January 21st, 2012
About three years ago, I realized that, no matter how influential I’d become as a citizen of the world, I needed to start looking at my career in a different way. I had been doing quite well by doing things I truly enjoyed, but the global financial crisis that started on September 15th, 2008 had just hit my businesses hard, particularly on the advertising and marketing services front when several long-time clients decided that they needed to scale back and spend less money on the types of initiatives our True Agency was promoting.
Also, with the proliferation of blogs, vlogs, podcasts and specialized online magazines that made a point of providing quality content for free on the web and through mobile devices, I learnt the hard way that Trace Magazine had stalled. Just as we began to lose readers, gathering enough circumstantial evidence that the print publishing business would become even more punishing than it had previously been, I started to think of the next company. Some of my side ventures were flourishing, and I was able to have fun with them, but I was not always directly involved in managing them. I needed a new vision.
In my search for a new model, I was witnessing the birth and growth of young, nimble, creative companies like Spotify and Kickstarter, new economy bedroom experiments that would pick just one area of expertise and end up reinventing the wheel in the music and fundraising communities. I knew people who were running Spotify and Kickstarter in Stockholm and New York, but I also knew, from my own companies in New York, LA, London and Paris that I needed to better understand the digital information revolution. I had always wanted to change society, and the values around transculturalism were still driving my ambitions, but in my desire to become a catalyst for change I had not been truly focused on the challenges facing Africa, the continent where I was born 40 years ago.
Then, one day about 24 months ago, I realized that I was getting more Facebook requests from Togo than from anywhere else. This was surprising to me, because I’d spent the last two decades trying to make a name for myself in the UK, France and the US. My media ventures were all located in those countries, and I was spending more personal time in Brazil than anywhere else, but suddenly Togo was the direction I was being pulled in. (I was getting a lot of invitations from Africa in general, but Togolese requests amounted to a full 40% of my hundreds of Facebook requests.)
So I brought up the topic at one of our True board meetings. I told my board members Richard Wayner and François-Xavier Huberlant that my friend Doug Raymond (a Google employee at the time) had encouraged my budding African business interests, and introduced me to some Google employees who might be able to help. Ultimately, nothing would come out of those Google Africa contacts, but I started to draft a position paper for a new company called True Africa.
Two years later, I find myself in Lomé, Togo, my birthplace, with a new vision and a new business partner in Matthieu Monsch, a 4th year PhD student in MIT’s operations research department. For the past ten days we have been conducting an MIT-funded, in-market feasibility study for our True Africa service.
Back in Cambridge, the starting point was the problem we were trying to solve, which is the fact that many independent African professionals at the base-of-the-pyramid have been living on three or four dollars a day. One of the reasons they are unable to drum up new business by building a bigger pool of clients is the asymmetry of information between the carpenters, mechanics and seamstresses we are targeting, and those clients who might be willing to utilize their services if only they knew how to reach them. Our hunch was that a simple mobile directory service for old feature phones where professionals would be listed according to their occupation, location and past client ratings might be useful. To both service providers and their clients
I had noticed that new technologies had demonstrated their power in opening up new business opportunities around local communications and collaborations, but I wanted to keep our service simple. Really simple. So when David Ly, a 2nd year Sloan MBA student who is also a telecom engineer and the third founding partner in our True Africa venture, suggested that we go back to basics and utilize the old USSD protocol for old GSM phones, I knew we were on to something. A new service was in gestation. Now, we had to explain to the people of Lomé why they should care about our new service. And if they didn’t, the deal was that we would walk away from that idea and go back to the drawing board. No point in being precious about it.
These days in Lomé, the first presence you notice is God. God is everywhere, and everywhere is God. Across the street from the house I am staying is the “Church of Jesus, the Conqueror of Nations.” As I was returning home tonight after dinner at my mother and stepfather’s, I saw a sign pointing to the “Ministry of Jesus.” Matthieu and I have been counting the religious retail signs on the storefronts as well; many point to The Hand of God, God’s Grace, Our Divine God. Some of the most common signage, the words you see painted on wooded boards and hung above the convenience stores, barber shops and beauty parlors are spelled “Mawulolo” (God is Great) and Mawuli (God is Here).
These retail signs point to Christian iconography, and many evangelical pastors including the one from the “Conqueror of Nations” are making a fine living in Togo at the moment. At the other end of the spectrum are the super-righteous Muslims. I’ve been seeing more and more of them ; they are the ones who refuse to blend in and pray five times a day in and around Lomé’s masjids.
Why am I even discussing religion on this blog, you may ask. Because I’ve noticed a rise in extreme religious behavior over the last few years, and my only explanation is that much of this newfound faith may be a direct result of poverty. As a practicing Catholic who was raised in a religious Togolese family myself, I can safely state that as some Togolese continue to distrust established institutions, blaming them for their own hardships, religion has become, as in many other countries in Africa, a haven for the disenfranchised.
In writing about these new beacons of hope, I recall my Day 7 interview with Nouridine Tchadjobo, the auto mechanic from Agouè who leaves it all in the hands of God, telling me that the struggle is so intense that only God will bring him the new clients he needs. As I explained the benefits of our True Africa service to him, I realized that even though he liked our promise that he might get calls from new clients who’d found him through the True Africa directory, the shift in behavior needed to make him a true believer would most likely require a lot more cajoling than we had patience or time for.
On the other hand, I feel encouraged when I think of Evelia Vignon, the student from our Day 5 interviews at Lomé’s “Grand Marché.” Vignon gets it, because she knows that, in order to transform her mother’s arts and crafts “Au Bons Choix d’Arts Chez Da-Doh” shop and turn in into a viable business focused on the future, she needs to make it more attractive and more easily accessible. Clearly, she knows that cellphones used properly in the way we’ve suggested are a business tool that can lead to progress and profits.
