Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Leaving Lusaka

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

As my time with Mobile Transactions comes to an end, I realise that the summer has flown and that I could happily have stayed in Zambia for many more months, not just to finish off all the work that seems to have piled up but to discover more of this interesting country and spend more time with the engaging people I have met. It has been a pleasure to work with people with such vision, skill and determination.

The past few months have given me a real insight into a small business in an exciting and growing sector in Africa. Mobile money seems to be a buzz word the world over (as evidenced by fellow students looking at similar regulatory issues in Fiji and the Philippines this summer) but the reality is that, like with any business, it is hard work and not without its risks. The hours are long, the business environment and infrastructure can be challenging and no doubt competition will only increase as this sector evolves. Yet the potential rewards can be great, not just for those directly employed by the business, but also for those who benefit from the reach of electronic transactions into remote rural areas.

ot only did it not take long to feel like a member of the team at Mobile Transactions, but I have also been fortunate to stay with and meet some great people who have made it easy for me to feel settled in my short time in Lusaka. It has been interesting to meet people working at places like the UN, microfinance organisations, donor funded research projects (many relating to HIV/AIDS), development banks, NGOs, agricultural organisations and companies working with carbon credits. In the midst of this massive development industry, the need for investment in small and growing local businesses with a view to promoting economic opportunities for Zambians seems clear.

There may be certain things about Zambia that I will not miss (tsetse flies and unreliable internet come to mind) but overall this has been an unforgettable experience - not just from a work perspective, which was my main motivation for going, but more generally it has made me look forward to discovering more of this continent in the future. So, thank you GBF.

As pictures can so often be more effective than words, my fun and creative housemates in Lusaka have put together this video which I hope gives a flavour of my time in Zambia over the last 10 weeks with GBF and Mobile Transactions. Thanks Laura and Tori!

-Sara

video

Friday, August 20, 2010

Chelo, for now

The first day I walked into the SKEPL workshop, dripping with sweat and cursing the woolen weave of my slacks, I felt a mixture of exhilaration and fear; exhilaration because what I was about to begin was going to be interesting and hard, and fear of being isolated in a job I had never done in a place thousands of miles from my home. What I didn’t know at the time were the generous hospitality of the team and many of the people I met, the gratification of working with a company with an astounding social impact during a dynamic growth period, the stoic, curious faces that would burst into bright smiles when I smiled, and the bonds, some only fleeting, I would develop with the management team, their families, farmers and cooperative employees. Standing in the office on the first day feeling painfully like an outsider, I didn’t realize that I would be able to become part of the Anand and SKEPL communities and that my personal connection to those communities would be what ultimately sustained me.

Ten weeks later, the SKEPL office was transformed from construction site to professional suite; the customer feedback and beneficiary survey implemented in all service centers; internal goal setting and tracking kicked-off; research into the Kenya market and initial expansion planning completed; marketing collateral and tools created; a CEO recruiting process underway; and, perhaps most importantly, the foundation for a productive partnership between GBF and SKEPL established. My last day in the office was a flurry of tying up loose ends, shooting a video interview with the four founders and saying goodbye to the team.

On the morning of my departure, the sun was just coming up as the taxi driver barreled down the expressway towards the Delhi airport and the sleek doors of the brand new international terminal quietly closed behind me. A new day, one already brimming with life, was beginning as my ten weeks in India was coming to a close. I have to say I like the symbolism and think it’s fairly apt; though my time for now has ended, my commitment to India is only just beginning.

- Lauren

Friday, August 13, 2010

24 hours in Livingstone

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

It begins to dawn on me with some dismay that my time in Zambia is drawing to a close and I have yet to visit Victoria Falls. I seem to be running of out of time to do everything I had planned and, as my last weekend in here creeps up on me, I think to myself that a 6 hour bus trip each way may be trying to fit too much in. Unsurprisingly, the Seventh Wonder of the World turns out to be totally worth the slightly hectic start at Lusaka bus station at 5:30 on a Sunday morning. There is a moment of weakness when I thought I might give up and go home when faced with the prospect of a long trip in half an aisle seat at the back of the bus next to a rather large lady. Luckily, I managed talk my way into a window seat and slept through several hours of religious pop, waking from time to time to an electric guitar version of “God is an awesome God”, before arriving at our destination.

The world’s largest waterfall lies nestled between Zambia and Zimbabwe, not far from the small border town of Livingstone which, in recent years, has been benefiting hugely from its neighbour’s economic and political difficulties. It is a spectacular display of nature with 1 million litres of water spilling over the 1.7km lip every second and plunging 108 metres into the Zambezi Gorge. As if on cue, while I am standing in the thundering spray of the falls (in a much needed raincoat), I turn around to see a huge, vivid rainbow disappearing into the rapids below. The significant difference between resident and visitor rates for entry into the National Park means that it has the pleasing atmosphere of somewhere that as a local you might bring your family or girlfriend for the day rather than a more contrived set-up that only tourists can afford.

