Helping Farmers

The maker of innovative, human-powered “MoneyMaker” irrigation pumps was facing new challenges. Sales had slowed, and the country programs needed help. KickStart International (no relation!) is a 4-star charity, and their headline reads “The Number One Need of the Poor is a Way to Make Money.” For over 15 years, they’ve helped thousands of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa make more money farming.

Worldwide, over 70% of the 1.1 billion people who live on less than $1 per day are small-scale rural farmers who are trying to scrape out an existence on an acre or so of unproductive land. In Sub Saharan Africa – despite the more visible shocking conditions in the urban slums – over 80% of the poor are rural farmers. The world’s poor deserve high-quality, long-lasting tools and other products. These farmers need reliable tools that can be easily maintained and repaired with readily available replacement parts. Technology has not caught up to Sub-Saharan African farmers. They rely on carrying buckets to water their crops, or wait through the long, dry, “hungry” season for the rains. Kickstart’s MoneyMaker pumps help these farmers irrigate more efficiently and for longer periods of the year. They can increase the amount of land they cultivate, and they can extend the growing season, all of which adds up to increased income for the farmer.

Kickstart sells its pumps through resellers dealing in seeds, fertilizer and other farm products. They have country-wide programs in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, and sell through others in Mali, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Mozambique, and other African countries.

External changes require internal restructuring

Kickstart, like many NGO’s, relies heavily on philanthropy to fund their work. And, like many NGO’s, they rely on multi-year grants from large donors. And, like many NGO’s, they suffer the effect of changes in donor interests. One year donors are interested in food security, another year they become interested in poverty reduction, another interested in irrigation. For many years, Kickstart had donors that supported the core work of helping farmers learn about irrigation, increase food production, and reduce poverty.

But in recent years, donors looking for “innovation” have become interested in funding projects that teach about climate change, empower women, and a variety of other things in addition to the core Kickstart offering. And they are looking for organizations that can demonstrate longer-term sustainability. These changes in philanthropic interest make for real challenges in many NGOs and social enterprises. Getting a large, multi-year grant is fabulous. But sustaining the staff required after the funding runs out is a huge challenge.

Kickstart ran into those problems, and more. After recently introducting new products into the market at higher prices, and coupled with a number of other changes in funding, sales were down and they were behind on promises to donors. They had promoted their Sales Manager to be the Country Manager, but hadn’t given her mentoring and guidance in moving into her new role. They turned to me for some help in building the distribution channel, energizing the sales team, and coming up with other strategies to help get the Tanzanian country team back on track.

Nothing happens overnight in Africa

Labor laws are very complex, and Tanzania is a large geography to cover. Restructuring operations must be done with care, and many steps are required to make fundamental changes. We spent months refining a plan to focus the field sales efforts in those areas where donors had funded them, scaling back from covering the entire country. Working with Kickstart’s founder and senior leadership, we restructured pricing and discount, made other changes to streamline the distribution channel, and increased sales commissions.

Sales training to introduce the science of selling

We then held a series of sales trainings to introduce these changes to the 30-plus sales team. We gave them smart phones so they could send and receive email without having to find an internet cafe. These smart phones — really pocket computers — are tools we also needed to train on so the reps could capture GPS readings to locate where farmers were, take photos and video of meeting attendees and customers to otherwise document meetings and market day demonstrations. We stepped up the use of SMS to capture sales data and send to the home office in real time, instead of waiting for weeks after the month end to receive sales documentation sent by Tanzania’s very slow postal system.

The reps were good at demonstrating how the pump works, but not so good at the science of selling. That includes learning how to develop interest, build demand, and close sales. It includes learning how to get referrals, maximize time in the field, and concentrate on developing prospects and following up to close sales. It includes learning how to sell value, not products. It includes learning how to go from vendor-dealer relationships to partner-partner relationships with resellers. And all of that is not intuitive to Tanzanian culture.

Scope expands Africa-wide

After some good first steps in Tanzania, the leadership asked me help out the global effort in the Nairobi headquarters, and help out in Kenya and Zambia. We restructured the headquarters team and reduced expenses dramatically, making for a leaner, more nimble operations. I conducted another sales training for the 40+ Kenyan sales team, and helped strategize best practices for the new Zambian operation.

I believe the best consulting jobs are those where the organization is in better shape when you leave, and you increase the capacity of the team that’s there. There’s still a lot of work to do at Kickstart but I am confident the team is stronger now.

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