Sunday, November 17, 2013

Summer with SVTP

This week I caught up with Gagan Gupta, one of our seasonal team members. This past summer, Gagan spent a month in Ghana with SVTP before heading off to Stanford Law School. After completing his MSc in International Political Economy at The London School of Economics, Gagan wanted to work with SVTP because he “missed  the social mission.”  His experience working on social innovation policy in the Obama administration, as well as his coursework in supply chain logistics and international development, made him an ideal candidate for us

Gagan, Tunde, and Kevin
Gagan admits he had no real clue of what to expect, having never been to Africa. He spent ten days in Nigeria with our regional sales manager before setting off to Ghana to conduct market and consumer research—a somewhat overwhelming task, but that is often the nature of our work. His goal was to answer questions such as: “What kinds of products do our consumers really need,” and, “How can we meet those needs?”  Answering these questions required that Gagan play a few different roles in Ghana, including “market research, sales and product development.”

What does market research look like for a social enterprise working with the base of the pyramid (BoP) in Ghana? Gagan studied markets, ports, supply and distribution chains; researched competitors’ products; and talked to end users. He describes how he conceptualized his work in two ways: top down vs. bottom up. “Top down” approaches included liaising with larger companies, entrepreneurs, public sector entities, NGOs, and private sector firms to learn more about partnership opportunities and existing products. The “bottom up” approach involved  working with end users, distributors, and salespeople in places such as Makola and Kaneshie markets in Accra to learn more about sales potential, product development, and consumer needs. For SVTP, end users are usually found in rural areas where access to electricity is extremely limited or virtually nonexistent.

Like all companies, our goal is to put our products in the hands of consumers. This requires generating brand recognition: educating end users about SVTP’s products and their unique value.  Brand recognition takes extra footwork in the BoP market.  Our teams must hit the streets and market our products through strategically positioned display stands, campaigns, radio ads, market promotions, and word-of-mouth approaches.  Gagan candidly shared how “hard it was not knowing anyone and not knowing [his] way around.  Working in the marketplace is challenging, particularly amidst the heat, pollution, and the hustle and bustle.  But it’s also really exciting.”

Gagan and customer
Gagan identified this process as “one of the most difficult aspects of his work, yet also one of the most rewarding.” He notes that you can’t do business in a place like Ghana or Nigeria without understanding the subtleties of the markets’ social structures, which are often difficult for a foreigner to navigate. Also, market entry operates differently in West Africa than it does in the West where you have established distributors and retailers.Gagan also noted that many of his initial assumptions were challenged: he found West Africa to be a vibrant place where, stating: “I could literally feel the world changing around me.” He felt a distinct entrepreneurial energy and noted that West Africans called it a place where the world was moving.

Overall, he says that his work with SVTP was a “thrilling experience where the learning curve was absolutely vertical.” Gagan spoke candidly about the freedom of working with SVTP. He appreciated being able to understand the company’s vision and the accompanying autonomy to expand the business in ways that made sense to him. How has this experience shaped his thoughts on social enterprise? Gagan said his SVTP work was his “first true experience in this space,” and it reaffirmed his faith in social enterprise as the solution to many development issues. We look forward to being a part of that exciting and rewarding process! 

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