Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Social Enterprise is HARD to do

Starting a business is hard enough, but starting a business that has a social focus is even harder. For Micro Drip, we are still very much working to refine our business model so that we can successfully sell to the Base of the Pyramid (BOP) here in Pakistan, those who live on less than $4/day. For Micro Drip, one of the most difficult challenges is that we can have the greatest low cost, high quality drip irrigation system in the world, but ultimately success for a farmer depends on much more than our system: microfinancing, stable water source, good seed, fertilizer, storage, know-how, distribution to markets, etc. As a result, we cannot simply sell our system off the shelf; we have to think about ways to directly and indirectly (through partnerships) address the problems that come before and after our product.

A second difficulty that we face is the seasonality of our product. There are two growing seasons in Pakistan each year with most farmers growing cotton during the summer season and wheat during the fall season. Unfortunately, drip irrigation cannot be used with wheat given the density of the plants/acre. Vegetables can be grown during both seasons and offer much higher prices, but the lack of storage and access to markets forces many farmers into cotton and wheat, which are more stable with much less risk of going bad.

A third difficulty that we are tackling is how to motivate local sales reps in the communities that we serve. CEMEX, a Mexican cement company, has successfully mobilized a large network of local promoters in its program Patrimonio Hoy, which helps clients who make between $5-$15/day to save money for do-it-yourself home improvements. While there are some successful models out there, many social businesses are struggling with this issue, as it is often difficult for local sales people to make sufficient income selling a single product. Where sales channels to the BOP already exist, it is much easier for existing sales people to add additional products to their offerings. Unfortunately, we are not aware of any other sales channels that reach our target market that would be willing to add our systems to their existing portfolio.

In spite of the challenges, we are committed to bringing irrigation solutions to the poor farmers of Pakistan. Drip irrigation increases crop yields by 30-100% all the while decreasing water usage by 50-70%. This translates into more money for poor farmers and ultimately has the potential to free farmers who are imprisoned in debt and a subsistence life.

Joel Montgomery

View Joel Montgomery's profile on LinkedIn Add to Technorati Favorites

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eid al Adha

This is the second day of Eid al Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice. Take a look at my video blog to see what it's all about...

View Joel Montgomery's profile on LinkedIn Add to Technorati Favorites

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Servant’s Dilemma

I am here to serve the poor in Pakistan, yet I constantly find myself being served. The family I live with has two servants, the company I work for has two servants, and my friends have two servants. I can’t cook, I can’t clean, I can’t carry, I can’t even make tea for myself. Now I realize that the working wage in Pakistan is low, such that this is common, but I must admit that it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. In order to have a servant retrieve the dishes from the dinner table at 10:00pm, that individual cannot be with his or her family. Frankly, I would prefer to do my own dishes so that that person can be at home. While some people treat their servants like members of the family, others treat them as second-class citizens or worse. How easy it is to dehumanize fellow human beings. Thankfully, I was changed by my experience on the streets of New York with the poor during training and I have made sure to treat these people as best I can. Of course, I must allow them to do their jobs, but I make sure to speak to them, thank them, and of course give them a smile. I hope they realize that I appreciate them. I pray that I will never stop these small gestures for if I ever do, it will be a sad day indeed.

Joel Montgomery

View Joel Montgomery's profile on LinkedIn Add to Technorati Favorites

A Look Back to Acumen Fund Training: A Day on the Streets of New York

As part of our training curriculum for the Acumen Fund Fellowship, we were required to spend a day on the streets to better understand the poor. As soon as we arrived in the office one beautiful fall Friday, we were required to empty our pockets of our wallet, cell phone, keys, etc. We were given a $6 metro card and $5. The following is an article I wrote about my day with the homeless…

I have often wondered what is the most appropriate response when faced with a beggar in the street. Too often, I have balanced the choices of giving or not giving in favor of the latter, without truly understanding the person behind the request. Through spending a day on the streets of New York City, I was able to explore the lives of the very individuals that I have passed without even a smile or a kind word. Much to my surprise, my stereotypes of the urban poor were thrust back into my face.

Rose passed by carrying a small, black suitcase and a clear plastic bag full of cans and bottles. She eagerly accepted my offer to help her on her quest. Her slight smile, gentle eyes, and grandmother charm immediately made me feel comfortable. Rose taught me which cans were acceptable and which grocery stores accepted our booty. Every day of the week, she started work at 7:00am sifting through trashcans to collect the five-cent rewards that were hidden along her treasure route. On the day that I worked with her, Rose only managed to raise just over $3.00 after four hours of work; that is less than $1/hour. What struck me most about Rose was that she didn’t appear homeless at all. She was quite intelligent, very articulate, and knew more about literature then I could ever know. As I said goodbye to my new friend Rose, she asked, “Can I have a hug?” “Of course,” I replied. “I don’t get many hugs,” she responded.

Shirley caught my eye as I entered Penn Station. She was a small black woman, sitting in a motorized wheel chair with a sign that indicated that she was a veteran and in need of help. I struck up a conversation with her and was immediately taken with her jovial laugh and joyful demeanor. She told me how she often comes to Penn Station to raise money to live on. I asked her if people were being generous and she said, “Well, you came by and it is a blessing to talk to you.”

Peter sat on the gum stained sidewalk, cowering next to a hand written sign and cup full of change. I sat down next to him and noticed the sadness radiating from him. I learned that he was from a part of Hungary that I had visited in May of this year. He had come to the U.S. in 1999 at the age of twelve with his two parents. Since then, both of them have past away from AIDS. Peter lives in a cardboard box on the street. He told me how he has regulars who give him money, but he remarked that no one stops to really ask how he is. When asked what he likes to do for fun, Peter remarked, “I don’t really have fun.”

The homeless don’t have feelings. They are a group of nobodies with no life worth living and no real value to society. That is how you and I treat these human beings when we speedily walk past to escape their disheveled appearance and jingling cups. Oh, we may give a few coins or even several tattered bills, but contributing to their plight doesn’t lessen the dehumanizing behavior that we engage in.

Each of the 35,000 homeless in New York City has a story. Many are just as happy as you or I, if not more so. Certainly, some have mental illness and others are drug or alcohol addicts, but that does not give us the right to treat them as if they are not human. During my day on the streets, I met eight individuals who marveled me with their resourcefulness, touched me with their affection, tickled me with their laughs, and rebuked me with their humanness. No longer shall I walk by without acknowledging their humanity. To give money to their cause is a matter of personal choice, but to give a smile or kind word requires nothing but a little courage. The next time, you pass a beggar in the street, remember that he or she had a mother and a father. He or she has intellect and emotion, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, just like you and I.

Joel Montgomery

View Joel Montgomery's profile on LinkedIn Add to Technorati Favorites