In November 2011, Tavneet Suri and a couple of her fellow development economists at Sloan published an “Innovative Solutions in Africa” report as part of the Vale Innovation/Sustainability Program. They found that technological progress or productivity improvements are the only way to generate long-run sustained increases in income. The report also found that there could be “huge returns to small, simple technologies” and that these returns may be “not just for households but potentially for an entire economy.”
We will be refining our True Africa concept, but as we continue to think of new ideas to build a successful business while helping to improve Togo’s and Africa’s economies, we have to imagine novel ways of adapting and marketing to diametrically opposed mindsets like Nouridine’s and Evelia’s. Nouridine and Evelia are both in their mid-twenties, but they seem to be living on two different planets. It helps that the experts believe, as I do, that context specific innovations are the most successful. The Togolese context is interesting, because the people are determined and resilient, even though they have long faced some of the most difficult conditions in Africa. The people of Togo live in hope, but they deserve better than what they currently have. And even though the odds are stacked against the people, new roads and new construction projects on some of the city’s main arteries are being pointed to as evidence that help is on the way. The good news is, everyone is now expecting change. Everyone’s been praying on it.
January 21st, 2012
Those who have been reading my blog on a daily basis will notice that today’s post is being published eight hours later than previous ones. The reason? An Internet blackout in the entire country of Togo, a day-long blackout which also extended into parts of neighboring countries Bénin and Ghana. I know that this must be inconceivable for some of my readers in Western countries, but the truth is that the lack of proper infrastructure makes every professional endeavor that much more difficult in underdeveloped nations like Togo.
I’ve been writing these blog posts at midnight, forcing myself to reflect on the day’s events and trying to make sense of the situations and contradictions we’ve been encountering on our research and development trip to Lomé. For the past nine days, my business partner Matthieu Monsch, our Lomé-based field operatives Ayité Zonor and Edem de Fanti and I have been on a mission, which has been about conducting 100 video interviews with potential users of our new True Africa service. Even as we collect useful insight (and plenty of funny anecdotes) from our interviewees, we have been focusing on interesting behavioral patterns. Matthieu has been producing simple visual and statistical data, and we have begun to tabulate all this information into market analytics as we map the opportunity. Tomorrow’s will be the last post, and I will wrap up our ten-day experience for readers in a short summary.
We have completed 97 of the interviews, and ultimately we will study the potential usage of our True Africa service, as well as the hurdles to adoption, in order to capture the user benefits and, later on, adapt our design and ergonomics for the broadest base. Unlike Trace Magazine or some of my previous media ventures, this True Africa project is not solely about influencers and insiders and people in the know. Rather, we are trying to connect people who need to connect, matching service providers with clients, focusing solely on those base-of-the-pyramid professionals who need to expand their clientele.
The market potential is huge, and half of Togo’s population is under 20. Whatever we can do to educate these young people and help them make a proper living as they enter the workforce will be considered useful. We found, however, that most of our core users will be active professionals in their thirties. We’re not looking at True Africa as a charity project. This is real business we are looking to launch, with both profit and social impact as key drivers. The potential is there, and the macroeconomic numbers are promising. McKinsey estimates Africa’s gross domestic product at about $2.6 trillion, with $1.4 in consumer spending. Also, Africa’s population growth and urbanization rates are among the highest in the world. Cell phones are everywhere, more available in many places than electricity, and the long-term plan is to tap into subscribers all over the continent.
The number of active mobile subscriptions in Africa crossed the half-a-billion mark back in the third quarter of 2010, according to research by UK-based Informa Telecoms & Media. Africa now accounts for 10% of the world’s mobile subscriptions and is one of the world’s fastest-growing regions. Most people never had a land line, so there is definitely a need for modern telecom connectivity. The number of mobile subscriptions in Africa is set to reach 1 billion in 2016, according to new research (released on November 3rd, 2011) by Informa. So clearly the time is now.
I’d been thinking around something like this for the past 18 months, because I wanted this new venture to be deeply rooted in the African values of ambition, openness, hope and respect. I got a lot of early help from my longtime business partners Richard Wayner and François-Xavier Huberlant. I led a lot of early ideation sessions with Mikaela Gauer in New York, and Darian Hendricks, Tim Smith and Peter Borden in Boston, but the pace accelerated after Matthieu (an MIT PhD candidate from France), David Ly (a French-Senegalese telecom engineer at MIT Sloan who along with Matthieu is my other business partner in this venture), Mercy Wakweika (a Kenyan-Ugandan), Chelsea Finn (a Californian), Patrizia Marsura (a Swiss) and Freida Ahonkhai (a Nigerian) joined me as part of an MIT work group. Clark Scheffy at design firm Ideo and our advisors at MIT (Joost Bonsen, Sandy Pentland, Howard Anderson and Bill Aulet) have also helped us think through the business models while I enlisted Africa-based tech and mobile specialists like John Waibochi at Virtual City in Kenya and Ndubuisi Ekekwe, a Nigerian entrepreneur who also writes a weekly blog for the Harvard Business Review.
In truth, the inspiration for this project is my mother, who struggled for years as a seamstress here in Lomé, unable to find many new clients outside of her immediate circle of friends and extended family. Because she was spending so much time next to her sewing machine, she could hardly go out and meet new clients. With the new tools of technology, and with what I know now as an entrepreneur, I feel we can help a lot of people who are currently in the same predicament my mom was when I was growing up here a couple of decades ago.
The stories behind the dreams and struggles of the independent professionals are the stories that motivate me, and with this blog I’ve been trying to paint an unvarnished picture of the situation as it is, today, in Togo. In my extensive travels across Africa in the past few years, I’ve noticed that what you see in Lomé looks a lot like what you might see in Dakar or Nairobi. People are trying to increase their income, setting up one-person businesses all over the metropolitan areas and displaying real ingenuity, but it is proving really difficult, no matter how industrious they may have proven themselves to be in the workplace. It’s just so obvious that there must be a better way.
