For those who haven’t spent much time in a developing country, you may be wondering this means exactly. The businesses that make up this sector are not gangster-run outfits operating in clandestine markets. Instead, they are unofficial businesses that operate openly. They are “tolerated” by local governments, which cannot or will not make the benefits of formality accessible to local business owners. The vast majority of people operating in this sector are simply trying to scratch out a living — and are sometimes thriving — by buying or selling goods.
However, the invisibility of these businesses, as well as their transactions with consumers, leaves the door open for opportunistic behaviors. Both my personal experience and the limited data I’ve been able to find lead me to think this is a much bigger barrier to business growth than is commonly understood.
I spent two years living and working in Kenya with informal businesses and small-holder farmers who operate as informal entrepreneurs selling produce. Time and again I heard stories of business deals gone wrong — of a middleman who bought produce on credit only to disappear without a trace and carry away hundreds of dollars worth of goods without paying for it. While the vast majority of businesses are honest dealers, and most transactions are smoothly conducted, it only takes a few such incidences to discourage otherwise worthwhile business investments. Would providing businesses with a virtual community to allow them to tap into their social networks to gain trust and credibility unleash an explosion of economic growth at the base of the pyramid?
My business partner Felix Macharia ’09 and I have set out to try this concept in Kenya, a country we both know well. Our business, Dango, seeks to create a referential mobile phone-based business directory and social messaging platform for the Kenyan marketplace. The system will work entirely on the simplest and most widely available ICT form available: text messaging. Imagine each of those thousands of informal businesses listed in a business directory accessible to anyone with a mobile phone? What if they were also linked to their regular customers, and through them, thousands of potential new customers? What if they could use their good reputation to find new customers and make bigger and better business deals? Dango will provide them a way to list their businesses, link with customers and reach out to new customers using their existing social networks. Non-business owners may use Dango as a social network and share news and information with groups of friends or formal groups like churches and student groups, and finding trusted businesses through the social networks inherent in these groups. If a Dango member searches for a car seller in a particular area, for example, he will be able to find one who is known to him through a friend or colleague.
Currently, Felix and I are conducting concept tests in Kenya and developing a prototype of the system. We will be in Nairobi this summer piloting the system with some select church and business groups. To get to this point, we’ve leveraged CBS’s resources tremendously.
Through the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program, CBS’s intensive incubator program for aspiring second-year entrepreneurs, we’ve gained exposure to entrepreneurs and investors and have been pushed to hone our business plan and pitches. Through the International Development Club’s Pangea Advisors, I was able to meet with leaders of top Kenyan businesses and social enterprises while conducting a field study of Kenyan businesses for Nancy Barry’s Enterprise Solutions to Poverty, a new organization that works with large companies and social enterprises in the developing world to create inclusive business models.
As a student in Professor Gita Johar’s “Global Marketing Consulting for Social Enterprise” class this semester, I led a team on a consulting project for Yasmina McCarty’s EMBA ’08 GreenMango, a fully localized online service marketplace that provides an easy way to find local small businesses for Indian professionals. The experience I’ve gained in working with GreenMango has provided me with an entirely new lens through which to see my own venture. Last but not least, the leadership experience I’ve gained as co-president of the International Development Club has given me confidence that I can lead a team in executing my vision to make Dango a reality. When I reflect on how I’ve been able to bring all of these experiences together in such a short two years, I am in awe of how much I’ve been able to accomplish.
As I prepare to walk out the doors of Uris Hall for the last time (as a student, at least!) I’m grateful for incredible opportunity I’ve had to bring my dreams closer to reality.
Photo credit: Ken Banks, kiwanja.net