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.


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…


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