004 – Zach Mbasu and INNODEMS, The Follow-Up

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
004 – Zach Mbasu and INNODEMS, The Follow-Up


Zach Mbasu, Director of INNODEMS, introduced some of his work and his shared passion for education with David in the first IDEMS Interviews Podcast episode. This follow up explores who Zach is, how and why he created INNODEMS, and how IDEMS actually exists thanks to Zach!

[00:00:00] Lucie: Welcome to the IDEMS podcast. My name’s Lucie Hazelgove Planel, a Social Impact Scientist, and I’m here with David Stern, one of the founding directors of IDEMS. Hi David.

[00:00:12] David: Hi Lucie. I’m looking forward to discussing, uh, the first IDEMS Interviews podcast with you, where I was discussing with Zach Mbasu, the director of INNODEMS, one of our partners.

[00:00:26] Lucie: Yes, so I listened back to that discussion and it was really nice to hear Zach discussing or explaining a bit about how you two met and well what came out of those interactions. You have a lot of history together.

[00:00:39] David: We do.

[00:00:40] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:00:41] David: 15 years now.

[00:00:42] Lucie: 15, okay.

[00:00:42] David: It’s incredible to think.

[00:00:44] Lucie: Aha, and so he started out as your student, but now you’re very much partners…

[00:00:48] David: Well, collaborators. And, and yes, and he’s, he’s just grown immensely and it’s so impressive. And I’ve certainly gained at least as much from him as I’ve given.

[00:01:03] Lucie: Yeah, but I mean, like I say, he started as your student, but he was actually already a teacher and he had a lot of other experiences. He wasn’t an undergraduate student as, um, you might have it elsewhere.

[00:01:12] David: Yes, he was, he, within a year really of knowing him, he was dragging me into school saying you need to do teacher trainings, you need to bring what you’re doing into… as he told the story.

[00:01:25] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:01:26] David: But, but the thing which, he’s also, IDEMS exists in great part because of Zach, which is one of the reasons I wanted that to be the first IDEMS interview session.

[00:01:43] Lucie: I found it an interesting discussion because I was surprised. I was expecting to hear about what INNODEMS is. So, Zach is the director of INNODEMS…

[00:01:51] David: Absolutely.

[00:01:51] Lucie: And I work closely with colleagues in INNODEMS. So I was sort of expecting to know more about all of that. And then actually the podcast seemed to be about, more about, yeah, your relationship and what your, your mutual interests. Which shouldn’t be a surprise to me. But it still was.

[00:02:05] David: This was not intended, it was sort of, it’s what naturally came out and it was very interesting from that discussion. I think I was also expecting it to be more a discussion about INNODEMS, what he’s now doing, what INNODEMS is becoming, because that’s so impressive.

[00:02:18] Lucie: It is.

[00:02:18] David: And I don’t think it came out clearly, whereas, what naturally came out was sort of…. this is what we’re passionate about.

[00:02:25] Lucie: Exactly.

[00:02:26] David: This is where it’s had a long history…

[00:02:27] Lucie: It was your passion that came out as opposed to, well, the day to day of what you actually do, which is unsurprising.

[00:02:35] David: With hindsight, yes. But I think it is important that those stories do… This is one of the reasons I was keen to have this follow up discussion with you about Zach and INNODEMS, and not just INNODEMS.

[00:02:47] Lucie: I was left wanting to know more about how INNODEMS came about… Also a lot more about all of the amazing things it does actually do now.

[00:02:55] David: Well, maybe just before… digging into sort of where INNODEMS came from, I think there’s a story around Zach of where IDEMS came from.

[00:03:06] Lucie: Oh yeah?

[00:03:06] David: Which I didn’t get to tell last week, so now I can tell it.

Zach was always impressive. And when he left being a teacher, to sort of, because of the responsibility, and he felt he could have more impact supporting others, and working with AMI, the NGO that we set up.

[00:03:31] Lucie: The African Maths Initiative.

[00:03:32] David: The African Maths Initiative, and SAMI, the charity supporting African Maths Initiatives.

