March 27th 2013 Kampala, Uganda | Andrew Price | email@example.com | firstname.lastname@example.org | 078-745-8545
And so it begins...
In the words of the immortal Rudyard Kipling, renowned British writer, traveler, and poet "I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago...I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages." Therefore I have left the urban jungle that is Chicago for the more traditional jungles of Uganda. I am here as a Master in Public Administration and International Development candidate from the Monterey Institute of International Studies as well as a Frontier Market Scout for Village Capital, a social entrepreneurship incubator.
More importantly, I am here in Uganda to work, and hopefully help, UpEnergy promote, distribute, refine, and expand their operations throughout Uganda. UpEnergy aims to make clean energy technologies available to more people in the developing world through their distribution and carbon-financing expertise. (http://www.upenergygroup.com) Under the Smart Home brand we sell our flagship product, the Environfit G3300 Wood Burning Stove. The Envirofit is an energy efficient cook stove that drastically reduces fuel costs, cooking time, and smoke emissions from that of the traditional 3 stone fires popular in rural Uganda. In addition to my duties with UpEnergy, I will be sourcing potential entrepreneurs in Uganda to report back on to Village Capital and its network of investors. Exciting stuff!
With this stylish and functional product rural Ugandans are able to enjoy delicious matoke, savory rice, and to-die-for sweet potatoes without the respiratory disease.
I will be taking a different route with this post, perhaps my final one while in Uganda. Six months will have passed by the time that I finally touch down in Chicago, back home to…what? I suspect little has changed amongst friends and family, it seems I am getting to the point in life where routine starts to set in, if not in work or relationships, then in mindset and outlook. Many who travel often or live abroad are confronted with the question of “Am I different now or is every oneelse?” when they return home.
I was recently having this discussion with another expatriate who was soon to return home for the first time in over a year. She was going back to the Philippines after working in Africa has a human rights lawyer, working on something she spent years training for and what she was passionate about. We talked about what it means to go home, to see the same faces, only older now. To know that you may have missed out on big life events like weddings or births, or even deaths, yet to still feel an attachment or responsibility to those who walked with you on your path to adulthood.
My roommate recently returned home, to her native Italy, after spending the better part of eight months working for an NGO in Uganda. While looking forward to seeing her family again, to having a hot shower (I am definitely looking forward to this) and other modern conveniences again, she told me she was also dreading going home. Having made new friends here, people who she shared new experiences with, who, despite having different backgrounds and coming from across the globe, were united in their status as visitor. Going back home means seeing friends who not only did not share her experiences in Uganda, but coming from a small town, have never dreamed of or even desired to know what it’s like to live in a less developed country.
This is not meant to sound pretentious or condescending (though I think it may, oops) but perhaps what changes the most about time away from home, in a foreign land, especially one far less developed from your own, is that your sense of entitlement begins to wane, your comfort in your own identity and sense of what is important beings to shift.
Over the weekend I travelled with a co-worker to his village, about three hours northeast of Kampala along the shores of Lake Victoria. The only way to get to the village is by takingseveral matatus (taxi-vans), followed by a long boda (motorbike) ride down dirt roads. Of course, given my recent luck, it was raining pretty heavily. The shortest route was too muddy to pass so our boda driver took us the long way.Rain lashed our faces and soaked our clothes (I had the foresight to bring a rain coat but I let my co-worker use it as his tolerance for cold is much lower than my own, one of the advantages of coming from Chicago!) as we sped through hills and farmland.
My co-workers main purpose for this journey was to visit eight girls whom he helps through his Church’s charity.Basically he makes sure that the money being donated from Americans is being spent appropriately on the orphans’ school supplies, uniforms, and education fees.He also is there to take photos of each girl to send back to their sponsors,and hopefully maintain the relationships and keep the donations flowing. For around $1000 USD, all eight orphaned girls can have all of the school related fees covered for a whole year. Without that money they would be sent home, to live with the relatives or neighbors who adopted them after the all too common early deaths of their parents. Think about that, for less than $150, a small sum for many in the US, a girl can be educated and have a chance, however slim,of escaping poverty. Of the 600 people living in this village, only a handful have managed to complete secondary school. Some have managed to leave the village and move to the capital, but work in the informal sector, perhaps making a bit more money but also having to deal with the inflated prices in Kampala. Literacy in this village is around 50%, 20% lower than the national average.
