Our final IBGC post comes from Anisha (currently a second year MIB student) and Julia (who graduated from the MALD program in May 2014). Their research examines the impact of digital innovation in enabling urban mobility in Nairobi, Kenya. Their post was written in July.
Navigating Silicon Savannah: Do Digital Innovation and Urban Mobility Go Together?
Urban mobility is defined as the degree of ease with which people and goods can be moved in an urban center. As an expanding economy and East Africa’s technology hub, Nairobi has seen rapid urbanization in recent years. According to the government of Kenya, population is set to quadruple from 3.1 million in 2014 to 12.1 million in 2030. New construction is sprouting up almost every day. Rural to urban migration continues to be high. Internet and mobile phone penetration have brought along the emergence of digital commerce. With these developments, the demand for urban mobility in Nairobi has increased much faster than in the rest of the country.
The Kenyatta government recognizes the need for urban mobility in Nairobi, and is making improvements to infrastructure, urban planning and regulatory frameworks. Yet, as urban mobility demand outpaces supply, Nairobi’s private sector is creating innovative solutions for problems arising in transport and logistics today.
Our research looks at what digital innovation exists to address issues in transport and logistics, who this digital innovation is benefiting, and how the government and private sector are engaging each other. In this blog post, we’ll discuss our research process so far.
Ask the right question, and get the right answers
Back in January 2014, when we started a literature review of urbanization-related challenges in Nairobi, we identified transport, water and sanitation as our key areas of focus. Early into our fieldwork on the ground, we realized the need to narrow our research question further. Two weeks of informal interviews with subjects from the private sector and technology space showed us the tremendous amount of energy around transport and logistics. Issues in the sector range from usual suspects like traffic and parking management and bad roads, to finding locations physically because Nairobi does not have a numbered addressing system. This experience showed us how important it is to be on the ground and talk with people personally to craft your final research questions.
Trial the methodology, and know how to revise
This period of interviewing also validated the qualitative, in-depth interview methodology we had chosen for our primary research. The rich answers we got from our in-depth interviews were exactly what we were looking for to get insights. At the same time, we recognized that completely open-ended interviews would give us a lot of disparate data that we would not be able to organize into themes. Hence, we used the first two weeks to listen to subjects and construct our structured interview guide that would make data aggregation and analysis easier after the fieldwork.
Listen, and become a better researcher
One of the most critical lessons we learnt early on was to make our subjects comfortable and to listen actively in our conversations. As much as this sounds like a soft skill, it has been crucial to making our research better. We have developed an understanding on how to ask questions and pick up points to probe deeper. We always functioned with one of us as lead interviewer who could keep to the structure of the interview guide, while the other would listen for insightful answers and delve into them.
Network, and get a representative sample
Our research methodology required us to talk with players in the tech ecosystem, and transport and logistics sector. While we diligently surveyed all players and reached out to them through a combination of contacts and cold calling, we found out soon enough how crucial snowball sampling was to our participant recruitment process. We also realized how important it was to meet as many people as we could by going to events, conferences, and spending time at community spaces for tech enthusiasts.
We must note that we were incredibly fortunate that our subjects were forthcoming in providing names of people and organizations to speak to, and went out of their way to make introductions for us. We even had some subjects telling us to talk to their competitors!
Be patient, because there will be highs and lows
Our fieldwork experience has been like Nairobi weather — mercurial. We have had days when none of our contacts have come through, and days when we found ourselves scrambling to squeeze all our subjects into our schedule. It took us the first three weeks to understand the nature of fieldwork, and to be prepared for the highs and lows. Thereafter, we planned in a way that if we had a bonus number of interviews in a short span, we would stretch ourselves to complete them. At the same time, we recognized the value of patience on days when we were unable to have a full schedule or when last-minute meeting cancellations happened.
It also made us realize that fieldwork was a 24/7 job for the brain. Even when we were at social gatherings or dealing with vendors, shopkeepers and the like, we kept our eyes and ears open for information that could help us with our research. We also spent countless hours discussing (and redefining) the exact wording of our research together, often stuck in traffic in Nairobi or when Internet speeds were too slow to be sufficiently productive (the irony was not lost on us).
Hope for an amazing research partner because it makes research a million times better (and fun)!
There have been innumerable times when we have represented each other and our team as whole, to subjects, contacts and other people we have worked with on the project. So, it is really important to have a great level of trust and understanding. This really cannot be underestimated or overemphasized! Our disparate skill sets have fused together nicely to craft a project that has thus far been immensely rewarding and informative.