The world looks very different from a year ago as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our world at One Acre Fund has also changed. Key to our ability to continue serving farmers during this uncertain period was our Tech team, who rapidly digitized our field operations and ensured that staff could be just as effective working from home.
We caught up with Marika West, the Chief of Staff on the Tech team, for her take on her team’s experience being at the hub of our COVID-19 response, what it’s been like working from home this past year, and her favourite part about working for One Acre Fund.
First, let’s talk about scale. We currently serve more than 1.3 million farmers, and the impact that the Tech team has had here is very commendable. The roll-out of tablets to thousands of Field Officers as part of our COVID-19 response plan helped keep our work going during the pandemic. What does it mean to you to lead a team with such a far-reaching impact on the organization?
I get really excited about the opportunities that tablets present. My background is in data analytics, and having rolled out tablets across all our countries of operation, we can now get so much more information about how field staff use the devices. What are they clicking on most? Where are they running into errors?
Major projects like the roll-out of tablets also cut across different teams within the Tech department. Most people will immediately think about the Engineering team who develop the software, but we also have Operations who handle logistics and continue to respond to bugs and hardware fixes. It was a monumental effort across both sides of the Tech division, and something I’m very proud of.
One of buzzwords that cuts across departments at One Acre Fund is “impact.” What does impact look like to you? And do you often relate your work to our “Farmers First” mantra?
I think about impact in terms of the data that we're getting back from the M&E team, so for instance what’s the yield? How much food can our clients grow? And how does it affect long term outcomes for their families?
One cool thing about being part of the Product Management team is that it helped me focus on the users of Tech products, which is mostly our field staff. We need to understand their work in nuanced ways when designing tools for them. We have to go to the field and talk to them, see how they use technology, watch the way they interact with the devices and the buttons they want to press. Improving the tools that our Field Officers use is the most direct way that I see my work contributing to delivering impact. The tablets they use, for instance, allow them to spend less time enrolling clients and more doing trainings and other impactful activities.
What would you say is the best part of the work you do?
Definitely people management. It’s interesting because when I started here I didn’t have any experience managing someone. At the time, I thought that all I wanted was to sit in my corner and do my own work! However, as soon as I really invested in this skill, it became hands-down the favourite part of my job. It's been really cool to encourage the team to take ownership and make decisions on what technology we use.
What are some women-led innovations at One Acre Fund that you are most proud of?
The team that maintains our internal website built a new version of it, named Data Farm. The Business Operations team will use this site to manage all of our client data. The product manager, business analyst, and lead engineer at the time were all women — we had a Slack channel called #logischix! I love getting into conversations with them about the product and its design because I am excited about what the site will eventually look like. Additionally, there is a level of camaraderie and trust between a group of women that allows space for candid discussion that moves the work forward quickly — it’s fun!
Let’s talk about culture. What do you think is the most distinctive part about the One Acre Fund culture?
There's just so many things that are unique about us. I’ve never had such close friends who I also work with, and I think the people that work here are incredibly smart, caring and passionate about what they do.
I think that folks who come to work here are really interested in learning more. My first six months here were very memorable because I just couldn't believe that I was doing something new every day. It can be exhausting but very rewarding as well! In comparison, my previous job was fairly monotonous because I just did slight variations of the same thing every day.
And what's it been like for you working in a global, multicultural organization like ours?
I’ve personally grown so much because of this. I'm a better leader because I'm managing people from all over the world. I’ve become more intentional about my management style and building equity and inclusion into the way I work with people.
Our diversity has also contributed positively to the work we do. For instance, a Kenyan PM is designing a product for their grandma, their family friend; they’re designing for someone they know. If I tried to do the same work, I’d be designing for someone I met on a one or two day field visit. The difference in context is astounding! I am so lucky that my colleagues are experts in our work, and that expertise is rooted in diversity.
Now, let’s take it back to March 2020, when the pandemic began. Everyone had a ritual to keep them sane or distracted from what was going on in the world. What was yours?
