Author Archives: mariahuntalas

The warmth of Nigeria….

Ok, you know those goofy t-shirts with I “heart” whatever on them?  Well, if I could find one here I would buy it, and proudly wear it…….everyday.  I LOVE Nigeria.  I truly do.  The people, the food, the fashion, the formalities, the children, and above all, their acceptance of visitors – I feel welcomed here.  It’s a sense of belonging.


Every day we are warmly welcomed, with the customary “You’re welcome” and “How was your night?”  I’ve found myself slowing down my usual frantic pace of life, to offer my own “I’ve very well, how was your night?  How is your family?”  Pausing a bit more than usual, to simply chat.  And, to listen.  This authentic warmth extends to everyone I’ve met and spoken with so far in Abuja – from those in the city to the villages, plus uber drivers, service workers, government employees, children, adults, you name it, it’s the way Nigerians seem to roll.  Or, maybe it’s the pride they feel about introducing visitors to their customs, culture, and ways.

I started to wonder about this……How do Nigerians maintain such a sense of joy and acceptance of others in the face of some pretty challenging circumstances?  It could have something to do with Nigeria’s extremely diverse population – more than 250 ethnic groups live here.  And while not always harmonious, most have found a way to co-exist – and communicate.  While  English is the official language, Yoruba, Ibo, and Hausa represent the principal languages, joined by Kanuri, Fulani, Nupe, Tiv, Edo, Ijaw and Ibibio.  Interesting to note, also, that Nigeria’s national flag consists of a field of green, white, and green, divided into three equal parts. Green represents the agricultural richness of the nation, while the white stands for unity and peace.  Telling.

As weekend #2 here comes to a close, I wanted to share a few memorable moments of experiencing the beautiful country and people of Nigeria…

Just like our first Saturday in Abuja, we kicked off Saturday #2 with CrossFit at the US Embassy employee residential compound – super tough class given the full African sun was out in full force.  Here a few of us are, together with the UK Col Pat who leads the cool down….Go Team!



Post workout, a few of us ventured poolside at the hotel to cool off, where our very own SCC Abuja teammate, Marvin – a former competitive collegiate swimmer – made a fortuitous challenge to 2 of the Nigerian national swimmers:  an individual medley consisting of 4 pool lengths.  This was getting interesting.   On your mark, get set, go!  And, we were off.  Needless to say, Marvin kicked it up – and won, by a landslide.  Nice job!  Radhesh caught the entire race on video, but here’s a snapshot….


Next up was gathering back up with our entire team and hitting the road for a trip to the outskirts of Abuja to visit the Bwari Pottery Village.  While on our journey, we found ourselves weaving in and out of several small, hustling and bustling villages….
The Bwari Pottery Village is made up of various thatched mud houses that house artistes and craftsmen who work with various materials to create paintings, leather works, pottery, decorative lanterns, among many others.  It’s also where the Bwari Soap Company is located which trains women in soap and shea butter production and product development – contributing to the development of a strong community business and creating jobs for local women in the process.  Check out a cool video here about this pottery making process.  Plus, more photos below…

 And now the highlight of the day………a Nigerian wedding.  Who would have thought the day we visited Bwari Pottery Village just so happened to be the day the owner was getting married.  A truly gracious and welcoming gentleman, he extended an invite to all of us to attend his wedding, and turns out, we spontaneously became the guests of honor.  We are now official Nigerian wedding crashers!

We found ourselves front and center as the ceremony was getting underway – with the wedding MC asking each of us to stand up, introduce ourselves and say a few words to the bride and groom.  In a moment of grace, all of us managed to think fast on our feet and offer words of advice and well wishes to the couple….and then, the dancing began.  As the celebration kicked into full gear, we found ourselves grooving to the beat of some pretty awesome live African music – even joining in with the drummers and going with the flow.  Needles to say, we had a hard time gracefully bowing out of the rest of the celebration, with guests piling into our van for last minute photo ops.  What a day!  What a perfectly glorious and beautiful day here in Abuja.

