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The first week – Summary of the action

Our first week was a blur of activity – yet a few incidents and images stand out vividly in my memory.

After our kickoff session on Monday, the schedule for the rest of the week was packed with meetings with the ten FCTA departments that were part of our project scope. From Tuesday to Thursday, we met with three departments each day for two hours each, with meetings scheduled back-to-back.

On Tuesday, we covered the Land Administration, Geographic Information Systems and Engineering Services Departments. On Wednesday, we covered the Environmental Protection Board, Water Board and the Development Control Departments. And on Thursday, we covered Road Transport Services, Outdoor Advertisement and Signage and Parks & Recreations.

At each of these meetings, the departments were represented by a sizeable delegation of 12 to 15 members, headed by the Director and included his deputies covering most vital functions. We asked a ton of questions and got a more nuanced understanding of what each department did and their revenue collection challenges. We also discussed potential solutions to mitigating the issues that were raised.

Across all of the meetings, we were impressed by the well-prepared teams who were clearly motivated and appeared committed to find solutions. By the 4th meeting, some clear common threads were emerging in terms of issues they faced and possible solutions.

IMG_2948With the Engineering Services Department leaders

IMG_2955With the Abuja Environment Protection Board leaders

Friday morning, we spent 2 hours with a local primary school as part of our community service, talking with school kids about ourselves. The joy in the kids’ eyes at meeting our diverse team was visible. When I said I was born in India, they shouted a chorus of “Namastes”. Our team planted a tree at the school and promised to come check on how it was doing periodically.

IMG_5807That’s a packed audience – very enthusiastic and receptive kids

After the school visit, we met with the Internal Revenue Service, which was the last of the departments on our list. We managed to get lunch together – which was the first time the whole week that we had had lunch!

Now for the highlights of the week

  • Marvin falls sick – On Tuesday, while doing the rounds of the Land Administration Department, my team mate Marvin started showing the effects of dehydration caused by an upset stomach, and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital. The incident, though a bit dramatic as it unfurled, demonstrated the calm and professional manner in which IBM and Pyxera responded as well as the super-helpful nature of our Nigerian hosts. Marvin was back in prime form by the next day.
  • We visit the zoo – After our meeting at the Parks and Recreation Department on Thursday, we were invited by the Director to visit the adjoining zoo. It was a total hoot – we acted like excited school children, taking selfies with the Cape buffaloes (named Romeo & Juliet), ostriches, baboons and other assorted denizens.

IMG_5777“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” – “I’m right here!”

  • We get caught in a fierce thunderstorm – On Thursday evening, just as we got into a cab and started out for dinner, the skies opened up. In no time, parts of the roads had become flooded and visibility had dramatically declined. Looking at the conditions, we decided to turn back and had a pretty “interesting” ride back.

IMG_5793 A proper tropical rainstorm – enjoying it from the safety of the Blu Cabana Club

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SCC Abuja – Project Kickoff

The project kickoff was the first item on our agenda for Monday, Day 1 of Week 1. Behind the scenes leading up to the kickoff, unbeknownst to us, a frenzy of planning and coordination activity had been going on. The IBM team on the ground in Abuja and our able logistics support providers, Pyxera, coordinated all of the minutiae involved with their counterparts from the FCTA administration. For the team itself, the day before the kickoff was dedicated to preparing our brief introduction speeches and explaining our teams’ objectives to the dignitaries who would be in the audience.

Monday morning, we head to the FCTA Minister’s personal conference room. The room is packed with senior officials from the FCTA administration and the heads of the various departments that we would be working with. From the IBM side, in addition to our team, the delegation included Dipo, the Country General Manager for Nigeria, Remi from Corporate Citizenship and Judy from Government Relations.

The Permanent Secretary, FCT Abuja welcomed the IBM team. His warm welcome, encouragement and evident dedication to the cause of improving revenue generation and collection was both motivational as well as a preview of how the department heads and their teams would engage with us.

From IBM’s side, Dipo, the country GM, introduced our activities in Nigeria. I learned that IBM Nigeria was running an internship program aimed at providing opportunities for technology students and graduates. Remi, our Corporate Citizenship Manager for West Africa, then introduced the Smarter Cities Challenge and our objectives in Abuja. Then it was our turn to introduce ourselves –I’m impressed at both the diversity of life and professional experiences we brought and the team’s commitment to bettering the world in whatever small way we could.

For the second half of the kickoff session, we had the Directors of each of the 10 departments we would be working with present their agencies, covering the current revenue generation and collection situation, key challenges and their thoughts on how to improve revenue collection. Each of them also answered our questions about their departments’ workings.

