Africa – Where risk management really can be a matter of life or death (Part 1)


Africa – Where risk management really can be a matter of life or death (Part 1)

12:25 05 January in Business
Last week De-RISK started a new engagement with Oxfam GB (Horn East and Central Africa Region) to look at how the risk management techniques we have successfully employed in big corporations might be adapted for use in their work programmes. This blog diarises our first visit to the “front-line” in Kenya and subsequent blogs will look at some of the ideas we came up with along with what the corporate world can learn from the projects that Oxfam undertake in situations where success or failure really can mean life or death.

Please note that the views expressed are those of De-RISK and not those of Oxfam GB.


Wednesday:  We arrive at Nairobi (or “Nairobbery” as the locals call it) at 11pm. Driving through the dark streets, one gets the idea that this is not a particularly safe place to explore on foot. Even very short journeys have to be done by taxi after nightfall. The other side of this is that security is big business – all significant businesses and larger dwellings have big gates, security guards and electric fences. Most of the people we talk to have been robbed on the street (some multiple times) and stories of car-jackings and failed attempts are common. It is understandable that risk management is focussed mainly on personal security.

Thursday: Everything looks better in the sunlight and we relax into breakfast by the pool while the electric fence fizzes over our shoulder. A free morning so we head to the Nairobi National Park. This is the only game park that you can see big animals so close to a city. Unfortunately today it seems like “Giraffic Park” as that is pretty much all that we see. After a couple of hours we escape the heat and head back to the bustling city centre only 30 mins away.


In the afternoon we give our first presentation to the Oxfam “Talent” group – a bunch of very bright, hand-picked individuals who are being groomed for senior management roles. We tentatively introduce some of our tools and techniques, clarifying that we do not yet understand their “business” but all seems to go down well. A pleasant dinner around the pool follows and the local mosquitoes get to work on our fresh white flesh.

Friday: We go into the city to the Oxfam office. The traffic at rush-hour is just a bad as central London but with no-one giving way and no traffic lights. Chaos and close shaves are the norm. We undertake a series of interviews with the regional management team. The idea is to do an initial Strategic Risk Assessment of the current programme organisation, tools, people and processes. We use a “standard” template complete with “corporate speak”. This is deliberate to see what terminology works and what jars. Surprisingly most works with a little tweaking (e.g. End-users become Beneficiaries).

One of the managers jokes about not needing risk management – “We drill a bore-hole and if we strike water we call it a well. If we don’t, we call it a toilet”.

An overall view seems to be that the balance between planning and doing is difficult to achieve when you are faced with a humanitarian disaster. It was felt that people tended to “tick the boxes” in the project management processes just so that they can get on with things. Understandable, but they generally recognise that this not necessarily the best thing to do in the long-run. I noted that this was not unique to the humanitarian aid “business” and we have the seen the desire to do rather than plan rather too often.

Saturday: Very early morning flight booked to the north of Kenya but my colleague announces that she has been up all night firing from both ends! We make our way to the airport still not sure that this is a good idea. If we need medical attention we need to get it in Nairobi. We check into the flight to be told that it is a 3 hour flight in a very small plane with no toilet. Her face is a picture when told this but I am the one who will be sitting next to her if something gives. Thanks to the power of Imodium we both arrive in Lodwar clean and safe.


Lodwar is the capital of the Turkana region of Kenya and has an area comparable to that of England. It is a bit of a wild-west town in the dessert with very basic infrastructure – the airport terminal is no more than a bus shelter. We are met by our driver and whisked out of town, stopping briefly at the local “supermarket” to stock up on basic food and bottled water. It is now hitting 35 degrees plus and the temperature varies little here over the year.


We drive north on a reasonable road for a while and then head east on a very rough sandy track which progressively disappears until we are effectively making our own tracks across the dessert. Hundreds of camels wander from one horizon to the other (yes, camels in Kenya!) – each one branded uniquely by its owner. We are alone but never alone. Every time we stop to take photos a Turkanan seems to appear from nowhere and stare at us. They very rarely see vehicles in this area and are as curious as we would be if a space shuttle landed in our back garden.

The Land Cruiser handles the sand efficiently and we eventually snake our way through the palm trees and suddenly burst out onto a beach with Lake Turkana stretching in front of us.


Lake Turkana is the largest dessert lake in the world and approximately eight times the size of Lake Geneva. The water looks all wrong next to the desert and here lies the rub – it is very salty and undrinkable. Drought is very common in this area and the Kenyan government have been talking about desalination projects for a long time. Just talking but not doing.