But… he gave up so much. I mean, he, he was offered international PhDs in different ways. He had many opportunities and he, he turned them down for many years because he recognized that that would have taken him away from where he was having impact. But it was hard. I mean…

[00:03:56] Lucie: Well, that was something that did come out in your discussion; that he was trying to have impact locally, yeah, in his communities and where he, where he lived, really.

[00:04:05] David: Yes, and where he knew, he understood the situation, and he didn’t want to get lost in the academic theories. Not because he wasn’t interested in them, but because he was recognizing that if he went out and he did the PhD outside, then even if he was studying his local communities, the impact he was having would be lost.

And actually he was building these structures and these networks and it was hard work. It took a long time to actually build up those structures and networks. He wasn’t really considering a PhD straight out because he was a teacher. And he said, you know, he wanted to do that. And by the time he left teaching, he was this ICT champion, he was well recognized within the country. He…

[00:04:50] Lucie: I had no idea about that ICT champion aspect, that was interesting.

[00:04:53] David: But this was just the tip of the iceberg. He was extremely well connected within the ministry, within CEMASTEA, which is this sort of training Institute, slightly independent from the government, but not totally, um, and so on, and so he was, he was able to influence in really quite interesting ways, but it was really hard work, and it was tough. And he had a tough time with this, but he recognized that if he were to go out, he would lose that.

[00:05:18] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:05:19] David: And studying locally was never really the option for him. He did consider it, seriously on occasions, but it wasn’t… it wasn’t, you know, he wanted to go out, but wanted to go out when it was the right time for it. And I realized… after I’d moved back to the UK and I was in this academic position, we were finding ways to support AMI, to work solidly with AMI. But from my privileged position within a UK academic institution, I, I recognised that the sacrifices that I was asking of Zach, to actually keep things going on the ground and to actually keep things working, were way more than I was making myself.

[00:06:02] Lucie: But what do you mean you were asking him to make sacrifices?

[00:06:05] David: Well, I think… You’re right, it wasn’t me asking him to make those sacrifices, he was making those sacrifices, that was his choice. But if I wasn’t there, he wouldn’t be making that choice. You know, and this is, this is the simple part of that collaboration, that collaboration has two sides.

If we weren’t giving the support to AMI, AMI would have died and so he’d have had to find something else for himself to do. And so, you know, this is, this is a really interesting, um…

[00:06:31] Lucie: Sorry, what was his position in AMI then? He was the founding director?

[00:06:35] David: Well, so with myself and Mike, who you’ve met, I think, James, who you’ve met, who’s now joined IDEMS recently, and Thomas, who I don’t think you’ve met, but he’s a lecturer at Maseno University.

[00:06:48] Lucie: And he still works there then?

[00:06:49] David: And he still works there, and all the other three went on to PhDs. And Zach was left essentially holding the baby.

[00:06:56] Lucie: That’s great, for the work!

[00:06:59] David: Actually making it work. And others contributed in small ways, but Zach was really the one saying, no, this is impactful, what we’re doing here is important, and it needs somebody to be on the ground making it work.

[00:07:12] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:07:12] David: And so it was all a rather complicated situation. And, and I recognized that one of the ways to make this more stable going forward was to try and actually use social entrepreneurship to be able to stabilize some of those forms of income. And I didn’t know if that would work or not, but I recognized that I needed to take the leap. That was not the only motivation behind IDEMS, but it was a big part of the push that actually supporting those structures from within an academic career wasn’t working, and I was able to do little bits, but I realised that to really do it well, I needed to, to take a leap and set up a social enterprise.

[00:07:53] Lucie: Interesting.

[00:07:54] David: And then, of course, I didn’t join SAMI. I considered joining the charity. I said, well, could I make the charity work, and take this work into the charity? And for various reasons, it was clear that actually the charity structure isn’t the right structure for what I was wanting to do. And this is where IDEMS, as a social enterprise, we realised the vision was much bigger than just sort of that small charitable sector.

Zach he was braver than me. He, he did it as an individual.

[00:08:23] Lucie: Yes, yeah, okay.