While in Livingstone, I took the opportunity to visit one of our busiest agents, who runs an internet cafe in the centre of town. Although Alan was not there, I was warmly welcomed by Precious despite turning up at quite a busy time. I also stopped by to meet one of the partner organisations that works with the UN World Food Programme in the distribution of food parcels to beneficiaries with TB, HIV/AIDS and malnourished children. They have been using the Mobile Transactions system since last November to make the process more efficient so that rather than the local NGOs distributing the food themselves (and therefore having to source and store it), they register beneficiaries in the electronic system based on their national identification numbers, and hand out scratch cards. Beneficiaries can use these vouchers to collect their food at certain retail outlets which have been trained by Mobile Transactions and WFP staff to use the system. As soon as these agents successfully enter the ID number, voucher reference number and PIN number into the system through their mobile phones, their account with Mobile Transactions is immediately topped up and these funds can easily be transferred to their bank accounts using a function on their phones.


-Sara

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Farmer’s Day Weekend

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

In my last post I was excited about having seen a couple of elephants from afar. I have now seen more elephants and from closer quarters than I ever thought would be advisable. Farmer’s Day makes a long weekend of the first weekend of August and a few of us headed down to a lovely riverside lodge in Lower Zambezi, a few hours’ drive southeast of Lusaka. While the girls I was with have lived in Zambia for years, I was full of wonder at every twitch of a hippo’s ear, as they sat observing us curiously from their pods. There were moments of slight trepidation as a large herd of young bull elephants prevented us getting back to camp for over an hour at the end of our walking safari. An early morning canoeing trip, with a half-way stop in Zimbabwe, was another highlight of the weekend, particularly when a couple of elephants chose to cross the stream right in front of us.


The reason for the public holiday on the Monday is the Agriculture and Commercial Show, an annual event held in Lusaka over the weekend, which involves exhibitors from all sectors of the economy and provides a good opportunity for networking. Government departments, civil society organisations and international businesses are also represented. I stopped by on Monday, the last day of the event, and found the Commercial Showgrounds packed with colourful stands, business people and families enjoying a day out. I was keen to pay a visit as it is an important event in the Zambian calendar and many of the Mobile Transactions team had worked hard setting up our stand. I hesitate to call it that because it turned out to be a very large building painted in our distinctive bright green and branded all over. Inside, there were staff members speaking to potential corporate clients about our payments services and one of our Champion Agents doing money transfers.

The week before, I attended the presentation of a government commissioned survey, conducted by Finscope, on financial inclusion. The conference was hosted by the Bank of Zambia and included representatives from Government Ministries, Parliament, the Bankers’ Association, financial sector businesses and the media. The survey is intended to provide policy makers with market information as they focus on financial inclusion as a poverty alleviation tool. Given that I spent last semester writing papers on Zambian development, I was very interested to see the Financial Sector Development Plan in action.

There seemed to be a general awareness that banks and financial products have to be relevant to people’s lives if the country, particularly the rural areas, is to be transformed. There is also an understanding that certain underlying barriers to financial access must be addressed, such as general financial literacy and access to standard KYC (Know Your Customer) requirements that are difficult to come by for many (such as proof of address). The presentation made clear the challenges that Zambia faces. A majority of people live in rural areas where most do not have access to safe drinking water, 1 in 5 do not have access to toilet facilities and more than 90% rely on wood and charcoal to cook. Most people have no more than primary education and own just basic assets such as agricultural hand tools.


I thought it was significant that in his opening remarks the Minister of Finance described the worrying situation in which many government employees find themselves when it comes to getting paid in rural areas - he described a teacher having to leave his classroom and walk for a couple of days to pick up his pay and then walk back. For example, Northern Province, which has a larger area than Greece and a population of around 1.5 million, has 9 ATM machines and 17 bank branches. Western Province is only slightly smaller and has 5 ATMs and 6 bank branches. In Zambia only 14% of people have bank accounts (less than this in rural areas), 9% rely on financial products from non-bank financial institutions (e.g. micro finance) while another 14% rely on informal financial products. This leaves 63% of the population financially excluded, which is in stark contrast with somewhere like Kenya where 33% of the population falls into this category.