Education is particularly important in this village because of the current lack of opportunities and the bleak outlook for the future. Historically this was a fishing village, one that was able to take advantage of the natural coves and abundant fish of Lake Victoria’s western shore. Yet over population, poor fishing practices, and pollution have seen the livelihoods of subsistence fishermen dwindle rapidly. People who used to eat smoked fish every night for dinner, who could count on a net-full of tilapia every other day or so, now often come home empty handed. The fishermen have to travel further and further away from shore, into deeper water, where their simple nets are less effective and the risk of capsizing grows immensely.
One woman I met had lost her husband recently. He drowned, one of the most frequent causes of death here other than disease, while out at night, far from shore. A wave knocked him overboard where he was standing, throwing his net out in hopes of bringing home something to sell at the market or at least something to eat. His rubber boots filled with water, quickly pulling him down. Like many who fish for a living in Uganda, he was not a strong swimmer. His widow now lives in their small, one room brick home, with their ten children. Ten children for one woman to take care of…it is hard to believe.
My co-worker and I sat on her dirt floor, as there is no furniture beyond some mats laid down for sleeping. There are no doors, the roof is mud and sticks. She had never attended school, had little land to speak of, just enough for a garden, and yet she had ten mouths to feed,not including her own. My co-worker assured me that they had enough to eat, how I still do not understand, but that there was no money left over for schooling.The woman showed me a picture of her deceased husband, literally a picture ofhim dead, pulled from the lake, lying on a white sheet, presumably before his burial. She spoke no English, but my co-worker translated the sad story of her husband’s death. Their culture is one where witchcraft and magic are still prevalent.Wizards can be found out at night, wandering the forest paths. Death is not something natural, so the widow believed that spirits knocked him over board.
At least eight or nine children hovered around us, or me rather, as I was the only white person to visit in the last year. My co-worker was going to give her around 5000 shillings, about two dollars, to help her buy some salt or sugar. I could see need on her face, and shame in her eyes, as I gave her 20,000 shillings instead. While nothing to me,it was probably two or three weeks earning for her. If she makes money at all from doing small chores for others, it is immediately spent. Her only assets are her garden and her house.
The children here are all under ten years old, and all small for their age. A couple of children have the beginnings of distended bellies, the most obvious sign of malnourishment. They are all quite dirty, some with open sores and lesions that have not been treated. Others have lumps and growths of diseases I can’t identify, still others have the lethargic look of the malaria infected. Living on the still shore of Lake Victoria, as picturesque as it may be, subjects them to the whims of the mosquitos who dominate the area. I couldn’t help but think how irresponsible the widow’s husband was. How can a man have ten children, be the only source of family income, work a risky job in a dying industry, and expect to provide for his family? They were barely getting by when he was alive, they were truly struggling after his death.
What is the solution? I walked through the village, happy children in my wake, touching my skin, playing with my watch, and had trouble seeing much hope for them as adults. I am completing my Masters degree in International Development, ostensibly all about poverty alleviation and human welfare, yet I see no good answers. My co-worker, like most Ugandans, wants to bring the gospel to these people, his people. He believes that their traditional beliefs are what keep them from educating their children, preferring to bring the young boys out on the water to learn fishing and have the girls remain at home to learn housekeeping. While he is right that there is no future for them on their current trajectory, I have trouble believing another church will be the answer.
Yet my co-worker got out, he became educated, and it was because of the church. He, an orphan himself, was educated in a one room school house with no windows or doors, the same school attended by those eight girls he was helping. The few reading materials he had were religious in nature. Despite his family being Muslim, he was drawn to Christianity. Even his sister was sponsored by a deeply religious American from rural Washington State, all her school expenses covered. Her sponsor frequently sent over books, all of them about Christianity, for my co-worker and his sister to read, to learn English. And you know what? It worked. He got out, has a career, and is now able to giveback to his village. With all the reports of wasted aid money, corruption, and bad development outcomes, a woman in rural Washington was able to make a real difference in someone’s life, and the impact will continue to snowball thanks to his desire to help his fellow villagers, a desire inflamed in large part due to the Christian literature he grew up reading.