Part 2 next week – Extreme contrasts – tribes that have never seen white people and the influence of Manchester United.
  • Avatar
    guest 09:42h, 10 February Reply


    Margaret and I arive in Nairobi Mon 15 Feb and will be there until Thurs 25 Feb. Where are you staying? If our paths cross we can meet up for a beer.


  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 11:37h, 10 February Reply

    Hi Keith – I was in Nairobi a few years ago and I understand what you mean. I was robbed on the street in broad daylight by someone who just ripped my pocket open. Luckily my wallet fell to the ground and he ran off empty handed. Also went to the Nairobi National Park and only saw Giraffes. Looking forward to Part 2.

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 11:43h, 10 February Reply

    Malcolm – back in the UK now – will be back in Kenya in September. Is this your first trip there? Lets speak by phone soon.

  • Avatar
    guest 15:22h, 10 February Reply


    We are old hands in Kenya – been going since 1996 for our charity. Most of our work is there. Nairobi is a dangerous place if you are not careful. There is more in the National Park than giraffes (but they are tallest!). You need to know where to look. I will tell you more when we chat.

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 18:55h, 10 February Reply

    Keith – your comments re planning vs doing – know exactly what you mean. Was recently involved in the start-up of a fairly large outsourcing contract. The chaos at the begining was all down to lack of planning and too much doing. People were operating autonomously and time and money was wasted before management realised what was going on and put the brakes on. The programme effectively went backwards before it went forwards.

  • Avatar
    guest 23:17h, 10 February Reply

    Keith, you know how the ‘desire to crack on’, especially with limited resources and tight money and time constraints, needs to be balanced with pragmatic and effective risk management processes and activity. ABCD and ASSURE need to be tailored/tailorable to individual project needs (small (ABCD/ASSURE lite?) to large (full ABCD/ASSURE)), pressures and constraints. However, I fully agree proactive risk management is key to enabling success. The process also needs to be flexible and agile to grap opportunities and benefits from unplanned events (such as toilets instead of wells (like the way he was thinking).

  • Avatar
    guest 09:34h, 10 February Reply

    A very morerish account, can wait for the next part.

    It will be good to see how you balance the compulsion to do versus the need to plan, when all eyes are on you and costs are so closely monitored; the well or toilet only works for so long, having too many toilet and no washing facility soon causes a stink… in many ways.

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 10:48h, 10 February Reply

    Maurice – couldn’t agree more re full-on processes vs “lite” but I feel that this is going to move into a whole new space. The desire to crack-on in any project is strong but when people are dying before your eys it must be overwhelming.

    My guess is that we need to approach this more from a psychological level than a process level which may mean very simple concepts that help project managers to think clearer in high stress situations. However, I’m getting ahead of myself – a lot of thought is required before we draw any firm conlusions here.

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 10:54h, 10 February Reply

    Hi Usha – the well vs toilet example could on one hand be seen as a way of turning a risk into an opportunity, albeit not very systematically. Your point is “well” made though – it is not much use if we dig a string of toilets and the locals are desperate for fresh water and is not an efficient use of resources.

  • Avatar
    guest 11:10h, 10 February Reply

    Hi Keith,

    Hey did you see my typo, in my last message.

    I meant to say I can’t wait for the next part.

    It is really a wonderful account and I am looking forward to the next part.

    I can’t imagine the pressure you must be under to show results and can only think that, if your processes are tried and tested and your confidence in them is unshakeable, that will provide the resolve to not stray from them.

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 11:33h, 10 February Reply

    Usha – yes I did see the typo but I hoped that I knew what you meant to say :-)

    I’m really looking forward to the challenge of this engagement and I think that the learning process will be two-way. Rest assured that later blogs will cover this.

  • Avatar
    guest 14:32h, 10 February Reply

    Hi Keith,

    urban Africa is a whole different ballgame! Thanks to years of corruption the feeling seems to be that if you don’t know someone, and aren’t likely to get to know them then it is OK to “harvest” their resources like officials have been doing to you… That one is going to take generations to resolve.

    The concept of “triage” is well understood in immediate post-disaster operations and I wonder if that would have some traction when discussing the need to step back and plan before rolling-up the sleeves and pitching in? Perhaps linked to the Eisenhower quote: “plans are nothing – planning is everything”?

    Keep up the good work!

  • Avatar
    guest 15:25h, 10 February Reply

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by De_Risky: Blog updates – Africa – where risk management can be the difference between life and death #pmot #riskmanagement…

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 09:19h, 10 February Reply

    Hi Pete – Thanks for your input. I would like to discuss further with you in the near future. Lets bring beer into the equation as well :-)

  • Avatar
    guest 23:30h, 10 February Reply

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by De_Risky: New Blog – Africa – where risk management means life or death #pmot #riskmanagement…

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