These statistics suggest a clear role for mobile payment systems, micro-insurance as well as low-cost transaction and savings products and underline the importance of a regulatory framework that supports financial access by promoting a more risk based approach. Although less than 30% of the population in rural areas owns a mobile phone (the figure is 60% for urban areas), there are still many ways that businesses can have a social impact and help reduce risk in these areas. For example, Mobile Transactions works with a large cotton company that does ‘out grower’ schemes (it lends seeds and fertilizer to thousands of farmers at the start of the year and buys back the cotton at the end of the year, deducting the loan from the purchase price). Mobile Transactions has piloted a payments system for Dunavant that allows farmers to be paid more quickly and which should ultimately have an impact on their crop yield and the price at which they can purchase inputs.

Several people have asked me about the food in Zambia. The staple food is called Nshima and is made from ground maize (not dissimilar to Italian polenta) and can be eaten with some meat and sauce or a nice vegetable relish. The tricky bit is eating it in the right way by rolling bits up in your right hand and dipping it in the sauce without using up all the napkins at your table and having to ask the table next door for theirs (much to the amusement of those around you).

-Sara

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Take, and give

After concluding my interview with Dineshbhai Charan, one of the most prolific dairy farmers in the Panchmal district of Gujarat, I closed my notebook and asked, through an interpreter, whether he had any questions for me. The conversation up to this point had been entirely one-sided; me asking probing questions about Dinesh’s family, his livelihood and his thoughts about the future and he answering candidly and thoughtfully to a virtual stranger. Though the warm faces around me gave no indication that they shared in my awkwardness, I felt somewhat sheepish and was relieved when Dinesh looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Well, what can you do for us?” At that very moment, the sky broke into a deluge of rain and a gust of grass-scented wind swept past us. I thought: this is a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

“I realize I’ve asked you a lot of questions and I appreciate how wiling you’ve been to share”, I said, stalling. I went on to explain that I was interning for an impact investment fund that provides capital and technical assistance to companies like SKEPL and that impact investing is a growing field because people see sustainable business as a way of generating substantial and lasting economic opportunities for people. I waited for the translator to finish and saw that, though Dinesh and the crowd around him appreciated the sentiment, it wasn’t resonating as I had hoped. Feeling somewhat intimidated by the question and all of its inherent complexity, I turned up my palms, smiled and said, “I can tell your story.” Impact investing, I continued, isn't simply creative finance with an orientation towards social and/or environmental returns but rather a channel through which financial and capacity building assistance touch the lives of real people like you and your family. Storytelling is one way to make a concept that sometimes defies definition tangible and personal, and can attract people and funding to the industry.

Of course, I’m not entirely satisfied with my response and doubt I’ll ever be. But I believe that Dinesh’s question and the drive to get the answer right keeps us innovating, evaluating, taking risks and demanding more from ourselves and from the world.

- Lauren

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where are the women?

Kankuthambla Dairy Society

Women have been conspicuously absent from the story I’ve told so far. Through the vivid photos I saw of women hauling milk to their cooperatives and the way I had heard the sector described as a key employer of women, I expected to see women queuing up at the cooperatives I visited those first days. When I didn’t, I held out hope that at least a few of the society employees coming into the main office would be women and that perhaps the cooperatives I visited were anomalously male-dominated. Six weeks later and only a few women spotted, I decided to dig a little deeper.

On a trip out to visit SKEPL engineers servicing customers in the Panchmal district, I hit the jackpot. One of the district’s 192 all-women cooperatives was a mere 10 kilometers away from the service center and Shantaben Kantibhai Baraiya, the society secretary, was available for an interview. Shantaben graciously welcomed us into the front room of her home that had been decorated for her son’s wedding with colorful streamers and flowers dangling from the rafters. The long rectangular room was used as a living and dining room during the day and bedroom at night. One corner was lined with empty milk containers and had been taken over by en electronic weighing scale, milk tester and accounting system. Settling in with a sweet cup of chai, I gave Shantaben an eager smile and launched into thirty minutes of questions.

When the village cooperative was run into the ground and ultimately closed several years ago, farmers were required to transport their milk 8 kilometers to the next closest cooperative. The five-hour daily walk meant farmers had to leave their young children unattended for long periods and were only able to work in the fields in the afternoon. As a dairy farmer, mother and preschool teacher, the closure of the cooperative meant Shantaben had to cut back her teaching hours, spend less time with her family and hire someone to look after the farm. Very much the family matriarch and a likely village leader, Shantaben developed a proposal to open an all-women cooperative in her home and solicited signatures from the village farmers. She took the signed petition to the union and was operational within 3 months. When I asked her why she decided to open a cooperative for women only, she responded, “because women help other women and women here needed me.” Since opening the cooperative in 2006, Shantaben has grown the society to 100 women and collects between 200-400 liters of milk per day. She installed an automated milk collection system three years ago and has been pleased with the increased efficiency and her growing comfort with technology. What’s next for the Kankuthambla society? “A pc, hopefully,” says the cooperative’s leader.