We left the kickoff session far more educated on what we were up against. Rarely in my professional life have I been “caught up to speed“ so rapidly on a project – all thanks to Remi’s meticulous preparation. She had provided clear instructions and templates to help the departments understand what the team would be looking for and helped them prepare accordingly.


The kickoff finished at 4 PM – and then it was time for refreshments and group pictures. We go off happy with Day 1, for a well-earned “lunch” at 5 PM (late or missed lunches were going to be a recurring theme over the coming week).

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IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Abuja 2017 – What are we doing here?

The Smarter Cities Challenge (SCC) is a major pro bono effort by IBM to help cities around the world address their governance and livability challenges – such as citizen services, transportation, waste management and revenue collection – by bringing together expertise in the form of global IBM teams. Cities apply for the grant, and the selected ones get a team of 5-6 senior IBMers to work on location for 3 weeks, understand the situation and craft pragmatic recommendations to improve the current situation. Over the past six years, IBM has invested $66 mn in this effort and worked with over 130 cities.

The Smarter Cities Challenge
Smarter Cities Challenge Blog (experiences of previous teams)

Before I describe our Challenge, a word about Abuja. The Federal Capital Territory of Abuja (FCTA) has been the capital of Nigeria since 1991. It was designated as the capital in the 70s and developed in the 80s. In many ways, Abuja is not unlike Washington, DC or Brasilia. Distinct from the 36 states of the country, which have their own Governors, the FCTA is directly under the control of the Federal Government and is administered by a Federal Minister.

IMG_2933Map of the Federal Capital Territory Abuja

The FCTA, through its departments and agencies, provides a wide range of services to the citizenry, including land allocation, education and healthcare – and is also responsible for revenue collection under a number of categories, such as ground rent, water charges, waste disposal charges and building permits. Presently, the revenue collected from the citizenry and the business and governmental entities within the FCTA is only a fraction of the potential revenues that could be collected. So our job, over the 3 week Challenge, is to understand the reasons for the lackadaisical revenue collection performance across a selected subset of FCTA departments and help the FCTA administration improve their revenues.

IMG_2951 The charter of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board

Our 5-member team in Abuja brings over 100 years of cumulative experience, and represents IBM’s diverse geographic footprint and business interests. As our understanding of the issues and potential solutions get clearer with time, I will update this blog with my thoughts and ideas on how we plan to tackle this challenge.


IMG_2935 Our cracking team – looking good, y’all

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Abuja – my first impressions

As I write this, late on Sunday evening, I have been on the ground in Abuja for 2 days. Our Smarter Cities Challenge kicks off tomorrow morning – but a lot has transpired since my last (and only) blog entry, and I didn’t want the weekend to pass without writing down my first impressions and experiences here.

Before I left home, I didn’t have any time to mentally prepare for my Abuja trip, as I was neck-deep in other work till the day before my departure. I got home with <16 hours to pack for my 3-week trip and say my byes to the family.

My flight to Abuja via Frankfurt was uneventful – till we were about to touch down in Abuja. Thunderstorms over the airfield necessitated the airline captain to divert to Port Harcourt and we eventually reached Abuja 4 hours behind schedule. I used that extra time to catch up on movies (Hidden Figures – Thumbs Up, Rock On 2 – Thumbs Down).

IMG_2850En route to Abuja – Panama hat – check, neon-inflected running shoes – check, reading material – check

IMG_5699.jpgSunset at the Port Harcourt airport

Nigeria Map
Nigeria – Abuja’s in the center, Lagos is SW & Port Harcourt is SE

Its 9 PM by the time I finally exit the Abuja airport. Traffic to my hotel is sparse. Initial impressions of the highways – pretty good! The thunderstorms that delayed my arrival cooled the city down a bit – but it was a fair sight warmer than the mild spring weather I’d left behind in Fairfax, Virginia.

IMG_5700 Warm, getting to hot, with thunderstorms in the forecast

I check into my home for the next 3 weeks – The Nordic Hotel. It is a pleasant, low slung building and I find my room more than adequate. In 30 minutes, I am all unpacked and ready to hit the sack.

Saturday morning, I am up early and raring to check out my immediate surroundings. I take a stroll around the hotel building before breakfast.

IMG_5708My home for the next 3 weeks

IMG_5702The pool at the club building adjoining the hotel – note the ‘artfully” disguised palm tree / cell phone tower

IMG_5711The work area in my room

Next stop – the gym. It is a surprisingly well-equipped one, with everything I could ask for. A quick workout later, I’m headed back for a shower and change. Since I hadn’t made contact with any of my teammates yet, I decide to call their rooms to get everyone together for lunch. After 3 pre-work calls over the past month or so, we finally meet and start the serious business of getting to know each other.

