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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Nigeria – my observations

Nation, economy & governance

Nigeria recently overtook South Africa as the largest economy in Africa. With a population of 184+ mn and plentiful natural resources – particularly, oil and gas – that is no surprise. However, most Nigerians I have talked to express their frustration at the pace of development, and point to the endemic corruption as possibly the single biggest deterrent to Nigeria’s ambitions.

I suspect the true pulse of the nation can best be felt in Lagos. Abuja, being focused on public administration, my interactions have been mainly with civil servants. The organs of the nation’s government are an overwhelming presence here. Abuja is not one of the 36 states of Nigeria, but is a federally-administered area.

When I told people about my upcoming Nigeria trip, many wanted to know if I was concerned about the Boko Haram terror group. They appear to be active mainly in the North, though they have struck the capital and points south. The military presence and high levels of private security at workplaces and establishments that I encountered is probably in response to the Boko Haram presence.

As a fledgling democracy that transitioned from a long spell of military rule, Nigeria is a beacon of hope for democracy movements in Africa and the rest of the world. Prognosticators believe the country is poised to raise its stature within Africa and internationally, and lead the way for the next cohort (after BRICS) of emerging economies.

People & languages

Abuja is pretty much at the midpoint of the country. To the North, the majority of the population is ethnically of the Hausa tribe and Muslim. To the South, the two dominant tribes, Igbo and Yoruba, are predominantly Christian. These three tribes have distinct languages, clothing and customs, as have the many other smaller tribes. There are an estimated 500 languages spoken in Nigeria. Through a gentleman’s agreement, the Presidency of Nigeria alternates between a Muslim and a Christian. I see many similarities with the nation of my birth, India – multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, many religions. Religion runs deep in the fabric of Nigerian society – as evidenced by the number of churches and billboards for pastors, and the near-complete observation of fasting by the Muslim population during the month of Ramadan.

Everyone speaks English – so communication was no problem at all. I heard a few phrases that reminded me of Indian English – such as the use of “like that, like that” to mean “et cetera” and the query “you understand?” after someone had explained something to you. A few phrases stood out as distinctively Nigerian – such as asking someone in the morning “how was your night?” and saying “you are welcome” not as a response to “thank you”, but to mean “welcome to my home/office”.

I asked my Nigerian colleagues how they identified the ethnic backgrounds of other Nigerians – their answers included “from their clothing”, “from their English accent” and “from their names”. I guess the markers of identity are universal.


Women here dress colorfully! At our work meetings with the various FCTA departments, I saw a multitude of brightly colored dresses and matching hair wraps.

IMG_5971Rocking the agbada, at a wedding

IMG_5922Ugo, the receptionist at our hotel, confident in his multicolored dashiki  

IMG_6016.jpgMercy & Gbenga – hotel staff members

IMG_5887Fashion shoot at our hotel lobby. They begged me to pose – I declined. Maria’s photo-bombing

Men measure up quite well to the women in terms of color of their outfits and style. Traditional outfits (agbada) are very common in office settings. Riotously colorful dashiki-style tops are everywhere; I was inspired to try a few on, but came to the conclusion that I sorely lacked the panache to carry it off.


Nigerian cuisine has a variety of soups and stews with meat, fish or veggies in it. Jollof rice is a matter of national pride and of good-natured rivalry between Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria as to who makes the best version. Yam seems to be the other popular starch – pounded yam, which you roll up into small balls and dip into your soup, showed up on several restaurant menus.

Our experiences with food in Abuja has been a mixed bag – some great meals mixed in with some not-so-memorable ones. In a previous edition, I’d reported on the memorable grilled whole fish “joint” at the Mogadishu barracks. I had good pizza and pasta at Secret Garden, nice Nigerian / South Indian food at Masala Wahala, seafood stew at Argungu (Jabi Lake Mall) and a couple of good lunches at the newly-opened Cafeteria at the Grand Square Mall. The places I didn’t care about either had super slow service (I am looking at you, Hilton poolside!) and/or poorly cooked or mind-numbingly spicy food. Though I haven’t had an upset tummy to date, some of my teammates have, despite sticking to the precautions around drinking bottled water and avoiding dodgy street-food stalls.

pounded yamPounded yam

Soups and stew JevinikSoups at a Nigerian restaurant

Quite a few Indian and Lebanese restaurants here, and many restaurants feature a few Lebanese or Indian items on the menu – which must be an indicator of the makeup of the immigrant population here. As a pescatarian / part-time vegetarian, I have had no lack of menu choices. I found it curious that among the “US mega-chain restaurants”, only KFC and Johnny Rockets seemed to have a presence here – no Subway or McD. Not that we went looking for them…

Writers & Music

I am ashamed to confess that before heading to Abuja, the sum total of my experience reading works by Nigerian authors was zero. On my flight in, I’d looked up prominent Nigerian writers, and Chinua Achebe figured pretty much at the head of the list. I am happy to report now that I have finished reading Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” – which also happens to be my reintroduction to fiction after many years. I found the work powerfully moving – the way he describes Igbo tribal life in the village and the portends of doom for a way of life that loom with the arrival of the British missionaries and colonial poobahs.

achebeChinua Achebe

chimamanda Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Right now, I am tackling “Half of a Yellow Sun”, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who’s been in the limelight of late as the voice of a new generation of Nigerians and at the vanguard of a new crop of talented African writers. Very promising start.

Realistically, I doubt whether I will have the time while I’m here to dip into the other greats of Nigerian literature like Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri or Buchi Emecheta –but they’ve been added to my reading list.