The meeting with Shantaben motivated me to learn more women’s involvement in the dairy sector. According to the National Dairy Development Board, 27% of dairy cooperative members are women and only 3% hold board seats in the country’s 130,000 village cooperatives. Harder to quantify is the number of women involved in dairying activities. In a survey of dairy farmers conducted by the Ford Foundation in 2007, 82% of the surveyed male dairy farmers responded that agricultural farming was their main source of income. Between this data and my own anecdotal experiences, I think it’s fair to assume that in the cases where families have multiple income sources, women are involved in some aspect of the family’s dairying, likely the milking and feeding of the livestock.

In response to the low number of women engaged in dairying, the government, private sector and NGOs have implemented a number of programs over the years. The National Dairy Development Board has provided incentives to all-women cooperatives, Amul has trained thousands of women in modern livestock management and SEWA, an NGO based in Gujarat, established the Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Cooperative Federation, a state level organization of women co-operatives. Such programs increased participation of women by nearly 300% between 1986 and 2002. Though the numbers today remain low, with women like Shantaben involved in the solution, I have no doubt more women will join the “white revolution” both as cooperative members and leaders.

- Lauren

Monday, July 26, 2010

Copperbelt Champions

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)


This week is all about agents because they are at the heart of the Mobile Transactions business. Agents are small businesses that are designated by Mobile Transactions to carry out money transfers, voucher redemptions and other mobile payments transactions. The company’s agent network of approximately 130 active agents stretches far into Zambia’s rural areas, giving unbanked customers greater options as to where to send and receive money. Agents earn fees based on the amount of money transferred, make a margin on voucher redemptions and benefit from increased foot traffic in their businesses, which can be anything from agricultural input shops to petrol stations, furniture shops, restaurants or bus companies.


Mobile Transactions has set up a tiered agent network with both Champion and regular agents. Champions are entrepreneurs who run their own dedicated Mobile Transactions shops, usually with the help of a number of staff, and also help to manage and co-ordinate regular agents in their area. They are identified, trained and equipped with phones by the Agent Support team, and branded and painted with the help of the company’s Brand Manager. The first Champions were set up in Lusaka in May 2009, strategically located next to the two main post offices which handle many domestic money transfers. Both Tresphord and Sydney’s stores were swiftly transformed from run down huts into brightly branded shops.


A recent 3 day trip out of Lusaka with the Agent Support team has given me a useful insight into the realities and challenges of the agent business. Our first stop is Kabwe, a town in Central Province about two hours north of Lusaka along the aptly named Great North Road. I watch as the Agent Support staff skilfully and patiently train a number of agents in using the Mobile Transactions system to sell agricultural inputs (such as seeds, fertilizers etc) via the redemption of vouchers issued for a conservation farming project. We also pay a visit to a potential Champion agent who greets us enthusiastically and tells us he has found a location for the new store. A budding entrepreneur, it is clear that Nelson views this as a great opportunity. ”If we make people understand the product, the business is there”. He stresses the importance of finding employees with the right attitude: “I am looking for someone energetic, sharp and with vision”.


We continue north and arrive in Kitwe on day 2. Kitwe is Zambia’s second largest city and the most important in the Copperbelt Province, the mining heart of the country. We visit Sandra, who has been operating as Champion agent in Kitwe for only a short time and is in the process of having her shop branded. Sandra seems excited at the prospect of sharing in the future of the company but is also aware of the challenges of running her own business and the importance of doing a detailed daily cash reconciliation.


On our last morning we take the country’s only rural dual carriageway (apparently the best road in the country) from Kitwe to the pleasant town of Ndola, the capital of the Copperbelt. Given the importance of copper mining to the Zambian economy, it is not surprising that the towns of the Copperbelt have a prosperous feel. Yet urban poverty remains a major issue in these areas. In Ndola we meet Katongo, another Champion agent, who has been working hard to identify premises for her new shop but has not yet started to transact.


Enough about work…I have seen an elephant in the wild! Quite a few of them actually, as well as impala, puku, baboons, waterbuck, kudu, hartebeest, sable antelope, crocodiles, warthogs, a jackal and a large variety of birds. I enjoyed my first game drive during a wonderful weekend spent camping at a pleasant lodge looking out over the Kafue River in Kafue National Park. Kafue is about 3 hours west of Lusaka and, with an area of 22,500 square kilometres, it is Zambia’s largest park and nearly the size of Belgium. My trips out of Lusaka in the past week, have given me a real feel for how vast and varied Zambia is and a new sense of the challenges of building and maintaining extensive infrastructure throughout the country.