[00:08:24] David: I mean, INNODEMS is Zach. No, that’s not true. INNODEMS is a whole group of over 20 people, all with different skill sets, all contributing in different ways. But legally, the legal responsibility, INNODEMS only has one director at the moment, and that’s Zach. And this has been really problematic and difficult in all sorts of different ways.

But the point was that unlike myself who had Danny, where without Danny I wouldn’t have… been brave enough to actually say, yes, we can do this, we can make this work.

[00:08:56] Lucie: Danny Parsons, we haven’t really discussed him much in the podcast, and for me he’s been a big gap, I mean he’s been a gap in the company too, and he’s had health problems.

[00:09:04] David: Absolutely, but I mean he will, we will have discussions with him, about him, um, more in the future. But that, having a co founder was central. Zach had a team. But he didn’t have anyone he could give that responsibility to. He didn’t have anyone who was ready to take that responsibility. And he was right. I mean, all the people he had around him then who could have stepped into that leadership position, have moved on in interesting ways.

Now, we’ve managed to include them in a lot of our work, and that’s been very deliberate from day one.

[00:09:43] Lucie: Yeah, from my perspective, I’m aware that we work very closely together. Um, and it’s intriguing.

[00:09:50] David: There’s always new people. It’s quite a big turnover. They take in from the local universities every year. And so, it’s incredible. And Zach, I still remember, I think it maybe pre-dates INNODEMS, but he was sort of explaining how he gets hundreds of requests for internships or attachment every year.

[00:10:10] Lucie: Oh, I can imagine, yeah.

[00:10:11] David: And, and so actually the sort of reputation that he’s built… about sort of having people going through, enabling people, students to do that, and so on.

[00:10:20] Lucie: Getting real experience.

[00:10:21] David: Getting real experience, getting real skills.

[00:10:23] Lucie: Yes, and being thrown in at the deep end as well.

[00:10:25] David: On occasion, yes. But, Zach in building, um, INNODEMS has never had it easy. The challenges he’s faced have just been incredible. We’ve gone through, I don’t know, so many different stages together of this. What I think is astounding in the range of things that INNODEMS does, is that when… This is, this has been a very conscious collaboration, which has been built up over a long period of time. When we take on a new area of work, we will tend to try and find a way to include interns into that and they embrace it despite the fact that a lot of this is very challenging. It involves remote mentorship in ways which you’ve experienced and it, it is not easy. It is…

[00:11:36] Lucie: So for example, when you look for a new contract, you always try to see that, um, it includes a partnership between IDEMS and INNODEMS, and it enables also for there to be INNODEMS’ interns.

[00:11:49] David: So very, very often that’s what we would try to sort of discuss, and not always, you know, our partners are not always interested in that. But many of our partners, when we suggest that actually, what we would like to do is include our Kenyan partner for a small amount of the contract in this sort of way. Actually this is an extra deliverable and so this is the sort of partnerships that then people value building up those local partners.

[00:12:12] Lucie: Exactly, so this is part of, this is where it comes back to your, both of your shared sort of interests, let’s say, in um, capacity building.

[00:12:19] David: Exactly, in actually building up those skills in, in that environment and…

[00:12:25] Lucie: And trying to work like that too, so not only sort of internally within the company but also just the very structures that you create, the way, um, the projects that you work with, trying to make sure that it’s always at the heart of that.

[00:12:37] David: And trying to make it this incredible win win, which doesn’t always happen, but

[00:12:43] Lucie: Win win for INNODEMS and IDEMS, or win win for the partners, like there’s only…

[00:12:46] David: Exactly. It’s win, win, win, win, win, win. Everybody should win from this, if we can get it right. And we don’t always get it right in that way, but there are concrete examples where this has happened.

One of my favourite examples, which happened very recently, is that, um, one of our biggest projects with Oxford University, they have partners in Tanzania and Uganda. And, the role INNODEMS played for the partners in Uganda and Tanzania is probably close to on par with the role IDEMS has played.

[00:13:21] Lucie: That’s exciting.

