Ten years on from our first conversation about Laterite in a coffee house in Nairobi, it’s time to reflect on some of the things that have made us most proud in Laterite’s journey into five countries and over 150 projects: our great team, the consistent quality of our work, our dedication to innovation, and the steadiness and viability of the organization, even in the midst of a global pandemic.
Building a great team
Our biggest achievement is having worked with so many inspiring, passionate, humble and dedicated people from all over the world. These colleagues have marked our lives, added their imprint to Laterite and helped us to build Laterite as, first and foremost, a community of friends.
We are proud to have been a stop in the journey of colleagues who dedicate their careers to social change. Some have gone on to senior positions in government, others are running NGOs or their own companies, and many have joined PhD programs or teams in development institutions. Though one of the hardest things for us is seeing people leave, we are impressed by the incredible things Lateristas, past and present, are doing. Their stories are inspiring and make both the arrival and departure of team members moments to celebrate.
Our number one priority continues to be to make Laterite a great place to work and learn, and to attract a team that is diverse, humble and talented. It’s always a work in progress, but we believe one of the things that Laterite has got right is the culture, the spirit and the quality of our team.
Delivering local and impactful research
The second thing we are most proud of is the quality of Laterite’s research. There is always more we can do to improve, but we can take heart from knowing that in almost all our 150+ research projects we have given our all. In the process, we have collaborated with universities, think tanks, foundations, NGOs, international development organizations, companies and governments. We have leaned on the advice of experts, friends and mentors, from places such as the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex University, Harvard University, MIT, the University of North Carolina or the World Bank, and together we have delivered new insights in Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.
Our vision for Laterite was to ensure that our work would be embedded in local context. Ten years on, we are proud to say we have made a lot of progress towards this goal. Being embedded in the local context is a competitive advantage: it has given our research an edge, making it more pertinent and relevant within the context of the countries where we work. How does this translate into practice?
- Each country office has research capabilities along the full research value chain, from data collection through to econometrics;
- We conduct our own primary data collection through a network of over 1,000 highly trained enumerators.
- We have invested in robust systems to deploy survey teams to collect high quality data on sensitive issues like gender-based violence.
- We have developed a deep understanding of local procedures, including ethical and administrative approvals.
- We have established relationships with government, NGOs and other actors to better understand their priorities.
With each project, we continue to build a body of knowledge and trusted long-term relationships that are increasingly allowing us to play an active part in the national policy dialogue.
Innovating with every new opportunity
We have invested in innovations along the full research value chain, always seeking improvements in how we do research, be it sampling, the coding of surveys, the training and deployment of enumerators, data quality control systems, data cleaning, data security, econometric analysis and learning. These innovations have led to clear gains in efficiency and quality, but have also generated excellent insights.
Some of the innovations we are proud of include:
- Developing algorithms to improve data quality and security, for example to flag data quality issues; or an automated data flow from data collection tablets onto our servers, leading to enhanced data security.
- Developing flexible scripts to automate and accelerate the analysis process, including algorithms/programs to automate data analysis and generate structured summary statistics.
- Designing algorithms to create structured datasets, for example machine learning algorithms to clean a national database of VAT receipts and classify products into hundreds of categories; or optical reading scripts to allow us to scan thousands of student assessments.
- Adapting and applying advanced analytic techniques, including for example proximity controls as an alternative program evaluation technique; network theory and economic complexity models to derive insights on national economies; research on how nestedness (a concept from ecology) captures inequality in a more granular way; gravity models to identify locations that are under-served with respect to infrastructure; or the adoption of causal machine learning techniques.
- Going spatial, by developing a geospatial backbone for Laterite, with over 800 geospatial features per country, which is increasingly going to be used in our research moving forward.
- Adapting modelling techniques to real world problems, for example: Markov chains to predict the latent trajectory of Rwanda’s education system and the effects of the pandemic; or tweaking the synthetic controls approach to allow for predictions in the context of COVID-19.
And there are more to come.
A sustainable formula for Laterite
Laterite now employs about 60 staff full time and provides employment to hundreds of enumerators per year. One of the key things we are proud of is that since its inception Laterite has not sought to impress investors, or received any external investment, grant funding or raised any debt. We have proved, year on year, that it is a sustainable business model and the fundamentals of the company have been solid throughout.
Laterite today is in an excellent position to tackle the next decade. We are starting 2021 with renewed energy and many exciting plans. Our 2021-2025 strategy sets ambitious targets in terms of innovation across the full research value chain, improvements in careers and professional development at Laterite, and strengthening the relevance and outreach of our work.