IMG_5741.jpgThe IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Abuja team – clockwise from top left – Marvin from Atlanta, Sam from Cairo via Dubai, yours truly (Radhesh, Indian American from Washington, DC), Divine from Manila and Maria from San Diego / Outer Banks

Lunch was my introduction to Nigerian food. My current pescatarian existence proved to be not much of a constraining factor – I get grilled fish (spicy and good). Post-lunch, Marvin and I set out on an expedition to the nearby cash-and-carry. We wanted to get some supplies, but more importantly, we wanted to get acquainted with our neighborhood. The cash-and-carry was huge, and seemed to have everything under the sun. For no particular reason, I found myself buying a bottle of Guinness African special, brewed with spices and herbs (watch this space for my post-consumption review).

Guiness AfricaBrewed with African herbs and spices

We trudge back to the hotel laden with goodies – and it’s already time to head out with the team for dinner. We are joined by Remi, the valiant IBM Corporate Citizenship Manager for Nigeria and Judy, from the Government Relations team. Judy takes us to an army barracks, where there is a bunch of “joints” – ultra-casual outdoor eating and drinking places, with loud music and the TVs showing soccer matches. The menu is simple – grilled whole fish – catfish and croaker. While the fish are roasting, we get busy imbibing. When it comes, the fish is spectacular – spicy, tender and eaten sans utensils.

IMG_2869Judy (in red) with our WIP dinner

Sunday morning, we get to work. We have a team room set up at the hotel, and we spend several hours preparing for our kickoff meeting the next day. Post-lunch, we get a quick driving tour of the city.

IMG_5726The team at work

The highlight of the day is dinner. We are joined by Dipo, the GM of IBM Nigeria, and Ann, the Nigeria head of Pyxera, who’s doing a lot of the coordination and logistics for our project. The restaurant has Nigerian and South Indian (!) menus – here’s a look at the South Indian portion.

IMG_5735The South Indian portion of the dinner menu – legit !

I’m torn – and decide to sample from both menus – which makes for a rather unconventional but delicious meal. I know where to come if I start getting food-homesick

IMG_5737Kathakali painting in an Abuja restaurant

As of this writing, anticipation is high for the kickoff session tomorrow, and the upcoming three weeks of intense work (and not-work)

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The IBM Smarter Cities Challenge – Abuja, Nigeria

My blogging career flourished for a brief period – from August to October 2013 – while I was on my IBM Corporate Service Corps assignment in Uberlandia, Brazil (read all about it here -> My CSC Brazil blog). I enjoyed the act of writing down my thoughts and experiences while I did it – but just as quickly, got out of the habit. Now that I am about to head out on my next voluntary service assignment sponsored by my employer, IBM, I intend to brush off the cobwebs and get back to doing it on the regular.

This is Episode 1. As befits any Episode 1, some basics are in order

What is the Smarter Cities Challenge ?

In many ways, the Smarter Cities Challenge (SCC) is a logical progression from the Corporate Service Corps (CSC). The CSC program is IBM’s version of the Peace Corps, with teams of IBMers from around the globe being deployed to help NGOs in the developing world with their specific problems for a 4 week duration. My CSC experience in Brazil was ridiculously great.

The SCC program aims to help cities, counties and states solve challenging problems concerning governance, sustainability, and other urban issues of the day. Applicant cities go through a rigorous selection process, and the winning cities / states get a team of expert IBMers to study selected problems and devise solutions over a 3-week deployment. The process of selecting IBMers for the deployment is no less rigorous.

More deets here -> IBM Smarter Cities Challenge

I applied for the program in 2014, hot on the heels of my Uberlandia, Brazil experience – and was lucky to be selected, but finding a suitable time for in-country deployment proved to be a challenge – until March 2017, when circumstances conspired and I was selected as a member of Team Abuja, deploying in May-June 2017.

Abuja is the capital of Nigeria. My current knowledge of the city is pretty much limited to what I could read up here -> Abuja Wiki. The fact that I don’t know much about the city or the country, and that I have never set foot in the continent of Africa are big contributors to my current excited state.

What I do know is that my team of 5 – 3 from the US, 1 from the UAE and 1 from Philippines – will be helping the Abuja Federal Capital Territory administration in the area of revenue collection. Our in-country deployment will run from May 12 to June 3.

At this moment, preparations are in full swing – from getting vaccinations for yellow fever and meningitis to applying for my visa to booking flights and hotels. The IBM program managers, for their part, have started weekly prep calls with the team, to get us acquainted with what’s ahead for us.

As I write this, there are but 11 days before I head out to Abuja. What will Abuja be like ? What exactly will my team be working on ? Watch this space !

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