Every Spring, the Oxford MBA program encourages students to undertake Student Treks in culturally diverse teams to a geographical and functional area of interest. Given my association with the development sector in India, I had wanted my next stop of exploration to be the continent of Africa. Thanks to a very generous grant by the Weidenfeld Hoffman Trust and one by Green Templeton College which is especially provided to Said Business School students, this wish fulfilment happened in April 2017.
The Africa Student Trek was designed to give us on-the-ground exposure to businesses with purpose – for-profit business models that were doing well while doing good. This has been a constant theme in the Oxford MBA, and what better way was there to further this learning than by watching social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs executing this on the ground. And so my trek to Kenya took off, and one after another, inclusive business models unfolded.
We started out with Safaricom, the major telecom provider in Kenya. One might wonder what social good can come of a telecom company. The one word answer to this would be M-Pesa. Safaricom’s introduction of M-Pesa has taken Kenya’s mobile money dependant ecosystems by storm. Even the unbanked smallholder farmer can now do swift business with buyers with nothing more than a Safaricom mobile number connected to an M-Pesa account, and the most rudimentary mobile handset that he charges once in three days. Urban daily wage earners can transfer money to their families in the rural areas by pushing a few keys on their mobile phones. Savings are digital and relatively safe and one need not worry about losing their money.
Apart from direct transactions, M-Pesa has also helped to shape the Kenyan commercial ecosystem by paving the way for businesses with models reliant on a stable payment system available to people at the bottom of the pyramid. We heard this being echoed multiple times in less than one week in the country. An Oxford MBA alumnus – who we met at the Alumni dinner very graciously organized by the Oxford and Cambridge Society in Nairobi to welcome our group – discussed with us his new venture of making clean and affordable fuel available to the BoP sector through a pay-as-you-go model. Why Kenya, we asked our Indian alumnus? And there the word was again – M-Pesa. It had made it easier to do business even with the unbanked BoP sector in Kenya.
As if under a spell of deja-vu, we heard the exact same maxim again from yet another Oxford MBA alumnus who has set up the very innovative M-Kopa, which offers pay-as-you-go off-grid-solar electricity to the under-privileged in the remotest parts of Kenya. Children are being able to study in these houses after dark now. Families are connected to the far-off members through their mobile phones which they can charge using solar power. And which they can use to pay off their solar power bills through M-Pesa.
Two other inclusive business models we encountered were Andela and Wrigleys.
Andela has given new meaning to ‘outsourcing work to developing countries’ and has the blessing of Mark Zuckerberg himself. Through a highly competitive selection process, it selects youth with an aptitude for software development – even if they do not have fancy higher education degrees – and trains them to become valued team members of tech companies in developed countries and earn a steady and respectable living.
Wrigleys has rolled out the concept of mutuality in its business through its Maua project in Kenya. It has developed micro entrepreneurs to sell its products – increasing its own sales and providing livelihood opportunities to over 500 families. Our visit to the slum in Nairobi, where many of these small-scale entrepreneurs have been developed, brought us face to face with people who told us how they have turned their lives around by getting access to a livelihood opportunity through this project.
While one can always question the motives of the companies engaging in inclusive businesses and wonder if they are mining the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, or truly conducting business with the intention to serve the needy, one cannot deny the impact these businesses have had on the lives of the BoP segment. And thanks to the Trek, I could see some of this impact for myself. It also broadened my horizon about the development of the private sector for social impact, and the role that responsible businesses can play in shaping such an ecosystem.
This understanding proved to be particularly helpful during my summer internship with the CDC Group, the UK government’s development finance institution investing for private sector development in Africa and South Asia, to foster social impact through responsible investments. For this, and the experience as a whole – my first in Africa – I am very grateful to the Weidenfeld Hoffman Trust.
Aditi Chatterjee (India, MBA) is a Louis Dreyfus-Weidenfeld and Hoffmann Scholar