Perspective | | Meri Crowther on Being a LivelyHoods Fellow
2013 Summer Fellows, Adrienne Hopkins and Meri Crowther, helping iSmart Sales Agents, Caroline and Eric, with a promotional marketing event.
This past summer, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move to Kenya and spend 10 weeks as a volunteer with LivelyHoods in Nairobi. One of my areas of focus as an MBA student at Columbia Business School is social enterprise, and this time with LivelyHoods gave me valuable insight into the challenges faced by nonprofit organizations. Along with two other volunteers, I gained hands-on experience testing and evaluating revenue-generating business models that LivelyHoods could leverage to expand more sustainably. Specifically, I examined distributing iSmart’s product line, including clean-burning cookstoves and solar-powered lights, into shops within urban slums.
My days were a balance between working from the office alongside LivelyHoods staff and heading out in Kawangware with the sales agents. Both environments were so much fun! Mornings at LivelyHoods opened up with a regular sales team meeting where we learned about new products, discussed sales plans for the day, and sometimes played games to stay sharp. If I was heading out into Kawangware for the day, I joined two sales agents who served as my guides. All of the sales agents and staff were so friendly and welcoming! They shared their communities with me, gracious served as interpreters when needed, and made me feel very safe and comfortable in a new environment. Out in town, we spent our time speaking with store owners and learning about how products are bought and sold within the slums. I was so impressed by these young people and their aspirations to better their lives, and it was especially gratifying when someone would leave iSmart to enroll in higher education or take a new job.
Outside of my work at LivelyHoods, I had so much fun taking in all that Nairobi and Kenya had to offer. Along with my roommate Sheila, a fellow classmate and LivelyHoods volunteer, I built a life in Nairobi that included taking up yoga, enjoying dinners and happy hours with other MBA students, and traveling on the weekends. We visited Diani and Lamu, both beautiful beach towns on the coast, spent a weekend in Uganda, and spent one week on safari in the Masaai Mara before heading back home. One of my favorite trips was to Hell’s Gate National Park, where I was able to ride a bike alongside giraffes, zebras, and warthogs! This opportunity to meet a new community of people, learn about an emerging market in depth, and see a different part of the world is one I am very grateful for and I hope I can visit Nairobi again soon!
January | | Starting 2014 with Great Sales
The Good. We are so proud to have started the year off by breaking our sales goal. This was largely due to a former Sales Agent and Training Manager who is now employing around six other people to sell clean-burning cookstoves outside of the Nairobi area. This is part of a greater B2B strategy that we are working on in order to provide our products at discounted prices to entrepreneurs and organizations that will create their own sales forces and create more jobs.
The Challenges. After the holiday break, many of our sales agents were slow to return from visiting their families outside of Nairobi. This, in addition to high training turn out but low conversion from training to employment, led to a smaller sales force than we anticipated for this month. Also, many of our Sales Agents complained that customers were low on expendable income this month after the holidays and with school fees due. We planned for this seasonality in our high-level sales goals but are now thinking about ways to support our agents so that their income is not negatively affected during low sales seasons.
Our 2013 email update and online giving campaign.
2013 | | A Year of Growth and Learning
The Good. We had 38 sales agents distributing life-changing products in their communities in December, more than any other month on record! After working on improving our recruitment and retention this year, our sales force will continue to grow in 2014. Our second store in Kangemi is seeing growth as well and is now responsible for 41% of in-store sales. All of the loans posted through Kiva to finance our daily consignment model have been fully funded.
The Challenges. Our total sales for the year were 72% of our goal. We are proud of the way our team weathered diverse challenges in 2013, such as the tumultuous Presidential elections in March, changes in our pricing due to new VAT laws, and increased fees for marketing events from the city council. We also know to anticipate these challenges in setting our goals and strategies for 2014.
November | | Better Recruitment and Training
The Good. Agent retention is up from previous months, reportedly as the youth we’ve recruited are enjoying the culture and the sales job. We are working on what it means to get more of the ‘right people’ through our recruitment efforts. In training, agents are being encouraged to go out independently as opposed to going out in groups, which appears to be working. A few agents have shown significant increase in sales less than a week after going out independently.