First of all, I’m a super extroverted and social person, and I was living alone in Kigali, Rwanda at the time. When the government gave a four-hour grace period before instituting a full lockdown, I basically panicked and moved into a different house with two other people whose housemates had left the country. We were practically strangers at this point, so the distraction for me was getting to know two new people, who I eventually came to love. We’d have family dinners, Trivia Monday nights, and other activities to get to know each other better.
What's been the most challenging part about adjusting to working from home?
At the time, I was leading the Product Management team, work felt constantly present and it was harder to stop working at the end of the day.
Something I really cared about was the work experience of my team members. At the time, we had a few management transitions and this can be unsettling. Additionally, some staffers had been hired during the pandemic so they were spread out around the world and hadn’t gotten to meet anyone in person. Leading the team when we had never met in person was a bit difficult.
What I tried to do was make our weekly team calls a bit more social. We began taking a few minutes to talk about our “Rose and Thorn” moments, where each person shared the best and worst parts of their week. The rest of the call would be a learning session, where someone would present a project they've been working on and people could ask questions. It felt a bit more social and intentionally oriented around team building.
Let’s talk about your life like before One Acre Fund. What had you planned to do as a career?
Growing up, I actually thought I wanted to be a pediatrician! I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to get to hang out with kids and make money?’ (laughs)
I studied Economics in college but developed a keen interest in international development. After I graduated, I worked at a microfinance bank in the Philippines for a year. I learnt a lot during this period, but I ultimately felt that I wasn’t adding as much value as I wanted to.
In college, I had always dreamed that I would have a job like what I do at One Acre Fund, so it might have been a bit coincidental but I’m happy with how things turned out!
Tell us a little more about the chain of events that led you to relocate to Rwanda and eventually join One Acre Fund.So I first heard of One Acre Fund from a couple of people who were employed there during a game of Ultimate Frisbee* while I was in university in Kampala. From then on, One Acre Fund was always on my periphery because I thought they were doing really cool work. Fast-forward to 2016, when I decided to move to Rwanda to be with my partner at the time. I’d originally intended to look for random job openings, however, I found myself browsing the One Acre Fund website and came across a role that I thought I’d be good at, but also wouldn’t have too many applicants. Technically, I could have applied for a Monitoring & Evaluation role with my Economics background but I ended up going for a Finance Analyst opening instead and luckily I landed the gig!
* Editor’s Note: We weren’t sure what this was at first, but it looks pretty cool
Aside from Ultimate Frisbee, what are your favourite things to do outside of work?
Definitely cooking. What's hard about working from home is that there's no buffer zone between work and home. Usually, I’d leave the office and maybe go to the gym. Since that’s not been possible, I've been trying to work out in the mornings, to moderate success. [laughs]
With cooking, I could put on a podcast or some music, start chopping some vegetables and be like, ‘Wow, I'm dicing this onion really well!’ It's such a different skillset compared to what you have to do at work all day, that it provides a nice meditative bridge between work and home.
I feel like cooking is almost like a video game where there are puzzles that you have to solve, then your reward at the end is the food you get to eat. It's also a way for me to show care for people I like, because I love cooking for my friends.
Let’s imagine you were premiering a new talk show. Who’s on the poster as your first guest?
I think Jenny Odell, who wrote the book “How to do Nothing” which I read last December. Turns out the book was nothing like the title suggested and more like how to do everything – it was actually a wide-ranging and very encompassing read. Another person I’d love to talk to is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who I think is doing amazing work, and Samin Nosrat, who wrote “Salt. Fat. Acid. Heat,” has a Netflix show and recently started a podcast called “Home Cooking”. She’s a joyful delight who enjoys food, and listening to her podcast just makes me giggle to myself all the time. Talk about things that got me through lockdown – her podcast was it for me!
Last question - if there's one thing you'd like somebody reading this article to take away from it, what would it be?
It's a really exciting time to be working in tech! I’m going to go out on a limb and say that nailing our Tech strategy will be crucial to achieving our objectives as an organization over the next 5-10 years. There’s a lot of scope within Tech to shape the direction and pace at which we grow.