Creating New Ideas

I had an interesting conversation with somebody today and Machiavelli’s prince comes to mind,

“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones.”

At last, they are here!

Pick n Pay Food Voucher ImageOn Friday 17th September 2010, 2 years of planning, meetings, negotiations and the work of many, many people culminated in the launch of the pre-paid food vouchers that we have been promising! The venue was the Haven in Claremont, and the attendance was fantastic from Hero, Pick n Pay and the City of Cape Town.

The vouchers are now available at a few stores in the Western Cape, but are redeemable anywhere

  • Constantia
  • Claremont
  • Kenilworth
  • Gardens
  • V&A Waterfront
  • Promenade
  • Somerset West
  • Plumstead

Get them now and make a difference.

Our problem is civil obedience

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running and robbing the country. That’s our problem.”

Howard Zinn

Arriving as a stranger, leaving as a friend

View from 37,000 geet

A view from 37,000 feet

A few months ago I was on vacation in Thailand – turquoise water, white beaches and palms. It was idyllic – this was the first real holiday I had had in over  7 years – but I had one piece of work to do – I had come across the British Airways Business Grant – a years worth of business class travel!  Prior to leaving, I had started a crafting a structure and I convinced my wife to allow me a 4 hour work session. (4 hour work week anybody?) So, on the Friday.  I woke up on the Friday morning early (±5:30am) and whilst sipping a great coffee took to work on my laptop – this was the only time I was allowed to open the laptop (fortunately coco-cottages had a sat-link to the internet – yay!) The cut of time was 14h00 Thailand time – after an intense morning I made the final edits and sent it off and hoped for the best.

A few weeks later I got an email notifying me that I had won – woohoo, when I enter the plane from now on, I turn left (or go upstairs) to business class!

This brings me to today – I have just made my first use of the grant for a flight to Ankara, Turkey – Why Turkey ? In another grant writing exercise that came about as a result of attending the WEF in China at the kind invitation of the City of Cape town, I randomly met up with Bahar Yetis Kara , a Turkish associate professor in logistics and young scientist  – she was given the task of finding an entrepreneur at the forum and would have to submit a project proposal to the IAP for a $10,000 grant . Our coincidental meeting was at one of the forum’s famous ‘idealabs’ and after a quick chat made arrangements to before a dinner function later that evening – due to prior engagements  we chatted for only 25 minutes and she informed me of her task. Upon our return to our respective countries, we had about 36 hours to write the grant, and were literally strangers but, somehow, through some luck and skill, we won the grant!

I am sitting on BA 0679 from Istanbul to London writing this and reflecting on the past week. I flew from Cape Town to Istanbul to Ankara where I was received by a driver from Bilkent University who drove me the 40 minute drive to university (in silence – he spoke not a word of english) Bahar had kindly arranged a catered residence at the university. A few hours later I met Bahar and her husband and they proceeded to take me around Ankara ( I taught them about the angora rabbit originally from Ankara!) and over the course of the past 6 days have taught me Turkish history, the best places to eat and introduced me to the Turkish institution of Raki.

Through their kindness and hospitality they transformed a casual meeting into a lasting friendship that I feel will last a long while.

The purpose of the trip was work and Bahar and I quickly got to work and some practical outcomes from this encounter have led to a clear definition of our proposal that will see some direct implementation of a Broccoli Project within a diabetes clinic in South Africa – this we hope will validate our proposal that will explore a new field in logistics field (humanitarian logistics)  We will be implementing technology together with food security rewards – in effect using a part of our grant to sponsor food security vouchers to incentivize participants to take their diabetes diagnosis more seriously – I will write about the implementation of this exciting project in a  later post.

For me the validation of this trip was the underpinning intent of my British Airways application – that face-to-face communication is the underlying requirement for really getting things done. Apart from the practical and somewhat difficult requirement for both of us of making time to get things done.

