If you blink, you will completely miss what Edwin Macharia does for a living. Rather, his explanation of it. Talking to him is like figuring out which side all the reds go on a Rubik’s Cube.
He is the partner and regional director of Dalberg in Africa, a global strategy and policy advisory firm. His job is to “convince people to do things differently.” He advises on strategy, operational efficiency and implementation.
Before that, he was at the Clinton Foundation as director of agriculture. He is an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellow and a Young Global Leader who also attended the prestigious Amherst College, in the US, where he studied biology.
JACKSON BIKO entered his intricate maze of thought recently at his office on Nairobi’s Lenana Road. He walks around his office in socks.
What do you tell your grandmother you do?
That’s incredibly difficult because on a day-to-day basis what I do changes. For instance, yesterday, I had a meeting with a client in financial services, a CEO who was looking for ways to expand their work. At 11am, I met a client looking to help smallholder farmers increase production. Then I had a lunch meeting with someone trying to get into solar energy. I then had an internal call to talk about our employees, their trajectory and growth. Then in the evening, I had a conference call with a client who’s thinking about supporting governments in policymaking.
I martial information, basically data evidence, showing why you should do this and not that.
Not to say a guy like you can’t end up in Homa Bay studying under a tree, but how did you end up in that neck of the woods … or the lake?
I was born in Nairobi, then we moved to Thika when I was three years old. We moved around a lot as a family. My dad worked for Barclays, my mom was a high schoolteacher. Therefore, every three or so years we’d move to a different place. I ended up in Homa Bay, learning in Dholuo under a tree because the wind had taken off with the classroom roof and there was no money to get another one. We were 30 in our class and I was the only one who was not Luo, so naturally, the teacher taught in Dholuo then later ran me through what he had said. I picked Dholuo fast and became very fluent. I still did very well in school. I always say I could have became the perfect politician then because I was fluent in Kikuyu, Dholuo, English and Kiswahili. It’s in Homa Bay that I first realised that I had an ability to understand abstract concepts in ways that other people would struggle with.
Learning under a tree allowed me to see that people are the same. Your history, your culture, the people around you, and your influences construct your moral universe. But your moral universe is a construct so how do you deconstruct it? There was value in learning under a tree, look where I am today, I sit across heads of state.
What excites you now at 41 years?
Potential, man! There is so much to be done. We have 27 offices across the world and I play this test with every new person who joins Dalberg. I ask ‘tell me any person you’d like to have a conversation with in the world.’ I can tell you in two phone calls how we can actually have that conversation with that person.’ Now, we’re at a place where we have almost access to every single person in the world, whoever they might be. The question is what are you telling them? And what are you telling them to do differently if we’re going to get to the mission that we want.
On the personal side, our daughter is turning 12, that relationship continues to grow and deepen. Now she is her own person, she has her own views, and so I think being part of that journey with her and saying look, I’m still your father, I’m here but you’re also going off on your own journey of growth and self-reflection, how can I continue being supportive? Then, my wife, you know her?
Everybody knows Lorna (Irungu).
Nobody knows me. In Nairobi, I’m Lorna’s husband. Most people are always like, “I’m sorry, who are you?” (Laughs)
Because you are always breaking things down in your mind, have you been able to intellectualise parenthood?
Parenthood is complicated. You can intellectualise some elements of it. Like how are children growing today, what’s happening in the future? Stuff that you can use data. But what complicates it are three things. One, a child is an individual, completely separate and in some ways independent from you. Two is the fact that you provide for them. Therefore, it’s very much an influence game rather than a telling game. Then three, emotions, and emotions don’t necessarily relent to data and analysis. (Chuckles)
What’s the one life’s question that you’ve been unable to answer so far?
Purpose of life. Why do we exist? And is there a purpose to life? Actually, that portrays an assumption that there is a purpose to life other than living.
Why do you admire the people you admire?
They are bold; they have challenged the status quo and made the world a better place for millions of people. And they’re people who think deeply.
What book are you reading now?
The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller. A fantastic read. My taste in music and books are eclectic. I just finished a series called The Kingkiller Chronicle, a fantasy series by Patrick Rothfuss. If you haven’t read it, you should read it. It’s a good story, beautifully written. I’m also reading Winner Takes All by Anand Giridharadas. I had ignored it at first because of the hype that came with it. Actually, I don’t like his writing and the way he personalises the points he’s making, by taking people down.
What has been your most memorable experiences in life?
(Pause) Dude, I’ve had a long life. (Laughs) When I was dating Lorna, and I was tired of people referring to me as Lorna’s boyfriend, I wanted to prove to her that I also have influence in other areas. (Laughs) When former US President Bill Clinton came to Africa, I told her, ‘let’s go to Tanzania’. We ended up having dinner with Clintons and ten other people. That’s when I realised that she would be my lifelong partner. She is someone who can easily have dinner with a Clinton and easily sit with my grandmother to have tea.
In all my years interviewing people, you are the first person to use the word “continuum” in conversation.