If you don’t remember the 2016 famine in Ethiopia you shouldn’t be too surprised, because it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen despite the fact that 2016 was the worst drought in Ethiopia for the last 50 years, eclipsing the infamous drought of 1984. It also didn’t happen despite the fact that Ethiopia’s population doubled since 1984, from 50 million people to 100 million. If you look back at news reports on the region from the beginning of 2016, many predicted that famine was inevitable by summer. But it didn’t happen.
It’s not that food wasn’t a problem. It was. Ethiopia tried to address the problem by itself initially, but quickly realized that current food supplies wouldn’t suffice. The government requested a substantial amount of foreign aid, much of which was supplied, and then did a good job of getting the food distributed to needed locations, mainly the rural countryside where sustenance farming is still the primary way of life.
But the real story was how 30 years of proactive policies and development interventions created a stronger, more effective market climate that helped people survive what could have been a disaster.
Ethiopia is a land-locked country in the Horn of Africa in close proximity to the equator. While average precipitation across the country is 47-inches per year, drought occurs regularly because of the natural El Nino weather pattern that causes rainfall to vary wildly from year-to-year, including some locations receiving as little as 20% of the normal annual precipitation. 2016 proved to be a particularly difficult year for most regions of the country, with the worst drought recorded in the last 50 years.
The drought that occurred in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s prompted a global response that culminated in both the “We Are the World” media event and accompanying Live Aid concerts. The approximately $200 million raised, however, did little to prevent 900,000 deaths from the resulting famine. Money never got to the people it was intended to help, and instead was used to buy weapons the government needed in their fight against insurgents. While the root cause of the famine may have been the drought, misplaced charity and bad government policies drove the famine into becoming a disaster that became news across the globe.
An economic miracle?
An Ethiopian government change in 1991 has led to two decades of stability without instances of the racial or sectarian conflicts that continue to plague its neighbors, Somalia to the southeast and Sudan to the west. Ethiopia has become an economic powerhouse, recording double digit growth for the last decade. The government says that it is on track to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and will obtain middle-income country status by 2025.
Even so, underlying conditions that could lead to future famines continue to grow, conditions totally unrelated to conflict. A constantly expanding population puts a strain on an already stressed food supply system. Three-percent population growth in sub-Saharan Africa outpaces the rest of the world (e.g., 1-percent in the EU, North America, and Asia). Agriculture must dramatically increase to keep up with this demand, but production rates are a third of Western farms (e.g., 2,325 kg cereal production per hectare as compared to 7,637 kg in the US). And the predicted effects of El Nino, as well as the unpredictable effects of climate change, means that future drought conditions will be more severe and last longer.
A business solution to famine
It may seem obvious, but the solution to drought is to make water available. Unfortunately, the majority of Ethiopian agriculture follows traditional practices that rely on rainfall alone, limiting harvests and income. But another benefit of three decades of stable government has also enabled international development groups to address this issue. For example, iDE, an international non-profit that focuses on creating business opportunities to address poverty, has been working in Ethiopia since 2007 to bring key technologies like inexpensive pumps, drip irrigation, and modern farm rotation techniques to grow crops in the dry season and replenish degraded soil.
To spread these technologies, iDE trains a network of local micro-entrepreneurs based on their Farm Business Advisor model. These Advisors come from farming families, so they have a background in agriculture, but lack access to enough of their own land to be full-time farmers themselves. After receiving technical training from iDE on how to promote and sell resource-smart technologies, they travel from rural farm to rural farm, convincing farmers to invest and grow dry season vegetables by using a realistic cost-benefit analysis based on the farmer’s own field to calculate the cost of implementing the technology versus the profit to be made. iDE’s Advisors are helping their clients, themselves, and their country prepare for the next famine.
iDE’s return on investment for donations supporting the creation and support of Advisors and other programs in agriculture in Ethiopia is $14.90 of increased income for clients for every $1.00 spent of donor funds. This number is based on direct annual returns as measured by their measurement and evaluation team and does not include income generated from the ongoing activities following the conclusion of their market intervention activities.
Resilience begins in the field
If Ethiopia is going to be ready for the next disastrous drought, sustenance-level farms must diversify their production. They can do this by learning how to grow crops not only during the rainy season (their traditional method) but also during the dry months. This will provide an increase in income, not in one large sum, but spread throughout the year. These farmers also need assistance in connecting to markets that enable them to buy seed for new crops and sell their new production. In particular, assisting those farmers living far from roads and market infrastructures who’ve never had the opportunity before to realize the power of technology and business to increase their production is vitally important.
The Ethiopian Famine of 2016 didn’t happen for a number of reasons. Nearly three decades of peace, a forward-looking government, a new food distribution system, and new agricultural practices. But it’s going to take a lot more progress to avoid famine caused by the inevitable droughts to come in 2020, 2025 and beyond.
iDE brings real-time data and entrepreneurial thinking to successfully tackle global poverty issues
A version of this article was posted on zilient.org in June of 2017.
In Cambodia, nearly 60% of rural households do not have a toilet and instead practice open defecation, resulting in problems like increased diarrheal disease that is a leading cause of death for children. The government set a goal to increase national sanitation coverage to 100% by 2025 (starting from 34% in 2010), a challenge that can not be met by simply giving toilets away because of the costs involved. iDE started to address this issue in 2011 by developing a new latrine that was extremely affordable and easy to make for local concrete manufacturers, selling over 200,000 latrines in five years. While these numbers indicated a successful business model, something new had to be done to continue to sell at this rate and reach the 100% goal as the market for toilets eventually reached saturation.
Unveiling a new way to sell toilets
Thai Rotha, an iDE sanitation sales agent, parks her motorbike outside a wooden framed home on stilts. She gets off and opens her smartphone to note the location: Kachow (village), Popeus (commune), Sveyontor (district), Prey Veng (province), Cambodia (country). She also tags the GPS coordinates. Rotha meets with the female homeowner in the shade underneath the house to escape the oppressive heat of the dry season, her friendly manner quickly putting the potential customer at ease. Rotha uses a laminated book with drawings that convey how the lack of sanitation contributes to sickness in the family, especially for children. As she talks, Rotha pulls out her smartphone and shows the woman pictures of toilets installed in the village next door within the last month. The woman wants to buy, but she says she and her husband have no money to spend on it right now. Rotha notes the decision and also sets a reminder to follow-up. Rotha gets back on her motorbike and sets off for the next client. By the end of the day, she will have visited six homes and made three immediate sales.
Rotha, age 23, is the youngest of five siblings and still lives with her parents near Phnom Penh. A friend told her about iDE, an international development non-profit organization that addresses global poverty by using donor funding to build business solutions that scale. Before becoming a sanitation sales agent (iDE calls them “sanitation teachers” or STs) eight months ago, she was unable to make much money. As a sales agent, Rotha is not an iDE employee; instead, she is part of a cadre of agents going door-to-door in Cambodia’s most rural communities, receiving a commission of $4 for every $34 latrine that she sells. She’s made $300 in eight months, enough to purchase a new motorbike, and is now saving money for the future.
The reason for her success lies in the power of her smartphone to feed data to a cloud-based management information system (MIS), capturing both the sales Rotha makes this day as well as those she doesn’t.
Balancing supply and demand with data-driven insights
In iDE’s offices in Prey Veng, Thai Rotha’s orders are received by San Ounsa, her Supply Chain Coordinator. At 26, just a few years older than most of her agents, Ounsa attended Svay Rieng University and has a Bachelor’s degree in Rural Development. She comes from one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia, which also happens to be where some of the best toilet businesses have emerged as well. As an international social innovation organization, iDE’s employees tend to be citizens of the country they are working in (93% of its total workforce of nearly 1,000 employees are locals).
Ounsa’s job is to review the orders entered by sanitation agents in Salesforce. While the software automatically assigns the order to the closest latrine business owner to the customer, Ounsa determines if that manufacturer will be able to deliver the latrine in a timely manner. Ounsa contacts the business owner to check out how things are going. These small businesses sometimes shut down suddenly, for example when the owner has to go help out his family or get a harvest in. Once Ounsa confirms the business has the capacity to fill the order, she negotiates an anticipated delivery time frame to the customer, then the business makes a phone call to the customer to arrange for delivery.
In the original business model, where agents and manufacturers were exclusively connected, business owners who had high-performing sales agents struggled to keep up with the demand, while other manufacturers whose agents were having trouble making sales sat idle. The new mobile ordering process untethered agents from manufacturers, enabling iDE to resolve this market bottleneck by decreasing the time it took from order to delivery and increasing the number of orders fulfilled. Being able to view sales and delivery data in real-time exposed this load-balancing issue, and also provided a means for the supply chain coordinator to re-balance orders to ensure that everyone involved stayed as busy as possible.