[00:13:22] David: So in, in Tanzania, they’re doing a trial, a randomised control trial, a really good piece of research, led by Oxford University, but very much a big local team. And… IDEMS is supporting the development of the app. INNODEMS was not involved in the development of that app. However, they have been deeply involved in the implementation and on the ground training people how to use the phones, how to get the app, do the digital literacy because there were digital literacy issues, they designed digital literacy training which was needed at the last minute because people didn’t realise…

[00:13:58] Lucie: Exactly, I think everyone’s been hearing about that.

[00:14:00] David: Yes, and um… And so the INNODEMS team sort of rushed in and, you know, we had enough experience with them that we could help them to design a sensible training, they were able to do it, they were able to deliver that training. And it changed the way that the trial was sort of going in certain ways, and there was some interesting research which happened about the value of the digital literacy training. And so on.

But it’s sort of being able to step in, in these variety of roles, and having those skills within that team that are not necessarily fully formed or well defined in that sort of sense. But they have gained a range of skills which in their context, they’re able to sort of bridge the gap often and then, you know, actually interact with us to get the help and the support that they need to be able to offer the help and support that’s needed on the ground.

We couldn’t afford to be there, which is too expensive in all sorts of different ways. Not possible. But not only were they there, but they were able to solve a lot themselves. When they couldn’t solve it, they were able to ask for help in the right ways. Simple things like that. So with the Tanzania trial, that was sort of being centred in a really important part of the role they played.

[00:15:09] Lucie: And can I just clarify, has that been, has their role then changed? That work in Tanzania, has that shown that their role is growing then? Like it’s changed since the contract was first…

[00:15:22] David: When the contract was first conceived, I knew that they would evolve into a role. But I also knew I couldn’t write them into that concrete role because it wasn’t clear what it would be, it had to emerge. And so it was relatively vague. And basically, from a delivery perspective, we wrote it in as capacity building the team to be able to contribute. That’s broadly how we wrote it in. We did not give them concrete deliverables. Because at that point in time, before it was a big contract, actually putting that responsibility on them would have made them a partner in a way which would have been this…

So they’ve actually subcontracted through us.

[00:16:02] Lucie: Oh, that’s incredible.

[00:16:03] David: And so we have responsibility for all of their work.

[00:16:06] Lucie: Oooh… goodness. And is Zach okay with that?

[00:16:09] David: Well, it’s not just that Zach’s okay with that, this is desirable for him. Actually, not having that position would have been a nightmare for him. And so, on that particular contract, that’s part of the role, we have responsibility for delivery. If their team can’t deliver, we take up the slack. If their team do deliver really well, they get all the credit. Correctly so. And then, I think the Uganda example, you know, in that same project, they then stepped in in Uganda and we went together.

But they then took over the work with the Ugandan partners in ways which were extremely constructive. And they really had ownership of that process and driving it forward. And if I’m honest, I’m not sure, I’m not sure, well I know, I don’t know how we’d have done this without them.

They now have the experience to actually do things, and they are supported to do so, and the way that they’re able to then sort of run with that has been fantastic. And, and the team that they’re building up around them, there have been problems, there have been internal conflicts, there have been people who have left for various reasons, in different ways. And that’s part of what they’ve had to deal with.

They haven’t got everything right, nobody does.

[00:17:25] Lucie: No, no, exactly.

[00:17:26] David: It doesn’t matter, that’s not the point. The point is that it is a genuine collaboration, which is about building capacity.

Now, some people will say, wait a second, Kenya, that’s the digital heart of Africa. You’re not doing anything very new. We’re not talking about Nairobi here. This is really important. We’re talking about rural environments in different ways. Yes, there is a big digital space in Nairobi. Maybe in Mombasa, Kisumu, the big cities. But doing this with people who are basing themselves in rural environments, broadly, and not totally rural.

Kakamega, for people who know Kenya is not a rural environment. They’re actually a little bit outside of Kakamega. But it’s… There are elements about how they’re doing it, which are very novel, very innovative. And Zach in particular, as I think, you heard from the story and the interactions with him, is someone who is so thoughtful, he cares so deeply.

The personal sacrifices he’s made, you know, I still remember, his first trip to the U.S. was to a conference there, and my memory is he had to pay roughly three months of his salary to be able to make that trip.

[00:18:52] Lucie: Oh, and that just shows the inequalities.

