Before it spilled into the open, the Uber-like tale started as a contentious debate on a WhatsApp group called KE techpreneurs network, whose members include many key players in the country’s technology ecosystem. A local blog wrote about it, then another. Ushahidi issued a preliminary press release outlining the steps it had taken and the Internet’s outrage machine kicked in.
“Erik Hersman, you can save 70 jobs by resigning,” one entrepreneur in the group said.
Hersman co-created the company with fellow board members Juliana Rotich, David Kobia and Ory Okolloh, who left the company in 2010 after a major falling-out.
Just five months shy of its 10th birthday, a sexual harassment scandal is threatening the very foundation of one of Kenya’s best- known technology companies. So successful was the crowdsourced crisis-mapping model Ushahidi pioneered after the post-election violence in 2007/2008 that it quickly became a global firm with 120,000 deployments that have reached 25 million people in critical situations. But the testimony that has thrown it into the harshest spotlight yet is by a former employee, Angela Kabari, 31, who accused Ushahidi’s Executive Director, Daudi Were, of sexual harassment. He allegedly asked her to have sex with a colleague “presumably for his own titillation” late one evening at a company retreat in Nyeri.
She filed a formal complaint about the inappropriate conversation that happened on January 19, 2017, with the board on May 4, two months before she quit.
“I was stunned to learn that Daudi’s comments were not the isolated incident I had assumed but rather, that he had a years’ long, widely-known reputation for sexually inappropriate conduct, socially and at work,” she wrote in a blog post that called for Were’s dismissal and demanded the board’s resignation.
According to her narrative, her boss had lost an earpiece for his expensive hearing aid and she was helping him find it on that night. When he promised to give her half the cost of the device if they found it, she started recording the conversation, meaning to replay it to him as a joke the next day when he was sober. Only later did she realise that she had taped the entire conversation, including the offensive statements that are at the centre of the case.
“I sincerely regret any occasion when that could have happened, and any banter or expletives uttered while in such state to anybody,” Were wrote in his response to the board after Kabari’s statement. “I have read a transcript that was attached to the letter, which would appear to relate to a recording made well outside office hours, of a conversation made at a time when I was apparently inebriated. I am unaware whether or not that is the accurate and full transcript of the entire recording.”
On Friday, the board announced that he had been fired with immediate effect after “exhaustive consideration of the testimonies and evidence tabled by the respective parties”.
He maintains his innocence and says he is not the predator he has been portrayed to be.
It was not good enough for many online, who saw it as “too little too late”, accusing the board of victim-blaming and making a decision only after the story became public. Days before Were’s dismissal, the former Executive Director, Okolloh, termed the board’s response unacceptable in a scathing blog post. She advocated for “creating an environment where victims of harassment across the sector can speak in a safe space and can quickly receive whatever support they require”. She didn’t directly blame any party in the process and mentioned nobody by name.
“In order to begin the healing process within the company, and for the world to begin to regain confidence in Ushahidi, the board should resign in its entirety,” Kabari insisted in her post. “Only new management can begin to repair the damage done.”
For many employees in the company and higher up, there is considerable anguish that a decade’s worth of work could all be swept away by this hurricane. The personal attacks on the WhatsApp groups and the Internet indignation has hit fever pitch. “At times it is rational to bay for blood,” another entrepreneur said on the ‘techpreneurs’ forum.
“The teachable moment here is that the technology space is now about tearing people down instead of building each other up like it used to be,” one Ushahidi insider told me.
They lamented that the narrative appeared to have shifted from Kabari’s case and what the next steps should be to an attempt to break up Ushahidi at whatever cost.
The weaponisation of WhatsApp has been particularly effective in prosecuting this case in the court of public opinion in a gossip economy run amok with an ever-changing outrage of the day.
Beyond Ushahidi, how many more Kenyan companies need to review their policies on sexual harassment and toxic workplace environments?
SOCIAL MEDIA TO REMAIN UP ON ELECTION DAY
“Will the government switch off social media on Election Day?” I asked Joe Mucheru, the Cabinet Secretary for Information, Communication and Technology on Sunday.
“Why would the government do that?” he wanted to know.
I pointed out that other governments had done that even though it contravened their own laws. For instance, I covered the last two Ugandan elections and was just as surprised as most citizens when social media went dead on a February morning last year.
“At this stage it is not a discussion we have had and there is no reason for us to follow what other countries have done unless there is something that I’m not aware of or government is not aware of that would lead us to switching off.”
To be fair, this is not the first or second time he has said this publicly, but the question keeps coming up.
It seems that some citizens will be not reassured, no matter how many times he rubbishes these rumours.
They have recently gained more currency, with calls for responsible use of social media and a study that said 90 per cent of Kenyans had encountered fake news.
WhatsApp and Facebook are the two leading sources of misinformation, often with the feeble disclaimer: “As Received”.
BBC’S GENDER PAY GAP
There is no Kenyan equivalent of a BBC report of its salaries, which has revealed a huge gender pay gap. The top male stars of the British Broadcasting Corporation make significantly more than their female colleagues even when they do exactly the same job. The highest paid presenter is Chris Evans, who makes at least £2.2 million (Sh297 million), almost four times more than the highest paid female host.
More than 40 of them wrote an open letter to the Director General, Tony Hall. “You have said that you will ‘sort’ the gender pay gap by 2020, but the BBC has known about the pay disparity for years. We all want to go on the record to call upon you to act now,” they said. He promised wider consultation on the issue in his response. “When other organisations publish their gender pay data by next April, I want the BBC to be one of the best performers when comparisons are made.