The further development of this opportunity is that I will be returning in September not only to co-present the results to Bilkent University’s panel of scientists but also to some of her associates at Istanbul University. In the emerging field of Humanitarian Logistics, we are planning to write a further paper. The exciting part for me is that often academic papers can become abstract and theoretical without real world applications – as a real world implementer (me) and academic researcher (her) team we have blended our respective passions into results driven research.

I am very excited at the way things are beginning to progress for The Broccoli Project and I can hardly wait to see what happens next – but I have to!


One of my all time favourite quotes is:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Observing The Broccoli Project where things are now, is a true testament to the above statement – I am continuously amazed by the feedback and assistance I get from people but I am so grateful for the help from my friends at Hero Design and Fuse Digital

Today as I write this, Toni is out on a photo shoot taking a photo of a real little girl that we will be using in our voucher books to be distributed in Pick n Pay in the near future. As payment for this,  the school fees for this girl will  be covered for a year.

This is just one of the many ways that people beyond my immediate circle are benefiting from the idea that started off as well, an idea. James has been copywriting the sometimes cryptic words that spew out of my mouth and Doug has crafted mockups of voucher designs from initial sketches, meanwhile Gideon has taken pencil sketches and transformed them into spectacular digital renditions that make the artist in me quivver!  (check their sites for more)

The Broccoli Project belongs to all of us and I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who believe in the project, in me and the change it will bring – after all, as Gandhi said “Be the change you wish to see in this world!”

The Gap Hypothesis

<disclaimer> Some of the ideas below are mental ramblings that I am having and are still in a formative stage – let me know what you think! </disclaimer>

Have you ever created a document, or a presentation that at the time was in your own eyes, passable, but you thought you could have done better. Then you revisit it a few weeks / months later and it actually looks a lot better. I think it happens a lot, well for me it does.

I have been reflecting on what I have termed ‘The Gap Hypothesis’ as being one of the foundations of The Broccoli Project.

The idea behind this, is that an upliftment program is introduced, the intention is to create a result that leaves the participant in a situation in a better position than before. So in the above simple example, a person sleeping on the streets is encouraged to take a number of steps and as a result becomes a happier member of society.

But what about the gaps ?, I believe that the steps to be taken from beginning to end of an intervention are riddled with all sorts of gaps that might prevent a program from succeeding.  What happens if the steps to be taken have no real grounding in the reality of the participants. For example, what if the next step is to have a participant go to a clinic for a check up, but the cost of transport is beyond the means of the participant. Something as simple as access to transport has a potentially devastating effect on the success of program, but more importantly the participant.

If you were able to measure the success of each step of a program, through an anonymous yet unique identifier you would be able to design programs and correct assumptions of each step. You might think that the steps for a program are easy enough to complete, but often our assumptions fall down when put into practice. Von Moltke’s saying “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”  is something that every organization encounters at one time or another.

The Broccoli Project approaches projects with a tentative viewpoint – It draws  on the ideas of the genius of place and Sternin-Pascale’s notion of  positive deviance. The above image is a basic representation of the basic mechanics.

For each step, we are providing an incentive. The incentive is something simple and basic like food, shelter, accommodation, medical care.

You see, we don’t know that each step is the right step from a multitude of dimensions:

  1. Is the step understood (from the participants perspective)
  2. Is the incentive correct (from a value and type perspective)
  3. Is it viewed as an incentive or could it be viewed as coercion
  4. Will it be over-subscribed, under-subscribed.

Using a combination of incentives, biometrics, mobile technology, cloud computing and low cost net books we are in a position for the first time to begin measuring the effects of each step of a proposed intervention in a  granular yet anonymous way. These are early days, but our analytics platform combined with the fundraising interface is a step closer toward creating programs that work.