The paper trail vs. the digital highway
Prior to iDE’s MIS, each sanitation sales agent was coupled to a single latrine manufacturer. The agent would travel to remote villages and collect orders on paper. Days later the order would reach the latrine business owner. Depending on how many orders the latrine manufacturer was already working on, fulfilling a new order and getting it to the remote village for installation could take weeks. By then the customer may have decided to cancel buying the toilet.
iDE had begun to explore the idea in 2014 that a MIS could be implemented to help sales. While in the process of adopting Salesforce to handle the measurement and evaluation needs required by their donors, iDE created a new custom-built app based on the actual sales process that would capture transactions at the most granular level. Using TaroWorks, iDE designed the data collection app for smartphones to enable remote sales agents to enter and upload orders from the buyer’s location. This accelerated the process, eliminated paperwork, and minimized mistakes in ordering and transcription. With better tracking and faster completion, the agents saw a reduction in cancellations and became more motivated to make sales as their incomes started rising.
Although Salesforce originally designed a customer relationship management solution to help sophisticated sales teams pull in big deals, the customizable nature of Salesforce made this shift to capturing individual toilet sales data possible. While other companies had started to explore this potential with Salesforce, iDE’s implementation was the first to use it in an international development context.
Coordinating a network of independent suppliers
In Cambodia, Michel Dauguet leads the sanitation marketing program. iDE’s organizational structure is extremely decentralized, with each of its eleven country offices having strong autonomy in the management of their local programs. A veteran businessman with more than 20 years of experience in southeast Asia, Michel was previously the CEO of a number of medium-sized companies including several that he founded. He speaks quickly and passionately about how having data in near real-time has boosted the speed of innovation.
Michel says, “Before the MIS, we had no idea of the backlog. We didn’t even know we had a block in the supply chain. We had reports that the supply could not follow up with the demand, but it was hard to discern if it was a bottleneck in the production capacity, meaning we needed more latrine business owners, or the existing ones needed to produce more. Another option was that the production was sufficient, but the peaks and valleys, the volatility in demand, caused problems. Is the problem that the manufacturers are subject to a stop-and-go type of process where they have a lot of orders and have to hire a lot of staff and then they have no orders and have to decrease their production capacity significantly?”
The MIS not only answered these questions, it also gave the management team a powerful tool to address other persistent issues. A lot of well-intentioned ideas — both in the private and non-profit sectors — fall apart in execution and management. But with the MIS, iDE better understands closing rates by individual sales agents as well as sales teams and the change in the backlog from day-to-day.
“What is valuable to the funder is much more precise information. Data is messy and without an MIS to organize it, it can hide inefficiencies and be ignorant of unwarranted behavior or negative effects on the community. All of these are evaluation questions that a donor would normally have to fund deliberately, but with an MIS all of these questions can be much more easy to answer,” says Michel.
Implementing an MIS like this, however, is rarely funded by traditional donors, whose grants focus on program activities that are measured by numbers of households reached rather than addressing program efficiencies. The Australian Government, focusing on enhancing the accountability and effectiveness of aid programs, and the Stone Family Foundation, supporting increased access to sanitation for the poor through business models that scale, underwrote the development of iDE’s MIS.
iDE’s Sales Managers constantly review sales agents’ performance, identifying both those who are struggling to make sales as well as the high-performing individuals. Because everyone involved has sales goals that lead to incentive payments, everyone is interested in increasing sales. Lessons learned from outstanding sales agents get passed on to those having trouble through regular meetings between managers, coordinators, and agents. The order data is shared with everyone, so the whole team knows the latest on how many toilets have been sold, where, and how long it takes to get them installed.
Analyzing data to fill in the market gaps
When iDE first implemented the MIS, they wanted to capture sales data to speed up the delivery process. But sales ended up being only part of the story. Looking at the data, Michel discovered that something very important was missing: information about sales attempted but not successful. What would have been overwhelming to track on paper, was actually very simple to add to, and analyze with, the existing MIS.
Michel explains, “When you looked at our sales on a map, they looked like little points of light with lots of darkness in between: villages that simply weren’t buying latrines. I called it the Dark Matter report — in astronomy, dark matter is all that blackness around the stars.”
“We learned that we were leaving out significant parts of the market,” Michel says.
Estimates said that it would take six months to visit all the villages. Then the data started coming in and the sales teams were reporting they had done so in just two months.
“There was a wave of realization among top management that there was self-inflicted damage caused by poor sales planning and the teams were not fully exploiting the actual accessible market. Without the data, the sales coordinator could have said, ‘You don’t know my market context,’ but now we had an objective arbitrator that allowed us to have a productive discussion about sales planning.”
In one week, Thai Rotha visited three different villages, making 19 sales calls, and selling six latrines. San Ounsa and Rotha review the Dark Matter report to determine what they can do to convert those 13 missed opportunities into future successes. Michel reviews the Dark Matter report with Sales Managers to identify areas where other options may be needed to increase sales, such as new latrine designs, financing options, or targeted subsidies for the poorest customers.