Like most westerners my age, I am very cynical of religion, and as a non-believer myself, I find the great religious in situtions involvement in Africa to be predatory and often unethical. The poorest people are the most susceptible to the seductive messages of salvation,reward, and a relief from suffering. The reality is often that the Church or Mosque is the nicest structure in the area, the priest or imam is the richest villager, and the poor are duped into given what meager incomes the have to the church in hopes of all their problems disappearing.
And yet, there are 8 girls in a village now who are being educated because of those same organizations. There is a young man, my co-worker, who travels for hours back to his village to try and help those he grew up with, because of religion. It is a small amount of charity on an incredibly small scale, but one that may actually have a real impact. To be fair, the odds of those eight girls growing up and leaving the village are still next to nothing. They will most likely be married off at a young age to become a housewife and child bearer, trapped in the poverty and stagnancy of village life. But perhaps, with an education, they will practice family planning. Or perhaps there will be some opportunity in the future brought about by development like electricity or shipping or agriculture that they are better able to take advantage of due to their educations. Maybe they will be able to make an income on their own, and not find themselves widowed with ten children to feed, and no hope moving up the income ladder.
I met with the headmaster of the little school my co-worker attended, now with four rooms and a tin roof, and Iasked him what the one thing he wanted most for his school. He said computers. As an educated man himself, he knew the importance of knowing how to type and to use the internet. However, there is no electricity in this district. Uganda,nationwide, has only a 12% electrification rate, lowest in East Africa. The headmaster shared the story of a young graduate of his who traveled to the districts largest city, Logozi I believe, for work. He passed all the employment tests until the computer one. He didn’t know how to operate a keyboard, he didn’t know how to google some basic information, so he didn’t get the job. Now he is back in the village, trying to make a living as a fisherman, 20 years old with two children and a third on the way.
It is amazing the advantage that people in the West have over those in developing countries. I can barely even remember when I started using a computer but I know it was in the first grade. We in the West have such a wealth of soft skills, like computer literacy, travel,businesses norm familiarity, exposure to different cultures and ideas, things that a rural Ugandan has no chance of learning. Add on top of this our superior educations and schools, extra-curricular activities, access to books and media and there is no contest. Even simple things like having light to study by at night,or having enough food in the morning to eat to get our brain going, is something people in this village don’t have, and won’t have for the foreseeable future.
So what can be done? I think first there needs to be a focus on what the people of the villages do have. They have time, they are a source of cheap labor, they live on the banks of a major lake and trade thoroughfare, and they have youth. Simple projects like skills training, vocational schools, or access to electricity can change things enormously. Running a wire from the main town to the village, giving the schoolchildren and the adults access to the internet, can offer brand new opportunities. They can learn about and order new seeds for their crops as they switch from fishing to agriculture. They can learn how to type and operate a computer so they can find work in the service industry. They can be hired by organizations like my own as inventory managers or drivers or secretaries. Simple things that I learned as a first grader could allow a select few people from the village to leave, to generate a solid income, and hopefully come back motivated like my co-worker to help others climb out of poverty.
There are small efforts going on in Uganda, like the church in America that funds eight orphaned girls’ education,or the community savings groups which help people pool money and get loans, or companies like mine who sell solar lanterns and improved cook stoves to save people money on fuel costs and prevent further deforestation. But the need ishuge, and the obstacles to overcome are even greater. Is there a large scale solution?Can the government, large NGOs, the private sector, and others come together to provide real opportunities for people? It remains to be seen.
I confess I came to Uganda, to work for UpEnergy, only because I wanted to get as far away from home as possible. I wasn’t thinking about what I would see or do, who I would meet, or what kind of person I would become. I have been able to do some soul searching, to see that I was not, am still not, the person I want to be. There is a lot more I can do to give back for the blessings, for lack of a better word, that have been bestowed on me. There is a lot more I can do to pay back the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been invested in me by family, friends, and society. I have seen people living in challenging situations, still happy on a day to day basis, but suffering more than their fair share. And I have seen small acts of kindness, of hope, mixed in with the destitution and cynicism so common these days.
