Not money transfers, an agent network

Mike Quinn, my direct manager, just got back from Kenya where he spent some days seeing M-pesa—the world’s best mobile money network—in operation. Talking with him about what he saw, here are some thoughts that came to mind.

1. It’s all about a network of agents able to deal with both cash and electronic credit for all kinds of purposes. It’s not about selling airtime, not about sending money, not about paying bills. It’s about managing a whole network that works together to serve all kinds of financial needs that people have.

2. There’s a lot of smart and experienced people out there when it comes to mobile money. It might be a young industry, but the experience that people gained in getting M-pesa off the ground was huge, and there’s plenty of other companies now competing in the same space. These experts can see three steps ahead of where we can.

3. There are many ideas and visions for mobile money, but the value is in what exists in fact. That is, the proof is in the pudding. Getting a workable model of an agent network up and running is tough work and the challenges likely vary a lot from place to place. The people working in our office everyday put in lot of time and effort without a clear road map to follow to eventual success. Improvisation and sweat and what we have to muster up every single day.

But when you finally reach Fort Chip, you can really see what a feat this all is. Just think: a whole network of agents able to provide dozens financial services to anyone off the street. It’s like a thousand different airports all in sync to allow anyone to travel around the world. It’s like a country-wide road and filling station network allowing anyone with a car to arrive anywhere.

It’s quite a feat to try and pull off.

Teddy’s Wedding in Kitwe

where all Zambia adventures begin

We hopped on the early bus and shot through the cool Zambian morning northward to the Copperbelt. We were going to Kitwe, where our friend Teddy Sampa was getting married. It was to be my first Zambian wedding.

broke down bus-skis

broke down bus-skis

But we were waylaid. The bus had trouble, and we could smell the burning rubber of a brake problem. The bus slowed to the side of the road then stopped. After some minutes on the phone with head office, the conductor informed us that another bus was on its way. We were already 200km plus from where we began, so it would be a wait.

Deciding to brave the noonday sun, we went walking in search of lunch. We bought four plain buns, but plenty of sweet potato, though none of it was cooked. Back at the bus, we drank the complimentary soda that we had earlier declined. It was hot, and we read or novels and dozed, and sure enough the other bus came a bit shy of three hours later.

Late in the afternoon we arrived in Kitwe. What a nice place: broad streets, well-kept (though small) city parks, and a lively downtown. At After Ten, an Indian owned restaurant chain, a shy waitress served us the best Greek salad and chicken biryani to be found in Zambia. We walked to find a cheap but cute rest house, Lynda’s Lodge, and showered before slipping into our dress clothes.

Teddy with a big ol' smile

Teddy with a big ol' smile

The wedding was lots of dancing, frequent power outages, and pleasant food. Teddy beamed throughout, showing he was truly happy as most Zambian wedding grooms, as a customary rule, fix their most stern scowls for the duration of the reception. None of our photos turned out due to the low light and my camera’s low battery.

rh-u-u-u-mba!!

rh-u-u-u-mba!!

All was finished by 10 PM for weddings end early here. So we scooped up the bridesmaids, slipped back to our lodge where we had one or two, and hopped a cab for the closest club. For a dollar’s cover charge we entered La Frontier (reminding us of our closeness to the Congo) and danced to rhumba and Zam-pop until our freshly-pressed wedding attire was sweaty and disheveled.

The bus ride back the next morning was uneventful, which was a restful ending to a great weekend of fun and friends.

Patience is more than a virtue

We took the bus up to Kitwe on Saturday, happy to be on the bright blue, air-conditioned bus of Zambia’s best bus company. Always on time, always safe, and always great with customer service. This is unheard of in Zambia. I love this company and rarely take any other.

The route up to Kitwe, however, is a new one for the company. They’re entering a new market. Their brand is not known up there and is thus not as trusted. I figure it’s just a matter of time before they impress customers that are used to non-existent schedules, long waits, and frequent breakdowns.

But, what’s that they say? TIA? This is Africa.

About 86 km from our destination, the bus broke down, and we were told that another one would come get us, but only after 2 hours. So we waited. It ended up taking 3.

I normally get irate when things like this happen. But this time, I was completely content, happy and confident that the bus company was trying their best to help us out.

When the new bus arrived, the staff were apologetic. They brought us cold drinks and biscuits as consolation.

I sunk into the seat as the bus started off with this thought in my head: Patience is more than a virtue when it comes to doing business in Africa. It’s a necessity. Consumers need to be able to trust businesses, but I’ve always felt that forgiveness is simply the other side of the same coin.

I will keep this in mind as Mobile Transactions, itself a high-potential start-up, impresses – and disappoints – as it gets on its feet.

We are suffering

For my first two months back in Zambia this year, I stayed in a small house of the address 540 Kabwata. The neighbourhood is a little medium-density suburb of Lusaka close to the centre of town. This was where I was living from September up until going home at Christmastime. But while last year at 540 Kabwata were great, these two months back were grim.

The reason: way too much rain.

