeeet!
By the close of the day, the terms ratios, balance sheet, net worth, cash flows and similar jargon were at our fingertips.
Later on after dinner we had an interesting talk on Africa and development, led by Ms Winnie Ouko again! Man this lady is just in a league of her own! It turns out she is also a Fellow of the ALI -Africa Leadership Institute.
In our concluding session on personal finance, she first engaged us in a talk about power, prosperity and control. At the end we agreed that we should not fear to be prosperous. As social change agents sometimes one is held back by feelings of guilt, as if we are making money out of other peoples misery. But at the end of a very liberating discussion, we discovered it was okay to be prosperous even as we strive to bring a change in the world.
On the last day she took us through personal financial management in which everyone made up his/her personal financial statements, now not for the company but for the individual. Some of us needed a pep talk after seeing our net worth on paper. We then discussed issues of power of attorney, wills, personal budgets, health and life insurance etc.
Man, we were messed up good! After that session some Fellows phoned their lawyers and put the power of attorney/wills to their spouses /next of kin. Others couldn’t wait to go back home and set their houses in order. Just an afternoon with Winnie and your life changes.
I realized the sun had already set by the time I finished reminiscing on the past three seminars of this East African Fellows program. It has been a very liberating experience and a great time of learning for me. So far it has made me have more questions than answers.
Why am I in the South coast of Mombasa doing this coconut business? If our aim is poverty alleviation, is there any other way we could have done otherwise? How will I measure our success? Am I suited for this task?
But along the way I learnt that a true leader knows his limits, and will defer to someone more suited for a particular role in order to achieve a common end. Having made peace with myself, I then commenced to give more of myself to our project. The Adaptive leadership skills I have learned served me well to bring up courageous conversations in our management board in order to change a few things that I felt were derailing us from our objective. There are still issues that I am working around but one thing I can tell for sure – I am not the same person who started this program six months ago.
David Okello is the General Manager of Coast Coconut Farms, which is a social enterprise providing sustainable employment in the coastal rural areas to alleviate poverty through coconuts based businesses. Coast Coconut Farms has reached over 1,200 people and hopes to establish market linkages with over 3,000 coconut farmers in the coast province of Kenya. David has experience as an Audit Assistant at Ernst & Young International, and as the Director of Finance at the Moi University Students Organization. He holds a Bachelor’s of Business Management from Moi University.
The Acumen Fund East Africa Fellows Program is made possible through the sponsorship of KCB Foundation and the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations.