A social entrepreneur’s guide to scaling in rural areas

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In this week’s column from this month’s Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR), Kenny Ewan of WeFarm sets out his tips for how social entrepreneurs working in hard-to-reach communities can scale-up

Many social enterprises focus on providing services and products for people who live in rural parts of the world. However, having a target market of rural communities comes with many challenges. Typically these people are very difficult to reach, both in person and through marketing. So how does one begin to promote products and services to isolated communities of people, and how do you scale in remote parts of the world?

WeFarm female farmer

In 12 months we have grown our network to more than 63,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, Uganda, and Peru. Our network WeFarm enables these farmers to access vital information through SMS. The majority of the farmers using our service live in very isolated areas, miles away from the nearest village, without an internet connection and without access to any traditional forms of communication.

Working with these farmers as our main customer base has come with its challenges, but we have achieved excellent growth through persistence and hard work. Here are a few lessons that we’ve learned that we think might help anyone trying to make a difference with rural populations.

Involve customers in the design process

As we were developing WeFarm, we did a lot of work testing the concept with farmers and we tried to involved them in the design process as much as possible. Initially, we wanted to create an internet platform or an app, but the reality on the ground was that most people have basic feature phones, so we ended up creating a service that allows people to crowdsource information even through SMS.

WeFarm Press Photo 4

Without spending time with our future customers it’s highly likely that we would have created a working product that nobody wanted to use. My advice would be to get out there and work with the people you want to empower. Be agile, try lots of different things, find flaws, and create something that is actually useful for your customers!

Marketing to rural communities

Marketing to rural communities has been one of our biggest challenges as a social enterprise. The majority of the small-scale farmers that use WeFarm are located in remote areas with no internet access, and have limited access to other traditional forms of media, which can make it more difficult for us to achieve the same exponential growth rate as other technology businesses.

However, a lot of WeFarm’s success so far has been based on achieving great growth in this challenging environment by trying many different forms of marketing in order to reach the people we need to. The majority of successful sign-ups to our service come from radio shows, or educational programmes run in conjunction with farming co-operatives.

Other things that we have tried include local youth training programmes, partnerships models, newspaper advertising, and many more.

Seek local expertise

WeFarm female farmer pictureRecognising where you need local expertise is very important when working with rural communities. There are so many differences between regions in each country and, as a team, we are constantly encountering situations where we require the expertise of locals.

For example, with our recent launch in Uganda, we found a part-time member of staff who speaks Luganda to help us translate training materials and run workshops with farmers. Seize these opportunities where you need local advice – don’t pretend you have all the answers.

There are huge populations of people living in rural areas of the world. Often this means that social enterprises targeting these audiences fail to scale quickly enough and it’s a tragedy because these customers desperately need new innovative products and services!

But there is hope: you can scale a business in rural areas. My advice to social entrepreneurs: 1) Do your research; 2) Try hard and fail fast; and 3) Find the magic marketing activities that work for you.

About Kenny

Kenny-Ewan 2Kenny is CEO of WeFarm, a pioneering social enterprise, scaling a unique peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing platform for the 450 million small-scale farmers around the world with no access to the internet. After graduating from the University of Dundee, Kenny went to Peru in 2002 to work on sustainable development projects with indigenous communities. He loved the country so much that he decided to stay. In 2007, he became Peru’s Country Director for ProWorld Service Corps. This international development NGO specialises in projects for isolated, indigenous communities. He returned to the UK in 2009 to join the Cafedirect Producers Foundation (CPF) start-up team. He designed and managed all of CPF’s international projects across East Africa and Latin America.