Thursday, March 11, 2010

Jesus has become tough.

Tough Love
Things have changed a lot in the past 2 months. Everything I know about Zambia continues to change, and luckily, its for the better.

My first two years here were largely about me discovering a new culture, and attempting to help out an amazing visionary who's life's work will have dramatically improved the lives of some 50,000 people. I lived and worked in a relatively well defined space, at home it was with a family, and at work it was with a well established business. This was a safe space, where my mistakes were never too big.

Today I was driving around Lusaka buying this and that for Rent-to-Own, and one of my stops was at a bearing store which I've been to at least 20 times. Like a handful of other shops, the workers get a kick out of calling me Jesus. There are definitely worse names to be called, so I play off their fun a bit.

Zambians seem to have an amazing ability to read into peoples lives. Whenever I'm feeling a bit down, they notice right away, whenever my mind is somewhere else, they recognize it. So today at the bearing shop, one of the guys says "Jesus has become tough". And I think he's right, I've changed and probably don't take the time to be soft and joke as much as I use to.

Ironically, I bought some $3 glasses today for when I'm riding my bicycle. I got it a week ago and have been using it a ton to get around town, some friends and I even created our own bike-gang. Finally today I got the shades to go with it. (and no, I wasn't wearing them in the store)

I did wear a Black t-shirt today.

The point is actually fairly serious. I've said "tough love is needed" a million times before, but is this really the way I'm heading?

I'll have to hear it a few more times before putting too much weight into it, the love side is still much bigger than the tough side. (in my mind at least)

To switch gears - here is a quick rent-to-own update.
EWB has given me a 6 month pilot period to test the viability, profitability and scalability of the idea. I set a target of 35 businesses for end of April. I also identified that the model, which is essentially EWB-me-agent-entrepreneur, had its weakest point at the agent level. I also set a target of 100 businesses by October (if the pilot continues). Quickly I realized that an agent can only handle about 20 or 30 businesses at one time, so I decided to aim for bringing on 5 new agents, rather than just 1 or 2.

Chiko and I set off on a tour of the province. We visited 7 of the 8 districts and hired on 6 new agents. I also quickly realized how much work it was going to be to visit each one and get them up to speed, and of course, keep them up to speed. They're going to be collecting money and trying to choose the most viable business ideas. So I decided to hire someone to help me out. On Saturday we're setting off together to visit each agent for two full days to go through the entire process of selecting businesses and explaining to entrepreneurs how the rent-to-own system works.

There are a thousand photos to post from the last trip, but I'll do that later. Lets just say that it was raining almost the entire time, but that every stop was worth it. We'd try to find a person who is running a business, is well trusted and really knows about all the activities in the area. Almost like clock work, we'd find someone and before we left town there were people coming up to us asking about rent-to-own.

Hope thats a good enough update. There are too many things to talk about. For now, its time to print some catalogues, go and do a few dozen business plans with the agents, train my new assistant, collect starting fees, buy the equipment, ship it up to the various places and then wait for the rest of the money to start rolling in.

There are a few ideas around making rent-to-own more profitable and potentially into a proper business. The ideas are testing my balance between wanting to connect Canada to Africa, and trying to just make something work. To be honest, I'm leaning towards just making it work, and leaving the lofty connecting to Canada part behind. Possibly more on that subject another time.


Laura said...

Inspired by your entrepreneurial spirit. You'll figure out the right balance :-)

Ben said...

Great work Mark. I appreciate the updates!


seven said...

This is so funny b/c that is what I always called you.

Swan Princess said...

Wow.Thants was cool journey.I like your journey I hope I was like you have a wonderful journey