The MIS serves as a backbone that infuses a high level of rigor and transparency, which is why iDE is replicating it across its other programs. For example, in Ghana, a new sanitation business called Sama-Sama has been designed from its beginning to gather very granular data and make it accessible to every level of the company.
“The MIS is definitely the spine of the program,” Michel says. “It’s really amazing when you visit a provincial office. Once you give the tool to the people and teach them how to do custom reports, charts, etc., it is amazing what they come up with. They are developing their own dashboards and visualizations and they are interrogating the data in ways that you can never think of. This is incredibly empowering for all members of the staff.”
Thanks to Glen Engel-Cox and Dan Clark for contributing to this article.
Chris Nicoletti leads iDE’s global measurement efforts in close cooperation with iDE’s Research and Evaluation Specialist and Information Systems Architect. Chris provides strategic leadership and technical support to country programs by conducting rigorous impact evaluations, designing and implementing efficient management information systems and effectively communicating data for managers and external audiences. He holds an M.S. in Agricultural and Resource Economics from Colorado State University.
Thinking about markets for the poor — using game theory
Solving poverty is no game, but serious business. However, there’s a benefit to thinking about market systems in the terms of games like poker. Poker, for example, is what economists would consider a “zero-sum game,” because everyone enters the poker game with the same amount of money as everyone else and play until only one person holds all the cash.
No additional money has been created, but simply changed hands: in this case, creating one winner and lots of losers.
Many people incorrectly have the impression that creating markets and encouraging businesses to sell to the poor is a zero-sum game. They think that these businesses are the only winners, and that it does nothing to improve the incomes of people living in poverty.
That is so far from the actual case. Instead, iDE supports markets that economists would call “positive-sum games,” where additional wealth is created by the market players and there are multiple winners. For example, when a small-scale farmer can purchase a new water pump from a local agriculture dealer, not only does the dealer make a profit from the equipment sale but now the farmer is able to increase her harvest. Both make more income and both win.
But it’s really more than that. People who make less than $2 per day do not live in isolation, but often are part of communities where the majority earn the same small amounts.
So when a farmer increases her income or a dealer is able to make a profit in their business, they buy things in their community.
The farmer is now able to send her children to school (free primary education is not commonplace in Asia or Africa).
The dealer is able to expand his house with a new latrine.
This employs local teachers and masons, who in turn need to purchase food and housing. With their increased income, they often buy a bicycle, soap, or a TV. Everyone’s income and livelihoods increase.
When people ask me if the interventions that iDE engages in are sustainable, this is the kind of real-life scenario that I use to describe how our work is rooted in what people really want and how they use it to improve their lives.
I like to think of this as a super-positive-sum game, and it’s why I’m committed to iDE’s approach to solving poverty. We’re so positive this works that we make a promise to our donors that every $1 received by iDE will result in at least $10 in improved income for our market players.
We know this because we constantly measure it. And that’s only the direct income (the positive-sum), not the super-positive impact this investment has on the communities these people live in (which we haven’t figured out how to measure, or receive funding to measure…yet!).
Why WASH organizations need to hire and grow business-savvy leaders
Every organization knows the pain and disruption caused by bad hiring decisions, or waiting for an employee to develop the necessary skills to excel in a position he or she is not a fit for. Make a bad hire and the manager, the team, and the organization will suffer, operating at less than their full potential due to marginal or toxic employees. On the other hand, great hires are self-driven to deliver, grow, and execute in a way that brings people and organizations together.
I work for iDE, a nonprofit organization that has been implementing market-based development programs for over 30 years. iDE is sometimes approached to provide technical support on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) market development for other organizations. One of the biggest challenges we’ve discovered in doing so is that these organizations are staffed with health and engineering experts who are knowledgeable in their technical fields but lack a solid understanding of how markets and businesses operate. Although business is not rocket science, it is difficult to discuss marketing matters in depth without, for example, shared language around profit, risk, and competition. When it comes to successfully managing a sanitation marketing program, hiring business-savvy program leadership is critical.
This basic belief informs iDE’s hiring choices — over 80 percent of the executive leadership in iDE’s WASH programs have a business and/or economics background, with the rest from more technical WASH and international development backgrounds such as engineering, agronomy, and water resource management. In iDE’s experience it has been much easier and faster to train business-savvy staff on the technical aspects of WASH, than to coach staff from traditional development or charitable backgrounds to understand businesses and markets.
The costs of hiring the wrong people
80 percent of turnover is caused by bad hiring decisions. 1
Replacing an employee costs between one-third and five times the employee’s salary. 2
Managers spend time coaching employees who are a bad fit for their positions, taking time away from providing technical leadership to their team.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to achieve profound results with the wrong team in place. But if we truly want to drive progress towards the U.N.’s goal to “ensure access to clean water and sanitation for all,” 3 I believe these four things should be considered by any organization working in WASH:
Invest in recruiting talent with business acumen.
