What I learned about bringing clean energy to rural Uganda

Over the last few weeks, I have been working with Disability Art Project Uganda (DAPU), a community-based organization (CBO) based in Bugadde, rural Uganda.  DAPU was recently put in the spotlight by ENVenture for financing clean energy products (lighting and cooking) and water filters to provide clean water to poor communities in rural Uganda.  Since I started working with DAPU, I have done initial market research to figure out the state of affairs of rural and suburban customers. What follows summarizes my findings to date:

Distribution and Logistics

Distribution and logistics networks are fragmented, thus organizations need to locate their distribution points centrally and ensure that customer demand is aggregated. The distribution locations should be conspicuous enough for customers to easily notice and visit to make their purchases. It’s also important that the locations should be easily accessible by public transport (buses and motorcycles) in-order-to reduce inventory transport costs. For DAPU, an effort is already being put into identifying suitable locations in Bugadde that meet the above criteria.

Frequency of Income

Income streams of rural and suburban customers are sporadic and unpredictable. This means that for organizations to sell their products to the customers in these areas, they need to carefully map earning patterns for each consumer segment. Although this is a challenge, it is possible to understand when each consumer receives income. For example, a sugar farmer in Bugadde will sell sugarcane around December and will be liquid during this period. On the other hand, a milk vendor in Jinja will have enough income to purchase products at the weekends throughout the year.

Income levels

In addition to sporadic incomes, average daily income is low (between USD 0.81 and USD 2.70) for the people I interviewed. This presents a challenge for organizations serving these low-income segments because their ability to pay is low; even with financing, the chances of default are still high. Organizations serving such customers should identify specific customer product fit through a credit assessment by in-person interviews, referees, and by designing a manageable payment plan for the customer. There is no guarantee of repayment because a small “shock” such as a health emergency could hinder future repayments by customers. However, creating customer trust and reminders would be a good way to reduce repayment defaults. Accurate and realistic pricing mechanisms should also be put in place to encourage repayments. At DAPU, we will implement these techniques in this first quarter of 2019 and will continue to refine the methods over time.

Availability of Information

Most rural customers still use dirty and expensive energy sources such as kerosene lamps for lighting and inefficient cooking stoves for cooking. During our interviews, most respondents claimed they were not aware of cheaper, cleaner energy alternatives. From this, it would be safe to recommend that organizations that provide clean energy services to rural consumers should adopt marketing strategies that provide high product visibility and clearly defines value to end consumers. For most rural consumers, the value is created through economic benefits (savings) and physiological benefits (healthier alternatives). DAPU hopes to provide value to its customers and attract them to use DAPU products and services.

On top of the four major findings highlighted above, I should note that the consumer population is dispersed over a wide geographical area. Reaching every consumer is a tremendous challenge. I highly recommend that organizations should work with last-mile entrepreneurs to boost their visibility and sales volumes in order to scale. The business that I believe can succeed in this type of rural market would be one with high volumes and low margins.

This article is a first of a series of articles I will share about my 5-months experience in Bugadde, supporting DAPU and another CBO to refine their business model and scale up their operations. I hope you enjoyed the read. If you have other resources about Uganda rural consumers, feel free to share with me.

 

Hackathon? Now a fact at ESMT

I have been always passionate about event management, but the Hacknight was absolutely a completely new challenge for me. Still, I can see a common trait compared to the other events I have contributed to: the enormous satisfaction you feel when it is over and you can celebrate its success.

When I joined the Entrepreneurship Club this year, our biggest dream was the organization of the first-ever ESMT hackathon. In the last three months, we really worked hard to make it real. It was a real project management exercise, where every team member had to work on specific tasks and build processes and tools from scratch, from website to sponsorships, from facility management to staffing. Without this amazing team this huge event could not have been possible. Have a look at our fantastic crew (Link)!

In particular, I was in charge of Marketing and Communication for the event and my very first concern was how to attract MBA students from all around Europe and local techies. Thanks to our connections with other business schools and a small budget for some digital marketing campaigns, in the end more than 100 people took part in the event: more than 70 participants (among them students from ESMT, INSEAD, HEC Paris, and MIP Politecnico di Milano), 13 mentors, 4 judges, and many other enthusiastic guests who attended the technical and inspirational sessions, as well as the final pitch session.

