Africa – Where risk management really can be a matter of life or death (Part 2)


Africa – Where risk management really can be a matter of life or death (Part 2)

11:42 12 February in Business
Last week we looked at the first part of our trip to Kenya to see how Oxfam approach the subject of project and risk management. You can read the first part by clicking on the link at the top of this page - now for part 2.


Sunday: We spend the night in grass-huts that have just been built to try and establish a resort on the shores ofLake Turkana. This is a remote place and the challenges are clear but this is also one of the most beautiful places in the world that I have seen. After a very basic breakfast of tea and chapattis we head north in the Land Cruiser up the coast.

Along the way we see Turkanans walking vast distances, barefoot on the baking sand. We give some of them lifts in the back of the vehicle. In this area, they are unlikely to have seen many vehicles in their life let alone ridden in them. They seem to be very happy that their all-day walk has been compressed to 30 mins. We don’t offer a lift to the Turkanan waving his rifle at us.


We visit some of the villages to see how they live and their general state of health. The Turkana are nomadic so have very few belongings and rebuild their grass-huts whenever they move. There is virtually no evidence of Western influence or materialism at all. Relatively they seem in “good” health but clearly it would not take much in the way of drought and inevitable famine to tip them over the edge. The ravages of poverty are clear when we are introduced to a 90 year old woman who is actually only 60!


We dare not go further north towards the Sudan as this is a no-go area for NGOs where bandits and attacks are frequent. Most of this is caused by livestock rustling – the Turkanans value goats more than money – but it’s too easy to get in the middle of situations that are just too risky for aid workers.

We return to the paradise that is the beach of the lake with the juxtaposition of water and dessert still nagging our brains. We eat a fantastic meal of freshly caught Tilapia and rice as the sun-set gives way to an amazing moon-rise and then the malaria carrying mossies ignore the Deet and feast on us.

Monday: Very early start to drive back to Lodwar. This is a difficult place to leave but the mosquito bites make it a bit easier.

We arrive back in Lodwar to a “normal” Monday morning at the Oxfam office. The courtyard is marked out into parking slots with white stones and in each slot sits a Land Cruiser in full Oxfam regalia including flags on their massive radio antenna and the no-guns stickers on the side – just in case anyone wondered.

Inside the offices the day is already in full swing with the plans for site visits and project meetings. The operation appears very professional but yet obviously done on a very tight budget. We visit a project just outside Lodwar which was aimed at relocating displaced tribes. In the early years of this century, many Turkanans walked south to Nairobi where they had heard that the streets were paved with gold – or the Kenyan equivalent of jobs and food. Many ended up destitute and returned north where they wandered Lodwar starving and desperate. They were relocated onto government land which Oxfam very quickly distributed appropriately and supplied water and sanitation services. Today the site is a thriving new village with a school and smiling children running and playing in the sand.

We then set out for Kerrio, a very remote region to the south-east of Lodwar. The road quickly deteriorated into nothing as we bounced our way through the deep sand. We were to see food distribution in action for tribes who were badly hit by a drought in 2005. Back then they were in a bad way and have been receiving food-aid on a monthly basis since.

The trucks loaded with food had left on Friday but, due to problems of getting stuck in the sand, they only got there on Monday morning. This had been factored into the plans based on previous experience. Our journey there in the Land Cruiser took less than 2 hours.

The December delivery did not happen as the area was cut off by unusually heavy rain and floods (anyone for a climate change discussion…….). The tribes were therefore very hungry but nothing prepared us for the sight that greeted us when we reached the distribution point.

The Land Cruiser slithered between densely packed palm trees and we suddenly emerged into a clearing. To our left was a makeshift compound into which the food had been unloaded from the trucks and to our right there were over 700 women and children patiently waiting for their food allocation. Men were conspicuous by their absence as they cannot be trusted with the food (!)  Plus it also helps to preserve their dignity by not being at the food distribution.


The woman and children stared open mouthed at us. Not surprising as we learned later that most of them had probably not seen a white person before and those that had, may only have seen white people briefly when the emergency aid started in 2005.

Hungry they may have been but they were patient, ordered and good humoured as they came up to shake our hands in the traditional Turkanan way. They were fascinated by our cameras and we could have entertained the children all day with their own photographs but there was an important project to execute here. The people were pre-prioritised in terms of need and vulnerability and clustered into extended family groups of 5-10 people. Once registered by their thumb prints, the groups quietly filtered into the compound and collected their allocated sacks which they dragged off into a corner and divided up in an incredibly systematic way.


What was explained to us was a lesson to all businesses in terms of real empowerment and delegation. When the aid programme started, the tribes were told that the food was theirs and Oxfam was only there to see that it was distributed fairly. It was the job of the tribal elders to manage the process and Oxfam only stepped-in the case of disputes which were rare.  Thus what was potentially an explosive situation i.e. piles of food and very hungry people, was transformed into an orderly process that was managed by the beneficiaries themselves.