One of the ladies we met yesterday morning was a hairdresser called Berthe Agbodo, pictured below. She has her own salon around the corner from where my mother used to live, in the centrally-located Amoutiévé neighborhood of Lomé. We saw that she was looking at us when we were interviewing an embroiderer across the street from her salon, so we walked into her salon and asker her if she would agree to be interviewed for our project. She nodded, we took her picture and filmed her as we conducted the interview. Then, right as we were wrapping us, she volunteered her personal story, which is that of a destitute girl from Lomé who had to stop school at age 13, in 1981, after her father, a hospital employee, died unexpectedly. Because she was unable to find anyone in her family to pay for her tuition, she stopped school and started living in what she called “real poverty.” When she became an adult, she trained as a hairdresser and eventually managed to save enough money to open her own salon, in one of the busiest parts of town. Still, she admitted that she had few clients, and that business was “not great despite all my efforts.” For hard-working women like Berthe Agbodo, there just has to be a better way.
January 19th, 2012
In yesterday’s post, I described our afternoon visit to the Lycée Kouvahey, a private high school where several dozen seamstresses from Section 10, coming from all over Lomé’s Totsi and Djidjollé neighborhoods, convened for a trade union meeting that was chaired by section president Toussaint Hevor.
One thing I forgot to mention was the state of the high school itself. The black paint on the old chalkboards was mostly worn off, and I could see how the teachers must have struggled to wipe off the thick white chalk marks with the damp cloth that was laying on the cement floor by the wooden window frames. Still, there was something endearing about the way the timetable charts were methodically drawn on the boards. The students seemed engaged, particularly during a math recitation we happened to witness as we walked to the larger classroom where the seamstresses were gathering.
As a 4th year PhD candidate in MIT’s operations research department, my traveling companion and co-founder in this True Africa Lomé project Matthieu Monsch spends most days – and some nights – optimizing complicated revenue models through high level statistical analysis. So I asked him what he thought of the ninth-grade level math equations that were written on one of the chalkboards. “This kind of math is fun,” he said. “Vectors and collinearity. I used to enjoy this kind of stuff when I was in school in Paris, and I think it’s interesting that the teacher is there with just two students doing their thing on the board.”
The reason I find this anecdote interesting is because there was a palpable eagerness to learn in the Lycée Kouvahey yesterday, despite the obvious lack of funding. The math recitation was moving along at a visibly slow pace, but I could see that the teacher was really patient, speaking slowly and softly. There was no doubt in my mind that the students would get there in the end, even though the process seemed slightly laborious. What we saw in the recitation classroom was, actually, quite similar to our own experience with the unionized seamstresses in one of the next rooms. It seemed that the seamstresses were on a stealth planning mission for simple revendications like pensions, but they were doing it slowly, in their own self-assured way.
That Togolese way of quietly moving forward, of claiming things patiently, of building off small victories, is called “deka deka.” And “deka deka,” which really means “one by one,” is the one idiomatic Mina phrase I want this blog’s readers to remember about my daily True Africa Lomé report. The West African immigrants from Burkina Faso or Niger who cannot speak Mina say “un peu un peu” in broken French, meaning “little by little,” but in any event “deka deka” and “un peu un peu” apply to many situations the Togolese are currently facing. It is the approach most Togolese professionals rely on when confronted with a difficult problem. “Deka deka” is the new Togolese way of life, the new Togolese mindset.
It applies directly to the independent professionals – the seamstresses and plumbers and carpenters and auto mechanics – that our True Africa service is targeting. One of the great things about adding this blog’s link to my Facebook account is the feedback I receive from friends outside of True’s regular corporate circles. A couple of days ago, I saw a Facebook comment from Eddie Brannan, a longtime associate I first collaborated with in 1995, back in the old True Magazine London days. Eddie wrote: “Fascinating stuff. I am following each day’s update, and intrigued to observe how you will build your base of vendors and how you will communicate to their potential customers the value of your intercession in a place where all the attributes we seek to emulate in a digital marketplace—community endorsement, user review etc—exist in their original model.”
I feel like I can finally answer Eddie’s brilliant question with “deka deka.” “Deka deka” is how our base-of-the-pyramid professionals – the poorest socio-economic group – intend to increase their monthly earnings from 60,000 CFA ($120) a month to 70,000 ($140) over the next year. Matthieu and I have now completed 86 out of 100 interviews, and the picture is getting a lot clearer. Our young assistants Ayité Zonor and Edem de Fanti have been helping us to explain True Africa’s value proposition to our target customers: it’s about increasing the independent professional’s income potential; increasing their customer base; and rewarding reliable service.
I have been telling our target customers that, given that they already have a cellphone anyway, why not use it to make more money by advertising their services in our directory to potential clients outside of their immediate community, and outside of their immediate vicinity. The way we see it, and without getting too technical in our MIT “system dynamics” terminology, the community endorsement that Eddie wrote about gets boosted by the power of network effects. Meaning in basic economic terms that the value of our True Africa service will be dependent on the number of customers using it. In other words, given their financial incentive, the more reviews and endorsements our carpenters receive on our new service, the more useful our new service becomes, over time. “Deka deka.”
Although his income level places him several floors above the base of the pyramid, “deka deka” is also how my own cousin Racim Alandou (pictured below) has been approaching his new entrepreneurial venture, a solar panel distribution business called Nam’zo. When Matthieu and I sat down with Racim tonight for a chat at the appropriately named Privilege Bar next to the Palm Beach hotel I wrote about on day 4, Racim said that, “everything about this new venture has been a struggle. I moved back to Lomé last year after spending almost 20 years in France, and I quickly discovered that there was no reliable energy consumption numbers available. And even though I asked the chamber of commerce to help me out with some data, when it came down to the feasibility study, I had to walk the streets myself, talk to people, and gather the relevant information myself, little by little.” “Deka deka.”