And so our home lost it street address for a new moniker: Swamp Kabwata. Swamp was so much more fitting given that

  1. our main street was now completely destroyed—formerly gravel, it was now long pools of stagnant water broken up lumpy rocky outcroppings;
  2. standing water ran right up to our doorstep (though thankfully no further);
  3. concrete stepping stones were required to get from our doorstep to the main (non) road;
  4. the ditches were all silted in;
  5. any trees remaining from the deluge were now trampled by people searching for a dry place to walk;
  6. stuck automobiles were commonplace;
  7. I wore gumboots to work.

It was enough to make you cry. Or make you angry. Critters started rooming in our house to stay dry. Flies seemed to have no where else to go. I became completely lethargic: just the thought of journeying to the road sapped my ambition. Our Zambian flat-mate, Marvin, who owns a construction company and can’t help but bring his work home with him, seemed mostly unperturbed: the welding and metal grinding of his makeshift machine shop continued un-abated on the porch (nevermind that his power cords were submerged in water).

It was all summed up very well one day by a shopkeeper whose canteen had been washed half a block down river (down road).

“We are suffering.”

If it doesn’t say Harvetile

I am certain that this must have been blogged about before. It’s almost too good to be true, too easy. Maybe they even meant to do it, you know, as a prank.

Whatever the history, I give to you Exhibit A: How a Marketer Loses His Job.

Management is Struggling

We, Mobile Transactions, are in a growth spurt where 40-50% monthly increases in customers is now the norm. Also now the norm is a tightening pain in my chest that arrives when I step into the office and dissipates only once I’ve poured myself an after-work cup of tea back at the apartment.

For me, this is basically was managing is: a certain form of psychologically-produced physical pain (clenched chest, for me, maybe headaches, or subtle nausea for others)—felt while endlessly struggling to keep things moving along as discouragement continuously ebbs and flows.

Easy outs to the responsibility of managing are:

  1. becoming an angry and irritable ogre;
  2. doing only the easiest, and thus most trivial of jobs;
  3. delegating tasks without a clue as to how they’ll be done or how you even want them to be done;
  4. many others.

Management: it’s not easy. Though I probably always thought it was. Worse, almost certainly, would be to have your own money invested as seed capital or shares. This hasn’t been me (at least for now).

And so, this is us: the Management Team. Slowly moving things forward, resisting discouragement, evading (by a half-step) becoming overwhelmed by To-Do lists, while trying to wring fulfillment out of what we’re doing. It’d be far too much pain for so little gain if there’s wasn’t something personally worthwhile to each of us in all of this.

We struggle along. Me too, with too much chest tension for a 27-year old.

What if NGOs had a customer care line?

I recently started working at Mobile Transactions, a company that does money transfers on mobile phones in Zambia, among other things.  I’ll write more about the company and my specific project on another post, but for now, I just wanted to write about something that pinged me at today’s management meeting.

We have a Customer Care director who sits at a phone and computer all day listening to feedback – in the form of phone calls, SMSs, emails, and even drop in visits – from the 75 agents around the country who process the money transfers and the 4000 customers who send and receive money.  He generates a daily report based on what he hears and the trends he sees, and it’s used by the management team to make day-to-day decisions.

This information is invaluable for the company;  we live or die based on how well we can respond to the demands and needs of our customers.  The Customer Care line is a direct conduit for feedback, and in many ways, it’s our life line.

The last NGO I worked at refused to call the farmers we worked with “beneficiaries” and was adamant that we call them “clients” or “customers” instead.  They did this to maintain a business-like culture and to instill a strong sense of accountability.  And it worked:  This NGO listened to farmers all the time.  Their field staff were constantly receiving feedback at farmer meetings, through phones calls, and when farmers would visit their offices.

But this incredibly valuable information – most of it tacit – was never compiled at a central point and used to inform decision making.  The only formal mechanism for feedback was the NGO’s annual M&E survey; it was an arduous task, taking weeks for enumerators to conduct interviews and months to enter the data, analyze it, and create reports.  Day-to-day decisions, even mission critical ones, weren’t effectively informed by information from the field.

If NGOs really want to be more business-like and treat the farmers they work with like customers, then I think they should open up a customer care line at the head office and dedicate one person to manage it.  The farmers they work with have mobile phones or can access one if they need to send an SMS.  Field staff can report the things they see in the field as they happen.

The information gathered may not be as statistically sound as a survey report, but I reckon its sheer expediency could improve the effectiveness of the NGO’s work many times over.

Why a farmer-first approach might not work

Picture a small scale farmer in Zambia.

Imagine all the things that keep that farmer from running their farm as a profitable business.

There are lots of reasons, but let’s looks at the most commonly cited ones:

Lack of farming and business skills and knowledge.
Lack of capital, financial and otherwise.
Lack of power, societal and otherwise.

All these reasons illicit a common reaction from donors and NGOs:

“Let’s train them.”
“Let’s give or sell them stuff.”
“Let’s empower them by doing the first two.”

