Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Scrubbing Bubbles in the slums of Nairobi

I’ve just completed my first breakout session at the 2010 Net Impact Conference and it was fantastic. It definitely gave me a better understanding of the role that MNCs play in developing the Base of the Pyramid (BOP). It was an awesome, interactive discussion, entitled, “Engaging the BOP: A Closer Look at Business in Africa”. Essentially the S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. company, maker of consumer cleaning products under such brands as Scrubbing Bubbles, Mr. Muscle, Windex and Pledge, is engaging in development efforts in the Kibera slum in Nairobi , Kenya with mixed success. Apartments in the slum have communal bathrooms on each floor that are otherwise pretty squalid. The company is working to train teams of cleaners who would market their cleaning services to the residents of the apartments and would use S.C. Johnson cleaning products. The idea is to help these cleaning teams grow their business to the level that S.C. Johnson can meet its fixed cost investment in training and marketing the groups and begin to turn a profit. They challenged us in the session to identify ways that the company can make this venture more advantageous for the people of Kibera AND make it profitable for the company in the reasonable short-term.
Jimmy Bettcher, Rob Herrick and I paired up with two students from the University of Oregon and one student from Yale to brainstorm key issues. We considered innovative ways for the cleaning services to advertise; whether the pricing structure for the services (and for the S.C. Johnson products) needed to be adjusted; whether the residents of the Kibera apartments needed more education on the health benefits of clean/hygienic toilets; whether the ability-to-pay and willingness-to-pay of the residents is adequately understood; and whether there is an adequate linkage between the services provided by the cleaning teams and the S.C. Johnson brands that are being used by the teams. Once we all reconvened to share our questions and ideas, the S.C. Johnson representative really took all of our comments to heart and complimented the new ideas that we all came up with.
In addition to this case example, S.C. Johnson also has an effort in Ghana to improve pest control and reduce the spread of malaria. The company offers several consumer product solutions for pest control, like Raid and Off. We didn’t have enough time to brainstorm ideas on this business issue, but the key issues they are dealing with in this effort are: not trumping or harming the progress that NGOs and agencies like USAID have already made in the area of mosquito netting; the location and distance between villages in Ghana complicates distribution and limits the impact of “Word of Mouth” advertising; and making sure solutions offered are truly affordable and that the products get used in the appropriate way (since they are chemicals with active ingredients that have specific methods of use).
It was so interesting to hear about the efforts of an MNC in the area of building the BOP and hearing about the challenges they face. While the company is ultimately involved because they believe there is untapped market potential in Africa, I appreciated the company’s sensitivity to really trying to find a win-win solution in these societies to enable them to develop and grow through entrepreneurship. This session was a great way to kick-off my experience at the Net Impact Conference. I am so excited to see what else I’ll learn!

Guest blog entry by Debbie Papiernik, 2011 Kelley MBA Candidate, Indiana University

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