The idea is this, the interventions are unitized in cost – i.e. each step is pre-budgeted with the costs (simplified)  allocated as follows:

  1. The cost of carrying out the intervention
  2. The cost of the incentive to be given to the recipient
  3. The technology costs to measure and capture the data

With these simple metrics, the cost and success per intervention can be quickly established and the most powerful being the success of the next step.

It is estimated that there is an 80% dropout rate once people discover they are HIV positive – they never make it to the referring clinic – the tragedy is that if detected early, HIV can be treated and managed.The reasons are varied and complex, but some of the important work is to de-stigmatize the disease and to find ways to encourage after care.

Nostalgia, Hindsight Rationalisation & The Broccoli Project

I am currently reading John Kay’s great book obliquity and he talks about the concept of “hindsight rationalisation” this is when we like to pretend to ourselves as things worked out to plan all along.

I have been thinking about how The Broccoli Project unfolded, it had some initial seeds in my previous company – my most successful failure to date!   We as a team wanted to create something that was useful and made a difference and  it was about 26 months ago today that I sat at Knead at Wembley Square in Cape Town researching thermal printers and security paper – I wanted to print stuff out – I like to experiment with ideas and I had  created a fantastical business plan that would see the roll out of some 500 POS devices that would be deployed around the country and it would magically print out vouchers.

Problem 1 – the development of the device was quite intensive and required skills we did not have, also

Problem 2 – required R3m+ capital to buy the hardware, but hey the excel spreadsheet supported it :)

So I bought a prototype of the POS device for about $1,500 – (gulp) and it’s now a great doorstop.

So plan B was buy a thermal printer and design something that was within my reach, a few weeks later I was strolling down the road and I passed a store selling the Brother QL650TD label printer – out came the (personal) credit card and 15 minutes later, I owned a thermal printer – I played around and out of the ether came the first prototype food voucher.

Sample Voucher Prototype

Sample Voucher Prototype

It was magical – the idea, food vouchers – a way to make a difference. I could feel it, I was on to something here – I could barely contain my excitement – I had to blurt out to my then business partners – “look at this (the food voucher)” lets do it! It ? There was something  here. So we  went ahead and rented a space at the Cape Town station and started the idea of exchanging food vouchers for demographic information – so answering the questions ‘where do you live’, ‘what phone do you have’, ‘what is your name’ and ‘what is your phone number’ were sufficient currency to exchange for a food voucher – what a rich experience. 300 loaves of bread and 5 hours later and I knew – this was big.

1 month later we introduced biometrics and partnered with desmond tutu and things were looking more and more interesting, what had we created ?

I could hardly believe it – I was working with technology, helping people and having fun – could it get better ? It did – in February 2009 I was invited to submit a business plan to the inaugural World Innovation Summit in Barcelona representing Cape Town (and South Africa, and Africa – *gulp*) out of 24 countries – and in what was the most outrageous turn of events, we placed second overall and first in most social value!

A number of other plaudits followed, including attending the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China – who thought researching thermal printers might lead to this!

This is all great and the awards have been meaningful and validating, but I did not start this to win awards, it was to make a difference. Which brings me to my happiest achievement this year.

A little over a week ago, I sat in a meeting with Suzanne Ackerman from Pick n Pay and related the story – the crazy thing was that about 23 months ago, we sat in a meeting with her with a food voucher and some software that I had cobbled together over about 2 days – it was functional, but we were winging it.

She wasn’t exactly sold on the idea, but she gave us the time of day and people we should talk to – and we did.

Fast forward 24 months and this is where we are now…

In the next few weeks, we will be doing a final test run where in some Pick n Pay stores, you will be able to buy a book of vouchers that you can keep with you in your car. When you see somebody that you want to give something to, but you don’t want to give cash because you don’t know where it will go (booze, glue – who knows) you can give them a voucher that they can exchange for food – awesome! Soon these books will be in all Pick n Pay’s.