January 18th, 2012
This morning, my business partner Matthieu Monsch was feeling under the weather and we thought it would make more sense for him to stay in bed. And finally get some rest. The combination of pollution, mosquitos, and dry 90-degree heat in dusty January trade wind – called Harmattan – tends to slow down the pace in Togo and the rest of the Gulf of Guinea during the first weeks of the year. It gets even harder for Westerners who are not used to a climate where the haze meets the most punishing humidity. This year’s Harmattan is more pronounced than in previous years, and Matthieu noticed on several occasions that the late afternoon sun in Lomé looks as if it were the full moon on an early evening tropical horizon.
My nephew Ayité decided that we should head over to the Agouè Nyivé neighborhood, a busy suburb that is now officially part of the greater Lomé urban agglomeration and referred to simply as Agouè. I used to come to Agouè when I was a child, so I thought I knew the neighborhood well and could still work my way around its sandy streets. (My father had decided to build a new house there when I was six years-old, and every Saturday morning my sister and I would hop in the back seat of his car and wait for him to drive us 12 kilometers north to the construction site where, inevitably, he’d end up arguing with field welders and random foremen who hadn’t properly followed his instructions.)
The new Agouè we discovered this morning is full of blue-collar workers and newly arrived West African immigrants who blend in nicely with the older settlers from provincial Togolese towns. We decided to park the car and work our magic on the mechanics and carpenters who operate out of a series of open-air garages and street-level workshops near the overflowing Agouè market. I noticed that one of the food wholesalers operating in the Southwest corner of the market sells Obama-branded rice. The rice is made in Thailand and the large-size sack comes complete with a picture of the statue of the liberty. When I started taking pictures of the stacked-up sacks, the sales clerk walked up to me and asked questions about the upcoming US elections. He told me that the Obama branded-rice sells well, and that he was hoping for the President’s reelection.
Over the course of the following three hours, Ayité and I ended up interviewing 11 professionals who were working in the vicinity of the Agouè market. Our twelfth interviewee, a 28 year-old auto mechanic named Nouridine Tchadjobo (pictured below leaning on the Peta Peinta garage wall) was slightly different from his co-workers. I told him that we were looking to launch a new mobile directory service called True Africa, that the service would help to formalize the informal and drum up new business for him and his colleagues. I could see that he was interested in the idea, so I told him about the client ratings system, where the best mechanics would get five stars and the below average workers could be rated with as few as one or two stars.
He started smiling, so I asked him how he normally went about wooing new clients. “C’est Dieu seul qui ramène le nouveau client,” he said, easing into a more serious, fatalistic tone as he explained the hardship he has been facing in his latest endeavors to increase his income. Literally, having run out of options, he has come to believe that only God will bring in his new clients. So I decided to quiz him a bit further and find out more about his personal life. Tchadjobo’s story is the classic migrant story. It’s the story of the provincial apprentice from northern city Sokode, Togo’s second largest city, who decides to try his luck in the capital city. The dream is always the same: overcoming unemployment and powerlessness while sustaining oneself and saving just enough money to send money back home so as to, one day, reunite with one’s family.
Those who read yesterday’s post will remember that we had a scheduled 3pm appointment today with Mr. Toussaint Hevor, the president of the local seamstresses union. After we left Agouè’s urban sprawl and grabbed something to eat, Ayité and I picked up Matthieu at his hotel in the afternoon. He told me that he was feeling slightly better, having rested in his room for a few hours. So we went straight to the Lycée Kouvahey, a high school where the seamstresses from Section 10 (covering the Totsi and Djidjollé neighborhoods) were gathered in one of the classrooms with Hevor. Hevor introduced us to them, and we were able to tell them about our True Africa service.
Hevor, who loved the idea of our service, proposed a partnership between Synctato, the name of the union, and True Africa. He asked if anyone in the room objected to the partnership. No hands were raised, so we are now free to pursue a proper partnership with the community of Lomé seamstresses. When Matthieu and I had dinner with my mother tonight, and told her about our achievement with Hevor after a chance encounter yesterday with a tricky seamstress, my mother asked to see Hevor’s card and stared at it for more than 30 seconds. Reminiscing the days she used to work as a seamstress, she told us that she herself had been a longtime member of the Synctato union: “I was in Section 7, which covered the Amoutiévé neighborhood.”
January 17th, 2012
Some people are funny without knowing they are funny. They say things that make me want to crack up right in front of them, but I force myself to stay focused on the task at hand. After all, this is a research and development trip. But more on that later.
This morning, on Day 6 of our True Africa trek, my nephew Ayité Zonor, Matthieu Monsch and I continued our journey, which has been about understanding behavior and searching for clues that will help us to map out our user experience in the markets we are most interested in, namely the working class neighborhoods in Lomé, Togo’s bustling capital city. In plain English, that means talking to independent professionals, lots of independent professionals, and understanding how they might use our new True Africa service on their old Nokia phones as a tool to attract new clients. Our goal is to put money in these professionals’ pockets by innovating around very simple technology.
By helping these professionals make more money, we hope to make money ourselves by sharing incremental voice and data revenue with the local telecom operators. Clark Scheffy from the Boston design agency Ideo is one of our advisors on the startup project, and he suggested that we force ourselves to be visual and collect our content in one place. Hence the idea of this blog. “The blog will keep you honest and diligent around your research,” he wrote to us in an email.