Identify and develop business leadership skills.
Incentivize potential leaders competitively, taking into account the opportunity cost candidates face forgoing potentially lucrative private sector positions, and not just the prevailing wages of the nonprofit labor market.
Incubate and foster an organizational focus on training and knowledge sharing.
Investing in business thinking
WASH problems do not exist in a vacuum but are part of complex market systems, with customers who desire beautiful products for the lowest price, manufacturers who want a large demand with a significant profit margin to justify new product lines, and distributors who connect the two. Traditionally, WASH development interventions have only addressed one of three aspects of the WASH problem: technical, social, or economic. If the problem is perceived to be technical, engineers create a technical solution; if the problem is social, psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists identify behavior change triggers; if the problem is economic, economists develop more efficient systems of resource allocation.
iDE believes that all three aspects must be addressed to achieve a sustainable solution. Solving only one part of the problem may work in the short term (i.e., the project’s period of performance), but may break down in the absence of an ecosystem of drivers. If an organization is serious about being market-based, it also needs to make serious investments in market-savvy people.
Too many organizations make hiring decisions in the context of the nonprofit sector alone, ignoring the broader pool of talent that could be attracted with offers that compete with the for-profit sector. In one of the most popular TED talks on social innovation, Dan Pallotta calls out five types of discrimination that society places on nonprofits as compared with the for-profit sector, the first being compensation:
“In the for-profit sector, the more value you produce, the more money you can make. But we don’t like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social service. We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interestingly, we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself.” 4
To solve some of the most intractable problems of the world, development organizations cannot afford to not attract the best and the brightest. Being able to compete in the broader labor market is even more salient in the social enterprise space. Here, CEOs are expected to have all the skills and talent needed to run a business and live up to expectations of profitability (arguably in less marketable spaces and shorter time frames) without the incentives of a typical start-up environment, namely equity. This scenario, argues Eikenberry and Kluver, becomes a barrier to hiring talented people, as the opportunity for potential leaders to financially gain from business successes is limited. 5
If equity is not an option, organizations should consider subsidizing professional development, in recognition of the wider financial and non-financial benefits that would accrue on the rest of the organization from investing in high potential individuals. Other non-equity compensation schemes include results-based incentives, which can help attract people who excel in business to be interested in social entrepreneurship.
Building a pipeline of future leaders
Understand leadership versus management
Leadership in WASH has become a recurring theme in the sector, evidenced by its increase in prompting many discussions, conference presentations, and conversations among practitioners. The theme of leadership was a major topic at the 2016 WEDC Conference, and there are countless blog posts similar to things like, “Are you a water manager or leader?” 6 However, leadership should not be confused with management, and hiring leaders requires an understanding of their mindsets.
Psychologist Carol Dweck studies implicit theories of intelligence, and has argued that people fall on a continuum according to their beliefs about where their ability comes from. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens that we cannot change in any meaningful way; success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a springboard for growth.
“A “growth mindset” creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they do not actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.” 7
This framework is helpful in understanding the types of people that are best suited to an organization’s culture and the objectives it seeks to achieve. Organizations interested in making quantum leaps in progress need employees who can embrace failure as part of the innovation and growth process. To make failure productive, a “growth mindset” is more conducive for exploiting learning opportunities. In contrast, a “fixed mindset” might be more appropriate for positions primarily focused on refining and perfecting metrics of a fixed standard.
This difference in “fixed” or “growth” mindsets is another dimension of how an organization understands the difference between managers and leaders. Marketing guru Seth Godin argues that the two are acutely different. He says:
“There’s practical everyday management, and then there’s leadership. Leadership is not practical, and it’s not everyday. You think you’re being a leader, but you’re probably being a manager… Managers try to get people to do what they did yesterday, but a little faster, a little cheaper, with fewer defects… What’s not happening is leadership… Leadership means embracing the failure of your people if it leads to growth… Managers want authority. Leaders take responsibility. We need both. But we have to be careful not to confuse them.” 8
Against the two frameworks of “growth vs. fixed” and “leadership vs. management,” the WASH sector has consistently invested in managers, but should make more deliberate investments in the growth of leaders to maximize the potential for transformational impact.
