Posts Tagged 'trust'

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.

Trust in a Taxi

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I was out and about in Lusaka with my favorite taxi driver Eddie. I like him because he’s deliriously funny but also because he’s very fair. I don’t have to negotiate prices with him because I trust that he’ll be reasonable.

Why do I trust him? I never really thought about it until he started talking about lost cell phones. The number one thing people accidently leave in taxis is cell phones. An opportunistic taxi driver would just take them and flip them for some quick cash. But Eddie doesn’t.

“I keep the phone on, and I wait for the owner to call it. When I answer their call, I tell them I’ll bring it back to them. You know why I do this?”

Eddie was being uncharacteristically serious. “Why Eddie?”

“Because after that, they’ll never lose trust in me.”

A lot has been said about the short-sighted nature of business in the developing world. Making money is hard to do in a place like Zambia, so it’s difficult to turn down short-term gains when long-term ones are not guaranteed.

I can see why a taxi driver would take a lost phone and cash-in instead of banking on a random customer’s repeat service. I can also see why a farmer would side-sell to a brief-case buyer instead of fulfilling a contract with an unreliable outgrower. These are rational choices.

At the same time, though, one cannot discount the power of realizing benefits after investing in a relationship. It may take a long time to realize those benefits, and they may not be immediately gratifying, but once you do, I’d say it would be hard for anyone to go back.

Cultivating strong relationships is every good business person’s secret weapon. Eddie actively think about this, that’s why he’s my taxi driver of choice. I wonder how many farmers and agri-businesses do?

Let’s wait and see…

I've got what you want, so why don't we meet more often?

I've got what you want, so why don't we meet more often?

It’s an all-too-common scene: an NGO sets up a meeting between farmers and buyers, but few of the farmers or buyers actually attend.  The NGO invests time and money into engaging potential buyers of farmers’ products and advertizing the meeting to farmers with the goal of creating a link.  It seems like a win-win situation, but often things don’t go as planned.

Last week our project set up a cattle sale day.  The day was advertised widely, a large scale was procured, and the buyers came with trucks and cash, ready to take home purchased cattle.  Four farmers arrived a few hours after the scheduled start time, with only two heads of cattle between them.

Why didn’t more farmers come with their cattle?

We put the question to the farmers that did show up: “We wanted to see if the buyers would actually come, and what price they were offering.”

To get cattle to the sale yard, a farmer would have to walk their cattle as far as 30 km.  If farmers did come with their cattle, they could lose bargaining power with the buyers because the buyers know that the farmers don’t want to walk their cattle all the way back to the farm, and so the buyers can offer reduced prices.

During a previous sale day, the opposite occurred.  Farmers arrived, but only one buyer arrived with a truck.  Just the same, it’s a significant loss for a buyer to bring a truck to a sale only to find no cattle, so they also play wait-and-see.

At the root of this failure to coordinate are issues of trust and power.  Farmers and buyers do want to transact with each other, but they mistrust each other, each seeking to gain bargaining power over the other.  The typical result is that neither party shows up, and no deal occurs.  It’s a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma.

An NGO or other third party can play a role, acting as an honest broker to bring farmers and buyers to the table (or sale yard), but you don’t build trust overnight.  There’s another sale day on September 4th.  We’ll see how many more cattle get sold.

Trust on a bus

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As I handed over my K2500 (US$0.50) fare to the mini-bus driver on my way home from work today, I glanced up to see this on a sticker plastered above the dash, beside the requisite logo of the driver’s favorite football team:

“Even if you know me, just pay.”

I’ve been seeing more and more of these stickers in mini-buses all over Lusaka.

“In God we trust, but in business we pay.”

“You look honest, but I don’t trust you.”

People in Lusaka, and certainly all over Zambia, are incredibly friendly, so on the surface, these stickers seem awfully rude.  But in my constant quest to understand what trust means to Zambians in terms of money and business, these stickers are actually very insightful.

Connecting small scale farmers to markets, products, and services is difficult because it’s all about fostering trust between parties that have never done business before.  This task is made monumentally harder given the dearth of institutional trust in Zambia’s burgeoning economy.

There are no Better Business Bureaus.  There are also no repo men.

Individuals have very little recourse if businesses choose to rip them off.  This happens to me from time to time:  When the mini-bus conductor sees the colour of my skin, he immediately adds a muzungu premium to my fare.  If I retort and get the people on my bus riled up about it (I LOVE mini-bus revolts!), I’m able to save myself from being swindled.  Farmers, without my foreigner’s voice and a bus full of people backing them, are often not so lucky.

But businesses have reason to be distrustful too.  Zambians are notoriously bad for asking for credit and not paying back loans.  With farmers, this habit comes from a post-independence government that gave out lots and lots of agricultural loans but never took punitive measures when they weren’t paid back.

I guess this is a problem on mini-buses too, hence, the stickers.  It’s kind of nice to see them acknowledge this so openly.  It makes me want to track down the guys who are selling these stickers and ask them how I can get some made for my farmer friends.


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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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