Creative thinking, teamwork, no sleeping, and many energy drinks were the main ingredients of our winning recipe. It was rewarding to see how participants from different schools, countries, and backgrounds all worked their best overnight, despite sometimes dealing with conflict situations, which were managed through the precious support of mentors. The challenge was to develop solutions for the future of education, a topic that should be of major relevance to business schools and to society as a whole, especially in a world where new technologies are more accessible and new job titles appear every day.

Mentors and judges were absolutely the protagonists of the event. There were experts from global corporations, startups, and digital ventures working at The Lean Startup Co., IBM, Daimler, Delivery Hero, TechStars, HelloFresh!, BCG Digital Ventures, Founder Institute, Outfittery, Charitè, and Helix.

The competition was stiff and judges had a tough time when choosing a winner on Sunday morning. Team Athena, with a project on personalized learning powered by machine learning and Artificial Intelligence, won the competition and each team member received an award of 1,000 EUR, sponsored by the Helix Foundation.

In addition to Helix as the main sponsor, many other brands contributed to making the first ESMT Hackathon memorable, fun, and tasty: IBM, BRLO, Red Bull, Delivery Hero, and METRO.

Combining the MBA studies with this event was not easy, but again the reward was huge in the end: we challenged ourselves with a real project, we had a lot of fun, and not only did we further strengthen our bonds within the team, but we also created new ones beyond the school borders. I hope that future students can really build on this experience and launch many other hackathons, food for thought for students, and professionals who aspire to become tomorrow’s leaders. The Entrepreneurship Club strongly believes that business people and techie professionals with different working experiences, backgrounds, and nationalities need to work more closely and keep sharing their ideas to find solutions for future business needs.

Classmates: They make life easy and fun!

“It is not a sprint, it is a marathon.” We were told this on the very first day of the ESMT MBA program. I do not like to compare the MBA program, or for that matter, any educational program, to any sort of race or competition. However, I agree in this case. Like a marathon, it is long, exhausting, fun, and finishes soon. However, there is more to it. There is no competition in this one; everyone is on the same team, and that makes it special.

By now, you would have guessed what I will be talking about in this blog post: yes, you are right — my class! I came to ESMT for its unique approach towards MBA training through excellent facilities, top-notch professors, modern curriculum, and various networking opportunities, which are the essence of business and management studies. However, I believe the learning experience is enhanced further with diversity; ESMT is truly international. With 67 classmates representing 34 nationalities, I am learning as much from my classmates as I am from my professors.

ESMT Full-time MBA class of 2018

So where do I begin? There are so many amazing things that have happened in the past five months that I fall short of words and time to describe everything. Nevertheless, let me start with the studies so that we can go through the fun part later and end this on an eventful note!

Not everybody comes with the same knowledge and experience so it becomes utterly important to collaborate to excel. For instance, I am not good at finance but I managed to sail through because of the support from my study group and classmates. Similarly, when someone lacks the required skills, a fellow classmate may help. As I said in the beginning, there is no competition; and even if there is any, it is healthy. We all know we are in this together and together we will succeed.

Getting too serious? Okay then let’s move to the fun part, because that’s what we do when it gets too intense in terms of assignments and projects. Now that we have spring (although some would like to call it summer, given the temperatures) the ESMT gardens serve as a football ground. We have a lot of football frenzy people in the class so who would stay back indoors after a full day of class! (Me, yes, I don’t play the game but my love for it is eternal!) Or maybe ping pong!

But what rules here at ESMT is kicker! Being a school based in Berlin , “the party city”,  it is no wonder! And once the game is on, it is the best thing ever. And, trust me, we have quite a few terrific players in the class. Don’t believe me? Well, two of my classmates were the champions of the MBA Tournament (MBAT) held at HEC Paris in May. So yeah, we do rule the kicker scene among business schools!

MBAT Auction

Speaking of MBAT,  ESMT was the smallest contingent at the tournament but did win a lot of hearts. Apart from kicker, we took third place in poker and two wins in swimming! Here as well, the school and the class supported the team. There was even an auction held to raise funds — everything from martial art to Bollywood dancing session was up for grabs. Kudos to the MBAT team who made us proud!

