Every August, Miller Center hosts up to 20 social enterprises on campus as a part of our GSBIⓇ In-Residence program. In the cohort that gathered August 2017, there were two last mile distribution (LMD) companies, Livelyhoods and Pollinate. Conversations began then about what has now become the Global Distributors Collective (GDC), an organization that is committed to supporting and representing last mile distributors globally. Last mile distribution companies are a critical piece in the value chain for getting socially responsible products, e.g. solar lights, clean cookstoves, water, and health products, to the poor in difficult to reach places like rural areas and slums. They face a range of challenges—they operate in isolation within high-risk/low-infrastructure markets, with little capacity and no collective voice, and instead of learning from and leveraging one another they are continuously reinventing the wheel.
Throughout the formation and start-up phase, Miller Center has been a partner of the GDC. The first replication playbook created was on last mile distribution. The organizations interviewed to capture their best practices are all GSBI Alumni and early members of the GDC. So when Emma Colenbrander, Head of the Global Distributors Collective, reached out to ask if we’d participate in the first GDC member gathering and provide mentorship to a few of the participants, we jumped at the opportunity.
Our incredible, very experienced executive mentor John O’Keefe and I joined the gathering that was held in Kampala, Uganda, July 22-23. The attendance of 70 people was double what was originally expected, given it was the first meeting. Though most of the attendees were from Uganda, there was representation from Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. I was struck by the spirit of freely sharing challenges and learnings, and the desire to support each other.
My key takeaways:
The room was so full and there was so much being shared; there is a hunger and thirst for organizations in LMD to convene and support each other. There is definitely a role for GDC to play.
GDC had surveyed its members to find out topics they wanted to cover during the conference. Overwhelmingly the top topic was access to finance. Half of the second day of the conference was dedicated to this and it was discussed many times during the first day. Attendees brought up so many aspects of “access to finance” they needed assistance with—tapping into impact investor networks, targeting the “right” investors, bridging the vernacular gap between social enterprises (SEs) and investors, figuring out the right forms and amounts of capital, and more. And funders in the room also said they needed to do a better job of providing the right forms of capital, in the ranges that the SEs were looking for, and make it easier and faster for SEs to access.
Capacity building came up many times during the two days. Of course it came up around access to finance, but it came up in other discussions as well. I led a “mini academy” on marketing for LMDs where I discussed marketing plans needing to be tied to financial projections and sales plans, and that marketing needs to be data driven. It was clear from the many questions that people hadn’t really thought about this and didn’t know how. Most LMDs are focused on sales—at the end of the day that is what they are doing—but good sales starts with good marketing and it all needs to be tied to business goals.
John O’Keefe led a “mini academy” about how to build a sales network and get the most from your sales agents. This session and the ensuing group discussion on distribution brought up many questions and great discussions on how to manage a sales network, lack of integrity of agents, and competition between distributors and suppliers. Given this is the heart of LMD’s business, there was a lot of interest in sharing and learning from one another.
Another topic that attendees would clearly like more help with is partnerships—how to identify who would be good partners, how to manage them effectively, types of partnerships, good and bad reasons to partner, and much, much more. At Miller Center we strongly encourage the SEs that go through our GSBI programs to partner because it is impossible for a small, under-resourced organization to do everything themselves. But you need to be careful who you partner with and always make sure there is a value exchange. There is a lot to be gained from deepening knowledge on this topic.
The conference was a truly great accomplishment as measured by the energy and enthusiasm of the participants. Given the learnings and takeaways from the conference, the GDC can continue to develop plans to support their members. John and I look forward to continuing to mentor some of the organizations that participated and Miller Center remains committed to partner with the GDC to support its entire membership. Not sure when the next conference will be but we look forward to it—supporting these incredible organizations doing very important business to serve the poor and protect the planet.
A huge thank you to John O’Keefe for attending the conference, presenting, and doing follow-up mentorship of six attendee organizations!
A special thank you to UK Aid, iBAN and GIZ for sponsoring the conference and to the consortium of partners who host the Global Distributors Collective; Practical Action, BoPInc and Hystra.