Laterite is a research firm currently operating in Rwanda, Malawi and Burundi. It is primarily run by young people, so we thought we would ask them five questions. Co-founder Sachin Gathani was kind enough to send in his responses.
1. What prompted you and your colleagues to start Laterite?
Three years ago, my colleague, Dimitri and I were working for the World Bank in Nairobi. We became really good friends and found that we had complementary skills and worked well together. A few months later, while in a café in Nairobi, we began discussing the idea of working together on a project that would incorporate our interests and experiences in development research and economic policy. Our goal was to transform the way socio-economic research was done in Africa, which was mostly driven by fly-in fly-out consultants with little local context, and to start testing new and innovative ways of conducting research in complex environments. To change the prevailing paradigm, we created Laterite, a socially oriented venture that provides high quality research services in underserved markets. Laterite’s model is based on the idea that you need to have an excellent understanding of the local context to be able to deliver good advice. It is also based on the premises that socio-economic research is a rapidly evolving profession and that we have a role to play in testing and developing new tools and research methods, adapted to the countries we work in.
2. Who have you worked with so far, compared to who you would like to work with?
We have worked with clients from across the board, including government, international development agencies, NGOs and the private sector. The research services we provide are clustered around economic and social research, policy development and market research. Some examples of the economic and social research work we have completed include conducting a national attitude study on adolescent girls across Rwanda for which we collected 4,000 stories using a new research tool known as SenseMaker, an impact evaluation of a cash transfer program in Burundi, assessments of NGO programs working on keeping girls at school, and an evaluation of the effect of training on the socio-economic status of coffee farmers. Under policy development, one of the most interesting projects we worked on was writing the Economic Transformation strategy for the Government of Rwanda as part of their Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS). Our goal there was to help the government structure their priorities within the framework of a coherent and consistent strategy. This strategy document also leveraged on some of the findings from a book we had completed a few months earlier on Rwanda’s agribusiness and manufacturing sectors. Finally, we’ve done a few projects for companies, in particular in the telecom sector, focusing on testing the potential for new products and understanding the structure of the Rwanda market and in particular customer preferences.
What we would like to achieve long term is to shift from being project-dependent to an innovation driven organization. We have established an internal research development arm, called the Laterite Lab, through which we aim to make significant contributions to socio-economic research. At the Laterite Lab we build on the intellectual curiosity of our team to conduct our own internal research that can lead to the development of new research tools with useful policy applications. Ultimately we would like these innovative products and research methods to become Laterite’s main source of income. Examples of current initiatives at the Lab include a new program evaluation method we have developed called Proximity Controls, which combines big data techniques and network theory with program evaluation theory. We have also realized that the simple act of collecting data in the field can have a relatively large impact on the behaviour of the people we interview. For example collecting data from coffee farmers made them much more likely to attend coffee training sessions and significantly increased the likelihood of them adopting the best farming practices they were being taught. So we are now testing if we can replicate these “evaluation effects” through alternative means, for example SMS or calling, and develop a tool that can help development programs improve project outcomes and effectiveness.
3. Why Rwanda, Malawi and Burundi? Any other countries or regions you have in mind?
We wanted to work only in undeserved markets where the need for high-quality but affordable research services is the highest. When we first came to Rwanda, we were the only private research company on the ground and it is similar in the other countries we are looking to operate it in. We are currently doing work in Burundi and actively looking to engage in eastern DRC. Ultimately, we are driven by the fact that the research we are doing in some of these places is happening for the very first time. This is also where the likelihood of our research having a positive impact is the greatest. Currently, we are re-evaluating whether we will open an office in Malawi but we are scoping other countries, with similar profiles, such as Ethiopia, Senegal, Mali, etc. Our goal is to eventually move to other regions and conduct research in places like the Middle East and South Asia.
4. Given today’s digital economy, how do you think published research should be shared online?
We believe research should be available to all and for free, a bit like open source code in software. This is definitely the direction the world is going into and that is a great thing. Much more research is now available online than in the past. Researchers make it a point of making their content available. Countries have also rapidly been moving to making their data – sometimes very large datasets – available to the public. That is often referred to as the “open data” initiative. For researchers, like us at Laterite, these online papers and datasets are a fantastic resource.
Unfortunately access to a lot of published research is still restricted and this is something we have been grappling with constantly. We have had a few papers published or in the course of getting published in economic journals but we have been frustrated by the limited reach of these academic outlets. For good reasons, the papers require very strict technical standards and need to be carefully peer-reviewed. But all of this is costly, and the business model of many journals still consists in getting people to pay for the content to fund their operations.
5. Where do young people fit in with the kind of research you do?
Our entire team of the 40-50 enumerators and field coordinators are young Rwandans (between the age of 20-27) who have recently graduated from university. They definitely produce, participate and conduct a lot of the research. Their vantage point as young Rwandans also provides them with a better understanding of the context that we are not privy to. One aspect that we are trying to build in to most of our research projects is participatory feedback. In other words, take our preliminary findings to the actual respondents (in many cases, our research projects have focused on adolescents) and have them comment on what we are discovering to see if we can confirm/contest initial results. Finally, we (together with fellow research partners in Rwanda) are in the midst of launching the Rwanda Research Roundtable (R3), an anti-disciplinary forum for researchers, policymakers and practitioners seeking to advance the research agenda in Rwanda. We’re trying to enrich the research community in Rwanda by facilitating discussion on relevant issues and by providing a platform to share the latest findings in a manner that is accessible, interesting and not overtly curated. We envision R3 to be an informal and intellectually stimulating platform for dialogue between members of the research community and a wide range of stakeholders – ideally, young people in Rwanda.
Thanks, Sachin and team! We’ll be reading Laterite’s work and looking out for it on Vijana FM more often.