Riding through the currently drought stricken, mud colored landscape of the nine locations in which Komaza currently operates, two colors break the monotony—the green of KOMAZA’s employee uniforms, signs, and eucalyptus tree stands and the red of Coca-Cola’s painted walls, kiosks, and crates. One color represents an efficient path to sustainable income for thousands of farmers supplied by a local NGO. The other represents the multibillion-dollar growth strategy of a transnational giant.
Relative to Mombasa or Nairobi, only a tiny number of brands penetrate places like Palakumi and Mtsara Wa Tsatu. There, KOMAZA’s scale feels comparable to Coca-Cola’s. Both serve this remote population in ways few other organizations do, and as a result both have developed impressive networks to efficiently access people here.
Stories of innovative dissemination of products, information, and ideas have flooded media outlets in recent years. Think of basics like Amazon.com (products), Twitter.com (Information), or Chris Hughes’ work for the Obama campaign and Jumo.com (Ideas). And if accessing the masses excites, harvesting from them is downright sexy. Examples range from Wikipedia to Crowdsourcing, the term coined by Jeff Howe in 2006, to today’s examples such as group-source advertising (see Mark Walsh’s GeniusRocket). Globalization increases both the challenge and opportunity of the centuries old question: “How to more efficiently get stuff to (and from) people?”
Last week, the Economist reported that the wealthiest 10% of adults control 83% of the world’s assets. It is no wonder that innovations in distribution are overwhelming targeted toward this 10%, most of which is located in the developed world. As such, these innovative distribution networks all rely on technology—more specifically they rely on the connected nature of their target population. This means that it is vastly easier to “get stuff to people” in, for example, North America (with 77% internet penetration) than in Africa (with 11% internet penetration).
The profitability enabled by efficient distribution in the developed world is obvious. The question is, what is the value of an efficient distribution networks accessing the 50% of the population who survive on less than $2.50 per day and rarely make true purchases? And further, is there still room in today’s world of innovative distribution networks for low-tech high-touch solutions?
The KOMAZA Field Extension Network as an Asset
Coke’s plan to invest $12B in Africa from 2009 to 2019 reveals that their localized approach is surprisingly similar to KOMAZA’s. CEO Muhtar Kent puts it this way, “Being in a country is very easy, you can go and set up a depot in every capital city. That’s not what we’re about. We go to every town, every village, every community, every township.” Coke is the largest employer in Africa and grants different status to vendors based on sales (much like airline status based on miles). In Kenya, Coke has infiltrated every remote village with signs and refrigerators for appreciative vendors. The Coke distribution network not only distributes the product itself, it also distributes knowledge such as suggestions about meal combos with mandazi (friend dough) and instructions on stocking the fridge. In addition, the network is responsible for collecting each bottle to be refilled.
Coke’s network differs from KOMAZA’s in many ways. Besides the obvious (scale, for-profit/non-profit), KOMAZA’s network is fully owned by KOMAZA. In the nine locations where we operate, KOMAZA is the largest employer and can efficiently reach thousands of employees, farmers, and family members. At its core, the KOMAZA model distributes (1) robust, drought-resistant seedlings and (2) crucial information about dry-land agroforestry. But looking closer, the information and physical goods that are transported both down and up KOMAZA’s network from its headquarters in Kilifi to the interior of the province and back include everything from the latest news about someone’s family to hard-goods like bikes, cell phones, water tanks, and farming equipment.
KOMAZA has multidirectional and multichannel communication to its 150+ staff through email, phones, text, cell phone web-forms, and (most importantly) face to face conversations. KOMAZA‘s network extends not only to employees, farmers, and their families, it also includes the always-important local governing structures of District Chiefs and Village Elders.
Both KOMAZA and Coke have recognized the potential of effective networks to distribute goods and information to populations that may not represent immediate or obvious profitability. In addition, like Crowdsourcing, KOMAZA also understands the value of the reverse flow of its network. The KOMAZA network has provided crucial tools, including the most accurate maps of the Ganze district and surrounding areas and up-to-the-week rain data available nowhere else.
Here in Kenya, Coke is continuing to leverage its network across its brands (Fanta, Stoney, etc.) and even across products (Dasani Bottled Water). While KOMAZA’s experience and depth of knowledge with dryland Eucalyptus farming is clearly one of its strongest assets, the value of its robust distribution network shouldn’t be discounted. Species adjustments (like the planned addition of Melia volkensii) are easy to conceptualize. Because of the network’s strength, however, it could be argued that adding additional products and services would be similarly easy.
Distribution in Development and Developments in Distribution
Many have observed the potential impact of Coca Cola’s distribution network including Rural Development expert Simon Berry. Berry founded colalife after reflecting on the global availability of coke compared to the global unavailability of lifesaving basic medicine. While the details are still being finalized, the organization’s plan to add “aidpods” with basic medicines and water purification tablets to every crate of coke distributed in the developing world has received a lot of buzz in social media spheres.
Like colalife, the development world is not without innovative distribution methods. Here’s one creative Open IDEO idea where travelers to India can use surplus luggage space to import crucial medical supplies. In Kenya, KOMAZA friend Nathan Wyeth and the team at FrontlineSMS:Credit are creating ways for enterprises to leverage the media favorite mobile banking system, M-PESA. While KOMAZA is continuing to increase its use of mobile technology in managing its network, it is comparably low-tech. The advances of technologically based mass messaging in the developing world will continue to have significant impacts on its people. However, just as there is still value for person to person contact in a world of blast emails and group texts, KOMAZA’s person based network will continue to be one of its greatest assets.
KOMAZA’s Distribution Network in the Future
Recently a representative from an international edible oil manufacturer visited KOMAZA. Having heard of its impressive farmer extension network he was hoping to gather best practices for their own network. One of the first things he asked was how we protect against farmers cutting down the trees early, or selling to alternative buyers. During my time here I’ve realized that the answer lies within our network, or, rather, that the answer is our network. KOMAZA farmers are the core members of each small village that we work in, and KOMAZA employees (themselves often farmers) live, work with, and help these farmers every day. Any problems in the field are immediately relayed to Field Officers and Field Managers, and any solutions that KOMAZA is able to provide are efficiently distributed to the Field. In Ganze district, the KOMAZA network is King—community-owned, arguably more efficient than Coca-Cola’s, and seen as a positive force by all members of the community from the District Chiefs down to school children.
I felt the full effect of our network last week when riding on a motorbike through Dungicha with our new film-maker James Farmer. A group of school children spotted our KOMAZA-green shirts, and even over the din of the engine we could hear them smiling and yelling “KOMAZA, KOMAZA, KOMAZA!” We returned their smiles and gave the best waves and whoops we that we could. I doubt that Coca-Cola trucks are met with such enthusiasm.
Here’s the takeaway: KOMAZA’s network uniquely employees both the “innovative” tech solutions used to interact with masses in the developing world and the intimate on the ground presence necessary in rural less-connected areas. This strength exists independently of the type product or information we are distributing to the community or sourcing from it. While the KOMAZA brand may be relatively unknown outside of Kenya’s Coast Province, here, where it matters, it is rock solid—and, like our trees, it will be a bearer of positive impact (whatever the form) for many years to come.