-Sara

Friday, July 23, 2010

SKEPL Beneficiaries & Impact-Makers

The beneficiary reach of SKEPL is so efficient and the scale so staggering we found ourselves double and triple-checking our assumptions this week as we calculated the social return on investment. The fact is, with 3 million farmers, 100,000 cooperatives and a 1:350 ratio of milk collection machine to farmer, the SROI can’t be anything but astronomical. For every system installed, SKEPL saves farmers an hour per day in wait time, sells 8000 liters in sample milk that can be sold rather than thrown away and increases the annual bonus per farmer by up to 5%. Though our calculation factored in the increased bonus and sample milk savings, it did not quantify the time saved or the indirect impact on the farmers’ families. If you consider that the system saves 400,000 farmer hours per day and touches the lives of over 1.6M people, the $28 SROI is probably conservative.

As we attempt to digest this mind-boggling impact and potential for scale, we tend to focus on SKEPL and dairy farmers, skipping over the crucial intermediary. I believe the unsung heroes in this story are those running the dairy collection societies day to day, managing the books, purchasing SKEPL products and maintaining the machines, sometimes traveling hundreds of kilometers to do so, opening their doors every day from 6-8 in the morning and again from 6-8 in the evenings, always staying open until the last farmer has poured his or her milk.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a number of society secretaries and chairmen over the last month. Though the details of the stories always vary - some are farmers, some scholars, some straight up businessmen - the same core theme threads through them all: innovation, commitment and a deep-seated satisfaction in their contribution to their communities.

Take Govindbhai Charan, for example. When the dairy collection society in his village had gone bankrupt and was facing imminent closure, Govindbhai, a young corn and rice farmer and the most educated person in the village, felt obligated to intervene. With the support of a few friends, Govindbhai called a village meeting and promised to turn the cooperative around. Under Govindbhai’s management over the past fourteen years the Vavdi Khurd cooperative has grown from 30 members to 500; 40 liters per day to 2500 per day; a staff of seven full time employees from two, many of whom offered to work for free given the chance to learn from Govindbhai; one small ramshackle building to two new offices including a separate meeting hall, storage for feed and supplies, and solar panels that power the collection equipment. The society gives milk vessels to farmers on Diwali, pays for books for students at the local school and recently funded a village water tank. A cooperative on the brink of dissolution in 1996 is now the best cooperative in the district and an exemplary community partner. When asked about his favorite aspect of work, Govindbhai responded, “supporting the local school and ensuring that the students have books.” Evidently, the farmer cum entrepreneur and community leader remains a scholar at heart.

Govindbhai and several other impact-makers, as I’m calling them, are featured in this short slide show. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Week 5

“We’re equals,” the society secretary from a nearby dairy cooperative insisted with a kind smile. But, he added, “Indian culture is better.” After replaying the entire interaction in my head, scrutinizing it for any gesture or comment I made that may have prompted the observation and determining that the man was not responding to an unintended offense but rather making a general point, I began to think about the comment as it relates to the investor/investee relationship. The point touches on what I see as an inherent tension between investors and portfolio companies and the complicated task of providing lasting technical assistance. Though the impact investor’s goal is to provide guidance that helps the company develop and grow in a way that strengthens its social and environmental impact, the investor must be patient enough to resist doing too much too soon, be truly committed to co-creating a common vision and be cognizant of the power he/she has in the relationship. In order to establish and maintain an egalitarian and effective partnership, both sides should prioritize the relationship-building phase early on in the process and acknowledge that capacity building takes time. If the investor shows an understanding and appreciation of the cultural context while providing immediate non-monetary value to the company, and the investee is not only receptive to technical assistance and but actively involved in defining the scope of the assistance, I believe some of the pitfalls of TA and possible power imbalances may be circumvented.

Now that I’ve spent a month with SKEPL I’m especially attuned to this challenge. Though some of the projects I’m working on could result in a finalized powerpoint deck or excel model, I’m attempting to focus less on developing full fledged solutions and more on using those deliverables to impart whatever knowledge I can. In this vein I’ve been working on developing a decision-making process to help SKEPL better assess and prioritize new opportunities. With the survey pilot behind us we’re developing a plan to roll out the survey to the six service centers in India and collect input from at least 200 of the 2000 cooperatives. The last couple of days have been focused on developing a strategy for SKEPL to further explore the company’s interest in Kenya as a potential market.

No week of work here is exempt from the personal and this week was no exception. To honor the opening of the new office the company staff and their families spent Tuesday morning conducting a pooja in the office. It was a beautiful celebration and, for prashant lovers (among whom I count myself), a delicious one as well.

Included here are photos of the office staff (above), pooja treats and altar.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

South Africa Shines

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

A few days after returning from Johannesburg, with Spain in the final and the sound of vuvuzelas still ringing in my ears, it is difficult to start with anything other than the World Cup fever that seems to have gripped this continent. No doubt this has been helped by the valiant efforts of the Ghanaian team who must have felt like they were playing on home ground, despite being many miles from Accra.