Despite the long and rambling path this post has taken, with ideas half thought out and conclusions few and far between, let me bring it back full circle. Have I changed? I think not yet. Do I know that I have to now? Yes, most definitely. Before I left Chicago, before some things happened in my life back home, before this year began I thought I had things figured out, which was the biggest mistake of all. So now,uncertainty reigns supreme, but I have new experiences and new relationships and new insights to draw upon.
On to the next adventure.
With changes in the Carbon market (trading at around 5% of its value 2 years ago) there is pressure on clean energy technology companies to find ways of selling their products without carbon subsidies as they will not be around much longer. In that vein I conducted a study with the help of Micro Energy Credits (a US based social business) and Pride Microfinance (the largest microfinance bank in Uganda) to determine if there was sufficient demand for improved cook stoves at a higher price point and to better understand the Pride clientele. For two weeks our team conducted surveys, did demonstrations, provided samples, and traveled to different Pride Microfinance branches. We translated the studies into three languages as english literacy is still fairly low in many parts of the country.
The next two weeks I will be cleaning and analyzing the data. The hope is that with a better understanding of member interest in improved stoves and a better understanding of the income levels, spending habits, and overall assets of Pride customers, we and our partners can meet the challenge of providing subsidy free clean technologies to the masses.
Alright, lets be honest for a second. The only reason anyone would look at this blog is because they assumed it was written by a gorilla about gorillas. So instead of disappointing everyone for yet another week with reports on clean cooking and what not, ill post a video of some gorillas! As you can see, we got very close and for the most part they were just curious of us. They have no natural predators so basically all we did was briefly interrupt the walking buffet that is their life. Enjoy!
So over the months I have been here in Uganda I have been fortunate enough to see some of the growth of our micro entrepreneurs. Our most successful to date has been Aaron, who regularly outsells the retailers in his chosen districts. He has had so much success that he now has his own agents who sell on his behalf, he has taken out 3 consecutive Kiva loans (and repaid them in record time), and is planning renting warehouse space in one of the northern districts. This is quite the achievement for a man who has over come incredible odds.
Above is a video clip of Aaron talking about how his partnership with us has helped him to become a better business man, expand his horizons, and grow as a person. The sound quality is poor, and my film-skills are even worse, but hopefully it gives a flavor of what a social business hopes to achieve. Aaron's success has made him a case study for our organization, and we continue to try to incorporate his experiences and strategies into the trainings we give our new micro-entrepreneurs.
On a Wednesday in June UpEnergy was contacted by a research firm that wanted to conduct willingness to pay studies on improved cookstoves in Uganda. Naturally we shouted, hell yeah! A professional firm, with a United Nations funded budget, is willing to perform the same tests I have been slowly performing with a staff of me and a driver? Yes please. The catch was we needed to supply them with 30 units of our Ezy Stove and 30 units of the E.U.F charcoal stove in 24 hours. This was a challenge because the Ezy stoves do not come assembled, and the E.U.F. stoves are artisan made in Uganda, which means they sometimes suffer from some poorer quality standards and lack of uniformity. Not to mention we did not actually have 30 in stock. So it was my job to collect and deliver the stoves to the research firm which required me to go to the E.U.F. factory. Expecting to come across a big warehouse off a major road, I was curious as to why my driver had pulled off onto a small dirt strip of a road down into a slum behind a petrol station. I commented that there was no way the factory was back here because large trucks could not manage to get down the narrow streets between the shacks and small shops.
Yet sure enough, we soon came upon a 'factory' that consisted of 3 mud and brick and stick buildings. Workers were hammering away at metal sheets that would form the stove casings, painters were coating the assembled stoves, and all of this was done outside. While we at UpEnergy mainly import expensive American-designed, heavily-researched, university-tested products, I was refreshed to see a real social business in action, competing against the big boys. A Ugandan start-up addressing Ugandan needs, employing Ugandan engineers and artisans.
I recently attended a 1 day conference hosted by the WorldBank and the Ugandan National Alliance for Clean Cooking (UNACC). The purpose of the conference, aside from a free poolside lunch at a nice hotel, was to bring together people from the clean cooking sector in Uganda to discuss the feasibility of introducing Results Based Financing(RBF) mechanisms into the Ugandan market.
