🏁 Africa doesn’t work in sprints.

TL; DR – The agile method, born in US software development, optimises for productivity. In Africa, I’ve learnt other values are just as (or more) important when building or testing new tech. Especially: humility, collective action, and skin in the game.

“Africa doesn’t work in sprints

Mozambique, 2018.

More than 10,000 people in Mozambique die each year from tuberculosis.

If diagnosed quickly, the chances of successful treatment and survival shoot up. Detecting tuberculosis in Mozambique means collecting sputum from the back of someone’s throat, and putting it under a microscope.

Microscopes don’t exist in most village clinics. So getting that sputum sample from a village to a lab for testing in hours (rather than days or weeks) is critical, for early detection and so the sample doesn’t spoil.

We thought using a drone could be one way of doing it. Back then, I worked for a Fund (supported by the British government) that invested in technology ideas, trying to solve big challenges like this one. Mozambique is a long, thin country with a coastline the size of the US East Coast. It has lots of remote villages, where getting things out to places by car or boat is long and arduous.

So we brought together some amazing drone companies, local NGOs, and health experts. And wanted to get to work as fast as we could meet the health crisis.

Enter: the sprint.

A ‘sprint’ is a concept from Agile, a method and set of principles born in the US in software development. At its most basic, it’s a fixed, short period of time to complete a set of tasks. At the end of a sprint, you review what you’ve done, capture what you’ve learnt, update your plans, and plan the next sprint.

It’s a way of working that maximises velocity. It moves you fast and always towards your goal. Perfect, given the urgency of our goal to get sputum samples to labs quickly.

We described our idea and the sprint to a Mozambican government official. And that’s when he told us that Africa doesn’t work in sprints.

On a gut level, I’m sure that rings true for people who’ve lived and worked on the continent. After all, the ‘sprint’ was born elsewhere. And sprints imply speed, whereas in Africa, things move at their own pace.

But I think that official in Mozambique was getting at something deeper. He was talking about his values.

If I was to sum up the value encoded in sprints in one word, I would say productivity. A sprint is fast, and aimed at getting you to your goal as fast as possible. It’s productivity, through velocity.

Productivity is great. It helps humans to flourish. But there are other values that rub up against it, held by people in countries in Africa (including Mozambique). And those other values are just as important.

For the rest of this piece, I will explore what those other values might be. But before I start, I need to say two things.

One is that it’s impossible for me to truly understand what those values are, and to understand how they shift between different countries in Africa. I live in Rwanda and work across Africa, but ultimately am just one human, coming in from the outside, and holding a very limited perspective. I’m not confident about many things I’ll say, but I’m confident that exploring these values is an improvement from importing the sprint wholesale.

The second is that sometimes the values I talk about only seem to conflict with productivity but actually make you more productive in the long run. Other times they actually conflict with and take away from productivity. Crucially, it doesn’t matter which is true. The point isn’t to be more productive in the long-term. It’s to recognise a more diverse set of values as ends in themselves.

Okay, let’s go.

Harmony and collective action over productivity

Productivity compels you to move fast towards a goal you’ve set.

Harmony and collective action compel you to chart and move towards an overlapping middle ground where everyone’s needs and values get embedded into the project, and everyone owns the work.

Harmony and collective action mean an ongoing negotiation into what happens. This can be a long, winding back and forth that puts the brakes on your velocity and can feel unproductive. In our case, it meant constant dialogue with government officials, lab and clinic staff, trainee pilots, local leaders, people on drone flight paths, funding agencies, and so on.

Nobody was excluded; a value we learnt to hold sacred. As sacred, if not more, than being productive.

Or, in the words of a friend I was explaining this to: we learnt to be human and think about people, not just the work.

Humility over productivity

The English philosopher G.K. Chesterton was adamant we should refrain from reform until we understand why things are the way they are. He called this principle Chesterton’s Fence. You may not understand why that fence is there, doesn’t mean you should clear it away.

Productivity compels you to demolishing (or ignoring) what’s there in pursuit of moving towards your goal.

Humility – the value Chesterton called for – compels you to acknowledge that you’re working in a system that is the way it is for a reason. And it leads you to explore, to learn what’s going on already. The less familiar you are with a system, the more important the principle.

In Mozambique, health workers used existing transport networks – boats, trucks, motorcycles carrying food, or other goods – to deliver tuberculosis sputum samples. It wasn’t always as reliable or quick as a drone, but it was low-cost and non-disruptive (using what was already there). Unearthing these networks made us think twice about where to use drones, and where to leave things as they were.

Again, learning deeply rather than executing can feel unproductive. It doesn’t matter. Working in Mozambique, and bringing in something new, we learnt to be humble before we strove to be productive.

Investment over productivity

Sprints make the most of the time, money, and resources you have. They get you to plan, execute, and then update your plan, so you’re only doing tasks that get you towards your goal. No effort, or spend, is wasted.

Yet, to invest is to signal. To give time, money, reputation, resources, etc. towards a problem shows you care about it. To only give the smallest possible amount is to seem to have one foot out the door.

Let’s call this value skin in the game. It can make you less productive with how you spend your time and money. Or, by showing people you care, it can open up new opportunities. Regardless, it shows you’re giving something up and that you are as invested – materially, financially, emotionally – as the people your work effects.

We had no idea whether drones would work, so we started out being very cautious. Only spending money and doing tasks that helped us understand if our goal was viable, not wanting to sink cost. It was only when, later, we spent £500k on drones that people saw we were serious, because we were invested. We showed skin in the game. Which meant people invested in us, and took us seriously. They gave us their time, money, and resources in exchange.

Nicholas Taleb sums up why this is important. Consequential decisions should be made by people who pay for the consequences. It’s unethical to shape people’s lives, without exposure and investment yourself.

Where does this leave us?

Imagine your diary. It might be an actual, physical book, but more likely it’s on Google, iCal or Outlook.

The sprint, optimising for productivity, fills your diary with tasks planning and executing towards a goal.

What that official in Mozambique was telling us, was to shift these tasks to embody humility, harmony/collective action, and investment.

Or, more generally, he was telling us that what you do should follow from the values people hold. Not your values, but the values of people where you work. That’s a much more sincere and locally rooted way to help others and solve problems.

Africa could work in sprints. If the sprint evolved and met it where it is.

🎬 Thanks to Michael Shafer, Joel Christiansen, Jude Klinger and Jason Nguyen for looking at drafts of this.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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Banner depicts a fixed-wing drone before take-off in Malawi, 2018. Taken by me.