Identify high-potential leaders and create growth opportunities
Organizations in the WASH sector should be actively on the lookout for potential leaders, deliberately creating opportunities to “fast-track” their growth by exposing them to situations in which they can gain the necessary experience and credibility to lead their own teams. Working in development contexts is often characterized by patriarchal social dynamics, so the WASH sector needs to pay particular attention to creating an enabling environment for rising women leaders, local and international. Donors often recommend gender equitable staffing, but the reality of the field is that it is difficult to hire women to work in a mixed-gender environment in some cultures and that women rarely even apply for top leadership positions. Even for those positions that are culturally appropriate gender-wise (such as translation), women may still need their husband’s explicit permission to stay overnight, making travel across far distances more difficult. Fostering an environment where gender, age, and cultural dynamics are taken into account will be critical to the success of any leadership development efforts.
Institutionalize ongoing professional development
One of the key factors of iDE’s success in the Cambodia sanitation marketing program has to do with the professional development structure surrounding staff at all levels. With support from sales consultancy Whitten & Roy Partnership (WRP), iDE developed a multi-tiered cascading coaching structure, where staff at every level receive weekly coaching from their supervisor. Unlike an annual training workshop, this coaching structure allows the individual to receive real-time feedback and a consistent touch point for focusing on growth areas. Using simple frameworks, WRP has also provided iDE with depersonalized language to discuss challenge areas that may otherwise go undiscussed until too late.
Incentives as a tool to unleash creativity and ownership
In addition to incentives for top level executives, iDE has used financial incentives to influence staff behavior down to the field level, especially those in sales-driven roles. With the right training and coaching support, incentives motivate employees to take ownership and increase their creativity in problem solving. Instead of having activities micromanaged, staff are given targets to hit, and also the (relative) freedom to figure out how to hit them. When structured appropriately, iDE’s experience has demonstrated that incentives drive ownership, creativity, and results.
Keeping leaders engaged
Make time for “Make Time”
Featured as one of the top 10 leadership stories of 2015 in FastCo was an email that a Google employee sent to the rest of his colleagues about time management. In this email, Jeremiah Dillon posed a simple time management challenge to his colleagues: to schedule and respect Make Time. He wrote:
“Stop. Breathe. Now, think about how you’re managing your time. Speaking for myself, I have some room for improvement. It’s been said there are two paradigms to scheduling — the manager and the maker. The manager’s day is cut into 30-minute intervals, and they change what they’re doing every half hour. Sorta like Tetris — shifting blocks around and filling spaces. The maker’s day is different. They need to make, to create, to build. But, before that, they need to think. The most effective way for them to use time is in half-day or full-day blocks. Even a single 30-minute meeting in the middle of “Make Time” can be disruptive. We all need to be makers.” 9
In our capacity as leaders (versus managers), we have the responsibility to make and create, and not just to optimize or troubleshoot. To do so effectively, there needs to be dedicated time for immersion in thought, experimentation, and tinkering. To create strategic vision, there needs to be space freed from daily operational concerns. Beyond embedding a culture of effective time management, organizations should also create opportunities for leaders to come together and reflect. At the country, portfolio, and global level, iDE holds workshops and retreats dedicated to having shared moments of reflection and creation.
Knowledge management for a collaborative leadership culture
Leadership, at moments, can be solitary, especially in organizations that fall into silos. To maximize learning, minimize repeated mistakes, and build a strong culture of collaboration and camaraderie, iDE has invested in knowledge management as part of culture building. Knowledge management is a dedicated role on iDE’s Global WASH team, and one of the main goals of the knowledge management department is to facilitate peer learning relationships among WASH leaders themselves. A WASH Program Director in Africa can relate to similar challenges of running a WASH program in Asia.
However, efforts to create peer-to-peer connections and knowledge sharing are not limited to the “leaders.” In fact, knowledge management has succeeded when the culture of sharing and collaborating permeates every layer of the organization across different departments and geographies. Leaders who actively engage in learning from their peers and sharing their experience with others are much more likely to set examples for their staff, and find ways to support their staff in similar engagements.
A critical part of achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals from the U.N. will be to invest in developing and nurturing transformative leaders. Informed by the latest research on leadership and organizational experience, I recommend four key priority focus areas for leadership development:
Hire the best and the brightest, and invest in market-savvy people.
Invest in long-term growth through ongoing professional development and deliberately create opportunities to fast-track emerging leadership.
Provide incentives that reward innovation and motivate leaders to take risks.
Foster an environment that allows staff to reflect and learn; respect Make Time; and invest in collaborative knowledge management.
Thanks to Valerie Labi for contributing her insights and experience to this article.
With expertise in human centered design, microfinance, and social entrepreneurship, Yi Wei has been a part of iDE’s work in sanitation, clean water, and hygiene since its inception. She was instrumental in growing the Cambodian flagship sanitation program to be the largest improved rural sanitation program delivering improved latrines in the sector to date. Now as the Global WASH Director, she is ready to guide the program to even more impressive achievements.