A few of my classmates also participated in the yearly finance competition held at SDA Bocconi. Others are working on some cool and innovative ideas and are planning to represent the school at various events. With so much enthusiasm around, as a student and fellow classmate I feel inspired.

Hotpot with classmates

As a class we do a lot of things, but I would commit a big mistake if I don’t mention the most important part: food! Really, what’s life without delicious food? We live by that mantra. Until now, we have had so many cuisines, sometimes in small groups and sometimes almost 30 to 40 of us showing up at the restaurant. Again, kudos to my fellow classmates who like to share not only their professional experience but also culture through culinary heritage. From Italian to Chinese and a Brazilian barbecue coming up just before we go on our summer break, we have enjoyed it or will enjoy it all!

Well these are just some glimpses of life at ESMT made easy and fun by the cohort! I will leave this for now, but will come back soon to describe more of my time here in Berlin!

I changed my mind about my MBA school

There was pin-drop silence for a moment and then everybody was on their feet, clapping and cheering. He had delivered his last one! The claps did not stop until he himself stood on the chair and thanked his audience for their support. More claps followed. I said to myself, “How humble! Appreciating others for his hard work!”

It wasn’t a normal performance though. It wasn’t delivered by an actor from one of Berlin’s many theaters. Rather it was our last class for Managerial Analysis and Decision Making (MAD) with Professor Francis. He was no less of an artist. He showed the same conviction in the class as artists showcase in their performances. He practiced what he taught, too. He even shared an instance from his personal life where he applied what he was teaching. Above all, he was all about the fun of learning. Never did I imagine that this so-called intense MBA would bring me so much joy.

What made the experience special was that this was one of the early classes of the MBA 2018 program. It made it evident that what was going to follow would be good. And that did happen. Generally, all of the classes I have had until now have been good learning opportunities. I had never imagined that a quantitative methods class could be taught simply and without involving a lot of numbers. And I dare not miss the unique, elementary-school-like experience of learning financial accounting.

I must elaborate on this! Having just two accountants as students and another 3 to 4 students with similar work experience out of a diverse class of 67, the professor had to teach accounting basics. How did he do it? He got us handouts for every topic and went through each of them like one would do in a school! Today, if you give me any financial statement I can explain it with ease. If anyone would have asked me to do so a month ago, all I would have said is “Are you kidding?” Maybe all the B-schools have this pattern or maybe not, who can tell. All I can say is that, as a student, I can vouch for ESMT.

Another standing ovation to the professor, Financial Accounting class, MBA 2018

With such an intense curriculum, there have been several occasions when I was not prepared for the class or was not very interested. But I never missed a class. I was always sure I would learn something new or have some new experience every day. Did I mention that we toasted to our successful completion of marketing classes and the beginning of spring break with some Irish whiskey, courtesy of our Irish professor?

Marketing Management class, MBA 2018

It is not just about learning but about celebrating this year. Three months have already gone by. I hope that the rest of the year passes by slowly because I want to enjoy every moment of this adventure to the fullest.

Prof. Francis said in one of the classes, “Deciding is to give yourself a true chance to change your mind.” Yes, I did change my mind last year and decided to come to ESMT Berlin. Do I need to say it was one of the best decisions I ever made?

The best 50 cents I spent in the MBA

I stood in the middle of a crowded street, people weaving past me, their bags occasionally bumping into me as they hurried past. Around me chatter in Swahili from families and couples doing their shopping. I can hear the occasional vendor singing his inventory to attract customers. To the left of me, a man selling knives breaks into a demonstration for a woman and tells her, “Nothing sharper than this madam.” I could spend all week watching the people on Tom Mboya Street. Describing how every person is the heart of a business transaction, how the smart talking salesman can sway a person going about their chores and magically turn them into a satisfied customer when they never even knew the product they bought existed this morning.