An RBF is a financing tool which shifts the risk from the donors to the recipients. Money is only given once pre-agreed objectives have been met, sort of like a prize for completing a project and meeting certain goals. Carbon-financing is an example of an RBF, but with the carbon market in the toilet, and projected to be so for the next couple years, the World Bank is looking to create some more accountable financial programs to help increase stove adoption. Personally I think finding ways to make consumers actually want to buy improved cook stoves, and finding ways for them to be able to afford to buy clean cook stoves, will determine the future and success of the sector.
But, who am I?
One of the major challenges of efforts to increase the adoption of improved cook stoves is the price barrier. Not only is it expensive to source, market, and distribute stoves in rural areas, but many customers are not quite ready to adjust their spending behavior. For example, a typical small restaurant will buy 2-3 cheap clay charcoal stoves a year. Spending money only when the previous stoves break. Our products, on the other hand, can last 5 years, and they come with a free 1 year warranty. However, the upfront cost will be around 4-5 times higher than the traditional stoves. In the long run, our stoves are cheaper, they use less fuel meaning customers will experience greater cost savings over time, and they produce less smoke, leading to better health outcomes over time.
Yet all of this knowledge means nothing to people who are used to spending small amounts of money frequently over making investments for the long term. One of the most important lessons I learned from my time studying international development was that "a change in knowledge doesn't equal a change in behavior". It is up to the clean energy and health communities to come up with innovative ways to make people change their behavior, and to move beyond simple advocacy and messaging.
Whitewater rafting the Nile is something I highly recommend to anyone interested in water sports. The river is deep, so there is little to no risk of injuring yourself on rocks. The water is warm, so wiping out is not quite as shocking. And the rapids are pretty nuts - ranging from class 5 to class 3. The guides on the boats are ridiculously good at steering, navigating, and giving orders. In all honesty I think they could have rafted more effectively by themselves than with 7 mzungus paddling out of sync. There were about 6 rafts full of people going out with our group, and several Ugandan kayakers whose job it was to grab people who fell out and collect the oars we inevitably dropped as we flipped over in our raft. There was even one larger raft that carried the water, sunscreen, pineapple (which was cut up for us halfway through the day, after the fourth rapid), and other supplies. Basically one guy had to navigate with two long boat oars all the rapids. Flipping over was not an option.
All in all it was a great time, despite spraining my wrist, getting a little sunburned on my knees, and taking an oar to the face. After the 28km journey up the Nile we pulled our boats out at a campsite where we were given food, beer, and a chance to rest. www.raftafrica.com - Nile River Explorers
Always be prepared...is a pearl of wisdom I chose not to take to heart on my most recent excursion into rural Uganda. My friend, visiting from Kenya, and I decided at the last minute to go gorilla tracking in Bwindi National Park in the southernmost part of Uganda. While the guide book suggests booking permits months in advance, we chose the road poorly traveled and just took a 13 hour bus ride down to Bwindi without any money hoping we could bargain our way into an adventure. We did! The gorilla tracking was really interesting despite the pain of travel and the expense of the permit. We hiked along a densely forested mountain trail with a couple of guides and a Dutch couple for about an hour and a half before the guides got word that the gorillas were heading our way. In the dense bush you could see the plants rustling as the gorillas moved from place to place, eating their way out of the shade and into the sunlight.
Most of the gorillas had no issue with humans being very close, within a couple of feet. The deaf one especially seemed not to care. Only the largest silver back, the alpha male, seemed to stay hidden from us, moving before we could get too close. As they have no predators besides the occasional human poacher, the gorillas just seem to wander around eating all day, staying within 50 meters of each other. At one point we were surrounded by 12 of the 15 members of the gorilla family our group was tracking, making for some quick glances over our shoulders as we snapped photos of the gorillas in front of us.
After our hour with the gorillas, we rode a collective 120 kilometers on a boda (motorcycle taxi) from the park to the closest bank in order to pay for the permit. After we finished we hopped on a night bus for the 10 hour journey back home. Quite an exhausting two days. And to think we went white-water rafting on the Nile River just a day later!