Now, for you practitioners out there, think back to the last time you ran a farmer training.

Do you remember how many of those people went home and tried doing something new? Do you remember how many people actually changed their behaviour?

Likely, a very small number. Maybe 5% (the ones that are always quick to adopt), 10% if you’re lucky.

Why is that? Is that an acceptable return on investment?

I’m as big a fan of investing in small-scale farmers as anyone out there, so I can’t help but feel disappointed by this outcome. Even if you use the best methods and even if you design all the best incentives, programs that employ training and technology subsidies by rote don’t get very far.

There must be more to it.

What if a farmer’s lack of knowledge and assets is seen as a symptom, not a cause, of the problem? What if you zoomed out and looked at the larger system?

Though an important player, the small-scale farmer is one of many players in a large and complicated market system. The solution to a problem in one part of the system (e.g., with the farmer) may be found in a completely different part of it (e.g., in the financial industry).

This means that the solution to a farmer-focused problem might require a non-farmer-focused solution (e.g., working directly with banks to create a low-margin-high-volume business model, services from which a small-scale farmer can choose to access to improve their business).

I see a lot of organizations moving in this direction, but I’m afraid their efforts will be futile if the image of a deficient farmer continues to loom large in their methods. Training farmers and “linking” them to other players is simply a variation on the same old theme. To truly take a systems approach, one must detach from this image and put the emphasis on creating a more prosperous industry that small-scale farmers can participate in.

I find it difficult to be so clinical about the whole matter, but I do believe it’s what’s needed to create large scale and lasting changes for farmers. My heart wants to take a farmer-first approach, but my head thinks it might be more prudent to focus elsewhere.

Swamp Kabwata

Swamp-front propety

We live in a swamp. It’s rainy season in Zambia, and rumour has it that an equatorial band of precipitation hasn’t made it’s regular annual drift south to Zimbabwe but stayed stubbornly stuck above us.

This means the neighbourhood road leading to our home has been hammered by rain almost daily. If the road was paved, it wouldn’t be a big deal. It the road had decent gravel and soil composition, it wouldn’t be a big deal. If the road had even the semblance of functional drainage, if might not have become a big deal.

The road has none of these things. It has become a big deal. Or, more precisely, a real big pain in the ass. 

You can see the photo. Cab drivers around town now remember my home address and the punishment their cars have taken getting me there. They’ve started declining my business.

I’m now frequenting our neighbourhood gym less often. In the past I had a nice jog to and from working out. Now, if I feel up to going, I put my gumboots on, slog out to the nearest paved road 400-meters away, then change into my sneakers and run carrying my gumboots the rest of the way.

Back at the house we’ve taken to laying concrete blocks as stepping stones in a snaking path down the driveway just to get out our gate. This works until our housemate, Marvin, needs his car.

I took to cursing out the local MP, Mr. Lubinda, for not doing something about the situation. But then the last taxi driver to accept my fare filled me in that Lubinda is from the PF party, not the ruling MMD, so his constituency funds are tied up in bureaucratic politicking. Sigh.

Which brings me to my conclusion. The quickest path to becoming the most popular President of Zambia for all time is this: JBR. Just Build Roads.

And ditches. Don’t forget about drainage. Goes to show what debts this world owes to civil engineering.*

*For the record, I was trained as an electrical engineer. I put this in here to say, “hey, if you or someone you loved ever thought of starting a road building company in Zambia, I’d be pleased as punch (and ready to buy shares).”

Maximum Tolerance to Failure v. Idiot-Proof

A wee bit overwrought for you business types

In a meeting with Dunavant, Zambia’s largest cotton producer, the managing director cuts me off in the middle of explaining our mobile payment system to say:

“Just do whatever you want as long as it’s idiot-proof.”

Considering that I was explaining a roll-out of this system to his field staff and shed managers, that could’ve been taken as a bit of a slight. Instead, I take it as a bit of classic business realism: even the simplest things will be screwed up by well-intentioned fools and it pays to be prepared for it.

Nothing mind-blasting here. But the reason it’s so refreshing is because so often the development sector just doesn’t get this. They’re more concerned with possibilities than what they can actually pull off.

This was duly noted by a crusty English development worker, Eric Dudley, when he wrote in his book “The Critical Villager” that development ideas should be engineered for “maximum tolerance to failure”. In effect, he was exhorting his readers to make their designs idiot-proof so as to actually achieve some success instead of swept away in delusions of what could have been.

“Maximum tolerance to failure” v. “idiot-proof”. The second is some much pithier. Leave it to ‘development’ as a whole to over-complicate things. Leave it to business to get things done.

It’s one more reason why the methods of most modern NGOs are hopelessly unsuitable to making things happen: it takes a veteran author coining an elaborate phrase to sum up an idea every mediocre businessperson already knows.


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Working to include smallholder farmers in agricultural markets, we know there are no easy answers. This blog is a place to ask "What does it take to make it work?" and to share what we're seeing and learning.
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