IMG_3276As we drove out of Bwari Pottery Village and wound our way through the curvy roads towards Abuja, we just so happened to come across yet one more sign of the warm welcome we’ve been given – a reminder perhaps of why we are all here in Abuja.  Could it be a sign that the best is yet to come?  We think so.  Up next?  Our last week in Abuja……lots more in store!


Smarter Cities Challenge Team Abuja


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When a plan comes together……

As the second weekend here in Abuja comes to an end, we’ve had another week of incredibly productive work, plus fun and spontaneous adventures along the way!  But, first about the work……………

The beginning of the week started off with more team brainstorming focused on the task at hand:  improving the Federal Capital Territory Administration’s (FCTA) ability to recover revenue from their customers – a complex challenge.  Pouring through notes and interview results after 3 days of speaking with 120+ government leaders in 9 FCTA departments and agencies, plus the IRS, our team dove in and started crafting a framework for the overall strategy and approach.  We quickly developed a process to identify common themes across all agencies based on their challenges and solutions.  We dedicated lots of time to “pitching” each other to sound out and vet our ideas – at times challenged by both intellectual passion and our own set of beliefs.


The Process



Midway through this process, though, we believed our recommendations would be even stronger and “centered” if we could gain a better perspective of the “Voice of the Customer.”   We had already spoken to the leadership of the FCTA, but by connecting with the government employees in all 9 agencies,  we hoped to gain their unique perspectives and candid feedback – ensuring our final recommendations were based on all perspectives.


“Voice of the Customer” Focus Group in action

Pulling together a Focus Group with about 30 employees from all 9 agencies, we used a survey-type of polling tool to gain this feedback.  We met with this Focus Group to explain and distribute the survey – conducting small group, personalized discussions afterwards where we listened to their input and suggestions.  We found these 1:1 conversations to be incredibly valuable and heart-felt.  Once back in our team room, we synthesized the survey results using the Watson sentiment analysis tool to gauge qualitative insights into the employees’ responses – which validated many aspects of our overall point of view.  We’ll be including these results in our final report.

In the end, based on our findings, we settled on 5 major recommendations to address the FCTA’s revenue recovery challenges.  Based on these recommendations, we’re creating unique and prescriptive strategies and solutions that will provide a way forward for the FCTA to begin to tackle their revenue recovery challenge.

My 3 key takeaways from this project so far:

  1. While a time-consuming process, the most impactful and valuable solutions come together when teams take the time to challenge each other’s ideas and recommendations – coming together on a final solution that makes up the sum of many parts.
  2. Customer-centricity is always the heart and soul of the end game. Many times when we hit a blocker in crafting our solutions, we paused, and asked ourselves:  “What’s our clients’ pain points? What outcomes do they want to achieve?”
  3. Outcomes vs outputs drives the best results. Understanding the outcomes you are trying to achieve in the end is the ultimate guidepost – it’s what keeps agile teams from “churning.”

We broke up our intense daily work sessions, with some comic relief in the evenings…. this team surely epitomizes the “work hard, play hard” mindset!  Some especially memorable moments below…


Stay tuned for my next blog on our recent adventures exploring Abuja over the weekend!

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Our beginning………Team IBM Nigeria Smarter Cities Challenge

From the moment I stepped off the plane in Abuja, Nigeria I sensed there was something very special about this city and the people who live here.  The warmth of Nigerians, plus the extraordinary welcome we’ve been given have made us feel less like visitors and more like extended family members.  In Nigeria, extended families are still the norm and the backbone of the social system.  Grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers and in-laws all work as a unit through life – similar to how our 5-member IBM team will be working together over the next 3 weeks as part of IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge.IMG_2846I’m honored to have been selected to participate in IBM Smarter Cities Challenge!  This is IBM’s largest philanthropic initiative that contributes the skills and expertise of top-talent IBMers to address key challenges facing cities around the world.  Over the past 3 years, 100 cities have been selected to receive grants based on having a critical issue to resolve, coupled with a desire to take action and drive change.

Our IBM Nigeria Smarter Cities Challenge team comes from all parts of the globe:  Philippines, Dubai an Continue reading


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