Our new shipment of our newish product arrived this week and all hands are on deck because some assembly is required. The ironically named Ezystove, another improved cook stove designed in the US, is actually a fair amount of work for us at UpEnergy to assemble. Like Ikea furniture, the Ezystove has a clean and spartan design, looks nice when completed, and is functional. However, it takes around 1/2 hour to put together one unit and can do a little damage to your hands. Multiply that by a whole shipping container full of the things and we can pretty much cancel any breaks we had penciled in...
Despite living thousands of miles away from my home in Chicago, I am still just a short drive from a Bah'ai Temple. There are only a handful in the world, one on each continent, and the two oldest are the only two I have visited. The one in Kampala has a simpler and more geometric design than the one in the US. It consists of nine sides with nine doors and nine stained-glass windows. Above four of the doors is an inscription written in Persian, I think, saying something roughly like Glory of God. The temple sits on top of one of Kampala's many hills, and affords visitors a beautiful view. My housemate and I were lucky to go on a clear day where we could see for miles...or kilometers. The temple is open to all, and several wedding parties took advantage of the weather to take some really nice photos and enjoy a quiet space in the otherwise bustling city. I even managed to make a few friends.
These last few weeks have seen the beginnings of UpEnergy's Kiva pilot program. Our best entrepreneur, in terms of sales and motivation, was funded in less then a day. He has just finished repaying his loan (3 weeks ahead of schedule) and is ready to apply for another one. We also have two other micro entrepreneurs who are starting their Kiva loan program, both of which are very excited about the opportunity to increase their inventory of stoves while still maintaining a steady reserve of disposable income. It is hard sometimes for people in the West, who have bank accounts, credit cards, ATMs on every corner, online banking, and so much more, to understand how hard it is to manage money or get access to capital in the developing world. Add on top of that a dysfunctional and corrupt government, and the risk of holding Ugandan currency sky rocket, making banking less appealing and interest rates prohibitively high.
Programs like Kiva allow for micro entrepreneurs like Aaron, Josephine, and Dennis to get access to zero interest and zero fee credit, which enables them to work so much more efficiently then normal. Beyond Kiva, Africa is starting to see a huge growth in mobile money, using a cellphone platform, ATM access, and micro finance banking systems. The majority of Ugandans still do not bank, and thus have little savings and almost no access to credit, but things are trending upward.
Like many developing countries (or I suppose by definition), Uganda is going through a period of transition. No where is this more apparent then in the capital Kampala. The streets are full of foreign cars, everyone and their grandmother has a cell phone, advertisements for products ranging from beers, to mobile money, to airlines fill the storefronts, and American music is blasting at the 24 hour clubs. What makes it more interesting, and jarring, is the proximity between the old ways of doing things and new, more western ways.
Pictured above are Lugogo Mall, one of the modern malls that are becoming more and more common in Kampala, and Owino Market. Lugogo mall contains a major supermarket, a South African version of Wal-Mart, an Apple store, a Samsung outlet, trendy cafe's and even a fast-food chicken restaurant. Not more then half a mile away is the Owino Market, Kampala's historical trading center. There you find everything from vegetables, meats, electronics, clothes, and building materials, to hair salons, show repair shops, betting outlets, and phone charging stations. Each is crowded at all times of the day. While Lugogo mall typically serves a more wealthy clientele (and is always rife with mzungu's), many Ugandans frequent both. When I visit Owino I stand out like a sore thumb, but in Lugogo I am just another expat. Each has its perks.
As the week progressed we met with more and more board members, accountants, chair-people, and even loan officers to not only sell them products or check-in, but to tell them about a new financing option available. Part of my duties on the trip was serving as the Kiva Coordinator for UpEnergy. The program is just a pilot but the hope is that, with the help of the Kiva platform and access to individuals with capital, SACCO's will be able to purchase our products on credit. It was my job to explain the idea to whoever we were fortunate enough to find at the SACCO office, explain the benefits, and convince them to bring it to the board for approval.
One of the complaints by these small micro savings and credit institutions is the lack of capital they have to make bulk orders. By partnering with Kiva, we are now able to give them products on credit without having to find investors or bear much of the default risk. The loan terms are no interest and no fees which is very attractive to those we spoke with. However, dealing with internet illiteracy, generally weak management skills, and risk averse SACCO management proved to be a challenge. Some are not ready or able to take on the responsibility of paying back a loan. That being said, I think we found some promising partners to pilot the Kiva program. It is a lot of work to manage but hopefully it will pay dividends and strengthen our relationships in the long run.