But although Ghana couldn’t make it all the way, South Africa has excelled in its mission, putting on an incredible show and taking good care of its visitors from the moment they set foot in the gleaming airport. Besides the first rate transport and organisation, including the brand new speedy airport train and efficient bus system to get to and from matches, the most striking thing is the enthusiasm and justifiable pride with which the South Africans have hosted this major event.

But Joburg is worlds away from Lusaka and this is evident when you fly out at night, leaving behind the sparkling lights stretching to the horizon in every direction, to arrive in a city surrounded by darkness. Tourism can play a major role in economic growth and poverty alleviation and no doubt the spotlight of a successful World Cup will attract visitors to South Africa, and hopefully other parts of the continent, helping to create employment and economic opportunities.

Back at the office after the public holiday, things are as busy as ever and I am learning as much about the world of a start-up as I am about Zambian regulation of mobile money. I share a round table with management and listen with interest as discussions turn from the detail of client projects to cash flow statements, agent training, a new IT based project management tool, web site design, potential investors and expansion into new markets. Despite the frustrations of the Zambian internet, there is constant communication between the Lusaka office and the Cape Town based IT and accounts team who run the core system on which Mobile Transactions’ business is based.


Next door, there doesn’t seem to be a moment when the customer care, agent training, marketing and corporate payments teams are not busy. But this does not detract from the general good humour as people seem to enjoy the open and dynamic office culture that Mobile Transactions has created. I notice my colleagues asking questions of employees, customers, agents, competitors and interns in an attempt to gain information and constantly improve the business. This is an inclusive environment in which feedback and participation are encouraged and responsibility and accountability are expected. A bit reminiscent of my short time at GBF!


It is difficult not to feel involved in this kind of effort. I find myself asking a taxi driver from Chipata (the capital of the Eastern Province, about an 8 hour drive from Lusaka) how he sends money back home. Through the Post Office, he tells me. “Have you heard of Mobile Transactions?” I ask. I seem to have caught the bug…


-Sara

Friday, July 9, 2010

Lead SKEPL installer, Vikram Parmar, understands the dairy business inside out. As the son of dairy farmers, Vikram grew up in the business and now has two buffalo of his own. His mother milks the buffalo during the day and he delivers the milk after work in the evening. Vikram knew the job at SKEPL was right for him because he is able to work with people in the field, utilize his training in accounting and apply his background in dairy farming. Over his six-year tenure at the company, Vikram has become the de facto automated milk collection system installer and resource for milk societies, plants and unions. Widely respected in the dairy sector, Vikram meets with clients throughout Gujarat and is often invited to attend important milk society events as an honorary guest.

When we rolled out the customer satisfaction and progress out of poverty survey pilot two weeks ago, Vikram was brought in to handle the translation work. As I watched him explain the survey process to the first two respondents and actively engage the society employees, it became obvious to me that he was the natural person to champion the survey in the future. I was also touched by the many invitations I received from the society employees to visit their villages and by their interest in my role in the process. One person very directly suggested that since I’m in India I should learn the local language. I agree wholeheartedly with him and am embarrassed by my linguistic shortcoming. Following his suggestion I’ve picked up a few phrases and, to the amusement of the team, have attempted to use them on occasion.

Vikram is pictured here on the right, discussing the survey with the first two farmers to complete the survey.

It’s been an otherwise busy week at SKEPL headquarters. Following the meeting with Harold Rosen we’ve started developing a plan for the reconnaissance trip to Africa and launched a thorough review of all marketing materials in order to identify what additional collateral will be needed for new markets. In an effort to identify new revenue streams for milk cooperatives we started discussions with Sarvajal, a company based in Gujarat that aims to increase the accessibility of clean drinking water to low-income people. The office construction is completed and we’re all eager to move into the beautiful new space on Tuesday, an auspicious day, after the ceremonial pooja.

- Lauren

Thursday, July 1, 2010

“The milk is white but the business is black”, remarks Sulax Shah, founder and CEO of Akashganga. When I sat down with Sulax to better understand the company’s founder and leader, he recounted a rainy morning years ago when he and his three co-founders rode their motorcycles to a village 40 kilometers outside of Anand to install a milk collection system. After a successful installation they headed back to their motorcycles and saw the bikes were four inches lower than they should be; upon closer inspection they realized that the tires had been slashed. With the help of the society secretary, they removed one at a time and carried them to the closest shop. Five hours later, Sulax and his team couldn’t help but feel a big deflated themselves.

