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Out of Africa

Posted on 4 March 2012

Lessons !

Recently, while traveling in Africa I found a small business with big plans.

Now we are all inclined to view business in a somewhat formal way, with management, motivational and process theories, accurate measurements, planning and a host of other "business" imperatives.

These are all valid but maybe we have to be careful to not get sidetracked into so much theory and principle that we forget the fundamentals of business.

To provide a product or a service to willing customers, prepared to pay your price and for you to be able to deliver the product or service at a profit.

What happens when you have no education, maybe you cant read or write, what chances do you think you will have then?

On the side of a busy road I found Agnes sitting on a folding chair behind a small table.

She sells small items to passing pedestrians, yes there are lots of those in Africa.

A range of salty snacks hand packed into plastic bags ( bulk purchased ), a few packets of cigarettes where one can buy one or more single cigarettes. Packets of peanuts, a few oranges and a jar of sweets completes her inventory.

Then she has her killer offering - a telephone.

We are all so used to instant communications with everybody having mobile phones, that it is easy to forget the days of phone booths.

In Africa many people do have mobile phones but phone booths are non existent and that still leaves many people with no easy way to communicate.

This lady has a strange contraption on the table, a motorcycle battery connected to a small box ( similar to a mobile phone on the inside ) and a standard telephone handset connected to this box.

The box has a few simple controls - an On and Off button plus a range of buttons with currency values indicated on each.

When a customer wants to make a call, they agree on how much is to be spent, box switched on, wait a minute, select the Value button and the customer can make a call to the value selected.


Somebody somewhere figured out this need and then created this amazing device, without government subsidies I might add, but I digress.

After buying an orange I engaged Agnes in a conversation she told me that she had three such tables and that she met with her "operators" every evening ( they are neighbours ) to supply new stock, sort out the money and pay them their commissions.

Her children's job is to fill packets from her bulk supply once they get home from school. On Wednesdays she goes to a market to restock her supplies and she has an agreement with a grocer near her home to deliver her fresh goods each afternoon.

Here we have an illiterate lady with dreams of 10 tables with phones, working at it and involving her community and family in the process. Managing suppliers, production, employees and all without "government oversight, rules, regulations, permits, licenses, unions or any of the formal structures we are used to.

She tells me that her goal is to add one table every four months, but that her biggest problem is to ensure she only "employs" reliable neighbours.

She has goals and dreams for her and her family. She wants her children educated properly and is concerned about the educational system. She worries about the crooked politicians and the regular crooks who might steal her money or kill her in the process. She worries about her family and childrens safety.

This does not deter her, and in some ways makes her more determined, to succeed.

She has started with nothing, has no education plus many other disadvantages, yet she is not waiting for a government handout, she has taken control of her own destiny, has a plan and is working her plan, good on you Agnes.

What can I say - maybe we all have much to learn ...


Tags: Step by Step Success -


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