Energizing the team: MIT Sloan MBAs visit Dar!

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Post from Caroline Mauldin, MIT SEID

It’s a particularly warm day in Chanika, Tanzania.  I’m standing outside of an EGG-energy “station”—a simple storefront boasting an orange sign that bears the company’s logo.  A young boy, maybe 12 or 13, glides up on his bicycle with a bundle secured tightly to the handlebars.  Taking the bundle, he walks through EGG’s open door and sits down in front of the station’s lone desk.  He is here  to swap his family’s battery, a new source of energy for homes and businesses living off of Tanzania’s utility-scale grid.

I’m traveling with a classmate for two weeks, wrapping up a semester-long project with EGG through MIT Sloan’s Entrepreneurs for International Development (SEID) club.  Along with two other classmates, who weren’t able to join us on the ground, we worked with EGG’s management team to review and refine the company’s sales process.  After three years in operation, EGG is cognizant of the need to ramp up their sales and institute a structured training and development program for their growing sales staff.

As with any start-up, sales are the backbone of growth and profitability.  Without an increasing customer base, companies do not live long past their 3rd or 4th birthdays.  For EGG, sales have proved challenging for many reasons, both expected and unexpected.

Among the expected: doing business in semi-urban and rural areas around Tanzanian’s dispersed geography is simply time-consuming.  Roads are unreliable and the distance between villages is significant.  Then there’s the matter of convincing new prospects that EGG’s products are better than their existing electricity solutions (typically kerosene for lighting), and that they should spend their spare shillings on such a seemingly grand investment.

Once EGG establishes a foothold in one area, customers inevitably follow, but rarely at a pace that promises scale—at least not yet.  The challenge, unexpected or not, is to tap into the social networks of existing customers, effectively turning them into spokespeople for EGG’s products.  Whether through social, business or religious circles, the expectation is that an EGG client, who has already embraced and experienced the advantages of battery or solar-powered energy, can bring others to the light, so to speak.

EGG has started down this path by aggressively increasing the number of “EGG Distributors” or independent agents in key villages and towns.  Typically the proprietors of small shops or kiosks (“duka” in Swahili), EGG agents simply allot shelf space to EGG batteries, serving as a swap spot for clients in the area.  As EGG expands this “distributor” or agent network, so too will the company’s footprint—and its potential for long-term sustainability.

After spending two weeks between the office in Dar es Salaam and their remote stations, our team developed a workshop for EGG’s staff.  Our goal was to energize the team as much as to impart some of that golden b-school wisdom recently absorbed in our Cambridge classrooms.  Translated into Swahili, we covered the elements of a successful pitch, the “funnel” of customer acquisition, and the four P’s of effective marketing.  But mostly, we got everyone talking (also in Swahili) about what was working and what wasn’t quite there yet.  Like any thoughtful start-up, EGG’s success is due in part to its ability to assess and iterate on its sales model.  For two days, EGG’s headquarters were filled with just that—the chatter and real-time iteration of a team committed to bringing affordable power to off-grid families and business.

As the company expands their distributor network and continues to train their staff, EGG will have plenty to celebrate when their 4th birthday rolls around.