Honest and diligent, this blog sure has kept us. Matthieu, whom most people would affectionately call a French geek, has been taking pictures and recording short clips with my Canon EOS Rebel camera. We have hundreds of pictures and dozens of videos, and I’ve stepped back into my original journalist shoes. (Matthieu has been learning some Mina words on the side. He had to, because all the children scream the word “yovo” – white man – when they see him walking down the street. The words he has been memorizing – including “akpe kaka” which means thank you very much and “eyiso” as in see you tomorrow – are so well pronounced in his French accent that he tends to endear some Togolese professionals to our research cause.)
This morning, one seamstress wasn’t having it, however. Clue: this is where the funny part comes in. The encounter came about after one of Ayité’s friends gave us the address of a local tailor whose perspective might be interesting to our research. When we showed up, unannounced, at the tailor’s house around 11am, the tailor himself, an affable man in his early sixties, informed us that he’d been working as a tailor since 1971, and that he would be retiring in less than two years. This service would be useful to younger professionals, he felt, so he suggested we speak with his tenant, a younger seamstress who’d recently built a workshop right in his front garage.
The tailor introduced us to the seamstress, who started checking us out. “Why should I trust you,” she said. “I’m not letting you take a picture of me, let alone shoot a video. Anyway, I don’t even have a cellphone. So I’m of no use to you.” I noticed that she was chatting with a friendlier lady, who was visibly another seamstress. (I could tell by the dress code, recognizing and recalling quirky design cues I’d picked up from my own mother, who used to work as a seamstress in Lomé when I was growing up.) I asked the friendlier seamstress whether I could interview her, and she agreed to talk. Then, the other seamstress said to her, “Why are you letting him interview you? Did you ask your husband for permission? You’re still a married woman, aren’t you?” The friendly seamstress thought about it for a few more seconds, and changed her mind. “I like the idea of receiving calls from prospective clients on my phone, but I’ll have to ask my husband first. Just give me your number, and I’ll call you if my husband agrees to let you take my picture.” So I gave her my local cell number, and right when she started punching in the digits, the skeptical seamstress, the one who’d just told me that she didn’t have a cellphone, pulled out a Nokia phone of her own, and asked me to repeat my digits.
Had she changed her mind, we wondered. I told her my name was Claude and she said, “Don’t give me your name, I don’t need it. Just give me the name of your service. What did you say? True? Like the truth? I need to put it into my phone as True, because my husband checks all the names in my phone, and I can’t be seen to have a man’s name in there.” I wanted to laugh so hard, but I could feel that something was about to come out of this chance encounter. So I stayed focused. Sure enough, 30 seconds after she punched “True” into her phone, she gave us the number of a man named Toussaint Hevor, who happens to be the president of the local seamstresses union. As such, he is a key influencer who could make our job a lot easier. Hopefully, tomorrow’s 3pm meeting with Mr. Hevor will go well.
After we left our two seamstresses in the garage workshop, we sat with an interesting jeweler named Adonkou Sobo before interviewing, after lunch, a few more people across two different neighborhoods. Then, around 7pm, we walked into a tiny barber shop on a busy road near the airport. Anoumou Benoit Akakpovi (pictured below) is a jovial man who welcomes every potential customer with a big, genuine smile. The sign above his door read “Barber / Cellphone Repair Man.” (We noticed that he was also selling his motorcycle for 80,000 CFA, or $160). I asked him if customers walked into his shop with their broken cellphones and left with a haircut as well. “That’s exactly it,” he replied, with a very big smile. “They need their cellphones, but they need a haircut as well. I was trained in electronics, but I recently learnt how to cut hair. Other clients come in for a haircut, but then they realize their cellphone is not working properly.”
January 16th, 2012
Ever since I was a child growing up in Lomé, I have loved going to Asigamé, better known to tourists as “Le Grand Marché.” My love for the energy and human interactions and improvised barters that inevitably take place in and out of the streets and alleyways surrounding that vibrant city block might have something to do with the fact that I was baptized in Lomé’s cathedral, which is located right in the middle of Asigamé, the capital’s main outdoor marketplace.
Every time I go back home to Lomé, which is about four times a year, I find an excuse to head over there. There’s always tribal jewelry to buy for a female friend in the US or Brazil, or bright new patterns in wax-print cloth to pick up for my New York dining table, or engraved wooden jewelry boxes to discover at the local artisan’s stall.
I love eating avocado-filled baguettes, though these days they are harder to come by. I love the drawn-out negotiation process, where you name your price and walk away from the vendor – a skill I learnt from my late father – knowing that he or she will run after you five minutes after pretending your price is unacceptable. I love teasing the “Nanettes,” the teenage merchants, right in front of their “Nana Benz” mothers, because Togolese mothers, particularly the species known as “Nana Benz” – those enterprising Asigamé women who become Mercedes-Benz-driving millionaires by selling traditional African fabrics – expect their apprentice daughters to be witty and able to deal with all kinds of hard bargainers and sharp-tongued locals. (I have always been one of the sharp-tongued ones.) I love teasing the newly arrived Burkinabe vendors, as they struggle with the Mina accent. I just love the organized chaos of the place.
So it was a true pleasure for me to return to Asigamé this morning with my nephew/assistant Ayité Zonor and Matthieu Monsch, one of my US-based partners in the True Africa venture, which is a free mobile directory we have been building for professionals at the base of the pyramid. For those who just started reading this blog, True Africa, which we are testing in Lomé this week, is a new service that will allow drivers, painters, carpenters, hairdressers, and even certain Asigamé market vendors to post their contact information and client ratings in our database through their cell phone, creating a directory that will provide a trusted venue for connecting, transacting and exchanging quality services.