[00:18:55] David: Yes, and that was after he actually got funding, but the funding wasn’t full funding.

[00:19:01] Lucie: No, okay. Oh, after he got funding for the conference.

[00:19:04] David: He got funding for the conference, but it wasn’t full funding.

[00:19:07] Lucie: Not very generous.

[00:19:08] David: Well, it was very generous funding. I mean, it was way over, it was maybe two thirds or three quarters of the total cost.

[00:19:16] Lucie: And that was still the…

[00:19:18] David: And that was still not enough then, he had sort of saved up for something like three months so he could make the trip.

[00:19:24] Lucie: I mean, I can’t imagine anyone in Europe doing that.

[00:19:26] David: No. Three months of your…

[00:19:28] Lucie: I can’t imagine anyone having to do it either.

[00:19:30] David: No, exactly.

[00:19:31] Lucie: Which is just not fair.

[00:19:32] David: And, and this is the sort of thing, why did he make that sacrifice or why, why is he the sort of person who’s made those sacrifices to achieve the sort of things he’s doing?

[00:19:41] Lucie: Could we just quickly also just say a few words about what INNODEMS does?

[00:19:45] David: Of course. Thank you, thank you for, for reining me in.

[00:19:48] Lucie: We have talked about, a bit about the Parenting for Lifelong Health, where they’re involved. So it’s not only in developing the apps, but it’s also in sort of running…

[00:19:57] David: The implementation, helping the trials, you know. And developing the apps, as you say, that’s what they’re doing with Uganda, actually doing some of that sort of design work with the team in Uganda, helping the Ugandan team understand how to build these initiatives, they’re doing a lot of that work…

But that’s just one piece of their work. I mean, you know them more from the agroecology.

[00:20:15] Lucie: Absolutely, exactly. So there, they’re sort of supporting an agroecology hub, both to collect data, manage data, organize data, and that’s both digital data collection, it’s focus groups, and then there’s another project with schools, all also still related to, um, agroecology and the same hub. And then there’s, they work also with Manor House, which is another sort of, it’s where the agroecology hub is based, but it’s separate, so there’s a whole other set of data collections.

[00:20:41] David: It’s not just data collection, they do data collection there, but they do training, they do training with the students.

[00:20:46] Lucie: Yes, I was talking to Tekviah about that recently.

[00:20:49] David: Yes, and Tekviah, of course, was with INNODEMS and is now with Manor House, and so, there’s been good cross fertilization in different ways.

[00:20:56] Lucie: Which is the appropriate term to use, um, talking about agroecology.

[00:21:00] David: Of course. And then, the passion, of course, the, the only thing Zach really wants to talk about is the education work.

[00:21:06] Lucie: Yeah. Maths education specifically, or just any…

[00:21:09] David: He’s… One of the things that he, he’s taught me and that we’ve learned together is that you can’t, if you’re in the Kenyan context and you want to have an impact, you can’t be narrow. And I think the thing that he’s done with INNODEMS, which I am really in awe of, is to try and reinvent himself as a manager, as a people manager.

[00:21:35] Lucie: Yeah, exactly. So very different skills. He started off as a teacher then.

[00:21:38] David: Well, not only that, I mean, the reason he left teaching was because he was getting so much recognition for his work by the ministry and by other areas, that within the school there were jealousies and there were all sorts of other things, which basically meant that, it was becoming impossible for him to progress.

Because… you know, others couldn’t compete with what he was doing and how he was doing it. And so other barriers were put in his way in all sorts of ways. And this is sort of, this isn’t that unusual in some of these environments where there’s competition in different ways. And if somebody, you know, rises a bit too much, then, others may not want them to rise so much or so high. It’s not always a supportive environment.

[00:22:34] Lucie: Exactly, it’s the opposite of the collaborative aim of IDEMS.

[00:22:40] David: Exactly, and this is sort of, Zach understands this, and again, one of the things that’s so impressive about him is there’s never been resentment about that, there’s an acceptance. This is, this is how it works. This is, this is the systems that I’m working in and this is what I do and what I need to figure out. What he always tries to figure out is how can he be effective within those systems. He’s not trying to fight the systems.

