Morgan Babbs is in the class of 2015, majoring in international relations. She is an Empower fellow.
In the field of development economics, the “last mile distribution challenge”, how to service the most geographically isolated corners of the world, is often portrayed as an amorphous, textual concept with some undiscovered solution that stumps social entrepreneurs around the world. While innovative strategies and paradigm shifts can have positive impacts development, it’s even more important to focus on what you can learn from existing day-to-day supply chain movements and business practices in order to best reach the last mile. Before we jump to the “how do we solve the last mile distribution challenge” question, it is important to ask “who is already going the last mile?”
While doing business in low-income countries is certainly challenging and frustrating at times, it would be imprudent to think that things just don’t function in these markets—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. There are intricate, albeit informal, last mile networks that move cash and goods all around the country. How is it that cash and tons and tons of passion fruit, mattresses, pots and pans, mp3s, stacks of hay, or bags of cabbage are moved around the country on top of a bus or in the back of a pick up truck in exchange for cash with no record, receipt, or accountability? The answer: trust. Try to imagine all the players in this supply chain that have to hold up their end of the bargain in order for this to run smoothly. You’re counting on the fact that your goods won’t be robbed, that your guy on the other end is there on time, that the bus or vehicle doesn’t crash or get robbed—the possibilities for disaster are endless. How can trust be deployed so nonchalantly in a country with a very high petty crime rate and where you have a high chance of being robbed or pickpocketed any time of the day in any block in any town? It’s impressive, to say the least. I’d be lying if I said that SolarRoute hasn’t sent a box or two of Greenlight Planet SunKing Mobiles on top of a chicken bus for a staff member to pick up in his hometown two hours away from our base.
Thus, selling solar in Nicaragua forces you to see things through this new lens. You naturally start to think more about supply chain and distribution of universally popular products: where do things move, where do people go, what is best advertised? Simply standing around in a bustling market and bus stop for several hours in the “cabezera municipal” of a rural zone can teach you more than you could possibly imagine about local last mile distribution tactics. And that’s what inspires SolarRoute’s strategy.
SolarRoute is a social start up that provides dual solar lamp-cell phone charging units to the last mile in Nicaragua. The “last mile” is a development term used to describe geographically and economically isolated populations with little access to relevant information, services, and resources to lift themselves out of poverty, a definition largely applicable to the 30 million people in Latin America and the 1.3 billion people in the world who do not have access to energy. This group makes significant use of kerosene lamps for energy, which are harmful to health, the environment, and provide limited visibility during evening hours. Lack of lighting and proper technologies inhibits productivity—such as fewer hours spent studying or working, which translates to a smaller chance of progressing out of poverty.
There is an entrenched system of last mile interactions that SolarRoute has tried to replicate in order to maximize customer reception. For example, the most far-reaching and recognizable companies in Nicaragua are the two competing cell phone carriers, Movistar and Claro, Coca-Cola, and the largest chicken distributor, Tip Top. What they do best? Ensure that their brand is EVERYWHERE. In every corner of Nicaragua, you can add Movistar and Claro minutes to your phone, and you can buy Tip Top chicken and a Coke. Lucky for them, these companies gross huge profits so they can easily afford to take big off road vehicles around the country every week distributing their product. So if you’re goal is last mile distribution, the most logical, scalable, and cost-effective thing to do would be to tack onto the guys already going the last mile.
We work with agro stores, microfinance banks, and school teachers to reach each institution’s last mile network, but our most last-mile strategy lies with a network of dirt bike-mounted distributors contracted by Movistar to deliver Movistar cell phone credit throughout the country. They span most of Central and South America and we recently scaled nationwide with them—allowing us to reach their 30,000 resellers (and more along the way). So, in addition to selling cell credit and cell phones, they also sell solar products. At every kiosk in every corner of a developing country you can find a “Movistar: recarga aqui” sign indicating where you can add more minutes to your cell. SolarRoute hopes to make small solar solutions as accessible and commonplace as cell phone minutes.
It’s doing the little things to imitate already successful brands that will hopefully add to SolarRoute’s success. For example, every SolarRoute retailer gets a sign indicating that SolarRoute products are sold there, a move inspired by the Movistar, Claro, and Tip Top retail signs seen outside shops. Movistar and Claro paint their logo on concrete walls in every town: so do we. Movistar and Claro host small marketing events in the local markets and bus stops once per week: so do we. The idea is to engage in marketing, sales, and business strategies that are already employed by the experts in Nicaragua.
Of course there’s need for improvement in these markets, specifically increased reliability and accountability and a reduction in bureaucracy—huge strides can be made in the availability of life-changing resources, services, and technology. But a huge discussion exists around creative last mile solutions. It’s a challenge, but it’s important to remember that there are already companies doing this. The question to ask is what can we learn from them in order to better distribute life-changing resources such as tablets, cell phones, vaccinations, ORS solutions, etc. In fact, it would be taking credit where credit doesn’t deserve to be taken by saying SolarRoute employs “innovative” last mile distribution tactics. SolarRoute has really just latched on to what the country already does best. Maybe it’s innovative to us outsiders, but in Nicaragua, it’s the norm.