At 10am, we started our daily interview trek, where we gently approach complete strangers and convince them to give us ten minutes of their time. (On most occasions, we end up hanging out with them for 15, 20 minutes or more.) The idea, as we explain it to them, is to test the viability of the service on professionals who seem to fit into our target demographic. In Asigamé, things didn’t start out so well for us today. We spoke to one, then two wax-print cloth merchants, and they both found excuses for not participating in our survey. Ayité did his best to convince them, speaking softly, and spelling out the win-win benefits of the service, but they weren’t having it.
So we re-strategized, left the busiest, noisiest corner of the market, walked past the old cathedral for inspiration, and found a small arts and crafts shop called “Au Bons Choix d’Arts Chez Da-Doh.” We walked in, and found that the owner, Da-Doh herself was watching TV, waiting for customers by the door while her 25 year-old daughter Evelia Vignon entertained her with stories about rival Asigamé merchants. Not surprisingly, Da-Doh politely turned down our request for an interview, and asked us to speak with Evelia instead. Evelia, pictured below, gladly accepted our invitation and we walked out of the actual shop and into the nicely decorated storefront.
After answering our questions relating to her usage of cell phones for client outreach, Evelia told us that she was a student. She added that she was also working with her mother at Chez Da-Doh because she wanted to be like her mother. Just like your mother? “Yes, like my mother,” she told me, looking at one of the boubous (oversize dresses) hanging from a suspended hanger. “But I want to give our business an international dimension. I want to start looking at exporting to Europe and America. In a way, through these objects we are selling our African values. The western word needs to discover our craftsmanship.”
I asked her how she went about marketing her mother’s goods. “It’s not about marketing,” she told me. “It’s about the location. Just look at where we are located, right in the middle of it all. Look at this little retail signage we have up here. New clients send up postcards, they call us on our cell phones, it’s all about maintaining a relationship with our clients, but I tell my mom that we have to think bigger. That we have to change the décor, that we need a sales force. What I like about your service is that you will be advertising our retail location, making it even easier for new clients to find us. If you can help us to move forward, I am with it.”
January 15th, 2012
Some days are better than others. This was a day I realized that French journalist Alphonse Karr’s famous epigram “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” continues to describe some of the unacceptable things that happen in Africa. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And the more they stay the same, the more critics like myself have to call some shit out.
My cousin Sonia Lawson and myself (both Lomé natives) were giving my new business partner Matthieu Monsch a tour of the Hôtel Mercure-Sarakawa, Togo’s most famous hotel and the only 5-star joint in town. This is Matthieu’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, so as we run around town, quizzing 100 base-of-the-pyramid professionals on the usefulness of our True Africa directory service as we attempt to validate the market potential, I’ve also been trying to give Matthieu a true taste of Togo, as lived through the lens of everyday people.
On this Sunday, I decided to show Matthieu how some of the 1% in Lomé live, meaning expatriates, diplomats, businessmen and even local dignitaries like Togo’s interior minister Pascal Bodjona, whom we ran into and chatted with in the lobby of the hotel. Five minutes before we saw Bodjona, we’d passed a Chinese delegation led by China’s Ambassador to Togo and Li Ruogu, the Chairman of the powerful China Exim Bank, a state-owned institution that has quietly become the single largest lender to Africa, providing more loans to Africa than the World Bank in the last decade, according to Fitch Ratings.
We could see that some serious business was about to be transacted in that hotel over the next few days, and I also overheard several people in the lobby talking excitedly about Hillary Clinton, who is scheduled in arrive in Lomé on Tuesday, in a visit meant to demonstrate what the US Embassy in Lomé calls “US support for Togo’s democratic progress and economic reforms.”
As Sonia, Matthieu and I walked out of the lobby, we decided to head over to the swimming pool and its surrounding manicured lawns after taking a detour to the equestrian area in the so-called “Ranch Sarakawa.” We then headed to the Oceanside beach that borders the hotel and saw something that stopped us dead in our tracks. A group of about a dozen Lebanese men were playing volleyball on the hotel’s beach court. On each of the four sides of the court stood a young Togolese boy acting as a ball-catcher, see picture above. Each of the boys, some as young as 5 or 6, placed himself about ten feet away from the line and ran after the ball each time it flew out of the court. The men wouldn’t even thank them or acknowledge their presence. No eye contact; they were just part of the décor.
So Sonia and I quietly walked over to the youngest of the boys as we strolled over to the bar area. We asked him, in Mina, our local language, how he got to meet and catch balls for these men. He told us that the men approached him when he was sitting in front of his home, right around the corner from the hotel. How much money did they promise him, we asked? “I don’t know how much they will give me,” he said. “But I am here.”
Nothing unusual about that, because things like this happen in Africa every day, but we were struck by the disdain with which these Lebanese men were treating these young boys. There was something exploitative about the situation, and it felt like these boys shouldn’t have been there in the first place. An hour later, we left the Sarakawa, and headed over to another hotel with a sea view, the Palm Beach near the city center. In that hotel lobby, not much business was being transacted. There were less than five guests in the lobby, and people seemed to be chatting while watching the Premier League match on the TV in the corner of the seating area. Matthieu and I met Gilles Sossah, a third year history student who also happens to also work part time as a rent-a-car broker. “I use my cell phone all the time,” he told us. “I use it for personal calls, but I also use it to make and receive calls from my clients who are looking for a car to rent quickly.”
Sossah can no longer afford a car for his own personal use, so he uses his phone to arrange for pickups. He is also constantly negotiating deals on the fly with zémidjan drivers, the ones you see honking all over town. (Zémidjans are motorcycles that carry one or sometimes two passengers for short distances within the city.) Sossah said he liked the fact that our True Africa service seemed easy to use, in that it’s only about punching a name, location and number into a phone, but he didn’t know for sure that it would catch on quickly in Togo. “Togolese people are skeptics by nature,” he added. “I might want to use that service, but for clients like me who are going to have to pay to access your directory, you need to make sure you have rates that are affordable. Really affordable. Because people are not really making a lot of money right now.”