The Challenges. We have seen our bulk sales to businesses drop in recent months because these ‘re-sellers’ are obtaining better prices and deals from competitors. As these sales can represent a large chunk of our total sales in a good month, we have to work on our wholesale pricing.
New sales agents heading out in the field to sell some cook-stoves and solar lamps!
October || Rockefeller Funds LivelyHoods
The Good. We are proud to announce that the Rockefeller Foundation has awarded LivelyHoods with the largest financial grant we have ever received. Through this partnership, we will expand operations into Mombasa and will invite 585 youth from Kenyan slums to join our employability program. This month, sales records have been broken by new recruits. We have also identified a senior sales agent to become the manager of our second store. And we’ve improved the retention of our sales representatives.
The Challenges. Our sales are lower than we expected. As a result of large fees placed upon us for our marketing activities, we have had to continue putting them on hold. For this reason, we did not recruit aggressively this month and did not meet our recruitment target.
September || Stoves are in Stock!
The Good. LivelyHoods was awarded a D-Prize Fellowship. After an intensive application and interview process of multiple rounds, the D-Prize team identified LivelyHoods as having an innovative products and service distribution model with the potential to scale. D-Prize was co-founded by the CEO of One Acre Fund. You can learn more about D-Prize in Forbes and the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Additionally, LivelyHoods has launched a partnership with Kiva’s experimental innovations team to finance our product consignment model. 37 youth completed our marketing and sales training this month. Unlike previous months, we marketed the opportunity through both community posters and a newspaper advertisement. We began distributing Malaika Jikos, and they have had relative success during their first few days in the market. The sales in our second shop have grown by 200% over the last month.
The Challenging. Our revenue target is behind our goal, but our performance has improved significantly since last month. We got our best-selling cookstove product back in stock, but this did not have as dramatic impact on our sales as we had hoped. Unfortunately, we also had to cut back our marketing activities due to high fees being imposed upon us by the local city council.
Fast Company Features LivelyHoods!
LivelyHoods was featured in the Fast Company Co.Exist Generation Change series. The series highlights young entrepreneurs making a difference in the world. Written by brilliant Whitney Pastorek, the story highlighted our evolution and impact.
“Young people have incredible talent and potential, but in countries like Kenya, they don’t have an opportunity to actualize it,” Springer explains. “What we heard is that there’s a lot of youth-serving organizations that provide food, that provide clothing, that provide shelter. But they never really give young people—and this is a literal quote—a chance to ‘fish the fish.’” Laden continues, “We talked to about 300 young people in the community, trying to find out what skills they had, what experiences they had, what they were interested in doing. And every single one of them had sold something at some point—whether it was drugs, or fruit, or [cellular] airtime. We thought, ‘There’s a skill that we can build on.’”
You can read the full article here.
August || A Hiring Spree of a Month!
The Good. We opened our second shop, we hit our job creation target and we surpassed our average transaction per customer indicator. Our management team conducted a comprehensive SWOT analysis of our organization, and recognized that recruitment and training is our core competency. The data shows that we are excellent at preparing unemployable youth for a lifetime of employability. We also received a grant from the Michael Manzella Foundation. The Foundation was founded by Yale students to honor their friend, gifted scholar and musical talent who lost the battle to cancer at the age of 21. This grant will surely honor his legacy in a lasting way.
The Challenging. We are still falling behind on our revenue targets. If you’ve been following our updates over the course of this year, you will not be shocked to hear that we are still experiencing a supply gap of our best-selling cookstove. We have, however, made a payment for a 3-month supply. Additionally, we have inventory that is not moving. In the upcoming month, we are going to bundle these products into “smart deal packages” to clear our shelves.
Our Second Shop is Open!
It’s official. Our second shop is open for business! On a sunny Friday afternoon, our team, government representatives, local entrepreneurs and international supporters gathered for a monumental moment –- the Grand Opening of the Kangemi Store. Thank you for making this possible. Thank you for moving beyond band-aid solutions. Thank you for ensuring that Kenyan youth have access to opportunity. WE DID IT! Now, come to Kenya and shop? All campaign supporters get a 5% discount!
To see more photos, check out our Facebook page here.