Guest blog post from Paul Decker, CEO at Mathematica
Paul (far right) and Anu (center) with EDI staff at their office in Dar es Salaam.
Last fall, we brought the EDI Group into the Mathematica family to help global change makers reimagine the way they collect and use data. Our organizations had worked together on projects in East Africa over the years, and acquiring EDI provided an opportunity to bring together staff with tremendous talent and expertise to help our partners see clearly, act quickly, and calibrate effectively to drive improvements in public well-being around the world.
Part of the appeal of EDI was its extensive survey operations in Tanzania and other parts of East Africa, which provide us with more eyes and ears in areas where we are working. When we take on new projects—whether in international development, health, education, or other areas—we like to remind our partners that we are right there with them along the full journey from inquiry to insight.
To get a better sense of this exciting new partnership and the way it can improve our international work, Anu Rangarajan—who heads our International unit—and I spent last week in East Africa and wanted to share a few highlights from the trip.
Day 1: Dar es Salaam
After flying through Zurich and Nairobi, we landed in Dar es Salaam on Sunday night local time. Dar is a large, rapidly growing city with nearly 5 million residents, and home to an EDI field office (which also served as our home for this portion of the trip). Matt Wiseman of EDI-UK met us at the airport and took us to the EDI field office. Anu and I knew Matt from our previous meetings with EDI in the UK, so it was good to catch up with him. Matt provided excellent guidance throughout our Tanzania trip.
Early Monday morning, Anu, Matt, and I met with Duncan Rhind, a program director with the Gatsby Foundation. They are working to transform the cotton market in Tanzania in order to increase investment in innovation and production. To support the effort, EDI has been talking to cotton farmers and collecting data on behalf of Gatsby for several years.
We also met with Aidan Eyakuze, the executive director of Twaweza East Africa, which has been sponsoring a randomized controlled trial for an education initiative in Tanzania called Kiufunza. EDI Group has collected data for the evaluation, working with the Poverty Action Lab and IPA. Based partly on this evaluation, Twaweza is in the process of redirecting its strategy to focus on governance and citizen engagement.
In the afternoon and evening, we met with staff from the EDI Bukoba office, who were in Dar preparing to work on site. The group included Mwenga Godlaid, Saraphina Safari, and Genevieve Ruhikula, who guided us through the Tanzanian Village Museum, where we saw examples of historical rural housing from different regions of Tanzania. In the evening, we were also joined by three members of the EDI-UK team who were in Tanzania to work on site—Marie Mallet, Callum Taylor, and Luca Privinzano. After a whirlwind first 24 hours in Dar, it was wonderful to join our new colleagues for a beachside dinner with incredible views (my first) of the Indian Ocean.
Day 2: On to Bukoba
Our 3:00 am wakeup call came fast, as Day 2 had us catching an early morning flight to Bukoba to visit the main EDI-Tanzania office. Bukoba is a city of roughly 100,000 residents in an agricultural region in northern Tanzania along the shore of Lake Victoria. Anu and I got the red carpet treatment when we arrived, with the EDI leaders and staff all meeting us at the airport and escorting us to the EDI property.
Matt Wiseman from EDI introduced us to the leaders of the Bukoba office, Respichius Mitti and Aris Mgohmawende, who showed us around the office and introduced us to all of the Bukoba staff. EDI is a major employer by Bukoba standards, with about 30 or so permanent employees in the office and many more hired on a contract basis to fill the needs of individual projects. In addition to staffing site work in Tanzania, the staff in Bukoba have also been involved in work in neighboring countries. We spent the afternoon talking to staff about their various responsibilities and then had dinner with the office leadership team at a nearby restaurant. Mitti and Aris and the others made us feel very welcome in Bukoba.
Anu was determined to expand her Swahili during the trip, and I was very impressed with her progress. She was fearless in trying out new vocabulary, sometimes generating unintended laughter. Anu’s effort and success in speaking Swahili helped us immensely in engaging with the staff.
Day 3: Two companies cut from the same cloth
We spent the next morning learning about how EDI staff manage their data collection efforts. It was great to hear them share their thoughts about the benefits they see from being part of the Mathematica family, as well as some ideas for improving how we do our work together.
Later in the day, we had an all-staff meeting to formally introduce everyone and provide a chance to talk about what it means to be a part of Mathematica. Mitti hosted the meeting and as he seamlessly switched between English and Swahili, I was reminded of some of the challenges U.S.-based organizations have traditionally faced when expanding into international work. Thankfully, Mitti is an impressive leader and a very poised public speaker from whom I look forward to learning more throughout this partnership.
When it was my turn to speak a bit about Mathematica and the reasons behind our interest in working with EDI, I stuck to English. I described how closely the missions and cultures of the two organizations align, and explained that our alignment with EDI on mission and culture was a key motivation for the merger. Our culture not only helps drive our success, but it makes Mathematica the kind of place where you want to come to work each and every day (in my case for 30+ years). EDI staff asked great questions about our plans for Mathematica/EDI and our strategy for success and growth in the future, and so I spent some time sketching out our preliminary plans.
In the evening, the entire team celebrated at a café on the beach at Lake Victoria, which included entertainment from a team of dancers. Fortunately for me, I was not asked to join the dancers. Anu was not so fortunate (no photo).
Day 4: Seasoned experts
On Thursday we spent time talking to more of the staff in the EDI office, including their HR director, Benjamin Kamuluku. At 15 years, Benjamin is one of the longest-serving EDI staff. Later in the day, a group of four EDI folks who were all celebrating 15 years with the company posed for a picture and noted that the four of them had a combined 60 years of EDI experience. Anu and I joked that just between the two of us we had 60 years at Mathematica, but it was another healthy reminder of the similar cultures—and the value placed on collegiality—that both organizations hold.
In the afternoon, Mitti showed us around Bukoba. We visited the Bukoba museum, the local market, a local waterfall, and a few smaller villages. Mitti apparently knows everybody in Bukoba, as nearly every shop owner in the market called out to him. Mitti said it was because Bukoba is a small town, but it was clear he naturally connects with people, which partly explains how he can be such an effective leader for EDI.
On Thursday evening, I was honored to join Aris for a round of table tennis at his club. We played doubles with a couple of his friends for about an hour and then spent about 30 minutes playing singles. I hadn’t had a table tennis workout like that in about 25 years, when I played in a Beijing factory as part of my first international project at Mathematica. Unfortunately, my phone battery didn’t make it through the day, so I wasn’t able to get any pictures from the matches.
Day 5: A parting gift
Early the next morning, we headed to the office for a round of farewells, saying goodbye to each staff member. When it was time for Aris and me to say our farewells, I was truly touched when he surprised me with a farewell gift—a Stiga table tennis paddle—which now holds a place of honor in my New Jersey office.
It was easier for us to catch a flight back to the U.S. out of Entebbe, Uganda, so we headed north by car, passing into Uganda and crossing the equator along the way. On the flight back, I reflected on everything that had transpired over the past few days, and on the overwhelming sense of optimism I was coming home with. I felt that Anu and I were able to connect with the EDI leaders in Tanzania in a meaningful way so that we understand better their perspective on the organization and our mission. We also developed a better understanding of the potential of having a local presence in Africa, both for serving our mission and for contributing to the development of new business. Finally, we reinforced our appreciation for the values that Mathematica and EDI share.
As a researcher, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the project directly in front of you. And as a research community, it’s easy to lose sight of the many ways our work is making a meaningful difference in people’s lives all around the world. Thankfully, this trip was an important reminder of why we wanted to bring EDI into the Mathematica family and what we know we can accomplish together in the future.