Ben_Kuhn

I'm the CTO of Wave, where we're bringing financial infrastructure to sub-Saharan Africa.

Personal site (incl various non-EA-related essays): https://www.benkuhn.net/

Email: ben dot s dot kuhn at the most common email address suffix

Ben_Kuhn's Comments

Why and how to start a for-profit company serving emerging markets

I'm guessing that they assumed we were exaggerating the numbers in order to make them more interested in working with us. The fact that you're so ready to call anyone who lies about user numbers a "scammer" may itself be part of the cultural difference here :)

Why and how to start a for-profit company serving emerging markets

Examples (mostly from Senegal since that's where I have the most experience, caveat that these are generalizations, all of them could be confounded by other stuff, the world is complicated, etc.):

  • Most Senegalese companies seem to place a much stronger emphasis on bureaucracy and paperwork.
  • When interacting with potential business partners in East Africa, we eventually realized that when we told them our user/transaction numbers, they often assumed that we were lying unless the claim was endorsed by someone they had a trusted connection to.
  • In the US, we have fully transparent salaries (everyone at the company can look up anyone else's salary in a spreadsheet). We weren't able to extend this norm to our Senegalese subsidiary because it caused too much interpersonal conflict. (This was at least partly the result of us not putting enough investment into making the salary scale work for everyone, but my understanding is that my Senegalese coworkers were pessimistic about bringing back salary transparency even if we fixed that.)
  • In Senegal people seem less comfortable by default expressing disagreement with someone above them in the hierarchy. (As a funny example, I've had a few colleagues who I would ask yes-or-no questions and they would answer "Yes" followed by an explanation of why the answer is no.)

Exporting different norms is quite hard at scale. You need to hire people who are the closest to the norms that you want, but they'll still probably be fare away so you'll also have to invest a lot in propagating the norms you want, which only really works well 1-on-1. When we needed to scale our local Senegal team quickly we ended up having to compromise on some norms to do so (e.g. salary transparency, amount of paperwork).

Why and how to start a for-profit company serving emerging markets

Broadly agree, but:

You might end up making more impact if you started a startup in your own country, and just earned-to-give your earnings to GiveWell / EA organizations. This is because I think there are very few startups that benefit the poorest of the poor, since the poorest people don't even have access to basic needs.

Can't you just provide people basic needs then though? Many of Wave's clients have no smartphone and can't read. Low-cost Android phones (e.g. Tecno Mobile) probably provided a lot of value to people who previously didn't have smartphones. Providing people cell service is hard (if you're not a telecom), but if an area has cell service but no internet you can still make useful information products with USSD, SMS, etc., or physical shops.

(I do think that many good startup ideas in the developing world involve providing relatively "basic" needs! But it seems to me like there's decent opportunity there.)

Why and how to start a for-profit company serving emerging markets

Haha this is probably the first time someone said that about one of my essays—I’m flattered, and excited to potentially write follow ups!

Is there anything in particular you’re curious about? Sometimes it’s hard to be sure of what’s novel vs obvious/common knowledge.

The Future of Earning to Give
I imagine that there a large fraction of EAs who expect to be more productive in direct work than in an ETG role. But I'm not too clear why we should believe that. The skills and manpower needed by EA organizations appear to be a small subset of the total careers that the world needs, and it would seem an odd coincidence if the comparative advantage of people who believe in EA happens to overlap heavily with the needs of EA organizations. Remember that EA principles suggest that you should donate to approximately one charity (i.e. the current best one). The same general idea applies to need for talent: there are a relatively small number of tasks that stand out as unusually in need of more talent.

The "one charity" argument is only true on the margin. It would be incorrect to conclude from this that nobody should start additional charities—for instance, even though GiveWell's current highest-priority gap is AMF, I'm still glad that Malaria Consortium exists so that it could absorb $25m from them earlier this year. Similarly, it's incorrect to conclude from this style of argument that the social returns to talent should be concentrated in specific fields. While there may be a small number of "most important tasks" on the margin, the EA community is now big enough that we might expect to see margins changing over time.

Also, the majority of people who are earning to give would probably be able to fund less than one person doing direct work. If your direct work would be mostly non-replaceable, then this compares unfavorably to direct work. (Seems like e.g. 80k thinks that on the current margin, people going into direct work are not too replaceable.)

Long-term Donation Bunching?

If you're really worried about value drift, you might be able to use a bank account that requires two signatures to withdraw funds, and add a second signatory whom you trust to enforce your precommitment to donate?

I haven't actually tried to do this, but I know businesses sometimes have this type of control on their accounts, and it might be available to consumers too.

"Why Nations Fail" and the long-termist view of global poverty

Whoops, sorry about the quotes--I was writing quickly and intended them to denote that I was using "solve" in an imprecise way, not attributing the word to you, but that is obviously not how it reads. Edited.

"Why Nations Fail" and the long-termist view of global poverty

These theoretical claims seem quite weak/incomplete.

  • In practice, autocrats' time horizons are highly finite, so I don't think a theoretical mutual-cooperation equilibrium is very relevant. (At minimum, the autocrat will eventually die.)
  • All your suggestions about oligarchy improving the tyranny of the majority / collective action problems only apply to actions that are in the oligarchy's interests. You haven't made any case that the important instances of these problems are in an oligarchy's interests to solve, and it doesn't seem likely to me.
"Why Nations Fail" and the long-termist view of global poverty

What's the shift you think it would imply in animal advocacy?

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