This past week I spent on the road with a few of my colleagues. We traveled throughout the South and West of Uganda, close to the Congo border and Bwindi National Forest before circling back East. Driving our van loaded with stoves and solar lamps up and down the dirt roads of rural Uganda gave us a chance to help our Savings and Credit Co-Operative (SACCO's) partners to market SmartHome's products and mission. A SACCO is like a village bank, where members are able to save money which is then pooled and loaned out on credit, back to members. The photos above are of the first All General Meeting (AGM) we attended on the road close to President Museveni's village. Needless to say that road was actually paved! An AGM is where members of the SACCO, those who have accounts with the organization, get to talk to the board, go over the annual report, and air grievances or make suggestions for the future. SmartHome partners with SACCO's to help us distribute our products to rural areas and to constituents that are too expensive for us to visit ourselves. By selling directly to SACCO's, we get the added benefit of having our stoves sold on credit without us having to perform due diligence or take on credit-risk We have had varying levels of success with these relationships. I went along to help develop and expand on those relationships in addition to offering a fresh view point on the strengths and weaknesses of our current relationship model, among other projects.
Friday I went along with the sales team for a day trip North of Kampala. It was my first chance to actually sell and see what the guys do on a regular basis. I was with the team that visited schools and offices, selling to staff during their breaks. We had one of our cheaper charcoal products, manufactured in Uganda, which was also less aesthetically pleasing, making it a tough sell sometimes. My being the only white person in town always brings a crowd...of little children...who are not exactly full of disposal income. But after traveling to different campuses and selling from the truck (always a show with music blasting from our generator powered speakers) we managed to push out most of the product. A long day in the hot sun...preparation for my 6 day 5 night trip next week...S**t
One of the biggest challenges facing companies, especially those in the small goods sector, attempting to serve the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) is making the economics work. Typically the four billion people who make of the BoP are often difficult to reach, have little or no cash on hand, most likely have no access to credit, and are expensive to serve due to geographic dispersion. In order to get products they demand into their hands, it is up to organizations like UpEnergy to market effectively, efficiently, and cheaply. While the first day of business school covers the four P's of marketing (Pricing, Product, Place, Promotion) it has been found that those tools are incredibly useful but still lacking in addressing some of the needs specific to the BoP. Fortunately there is an effort made by groups like the Gates Foundation, Shell Foundation, and others to address the lack of research and best practices in the field of Marketing to the BoP. Report: http://www.hystra.com/opensource/marketing_for_the_BoP.html
So as part of the duties of the marketing team we go around the neighborhood to local restaurants and offer them a proposal. They are given one of our new stoves, a new product we are unsure will sell in the Ugandan market, and they keep it for one week free of charge. After that week we return and ask them how much they would be willing to pay for such a stove. If it matches our secretive break-even cost (or ideally exceeds it!) they can buy the stove. Otherwise we record their willingness to pay, the willingness of people whom they talked to about the stove or demonstrated it too (as is often the case in some of the smaller joints, where the stove is out in the open) and we collect the information into a database. This is then used to inform our decision to order more from across the planet or to hold off. The week long trial period also lets people, and us, test the manufacturers claim that the charcoal stove uses half the fuel. If so, it translates into about 30,000 Ugandan Shillings in savings a week for the average restauranteur.
Easter in Uganda is a four day affair spanning from Good Friday through "Easter Monday". Most Kampalans go back to their village in the countryside to attend church and celebrate the holidays with their massive families. I was fortunate enough to spend Easter afternoon with a colleague who stayed in Kampala for the weekend. He took me down to the coast where we visited what can loosely be described as a beach. Essentially it was a meter wide strip of sand/mud that was supporting crowds of hundreds of Ugandans. As the only foreigner there I got quite a few stares but that didn't stop me from eating the chicken on a skewer from a local stand and getting a nice sunburn. The beach is located at Port Bell, named after the Bell Brewery, which ships Uganda's national beer. The whole place smelled of hops and malt, interesting to say the least.