Growing wisely

March 18, 2021
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iDE Global WASH

It's important to not get too big, too soon, or you'll outpace your ability to control quality and reputation.

At iDE, our experience tells us that business models are made to be broken. This usually happens when careful planning meets reality. No matter how much you prepare, so much uncertainty exists that even the best models need to be refined.

We discovered this in Ghana with our initial business model for Sama Sama. Based on our experience in Cambodia and elsewhere, we launched the social enterprise with an ambitious schedule to rapidly expand and grow by continually training new latrine business owners, sales agents, and management. What we've found is the importance of balance — needing to maintain high-quality products and services, high levels of customer satisfaction, and our reputation while expanding the reach of our work

Expansion and contraction

Sama Sama began expansion activities in February 2017, initially by entering one new district approximately every 1.5 months. However, this ongoing growth strained management ability by requiring constant market research and sales training activities. We were getting too big too fast without the experience and processes to deliver at an ever-increasing scale.

In order to gain efficiencies in the scale-up process and ensure ongoing quality, Sama Sama changed its business model to instead focus expansion activity to limited windows. We began entering districts in waves of approximately 10 at a time every 6-12 months, deploying a dedicated expansion team to recruit, engage, and train private sector sales and production teams to deliver quality products and services to northern Ghanaians who wanted to invest in an improved sanitation and hygiene product.

Our key goal after each expansion wave was to ensure operational efficiency and high quality performance by focusing on customer service, staff training, and delivery of products. Sometimes this slowed our sales, but we were laying a solid foundation that would lead to much bigger sales down the road.

The lesson learned

When we created the initial business model, we underestimated just how much financial and people power we needed to expand into new operational territories.

Taking on a new and challenging market required more resources than we anticipated, including all of the costs for market research, logistics and mobilization, training, and oversight. These costs, combined with the strategy of doing this endlessly, without a break, strained our ability to both expand and capitalize on where we were already working. Our big takeaway from these early days was the need to go at a measured pace—with people and resources—until you have firmly established your operations. In the end, it's about finding a balance between quality and expansion.

Establishing procedure

Based on what we've learned, the Sama Sama team has codified the expansion process into a set of repeatable activities for each new geography:

  • Engage with each district assembly and local chiefs to build support and enable our team to conduct a household baseline survey of existing toilet coverage within each district. This allows Sama Sama to understand the market from the outset and to measure sanitation and hygiene progress and impact over time;
  • Identify and onboard local concrete producers or entrepreneurs as Toilet Business Owners (TBOs), and facilitate the geographic expansion of existing TBOs;
  • Recruit and train sales staff;
  • Recruit and train quality control and customer service staff;
  • Launch marketing campaigns to drive demand, focused specifically on the interests and desires of customers in that territory;
  • Facilitate follow-up customer satisfaction and TBO surveys to monitor and measure our impact, customer satisfaction, and areas for improvement; and
  • Build partnerships with local, regional, and national government and other WASH sector stakeholders.

Using this action plan, Sama Sama had expanded operations to 42 districts by early 2020. COVID-19 forced the team to contract down to 30 districts by the end of that year. Moving into 2021, we are refining our strategy to consider how market saturation might impact our expansion plans, while also designing strategies for reaching new customer segments as means of growing our impact and business.

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Program undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.