The process was indeed efficient and quickly the people disappeared for the trek back to their villages. For a while I played football (i.e. a ball of tied rags) with some young boys, who for once had never heard of Manchester United, until the heat became too much and we left.

About an hour later we stopped at a village that had a basic shop and drank warm coke. Across the road was a hut with something strange on the roof. On closer inspection this proved to be a satellite dish and scrawled on a blackboard by the entrance was the English Premiership games for this weekend. This is truly a place of extremes.


Tuesday: After a brief de-brief in the Oxfam office, we started the long trek home basically taking 24 hours to get back to the UK. The desert of Turkana was replaced by the relative cool of Nairobi to be subsequently replaced by the absolute freezing temperatures of the UK. I had missed the cold, or so I thought. Already I miss the heat. A bit.

On the return trip our brains reeled with the sights, sounds and smells from the trip. We were left with an overwhelming appreciation of the work that Oxfam do and in particular, the business like way in which they perform in extreme physical and emotional conditions. We now need to think how modern project and risk management can be applied effectively in Oxfam’s  projects and even what can modern business learn from these very different circumstances? It was a very special and valuable week.


  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 12:58h, 10 March Reply

    Maurice – from what I have seen, Oxfam already do a lot of sustaintainability projects – it is not unusal to see solar panels strapped to the roof of a grass hut. I think that your point is very good though and the key is perhaps to make sustainability a key objective of the project rather than try and exploit opportunities during the project execution?

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 14:26h, 10 February Reply

    Keith – great blog. One thing that I couldn’t understand. If there are lots of fish in Lake Turkana, why don’t the locals eat them to avoid famine? I’m sure that this is a stupid question but just curious.

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 15:10h, 10 February Reply

    Hi Julie. Not a stupid question at all. We asked the same question. It appears that the locals have not fished in the past as they have a spiritual belief that this should not be done. They are now being encouraged to fish and slowly this is happening but we only saw a couple of boats fishing while we were there.

    Also at Lodwar, 2 hours away, the most modern building in the town stands empty. It was fish canning factory for packaging fish from Lake Turkana. For a short time it was the bigest employer in Lodwar but it was run as a coopoerative and the business colapsed through miss-management. Very sad when you look at the potential….

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 16:18h, 10 February Reply

    Keith. Really good read – fascinating stuff. How many of the projects that Oxfam do are really different from the norm – what I mean is, if you have a project for drilling a well, how different is that project from all other well drilling projects. The point that I am trying to get at is to understand what proportion of projects are truly innovative and what proportion are repetitive. This would drive management approaches I would guess? Think that I got there?

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 18:29h, 10 February Reply

    Hi Paul – I think that I understand the question :-)

    This is something that we still need to establish as fact but its probably true that a lot of Oxfam projects are similar and they can effectively implement from a common template. In these situations, risk is low and the need for any “heavy” process is also low.

    I think that area that they may need most help in is (not surprisingly) the most difficult situation that arises ie when a humanitarian disaster strikes. In this situation the natural tendency may be to act when the need may be to take a breath, plan and then act. This is where I think we will be focussing our attentions re risk management.

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    guest 18:43h, 10 February Reply

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by De_Risky: Part 2 is live – Africa blog –

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    guest 16:04h, 10 February Reply

    Fascinating accounts and observations there Keith…thanks for that. We used to sponsor a child inUganda, and my daughter went over there and met him some years ago. It was quite a life changing experience for her as her long blonde hair and very pale skin caused much interest.

  • Keith Baxter
    Keith Baxter 14:29h, 10 February Reply

    Linda – thanks for the comments. Yes they were incredibly curious about meeting white people for the first time. But in a very friendly way – both old and young just walked up to us to shake our hands. The other interesting thing is how fundamentally happy they seemed once they have the basics ie food and security. I have seen this elsewhere in the 3rd world where very poor civilsations, with very little in the way of material goods, seem “happier” with their lot. Says a lot about our pursuit of the material world and how happy that really makes us?

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    guest 20:42h, 10 February Reply

    Keith, as you mention, Oxfam probably need an ABCD (lite) process for their low complexity and common projects and a risk template/action plan with a little more risk management for the low likelihood (or more so with climate change!) high impact disaster projects. Is this an accurate observation, and how are you approaching this? How will you link this with opportunity exploitation (e.g. low fossil fuel resources, but lots of opportunity to deploy low tech solar cookers, solar water heaters, solar water distillers) to provide basic ‘Maslow hierarchy of need’ basic living conditions and living condition improving opportunities? Could we use emerging sustainable/low carbon technologies to give these people a step up in quality of life – if that is what they desire – mustn’t fall into the western way of thinking and assume, arrogantly, they want or need or way of living. They obviously have a far better sustainable way of living than we do! Regards.

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