January 14th, 2012
Day 3 in Lomé, Togo, and we’re already doing a better job of explaining our True Africa service proposal to the workers we’ve been meeting in corner shops and back alleys. (My nephew/assistant Ayité is great at starting conversations, and he has great people skills. It must run in the family…)
I’ve been practicing the pitch in French and local language Mina, and now the words just flow out of my mouth like H20 out of a faucet. True Africa is a free – I repeat FREE – mobile directory for local service providers who will get to post their name, occupation, location and cellphone number, in addition to client ratings, through their cellphone, in order to drum up new business by getting unexpected calls from prospective new clients. A bit of a mouthful, I know, but some in our target market seem drawn to the idea nonetheless. Still, many are also questioning the usage of the word “free” because by now everyone knows that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
One skeptical carpenter, laboring and sweating out of his small workshop on one of the main roads in the Totsi neighborhood asked me this morning, “If this service is really free to me, and you can promise that I’ll get calls from new clients I’ve never met, then how do YOU make money?” My answer, which is the basis of our business model, was that we make money by sharing revenue from phone calls and SMS with the local operators. That answer, he could wrap his head around. And so we went door to door, and met hairdresser Oda Fianou, air conditioning technician Kodjogan Abevi, beauty parlor owner Geneviève N’gonou, fashion designer Limda Awesso, shopkeeper Nanayo Agoulou, and ten other professionals in three working class neighborhoods.
In one of the hair salons we visited, hung the portrait of Barack Obama (see picture above). For a second there, I thought it was the same picture you see behind the immigrations desks at JFK airport, and I looked closer. Actually, upon closer inspection I realized it was the same picture, the one that hangs in entrance halls in US government buildings. Which leads me to the topic of today’s post. It’s… the same topic as yesterday’s post, so consider this post to be a continuation of yesterday’s, where I sang the praises of Komlan Agbokou, who’d returned to Lomé from Atlanta to set up the Lavista Park bar on the laguna in one of the city’s most derelict crossings. I was going to drop the diaspora topic, but just couldn’t resist harping on the same string. Just this once.
My hero for today is Henriette Bodjollé, the 41 year-old founder and president of True Vine Togo. (No relation to my company, True, or this True Africa mobile start-up myself, Matthieu Monsch, David Ly and a few others at MIT have been working on over the past few months.) A Togolese native who moved from Lomé to the US at a time of deep economic uncertainty in the late 1990s, Bodjollé, who had studied law at the University of Lomé before immigrating to America, obtained a degree in business management in the US and parlayed that degree and strong work ethic into a full-time position at Home Depot in Washington state. Before she knew it, she was a naturalized American citizen managing a large team for her employer, America’s 30th largest company.
In addition to her job at Home Depot, Bodjollé was also a parishioner at North Creek, a Washington State Presbyterian church. In December 2007, Bodjollé and True Vine were written about in the local paper, the Weekly Herald. “Henriette Bodjollé cried out to God the day she met Evans Adinkra. She was on a Bible mission in Togo in 2001 when she found Adinkra, then 14 — hidden away and immobilized by the pain of an untreated injury.” Bodjollé recalled that Adinkra’s mother couldn’t afford to take her child to the hospital, so Bodjollé decided to do something about what she’d just witnessed. In April 2002, less than a year after meeting Adinkra and his mother, she started Le Vrai Cep, a Togolese NGO whose mission is to provide education for orphans in Togo. Three years later, in April 2005, she started True Vine Togo, a US-based sister organization on the same mission. By November of that year, she’d obtained federal 501c(3) status, and since then several generous donations have kept the two organizations afloat, helping to feed and put 152 children through school.
This afternoon, Bodjollé was with her sidekick, Jean-Marie Attila, the Lomé-based executive director of Le Vrai Cep, and we chatted about her travails, and also how our True Africa service could perhaps help her to fulfill the mission she has embarked on now that she is on a leave of absence from Home Depot, living off three years’ savings and fully dedicated to the two sister organizations. “I decided to come back and run the Togo organization myself,” she told me. “Because if I want to help more kids I really have to be here and not so far away.” That decision meant leaving her husband to care for her older teenage daughter back in Washington State. (Her younger, 14 year-old daughter, is with her in Togo, and supportive of her decision.) “The way that your service can help us is to find the technology that will enable us to find a good secretary and a good accounting person. One of the problems in Togo is finding qualified people. It’s really hard.”
January 13th, 2012
Things are changing in Togo. Today, we felt the winds of optimism, and I am still getting shivers from some of the ten recorded conversations Matthieu and I had with both bottom of the pyramid professionals and those employers who will end up employing them if we are able to successfully deploy our True Africa mobile directory service in Togo, our pilot-market, later this year.
As Matthieu and I came to talk with everyday citizens about cell phones, we quickly found out that the two main mobile telecom operators, Togocell and Moov are rapidly reducing their rates in an effort to capture an ever bigger slice of the mobile subscriber pie. Subscribers track the changing rates on a weekly basis, and as they comparison-shop, we noticed a relative lack of brand loyalty and found that each and every cent counts towards much-needed savings.
Still, optimism starts with a smile, and I noticed that people are smiling a lot more than they were when I visited Lomé around this time last year. Workers are still working hard, and still having a hard time making ends meet, especially as both homegrown and imported goods have become more expensive. “La vie chère” – the expensive life – is a buzzword on everyone’s lips, the catch-all phrase explaining that inability to get by without feeling short-changed. With the price of rice and meat going up every month, “la vie chère” is a harsh reality, but somehow people seem hopeful that they might just turn the corner in the next few months. Hanging in there is the hard part, but the Togolese are known for being resilient.
