Can we use the tools of business to drive social change? I think we can. Here’s how.
I am sitting on a beach outside Accra in Ghana reflecting if my past experience in the consumer goods business in Europe and the US is of any help when trying to build a social business in West Africa. After all, local contexts are so different and I can’t pretend I even get close to understanding it. I have just spent a week in Ghana getting to know our latest venture, WASHKing. They build bio-digester toilets for slum dwellers. I have been on the road with founder Dieudonne Agudah for a week, have talked to dozens of customers, potential clients and local government officials who award public sanitation contracts. The story I hear is very clear: Dieudonne’s toilets are changing lives. Customers tell me they feel safe now that they no longer sneak behind the house at night. The toilets give them dignity as the bio-digester eliminates all odours. And WASHKing’s rent-to-own model makes them as affordable as the public toilets they use every day. The public officials at Ledzokuku Municipal Assembly confirm that of all toilet manufacturers around, WASHKing has the highest quality and is the most reliable. Since they ordered WASHKing toilets in the Ledzokuku district, cholera cases have gone down to zero. The market is still huge at 40% of the population without access to toilets.
In conversation with Bella Tedetego from the Amasaman, a landlord and WASHKing customer
WASHKing has a great product for a big market. What they themselves feel they are missing is strong marketing and sales. That’s why Impacc has invested in a social venture builder, Matthias Rauthmann, who is embedded in the WASHKing office in Accra and it’s why we invited two negotiation experts, Ute and Frieder Gamm of the Frieder Gamm Group, to join us and coach the team free of charge. I am thoroughly enjoying the discussions with Dieudonne and his team about how to increase sales, how to experiment with different business models (such as a “Tupperware model” where happy customers pitch and sell toilets to their friends), and how to make WASHKing’s marketing more remarkable (for example, by creating a “Wash King” as a spokesperson for the brand). The question behind all of this: can any of those ideas actually work in a context we will never fully understand?
I have worked in international development for years, and the question of context was always the toughest nut to crack. Social norms are too different, power relationships too difficult to decipher, the beneficiaries’ needs to multi-faceted. That’s one of the reasons why replicating successes from one village to the next is so difficult. But what I am realising more and more is that things are much easier when it comes to business. As my colleague Matthias reminded me yesterday, money is universal. And in fact, all of the businesses we support have similar needs: how to make a product that’s better or more affordable than existing alternatives? How to find out the real needs of customers and present the product as a solution to their needs? And how to make sure that always earn a little more than you spend? Take the selling process: I am convinced that every customer in the world appreciates being asked about their needs and wishes before being “attacked” with a sales pitch. Or marketing: I believe that no matter where you are, communicating a single benefit (provided you know it’s the most relevant one) is more effective than giving a laundry list of benefits no-one can remember.
On the job sales coaching
The morale of the story? I don’t think we have found the silver bullet to development. The process is, and will always remain, messy and fuzzy and slow and sometimes painful. But using the tools of business to help development creates a common language that connects, say, the founder from the outskirts of Accra with the sales experts from Germany. That common language is powerful, and it can drive real change. The only thing you have to take out of the equation is what typically stands at the core of business: the desire to make a profit for those who invest. That’s why we created Impacc as a non-profit company. We will never be forced to chose between social impact or profit because we can’t make a profit (but Dieudonne can and should). Don’t leave the sharpest tools in the box to the capitalists – use them and beat them at their own game. And that game is a universal one.