So to come back to INNODEMS and what INNODEMS does, so INNODEMS like IDEMS has this broad range. It’s not by coincidence, it is a design, INNODEMS takes its name from IDEMS.

[00:23:19] Lucie: Exactly, yes, we haven’t, we haven’t mentioned that at all. But it is also innovations.

[00:23:23] David: It is. And it was supposed to be, um, IDEMS Kenya, that’s what he wanted. And he couldn’t register IDEMS Kenya. And he then tried about 15 other different names which the Kenyan system rejected for different reasons, and then finally he tried INNODEMS and they accepted it. So INNODEMS has become… And IDEMS International was always conceived to support these systems

[00:23:49] Lucie: Yeah, but at the beginning you also mentioned GHAIDEMS, who we haven’t discussed.

[00:23:53] David: We haven’t discussed, but this is another colleague, equally impressive, in Ghana.

[00:23:58] Lucie: And so it’s Ghana IDEMS, just in terms of the name. And there’s two directors, aren’t there? There’s Francis Torgbor and there’s Nana I think.

[00:24:08] David: Well, it’s very interesting. Of course, Francis has a very different personality to Zach. He’s put a team together of about 10 different people, you know, collaborates in different ways, but he’s the only one who’s taken the plunge and he’s actually… doing it as his job. They’re doing part time on the side as volunteers in different ways to try and make the institution work. But he’s got a whole electoral board.

It’s incredible. And, you know, it started out like that because that’s the nature that Francis brings to the table. And he does that in, in very skilful ways, in other ways. So he’s a very different personality to Zach in different ways. Both equally impressive. They know each other quite well. They go back a long way.

[00:24:47] Lucie: Well, I look forward to hearing the podcast about how you two met and …

[00:24:51] David: That’s a whole different story. But I suppose the thing which I really want to finish… and make sure that I don’t leave this podcast without saying, is that the interview with Zach as the first IDEMS interview was very deliberate, because IDEMS International was built to support partners. It was built collaborative by nature to try and sort of say, well, actually, we think if we can build the structures, then we can support others to grow and they can offer services where they may compete with us, but if they compete with us, we’d be happy.

We’d be happy for them to out compete us and to be able to do this better because that means we’re doing our work well and we can move on into other things. We can evolve.

[00:25:40] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:25:40] David: So we want that form of competition from our collaborators in this sort of way. And if we can get partners like INNODEMS to outcompete us, that is desirable. And we move on into a different role, and we would then evolve. We’d have to find our new role. Perfect. That is how we’re designed as an organization. But INNODEMS was not conceived when we conceived IDEMS. I then focused on IDEMS. I still supported the team there and it took Zach’s initiative to say no, I see what you’re doing, this is what we need to do as well.

And that’s, that’s the, that’s what we want. To me, IDEMS succeeding isn’t that, um, we as an organisation necessarily succeeding. I hope the organisation succeeds and it grows and it becomes what I hope it will become. But it’s the ways of working, it’s the principles that we represent, it’s the sort of cultures we’re creating, it’s the collaborations we’re building, it’s so much more than an organisation. That’s where I owe so much to Zach for seeing it and acting. And, and that’s the… this is the mutual respect that we have. We have a long history. We have a lot of history, maybe too much. But, um, you know, to… I can fairly say IDEMS was set up because I was inspired and driven because of Zach.

And so, um, I, I expect that collaboration to be one which sort of continues and grows and takes different forms as we, uh, continue on our journeys together and apart. This is the thing, and this is the power of the structures. It is a strong mutual collaboration that we want to formalize as much as we can. It’s something which is, IDEMS wouldn’t exist in its current form if it wasn’t for the likes of that.

[00:27:56] Lucie: Yeah, great. Well, thank you so much, David, for taking the time to, um, fill in all the gaps where Zach uh, didn’t dare sort of blow his own trumpet.

[00:28:08] David: I guess that’s part of what it is. He is, I, I don’t think I could ever give him enough praise. And so I am so impressed with him. I have been since, he first dragged me into a school and said, you need to, we need to do this. And it’s never looked back since then.