Now, Sulax laughs at the story and the twinkle in his eye tells you it was, if anything, only a minor setback and an important lesson early on. Akashganga’s commitment to increasing transparency in the dairy sector is not always regarded favorably. Just ask the disgruntled farmer whose fraud was brought to light after an Akashganga system was installed at his local society. Sulax was called out to inspect the system because the society’s most prolific farmer insisted that the measurement was incorrect. Somewhat concerned that one of his earliest systems was failing shortly after installation, Sulax headed straight to the society to test the system. Admonishing himself for doubting the system in the first place, Sulax was unsurprised yet pleased to determine that its measurement was accurate. When the farmer persisted, Sulax inspected his milk can and determined that the farmer had fixed a large cylinder inside the can that displaced about ½ liter of milk. Since the society measured milk by sight, the farmer was likely getting paid for an extra liter of milk every day for several years. Never again did Sulax doubt the reliability and accuracy of an Akashganga system.

Like any industry, the dairy sector has its share of corruption and manipulation but that won’t keep Akashganga from their mission to build world class systems that improve accountability and efficiency. Just this week they held their annual board meeting in Mumbai and met with Harold Rosen, Executive Director of Grassroots Business Fund, to lay out their plans for expansion to Africa. In an effort to differentiate their offering from the competition, they’re launching a customer feedback survey pilot with local societies this weekend. Electrical wiring, furniture selection and carpentry are all that stand between us and a beautiful new office, the first upgrade for SKEPL in 14 years. In the spirit of the World Cup, Ole!




- Lauren

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mulishani? Bwino sana!

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

That’s Bemba, one of over 70 languages spoken in Zambia, for “How’s it going? Very well”. And so far, it is…apart from England crashing out of the World Cup on Sunday of course. I will now be focusing my attention on Spain and hoping they get through to the quarter finals, particularly as I will be at that match in Johannesburg this weekend.


My first two weeks here seem to have flown by. It feels pretty normal, and quite liberating, to be back in a full time job after a year of writing papers and taking exams. Lusaka is a sprawling city, with a population of about 3 million people (out of a total of about 13 million, making Zambia one of the world’s least densely populated countries). It is not a very pedestrian friendly place and many people get around by car. I live about a 20 minute drive from work although this often takes longer during peak hours when the three main roads leading to the town centre get clogged up with traffic. I have been feeling slightly less housebound since discovering how to get to work on a minibus and befriending a few cab drivers. I get the impression that the local blue and white minibuses are not the usual form of transport for a "muzungu" (foreigner) but at a cost of 30 cents, it’s a useful option to have in the morning.


It has not taken long to find things to keep me busy at Mobile Transactions. Looking into the regulatory environment for the mobile money sector is proving interesting. Ever since the success of M-Pesa in Kenya, the mobile payments business has experienced massive growth across Africa and the developing world in general. Regulators in many countries face a steep learning curve as they try to ensure that risks are managed and consumers are properly protected, while at the same time promoting the development of a more dynamic and inclusive financial sector.


I have opened a ‘1 Account’! The 1 Account is part of Mobile Transactions’ vision of a Cashless Africa and allows people without bank accounts to store value on their mobile phones (depositing or withdrawing funds through any of the company’s agents), make transfers directly to other accounts or buy airtime. My colleague Claudius takes a few details and uploads a photo of me and of my ID onto the system. About 3 minutes later I’m registered and ready to use the account from my mobile phone with my secret PIN.


It can get pretty chilly here in the evenings and I have been warned that it will be much colder in South Africa. As I look through my wardrobe to pack for the weekend, I find many clothes appropriate for an Italian summer and a variety of anti-mosquito measures (I have not seen a single one since I arrived). It may be time to borrow a hat and scarf as I seem to have come a bit unprepared for the African winter!


-Sara

Monday, June 28, 2010

Week 1 with SKEPL

Shops selling handmade leather sandals and paan, a digestive treat made of sugar and fennel seeds wrapped in bright green betel leaf, flank the three-story office building which is situated on a relatively quiet and tree-lined street in Anand. As I walked up the stairs to the SKEPL office the first day, I was surprised to hear the sound of hammering and to see a pile of debris sitting on the landing. Ujval Parghi, Head of Marketing and my main contact, informed me that the office was in the midst of a renovation and that for the next several weeks at least, the team would be working in the workshop where the products are assembled. Despite the whirling fans overhead, the temperature in the workshop hovered around 110 degrees. Stepping gingerly around product components and live wires, I made the rounds and was introduced to the company managers, engineers, accountants and product assemblers. Everyone was warm and welcoming, if not a little curious about what a tall, white, western woman was doing in the workshop. One step of the assembly process is captured in the photo below.

Fortunately, a single office was spared from the renovation so the four managers and I have been able to work in a comfortable air-conditioned room. The close quarters have facilitated easy collaboration and rapport building. By the end of the week, we were listening to Bruce Springsteen to block out the sound of electric saws, and the team lent me a thermos to use for what they view as my inordinate consumption of tea. I’m grateful to be working with such a passionate and receptive group of people.