I have an amazing feeling about the coming year, and I am looking forward to the next steps – but this is also not a solo achievement. Nothing of this magnitude is ever the work of a single person I (and We) have had the support of tremendous partners who early on saw the potential and helped craft what were basically sketches on a napkin into where we are today.

Developing the underlying software that forms a vital part of where we are going has been a difficult and in some cases painful process for both ourselves and our clients – but I am lucky that the lead technical & database architect has supported my often irrational changes and put up with my strange and sometimes vague descriptions.

We will have some guest posts from other people and other Broccoli’s in the coming months.

You know how it goes, Good ideas often have lonely childhoods - it looks like The Broccoli Project is growing up now and I can’t wait to tell you more…

MaZ – head of broccoli!

A great day for Broccoli

Thursday was a great day for Broccoli, what we have been planning and planning for nearly a year now, finally came to fruition in a full circle. We worked with Desmond Tutu HIV testing and in exchange for taking an HIV test, we printed out R80.00 (±$11) food vouchers that are redeemable at any Pick n Pay. Getting to this stage was a notion that I have become enamoured with -  “gradually then suddenly” – all things of consequence seem to follow this simple truth.

A central theme behind The Broccoli Project is ‘rewards that matter’ – and when considering that the people that we deal with don’t have a regular income if any, it becomes meaningful to provide a means of access to food.

Some of the men – young, intelligent and willing to work but without work – what are the options to feed and shelter themselves and their families, it is saddening to see this and it is a common sight around the country.

One of the men said to me “I am so happy with this voucher, I can buy some food now for me and my children” – heartbreaking.

Analytics – Buzzword and SaaS

One of the compelling features of The Broccoli Project business model is its blended / hybrid offering. It is a variation of the classic two sided market that credit cards use.

The word “analytics” is the latest in internet buzzwords (along with realtime, the semantic web etc.)  for some help in creating buzzwords you can check this out.

The 2-sided market of Broccoli:

Side 1:

The Broccoli Project to it’s participants is a rewards program that offers rewards that matter – food, clothing shelter (as opposed to toasters, nick nacks and stuff you didn’t know you didn’t need!) on the other side, it offers transparency to donors as to exactly how the funds will be used. But there is an exchange that takes place.


The Broccoli Project encourages positive social behavior in exchange for rewards that matter – so rather than just another hand out, its a hand up. Rewards for attending a skills development workshop, for learning how to use a mouse on a computer, for take preventative health care, for staying in school – simple acts that overtime can cause compounding effects on a personal and societal level.

The act of helping somebody can be found in the bible, but the problem with just handing aid out is that it creates a dependency that has the long term effect of learned helplessness.

It’s not that it is a bad thing to give, but western aid in its current form ironically has given birth to a self-serving industry that is estimated at about $100bn annually, with an estimated $1trillion poured into Africa alone over the last 50 years. [1] [2] [3] [4] Africa doesn’t look much better and in fact in some cases is worse off! [5] The irony here is that estimates indicate that upto 80% of aid supports the aid industry rather then the people it was meant to help!


The other side of the market is a donor dashboard into seeing how deployed funds and programs are working – we have called this Broccoli Analytics. For each activity or behaviour, a value is ‘earned’ and the values can be redeemed. This gives donors a view into how funds were used in a realtime [buzzword alert]  manner. In final development is a activity statement that shows each casual donor at what stage funds are giving true real-time transparency to how funds are being used.

Bloggoli 2.0

If you are reading this, then you have been following the unexpected success of The Broccoli Project, and idea that has gained momentum in a way that I could not have expected.

The idea was simple, rewards that matter and a way to earn the rewards that do not require purchasing. This is not to say that this is not about the economy, it is about creating frameworks that enable those that are unemployable and unable to gain a foothold in the formal economy with a mechanism to allow participation in programs that will provide dignity, and hopefully over time the skills transfer that will result in prosperity in mind and material.

There are some exciting developments in both sides of project – watch this space for more to come.

MaZ – head of broccoli