We call them business mentors. To our business owners, they are simply mwalimu, Swahili for teacher. But the 55 people who drive our program, our impact, and our mission every single day in the field wear many hats. They are trainers, coaches, family counselors, social workers, accountability partners, and friends. We want to ensure that every time they arrive in their assigned communities, they are best prepared for all the challenges they will face.
Over the past few weeks, our innovations team held mentoring workshops in each of our offices. Business mentors gathered for two days to share their triumphs and failures as well as their best practices. The innovations team will now aggregate these practices into a new mentoring manual. This manual will contain the collective wisdom of all of our business mentors and serve as resource guide and reference. Additionally, the mentoring manual will be used as a key technical assistance offering to other organizations seeking best practices around mentoring businesses at the bottom of the pyramid.
Topics at the mentoring workshop ranged from best practices in rearing goats and pigs to how to helpfully intervene in instances of domestic abuse. Our business mentors come from a variety backgrounds and have unique strengths. Prior to the workshop, we identified business mentors’ various areas of expertise and asked them to come prepared to share best practices with the team. Here are some examples.
Free shampoos and smaller cabbages: unexpected business advice
The innovative spirit is alive and well in our business mentors. For instance, when planting crops like cabbages or watermelons, farmers will often leave significant space between each seed to allow for large harvests. Eldoret business mentor, Nelson Kemboi, advises his business owners to instead limit space between seeds, producing smaller cabbages. Most of our business’ clientele have little disposable income. When business owners can sell smaller cabbages in higher quantity at a price accessible to their clientele, they accrue higher revenue than if they were selling large cabbages at a high price.
Another suggestion came from Nelson’s colleague, Fred Stingo. When some of Stingo’s business owners started a salon, he innovated a stellar way to market their business. Rather than charging for a shampoo and a style separately, Stingo suggested that the business owners combine the services, slightly raising the price of a styling, but marketing the wash for free. Sure enough, a free shampoo with a styling session was a hit!
Mentoring beyond the business
Ibrahim, a business mentor in Hoima, provided the team with phenomenal advice on how to provide emotional and motivational support and encouragement to business owners throughout the program. For example, when Ibrahim presents examples of poor business management, he avoids using the names of business owners in the group because he recognizes that this might make a business owner feel discouraged. However, when he brings positive examples, he does use the names of group members because he has found that doing so encourages business owners to emulate the good behavior.
Thomas in Lira, Uganda, is an example of how to use personal experience and empathy to support mentoring. Thomas shared that he motivates his business owners by sharing his own personal story. Having grown up in an extremely poor household, Thomas was able to lift himself out of poverty thru creative business: he sold mandazi in the early morning. His business skills are a lesson to all his now students: he gave tasters to groups of boda drivers to get them hooked! He is able to use these life examples of hope and motivation for this business owners.
We are dedicated to bottom-up innovations, not because a bottom-up approach is trendy, but because our long experience shows it works. Our business mentors are our best sources on the information needed to succeed in the communities where we work. The mentoring workshops were an exciting opportunity to harness the knowledge that exists among our business mentors in a way that will better inform our programming, and hopefully improve implementation of similar programs. Growing smaller cabbages to reach the right clientele or sharing a personal story may like simple interventions, but examples like these are the key to innovating for the bottom of the pyramid.