The Togolese diaspora has proven a key catalyst in riding the new wave of optimism, as more and more exiled Togolese have returned from Europe and America – with skills, qualifications and a can-do mindset – to help improve the lot of their fellow citizens. One of those can-do entrepreneurs is 52 year-old Komlan Agbokou, pictured below. Mr. Agbokou, a welder by training, had left Lomé for Atlanta, Georgia, in 1995, back when things were looking really hopeless in Togo. In Georgia, he quickly mastered the latest American welding processes and became a supervisor at his local plant.
About four years ago, he started missing Lomé’s community life, particularly in the Bê neighborhood where he grew up. “When you live abroad, you live by yourself,” he told me. “I had an urge to share with my brothers what I saw in the US. So I started working on improving the state of my neighborhood. My motto is that only work can liberate the individual.”
The improvement he is referring to is the sanitation of the area around the Bê laguna, which led to the opening of his Lavista Park bar, a large outdoor locale and local hangout for music-loving denizens. Lavista sits right on the Southern shores of the laguna. A few years ago, people would avoid that laguna like the plague, because the entire area had become a huge dumpster, with litter flowing noticeably into the filthy banks.
Thanks to a grant by the African Development Bank, the laguna and surrounding Bê shores and dirt roads were cleaned, and people started believing in the neighborhood again. “I negotiated with the local community development board, and was given an inexpensive lease on this land,” he said, pointing to the freshly-mowed lawn and proud palm trees surrounding the outdoor seating areas. “I took a shovel and started cleaning this whole land up by myself, working till 4 or 5 in the morning, but some hooligans would come in and take all my stuff. They even broke the fence three times before I was able to secure it. Now, you come in here and you see people relaxing by the shore, bringing their own picnics and ordering from our bar, laughing into the night.”
By local standards, Agbokou has an unorthodox management style, and he tells his young employees that he is not their boss. He encourages them to call him “Fo,” which means “big brother” in our local Mina language. We were interested in his management style, and more importantly whether he might want to experiment with – and pay for – our new True Africa service in his local recruitment drive. “I’m glad you are bringing this mobile directory idea to Togo,” he said. “Anything you can do to help make our communications simpler has my vote. Initiatives like yours can help to make our country one of the successful countries in West Africa.” With that, he rose from his chair, walked over to the fence and posed for Matthieu’s camera. He insisted on being shot right next to the sign on the wall. It reads, “Togolese Citizen, come! Let’s build the city.”
January 12th, 2012
My MIT colleague Matthieu Monsch (a 4th year PhD in operations research) and I arrived in my hometown, Lomé, Togo, last night, and we went straight to work this morning at 9am. The reason for this trip? Research and development as part of our ongoing True Africa startup project, which is benefitting from generous funding provided by an MIT Tech Dissemination Fellowship. (Thank you Laura Sampath!)
True Africa is a free mobile directory service for African service providers at the Base of the Pyramid. Our ultimate aim is to replace the Yellow Pages and White Pages and we will be targeting drivers, painters, carpenters, hairdressers, basically urban professionals who will rely on True Africa to establish effective connections with clients using their existing mobile phones. Mobile phones are now all over Africa, particularly those old Nokias with the gritty old school black and white screen, so our hope is that our True Africa platform will allow even those users with the cheapest phones to post their credentials and client ratings for free through GSM phones’ USSD protocol, providing a trusted venue for connecting, transacting and exchanging quality services. We want to help these service providers to attract more clients.
Dr. Madanmohan Rao of the Innovation Africa Digital Summit estimates that “by 2040, the African continent is expected to boast the world’s largest working-age population, and another 500 million children could be born by 2030, providing marketers a youthful, aspirational audience in the long term. Supporting these shifts is the move towards urban living, with an extra 15 cities in Africa containing a minimum 1 million residents emerging in the past ten years, and a further 19 due to join this group by 2020, taking the total to 71.”
Lomé, with an estimated population of just under 2 million, is one of those vibrant capital cities. So this morning we enlisted my savvy nephew Ayité Zonor and headed straight to the Grand Marché, the old market located near the sea at the city center. Tomorrow being a national holiday, le 13 janvier, Matthieu and I found a trusted currency dealer on a street corned at the edge of the market and exchanged a few hundred dollar bills for fresh CFAs. Street peddlers ran after us, hawking fabric, underwear and belts featuring oversize Emporio Armani metallic logos. Thank God, as a native son, I was able to push them away. In Mina, our local language, and also French. Not before I parted with 15,000 crisp CFA (about $30) though. (Matthieu even managed to buy a small frameless painting for 5,000 CFA.)
After we got sidetracked with the young Fulani and Anago merchants, who insisted that we inspect their goods even as we tried to walk away, Ayité led us to our first interviewee, the first of 100 Lomé professionals we plan to survey over the next 12 days. His name is Kodjo Kaiser, and he is a local tailor who minds a stall near the old Goyi Score supermarket my mom and sister and I used to shop in when I was a kid. Standing next to Kodjo is Aicha Oukpedjo, pictured here, who sold me a freshly cut 1.5 meter piece of dark grey fabric out of her wooded stall. I do intend to turn that grey fabric into a nice pair of tropical pants. (Current midday weather in Lomé is about 90 degrees in the shade.) Aicha, told me, through her seemingly innocent smile, that she is 46 years old and owns a cell phone. “Of course I have one,” she replied in astonishment when I questioned her. I was a bit surprised, because she cannot read, let alone spell her name. Still, she told me, she managed to use her cell phone on a daily basis to reach out to her clients all over the city and also to stay in touch with her family. The secret of her dexterity and ingenuity? We will find out more tomorrow, as we continue with more interviews. We ended up interviewing ten people today, not a bad result given that we are just getting started.
Stay tuned for more Lomé tales. Coming tomorrow evening.