To make this story make sense, I need to tell you a little about me. I’m in love with entrepreneurship. I’ve loved every chance to study it during my MBA program. From the International Field Seminar trips to London and Tel Aviv, to networking with founders and advising participants in accelerators and incubators, to classes on how to be an entrepreneur, investment rounds and venture capitalists, I have loved EVERY WORD spoken about Entrepreneurship during my studies, which since we are based in one of the best tech start-up cities is A LOT!! Unfortunately, I’d begun to associate all start-ups with technology. And even worse, I was beginning to frame successful entrepreneurship with models based in developed countries, I was beginning to think that a business that doesn’t disrupt an industry, or one that isn’t supported by government and infrastructure had no hopes of being successful. Till I was standing in Mboya Street. Something that at first looked so foreign and chaotic, began to look passionate, organized when instead of dismissing it, I used my training to I look at it from the business perspective. I could spend all day talking about the beauty of doing business in the underground economy and how elegant, delicate and endearing entrepreneurship is in Africa but today I want to tell you about my journey to Kiambu.

I’m only on Tom Mboya Street to catch a matatu to Kiambu. In case you haven’t been to Nairobi, look at the picture, (taken from my very terrible phone and Google).

Tom Mboya Street, Nairobi

The roads are filed with matatus. These small minibuses are public transport. They are a private industry. While matatus get licenses from the government, the system of which matatu takes which route and when is largely regulated by the drivers and their conductors (conductors are the individuals who partner with drivers and are responsible for collecting money and getting customers)

This is my first time going and I have no idea how to get there besides vague instructions from a friend. I’m nervous to ask since my Swahili is all google translate based. But there is no need. The conductor approaches me. He asks me what I need. And here the businessman in him seizes the opportunity.Where are you going my sister?”He eases all the uncertainty I was feeling, and assures me, his bus is the right one. I enter his empty matatu. As I sit in the heavily decorated matatu, I realize the passion Matatu owners have. We often don’t see it as that in our daily lives, but take a look at the picture of the matatu: this man is clearly passionate about Kobe Bryant and his business. These matatus are often covered head to toe in pictures of an inspiring leader e.g. Bob Marley, Martin Luther King. Secretly, I dream of the day I see a matatu covered in pictures and quotes about me.

As I look around I realize there are other matatus filling up and leaving before ours. I stand up ready to search for another one, but the conductor catches me and convinces me to stay. He offers to show me where to stop and which road to take to reach my destination. He makes himself the best option and I sit down. Finally, the journey starts, I and 18 other passengers, fit in a 15-passenger bus. Somehow, he’s found a way to stretch his goals to increase utilization.

As I’m nervously checking the route, trying to find any of the landmarks my friend described I notice a police block. As the bus driver slows down to stop, the risk-taking conductor jumps out of the still moving matatu and goes over to negotiate the penalty. He’s back before I’ve even had time to count the number of police at the road block. (A story for another day is how I find in Zimbabwe police road blocks are where you find the highest density of government employees, but that’s for another day.) Before long we are now going up a hill, the car slows down and even with my basic understanding of car engines, I can sense something is wrong. I can feel panic begin to creep up, until I notice the driver is turning into a gas station. He eases in and the conductor jumps out and gets the matatu refuelled. I realize the two-man team knew exactly when they needed to refuel, they had planned this journey up to the number of kilometres to the gas station. At this point the conductor calls for my attention- he’s telling me it’s my stop. As I descend he’s holding a pregnant lady’s bag so she can enter the matatu with ease. I’m amazed at the level of care he takes with his customers- amazing people/customer relationship management. The best part of this journey is it’s only cost me the equivalent of USD 0.50, true value for money.

There are many models to use to study business, we learnt some key ones at ESMT, but the Responsible Leaders Fellowship gave me a chance to apply the models. I loved watching business in Nairobi and Harare, realizing the similarities between Amazon and a flea market, how street vendors are like pop up ads on a site, knowing when and how to enter your line of sight and get a sale; or how Uber gives you a map as rider so you can make sure you know where you’re going, similarly, in a matatu the driver assures me continuously I’m on the right route. But most importantly I loved working with Welthungerhilfe’s farmers on treating farming as a business. Doing trainings on analyzing output, increasing efficiencies and record keeping was such an amazing experience. Discussing and working on what elements of a digital platform would be valuable to farmers and working on a strategy for Kenya and Zimbabwe with the organization reminded me, business can change the world positively.