With the initial transition behind us, we focused on the project at hand. Over the next two months I’ll be working with SKEPL on business development and marketing for the automated milk collection system (AMCS) product line. During the first week I ramped up on the dairy sector in India, touring several milk collection societies to observe the products in action, interviewing society employees and taste-testing several varieties of Indian ice cream, including my new favorite, saffron fennel. I learned that the Indian dairy sector is organized as a producer-owned cooperative system, characterized by millions of small farmers who carry containers of milk to the local co-op twice a day, seven days a week. Daily procurement by the co-operatives is an estimated 13 million liters, an astounding number that makes India the biggest milk-producing nation in the world. Anand is considered the dairy capital of Gujarat which is home to over 3.25 million dairy farmers, 13,000 milk societies and Amul, arguably the most successful milk producer in the country.

SKEPL has been designing and manufacturing technology-based systems to streamline milk collection operations at the co-op level since 1996. Summer months are slow in the dairy industry as a result of the sweltering temperatures and dry fields and the corresponding 50% decrease in milk production. The team is taking advantage of the downtime by renovating their office, exploring new revenue streams and ramping up marketing efforts in preparation for the release of their newest product. As Ujval Parghi explains, “SKEPL will stop only when the cows stop producing milk.” With an estimated 4% growth in dairy consumption over the next fifteen years in India and the World Bank’s $3.6 billion investment in the industry, the cows are far from calling it quits.

- Lauren

Lauren just completed her first year as an MBA student at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, where she is specializing in business development in emerging markets. She is currently in Anand, India for the summer, working with Shree Kamdhenu Electronics Private Limited (SKEPL).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Kick off in Zambia

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

The World Cup has kicked off in Africa and so has my internship with GBF. After a busy 10 days in DC attending conferences and meeting the GBF team, I arrived in Zambia last Monday evening, delighted to get off my sixth flight in 36 hours!

The following morning I headed to Farmer’s House on the busy Cairo Road in the centre of Lusaka. Mobile Transactions is based in a large office building and the team works in close quarters from two rooms on the second floor. The place has the feel of a growing business at a crucial stage – everyone seems to be doing several jobs at once, the walls are papered with individual monthly targets and a big white board tells me that the previous day the company processed a record number of transactions.

I have spent the week settling into this lively new environment. Although I have not had the chance to see much of Lusaka itself yet, in some ways things feel familiar – the plugs are the same as in England, people drive on the left and follow English football. But the country-wide power outage for most of Friday morning and pot-hole ridden roads tell a different story.

A majority of Zambians live in rural areas and subsistence agriculture is the country’s biggest employer. 80% of Zambians do not have bank accounts and only a minority own mobile phones, although this number is growing rapidly. Mobile Transactions offers mobile based financial transaction services which, amongst other things, enable individuals to make money transfers, companies to pay their employees, and NGOs to administer voucher schemes electronically. Through its country-wide agent network, Mobile Transactions increases access to financial services and lowers transaction costs for the mass market. In a country where over half the population lives below the poverty line, it is not difficult to see the potential impact of this technology.

The highlight of the week was a trip to Monze with a colleague on Wednesday. Monze is a town about a 2 and a half hour drive south of Lusaka, crossing over the Kafue river, towards Livingstone. The purpose of the trip was to visit the Southern Province agricultural office of one of our major clients. We were accompanied by a recent Mobile Transactions recruit in the area whose job it will be to help train agents and client employees on using mobile technology for paying farmers. This is also where I learned, after a confusing moment when greeting the head of the office, that a Zambian handshake involves a few more moves than the one I am used to. I soon got to practise my newfound skill as we took the opportunity to visit a few Mobile Transactions agents on the way home, including a distributor of agricultural inputs who handles money transfers and sells air time on the side. The advantages of being an agent come not only from the fees earned but also as a result of increased foot traffic in their stores.

Amongst the many things that have caught my attention this week, one involved something as simple as topping up my mobile phone. In the car ride home with my colleagues one evening, I realised that I had run out of credit on my Zambian phone and would not be able to make a scheduled call the following morning. Within 5 minutes I had received a text message from Mobile Transactions topping up my phone with 20,000 Kwatcha (about $4). My colleague had been able to access the Mobile Transactions system from his phone to transfer air time directly onto my phone. Pretty clever really.

- Sara

Sara Taylor is currently enrolled in a masters program in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, specializing in international development. She recently completed her first year of study at the Bologna Center in Italy. Sara is based in Lusaka, Zambia, working with Mobile Transactions Zambia Limited (MTZL).