From Pyrethrum Exports to the Knowledge Economy: Exploring Trade Between Kenya and Canada

Guest blog written by Bishal Belbase, John Diing, Mayra Hoyos, Stephanie Shalkoski

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard School of Public Health who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

As a pedagogical procedure for learning Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation a group of four students from Mexico, Nepal, the United States, and South Sudan studied bilateral trade between Kenya and Canada with the help of an external authorizer: Dr. George Imbenzi, Honorary Consul General of Kenya to Canada. This global team, codenamed “Canadian Safari,” met with several Kenyan government officials, as well as, a Kenyan student studying in the US, a Canadian educator with non-profit experience in Africa, and an academic/practitioner of Kenyan-origin who leads a Harvard-based program, Building State Capability. 

Uncovering Unseen Challenges in Kenya-Canada Trade

Our first thought was that the lack of a trade agreement was the major cause for limited trade between Kenya and Canada. However, when we broke down the problem of fledgling trade between the two countries into subproblems, we ended up with some causes we didn’t expect. (see fishbone diagram in figure 3).

One cause we noticed was the lack of capacity of Kenyan diplomats – in terms of technical knowledge and negotiation skills. Also, due to the frequent turnover of Kenyan officials, there was limited institutional memory. 

Another factor we identified was how the lack of direct air links between Kenya and Canada was hampering people-to-people connections and trade. For the Pyrethrum flower (one of the major exports from Kenya to Canada) and similar fresh agricultural/horticultural products, reducing transit time from Kenya to Canada is critical. The presence of direct flights would make it easier to attract potentially millions of Canadian tourists to Kenya’s natural and cultural beauty. The increase in tourism would also help to boost Canadian investor perception.

We learned that Kenya has emerged as a strong player in the information and communication technology sector. Kenya has all the ingredients of becoming the hub of a knowledge-based economy, however, they have not been able to promote these possibilities due to traditional perceptions. We realized that the networks, skills, and expertise of a sizable Kenyan diaspora in Canada can play a major role in cultural exchanges and promotion of narratives which can improve perception about socio-economic climate and business prospects in Kenya. 

We concluded that our authorizer could gain the quickest results by strengthening the technical knowledge and negotiation skills of Kenyan diplomats and by working on greater connectivity between Kenya and Canada. (See Figure 4.)

Even as we make these recommendations we are aware that our team was assembled only 7 weeks back with limited expertise and contextual information, and as such, our understanding and assumptions may be flawed. While there are unpredictable factors like the upcoming Kenyan elections, we could have been more certain about our suggestions if we had understood more about the perspectives of Canadian government officials and investors, Kenya business owners, the state of the Kenyan knowledge economy, and global and regional market trends affecting Kenya.

What We Learned about the PDIA Approach 

Select causes to work on that aren’t too large

By deconstructing the problem, we realized that there were several factors contributing to the lack of robust trade between the two countries. However, some of the causes were too big for us to intervene, such as corruption, regional instability, or human rights violations. We focused on the problems we could tackle by using the Triple A analysis and evaluating which causes we had the most authority, ability, and acceptance to work on.

Learn fast & iterate towards small solutions

We learned that aiming for small changes or interventions instead of trying to change a whole system can lead to early success. This is because small changes are quick actions that are open to adjustment, clarify contextual challenges and allow some learning about what works and what does not.

Reflect and check-in regularly

The PDIA approach taught us that it is essential to reflect every week on our progress before moving forward. We reflected on the obstacles we encountered, the lessons learned, and the next steps to avoid turning in the wrong direction.

Engage with multiple stakeholders

Talking to different stakeholders is essential to understand the problem causes and solutions better from diverse perspectives. Almost all of the stakeholders we interviewed were from the Kenyan side and even though they provided us with invaluable insights, we were not able to achieve a holistic view of the problem and its causes as we were missing the perspective from the Canadian government and key sectors from both countries.

Crawl the design space

The PDIA framework helped us to think outside the box. It taught us to be flexible, creative, and exploratory about deeper layers of the problem, causes, and effects. We looked out for best practices in other contexts that had solved similar challenges to existing practices between Kenya and Canada that could be improved and for potential ideas that could emerge with some focused attention. 

Be an active participant in the teaming process

One of the main challenges as a team when navigating an unknown problem was that every member had a different perspective and definition of the problem. Throughout the process, we learned how to be flexible and cooperate to reach a consensus. The key was to strengthen our communication and team constitution; this enabled a strong team connection.

Words of Wisdom

Three Tips for Working with a Global Student & Authorizer Team

This course offered an exciting opportunity to work with people from other countries. Our authorizer was located in Vancouver, Canada, one team member resided in Lucknow, India, three team members lived in Boston, USA.

Tip #1: Leverage communication & technology tools that provide shared access

Consider using tools accessible to everyone no matter their location. We found WhatsApp allowed the student team to communicate between meetings without disrupting each other’s variable work/sleep schedules. Google Docs made it easy to share our meeting notes, agendas, list of resources, list of interview subjects, and more. We never had to worry about version history and could collaborate in real-time. Our Zoom meetings with our team, authorizer, and interview guests allowed us to see each other on-screen to help build community and connections in a way that audio-only meetings do not.

Tip #2: Schedule meetings at convenient times for the entire group

Be mindful of timezones when suggesting group meetings and interviews. Add the timezone of the city and country of your interview guests, teammates, and authorizer to your phone app or use an online tool like Time Zone Converter – Time Difference Calculator to make sure meeting times are as convenient as possible. We found morning meetings in the Eastern Time Zone worked well for engaging with Kenyan diplomats in their evening hours and with our early-rising authorizer in the Pacific Time Zone.

Tip #3: Be mindful of cultural differences among team members

Diverse teams generate more creative approaches to problem analysis and innovative solutions. Be mindful of how your cultural biases may affect team dynamics. Provide an opportunity for all team members to contribute. 

Three Newbie Tips for Working with Diplomats

If you’re new to working with foreign diplomats, please consider these tips to help get you started.

Tip #1: Immediately request a meeting with diplomats using a formal invitation

Diplomats are incredibly busy with complex schedules. They may not be able to meet with you for many weeks. With the student PDIA process lasting only 7 weeks, we recommend approaching diplomats with these requests as soon as possible. 

Formal invitations to diplomats should include a brief class description, a reference to the specific challenge you’re working on with the name and title of the authorizer, and a list of team member names. Identify the time commitment (e.g. 30-minutes) and the deadline for the conversation (~2-3 weeks before the end of class). Bonus points if you can ask the professor to sign the letter on your behalf, but try to send it on your own so you can manage follow-up efforts.

Tip #2: Address diplomats using their formal titles unless told otherwise

Cultures differ and while you may be introduced to diplomats who are comfortable with a more casual style, we recommend starting formally when approaching new contacts. Use their entire given title with written correspondence.  Make an effort to understand their title and how they feel comfortable being referred to based on their culture and position. 

Tip #3: Encourage diplomats to speak beyond the standard talking points

Share a prepared list of “starter questions” with diplomats in advance of the meeting. These are good starting points for the conversation and help frame the conversation for advanced consideration by your diplomat.  

Be courageous with your follow-up questions. You’ll recognize openings to ask questions to probe deeper. Don’t resist those curious urges even though you’re meeting with someone very important; you’re there to help uncover information and you should ask questions that demonstrate that curiosity.

Watch the video and view the slides of the PDIA in Action event held in May 2021.

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