Posts Tagged ‘africa rising’

A tale of two Africas

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

By the middle of the year 2013, the continent of Africa finally put her foot down and said to the world that enough is enough, “We’re taking over the reins of our future and giving voice to our own story.”

Ghana and Kenya took control of their elections, so much so that Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) monitored international media online, going as far as to use their collective voice to force reporters to validate the veracity of their stories (#someonetellCNN).

Ugandan born Ashish J Thakkar, the entrepreneurial businessman behind The Mara Group and The Mara Foundation recently made headlines for telling Donald Trump off  on his ignorant comments publicly on Twitter.

In the meantime, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo dukes it out with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, exchanging ad hominems online while Bono gets asked why he thinks he should speak for the “poor African” among the world’s most powerful people. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg of pushback getting louder as globalization and connectivity finally begin to level out that flat playing field so beloved of Bangaloreans and Thomas Friedman.

This is the tale of two Africas.

One, belongs to the NGOs and the philanthropic foundations of charity and goodwill, seeking to uplift the downtrodden even while giving voice on their behalf, relegating them to pitiful images of hunger and misery.

The other, the other belongs to the African herself, grabbing the mic and speaking out loud and strong on what is really needed to be changed on the global platform, be it the lost revenues from taxes as pointed out by Kofi Annan or simply tweeting en masse in order to be heard.

The democratization of technology and the rise of social networks have done far more to empower the everyday African than they themselves currently realize. From a passive acceptance or even, ignorance, of the media’s narratives around Africa’s poverty, hopelessness, disease and backwardness, the instant access granted by the handheld computer in every pocket has also opened their eyes to their image and reputation on the global stage.

Just yesterday, I was requested not to use the term “sub Sahara” by some folks on Twitter, offering up citations and links to articles that pointed out the subtly racist nature of the phrase, whereas I’d been completely ignorant of the baggage and only considered its geography and common usage. But today I find myself conscious in my choice of words and I doubt that I would ever use these words again. All because of a few 140 character tweets exchanged with virtual strangers.

These are only the first drops in the bucket, poised to become a deafening flood of voices, as Africa – all 53 countries, hundreds of languages and myriads of peoples – roars loudly against the misrepresentation and yanks back the reins of her own narrative and agency.

The customer is the king; the beneficiary will remain a pauper

We weren’t beholden to our customers until we starting thinking like a business.

We didn’t hold ourselves accountable until we started treating our ‘beneficiaries’ as customers.

No investor took us seriously until we dropped the ‘social enterprise’ label.

~ Ben Lyon, Founder, KopoKopo, Nairobi, Kenya

When I wrote “Why so much ‘BoP’ marketing fails in the developing world” recently, I had sensed that there was a more fundamental problem – either one of implicit assumptions or basic premises – than those which I’d identified through observations in the marketplace. It took these three powerful statements from Ben Lyon, founder of Kenyan startup KopoKopo, to throw light on the issue.

Were these social enterprises treating their customers like kings or were they dealing with them like the beneficiaries of development aid?

Identifying this distinction, we believe, is critical and can make the difference between success and failure. In fact, taking the thought a step further, I now wonder whether this underlying premise might not be the reason why so many social entreprenuers are unable to scale.

The lens through which you percieve your intended customer base and thus, evaluate their needs, purchasing power, wants and wishes becomes the focal point around which your product or service, its business model and distribution strategy as well marketing communications will revolve.

When we seek to serve a very demanding customer who just happens to manage within an extremely challenging environment, we raise the bar on our own performance and metrics of success. For no one will spend good money on something that offers little value or return on investment.

But as long as social enterprises continue to perceive the target audience for their goods or services as ‘beneficiaries’, with all the attendant baggage of assumptions and perceptions, they will never quite be able to address the challenges of creating a market for a profitable and thus sustainable, enterprise.

Maximizing profits alone may not always be the right answer, but even the triple bottom line approach embraced by European businesses can offer a more valuable orientation than simply “doing good”, which may overwhelm critical considerations of “does this actually make sense and does the market actually want it”. I’d written this snippet earlier, before I’d identified where the seed of the confusion seemed to lie.

Because the demand being addressed by these messages is not that of the target audience, who are ultimately the ones for whom these products are made.

Everyday, research shows that the barriers to adoption include:

Improved cookstoves rank poorly on all three dimensions: their benefits are rarely valued highly by customers at the outset, they are expensive, and they require a significant change in lifestyle to be put into use.

Lets start with benefits alone – which is where the topic of identifying the correct value propositions for the target audience comes in. If your messaging and marketing is all about the best selling drill addressing an audience of home improvement contractors but what your actual customers need is a hole in the wall, how will you manage to bridge this gap in communication when you face your customers directly?
By focusing on the value propositions – be they environmental, healthcare related or otherwise – meant for every other stakeholder but the end users aka the customers of the product themselves – organizations may never quite identify nor refine the benefits as they relate to the poor customer, in the context of their lives, and their decision to purchase and use the said products.

And this conflation – of marketing messages meant for shareholders (in formal business terms) being sent to the end customers – will continue to create a barrier to sales and demand creation unless we start taking this demographic seriously as a paying customer. The roots of this challenge are also embedded in the way the concept of “the BoP” has evolved away from Prahalad’s original vision of a vast new market and opportunity into a catchall label for the poor, the downtrodden and the precepts of poverty alleviation.