I believe that all people — no matter what color, religion, ethnicity, or class — want things to be better, for themselves, for their families, for their communities, for their countries, and for the world. If we are divided, it is because the world is a complex place. It’s hard to see that the rising tide is lifting all boats if the water isn’t lapping at your own skiff.
A hundred years ago, more than half the population of the world lived on less than $2 a day (adjusted for inflation). That amount is now less than 12%. While the world population has also grown in that time, the sheer number of poor people is less now than ever before.
I believe this change has happened because we have learned about the root causes of poverty and how to solve them. The answer is opportunity.
When poor women and men have the ability to earn an increased income, their lives change. They become leaders of farm businesses, not subsistence farmers. They become trusted advisors and salespeople, not charity cases. They open up seed stores and market stalls. They become entrepreneurs.
Opportunity powers markets, the creation and exchange of products between people. I believe in the power of markets as the most powerful force for significant, widespread, and lasting impact on rural prosperity.
At iDE, we focus on making opportunities happen. We help latrine business owners to hear what their customers need so they can design and deliver cost-effective sanitation options. Our Farm Business Advisors travel the distance to listen to the difficulties of farming in remote places, then help connect rural farmers to urban markets so that they can obtain the equipment and seeds that they need to grow more, better crops and also deliver their harvests to waiting buyers. We listen to people who tell us what they need to be able to improve their lives, and we connect them to finance, business training, and communities of practice.
A handful of popular authors in the new discipline of Behavioral Economics — Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein, Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman, and Predictably Irrational by Ariely — reveal important clues about how people make choices. In the moment of decision, we let our emotions rule the day. It’s only later that we justify our choices through the process of rationalization. In fact, in order to change a habit, the new science says we must change our sense of identity. In other words, to be vegetarian, we need to become “the kind of person who doesn’t eat meat.”
Maybe this isn’t earthshaking news, but what is surprising is that we came to the same conclusions in our work selling toilets to rural families in Cambodia.
Millions of people in the developing world don’t have a place to go to the bathroom. This massive public health crisis is hard to get people to pay attention to, and even harder to solve. iDE is dedicated to solving this problem, but not by giving toilets away. Instead, we fill a gap in the market with affordable, desirable toilets designed specifically for rural families at the base of the economic pyramid. With a thriving customer base, toilets are likely to be available for a long time, not just while charity dollars hold out.
Selling Behavior Change
As a market-based organization, we admire a good sales pitch. It’s counterintuitive in our society, however, to believe you can help people by refining the art of the sales pitch. But try selling a toilet to someone who has open defecated their whole life and has big time demands with modest economic resources to meet them. Making a purchase decision with a delayed benefit requires some persuasion.
“It’s just a hole. Why do you need more?” — An Unconvinced Husband
A good sales person knows why it’s easier to deal in a product like cell phones rather than toilets. Toilets, despite their ability to prevent disease and death, are not sexy, income generating, or representative of a flashy lifestyle. A “pull” product, like a cell phone, motorbike, or goat, for example, is easier to sell and requires less customer education. These products may be a symbol of status or generate income — they are purchases that are often driven by desire, rather than rational need.
“Why invest in a toilet when I can invest in land or animals?” — Rationalization at work.
Conversely, there are “push” products that people know they should buy, but don’t immediately desire, like a toilet. iDE’s Global WASH Initiative shines here. We have found that “push” products require a more sophisticated form of selling — one that involves selling to the problem, not the product. Our sales agents are trained in this approach to sales by Whitten & Roy Partnership, a sales and management change consultancy that works extensively in the development world.
I used to walk, now I have a bike. Next, I want a motorcycle. That’s what modern is. — Research Participant
During the research phase, which we call a Deep Dive, we discovered the customer’s motivations to desiring a toilet. We collected insights that helped our product designers keep the customer at the center of the solution. But a good product design is only the starting point. It won’t get into the customer’s hands unless we understand the behavior change required for long term adoption. Once we understand the messages that will trigger behavior change, we must next design a method to deliver them to people in the right way.
Can the Government Sell Toilets?
We felt there was an appropriate role for the government of Cambodia to be the messenger of a “push” campaign. We wanted to explore how government employees could play an active role in behavior change by delivering (pushing) the message via in-village social marketing events. To test this theory, we conducted a one-year pilot in partnership with the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank, and 17 Triggers, a Cambodian firm with expertise in social marketing.
QUESTION: How do we get people to shift from open defecation, which requires no upfront investment, to investing their money in a latrine? And how do we break down this process of change so that government employees can deliver the message if training is provided?