Music on the radio seems mostly hip-hop influenced. I don’t know where the Fela Kutis of today are hiding. An Uber driver played some modern Hausa music – heavily auto-tuned. From my sampling of music played by the drivers over about a dozen Uber rides, reggae seemed to have a widespread following here.

Fela Kuti Fela Kuti, Afrobeat pioneer

Nigeria produces loads of movies – though they don’t seem to have much of an audience outside the country. Indian movies and music came up in a few discussions – our driver Nasiru told me he loved “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam” and “Kal Ho Na Ho” (!!!) and I saw employees at an FCTA office watching Hindi songs on a TV that apparently stayed permanently tuned into Zee TV, a Bollywood/Hindi channel.


Football (soccer) is king here – of the ten TV channels at the hotel, two are dedicated to EPL / La Liga / Bundesliga games. The newspaper sports pages cover the Nigerian National Team (Super Eagles) and the action in European leagues and the Nigerian league. Over the past two weeks, I read a bit of coverage on track and field, tennis and basketball – but I can safely say that 80% of the sports page column-inches are dedicated to football.

In a highly unscientific poll, I posed the question “who is the greatest sportsman produced by Nigeria” – and got nothing close to an unanimous answer. My assumption going in was Hakeem Olajuwon would be it, hands down. But the NBA is not popular here – so Hakeem doesn’t seem to be getting the recognition he deserves. Jay Jay Okocha figured in a couple of responses. But I sense there is no single sportsman/woman who occupies the national psyche, like I imagine Emil Zatopek does for the Czechs or Sir Viv Richards for the Antiguans.

Hakeem Olajuwon Action PortraitHakeem Olajuwon

Jay-Jay_Okocha_bio_pic_1280-1018x726Jay Jay Okocha

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Decompression time – the weekend

After a week of long hours and intense, mentally taxing work, I couldn’t wait for the weekend to roll around. Friday evening, we all troop to a restaurant / lounge, where my dinner of prawns with jollof rice gave me an idea of how spicy Nigerian food could be (very!). A DJ was cranking out dance music while we were eating, and there was a fair bit of good-natured trash-talking around the table on the topic of who had the best dance moves – so naturally, the action soon moved over to the makeshift dance-floor. The dancers grooved to a mix of hip-hop, pop chart toppers and Nigerian songs. The jury’s still out on who has the flyest (fliest?) moves.

Saturday morning, I am up at “cock’s crow” on my quest for punishment – namely, CrossFit at the US Embassy. Our informant had told Maria and I to be there at 8:30 AM – so we find our way there, only to be met by perplexed security guards. After a bit of back and forth, they hauled out someone from inside, who informed us that the action was starting at 9:30 AM – so we had an hour to kill. So on to the nearby Hilton for some coffee and pastries. When we got back at 9:30 AM, the place was packed with other punishment-seekers – about 30 or so – all looking to work off their Friday night excesses.

The instructor explained the workout for the day – a complicated torture routine that involved 20 burpees, 30 box jumps, 60 toe touches, 20 weighted squats, 20 kettle bell swings, 20 lunge-twists and 20 mountain climbers. If you survive one round of this, then you get the reward of rinsing and repeating the routine all over again. After 45 minutes of this, we are ready to drop dead. To commemorate our surviving this session, we took some pics with the brave boys from the US Armed Forces who led the session. Warning – sweaty pics ahead!

IMG_5819.jpgWith our boys from the US Armed Forces

Post-lunch, we head out to nearby River Plate Park for the weekly meet-up of the Abuja Chapter of the Hash House Harriers. From the park, we set off in a convoy to the Asokoro suburb to the designated hiking start point – it is an improvised trail through the brush. We set off with gusto, but said gusto declines dramatically when we hit the first steep hill. I stay behind to help Divine, and soon, we are bringing up the rear of the 60-person group.

  IMG_5827.jpgBefore setting out on the Abuja Hash hike – all smiles !

IMG_5841.jpgSmiles have disappeared by this point

Eventually, the whole group reaches the top of a mini-plateau, where we are rewarded with dramatic, sweeping views of Abuja – and cold, cold beer. Much beering and bawdy singing later, we set off on our hike back – ahead of the crowd. Our driver, Nasiru, mentions that he’s a Fulani –a pastoral ethnic group – and proceeds to lead us back with great panache. He doesn’t need trail markings – his instincts tell him which way to go over the scrub and brush. We finish the hike bone-tired – but Nasiru’s barely broken a sweat – and he hiked the 5 km distance wearing sandals! Next stop – a well-earned dinner, at an Indian restaurant. The food was meh – but I wasn’t going to let that stand in the way of righteous gluttony, even finding room in my tummy for the “gulab jamun” dessert. Sated, we head back to our hotel for some shut-eye.

IMG_5859.jpg We made it ! Remi’s climbed Mt Kilimanjaro twice, so this was a walk in the park for her

IMG_5865Views at the summit

Sunday morning, I take care of some long-pending tasks – like updating my blog – and then head out for a run. A team meeting to discuss our progress and plan for the coming week consumes most of the afternoon. Dinner is at a nearby mall restaurant – Argungu – that specializes in Nigerian seafood. I get a spicy and delicious seafood stew, washed down with some wine. All is well with the world.

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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 Department. On Wednesday, we covered the Environmental Protection Board, Water Board and the Development Control Department. And on Thursday, we covered Road Transport Services, Outdoor Advertisement and Signage and Parks & Recreation.

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 fourth 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
IMG_3034The ladies find the men in uniform of the Dept of Road Traffic Services hard to resist

IMG_3037The striped traffic control vehicles are as much an attraction as the men in uniform

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

IMG_3074I’m digging this

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 ten departments we would be working with talk about 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 three-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 five-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 three-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 four 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 three 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 three 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 grilling, 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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