ANSWER: Design games to deliver trigger messages in a supportive, social environment.
A few conclusions from our pilot
Perception of Money. We had to take on people’s perception of money itself. We designed a game that changed their perception of money, price, and what they believed they could afford. We knew there was room to influence how people prioritized purchases, we only had to introduce the right sales technique through a game that’s enjoyable to play.
Emotional Drivers. In many cultures, it’s not acceptable for women to be seen open defecating, so they often wait for nightfall. Once we got women talking candidly about the problems they encountered during their nightly ritual, feelings of shame and fear became strong drivers to action. We created puzzles that, once assembled, visually portrayed this emotional narrative and provided a spark for the much-needed conversation to take place.
We used to eat less so that we did not have to go out in the day time. Now we can have a full meal without worry. — Female Latrine Customer
Many rural people in developing countries have a strong desire to feel modern, so one of our puzzles revealed the shame that comes with asking visitors to use the bush.
We learned to avoid rational health messages until after the purchase. Just as Behavioral Economists have been reporting for years, practical arguments are weak motivators to purchase.
Make it Social. We hosted events in a social environment. The games we developed were designed to use social interaction as a positive driver of behavior change. Community influences play a large role in shaping individuals’ beliefs. We made the experience fun and interactive to create an open and safe space where people could loosen up and share their experiences.
Make it Actionable. Provide an easy way to act. A key part of leading people down the path to behavior change is to offer an actionable step in the right direction. We made it easy for people to place an order on a latrine immediately after the village meeting.
From Behavior Change to Impact
iDE’s sanitation marketing program in Cambodia is selling 6,000 toilets per month on average, an unprecedented achievement in WASH development globally. At this rate, we are on course to reach 100% coverage in our program areas by 2025.
We place a high value on monitoring toilet sales and the overall business performance of the local entrepreneurs who manufacture them. Our local Monitoring & Evaluation staff collects business data every two weeks in the field, which is uploaded to our global team for analysis. This data is an essential input for management decisions. But — despite our data-loving culture — it’s hard to deny that the most telling indication of impact is best captured in an image.
A quiet rickshaw pulled by a bicycle is the norm for getting where you need to go in Bangladesh. But in fast-paced Vietnam, the roar of motorbikes is everywhere. In these two diverse countries, the way toilets are bought and sold differs as much as their transportation styles.
iDE is building markets for toilets in seven countries that span two continents. No matter how different these environments are, our approach is our rock. We use human-centered design to identify market failures, understand all users, and develop products and business models that enable sanitation markets to thrive. Our approach provides a standardized but flexible set of tools that guide us through phases of discovery, design, and iteration.
Private sector-driven Bangladesh
Bangladesh has a well-developed manufacturing sector. Accordingly, iDE’s Global WASH Initiative convinced a national plastics company that sanitation for low-income households is a profitable market.
Our local partner, RFL, is a plastics manufacturer. They have thousands of retail outlets across the country and the brand holds an enviable position in the hearts of their customers. In the coming months, RFL will be mass producing the SanBox, a low-cost hygienic toilet that’s easy to install.
“RFL is becoming the brand owners on improved sanitation. ” — Conor Riggs, Technical Director-Programs, iDE Bangladesh
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Vietnam, where our program is designed to train the government how to implement a successful sanitation marketing program, enabling the government to then catalyze local supply and demand for hygienic latrines among rural households.
This extra layer between us and the end consumer means we have less control over what happens on the ground. But progress in Vietnam is impossible without government involvement.
Succeeding for different reasons
In Vietnam, our approach is one of three government-approved approaches. We are happy to see that market-based ideas are influencing their sanitation strategy going forward. In Bangladesh, our private sector partner not only sees the economic potential of the sanitation market, but is willing to take on the financial investment required to capitalize on it.
The essential ingredient
The essential ingredient is business. Each country has businesses that need customers — businesses that want to grow their reputation and their income. And each has customers who have aspirations to improve their lives — a toilet for the family is part of their dreams.
“We had been dreaming of a latrine for a while. Our new latrine is safer for my mother and for my children. My next dream is to raise our children with good education and food.” — Latrine Customer, a widow with 4 children and 2 mothers
Building markets is a flexible approach that allows room for creative problem solving and local adaptation. It requires a willingness on the part of NGO management to pivot as needed throughout the life of a program, and a commitment to design the program based on local insights. The diagram below illustrates how we analyze key criteria of markets as a backdrop for designing an appropriate business model.
Our success is due to the fact that we never go into a country with a plan to replicate a specific product or business model. First, we seek to understand what people really want and need. Unsurprisingly, the barriers and opportunities to selling toilets in Bangladesh are different than those in Vietnam.