knowledge piece
Networks of rural community-based entrepreneurs: a powerful solution for self-propelling prosperity

Networks of rural community-based entrepreneurs: a powerful solution for self-propelling prosperity

This article is based upon a learning circle call and captures the main insights.

c4cHealthy Entrepreneurs is working with 25.000 of community health workers in 7 African countries. They found this group of community health workers willing to be franchised and very open for support and educational services to bring a pharmacy-in-a-box franchise model to the rural communities. Nowadays these independent community health entrepreneurs are part of the national health program. The Healthy Entrepreneurs offer additional products and services next to the traditional free services (from the government health programming). Healthy Entrepreneurs are offering additional value and services and products related to nutrition, personal care, pharmaceuticals and services for chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes and others. Combining the taking of the patient’s vitals measurements with e-health (through solar powered tablets) to provide some prescription treatments (in a controlled way) at the doorsteps in rural villages. While reducing the costs of access to healthcare, Healthy Entrepreneurs is also adding income generating activities. What have we learnt from them?

technology is a unique asset

With a unique system, in which community health entrepreneurs take the vitals, connect remotely with a health expert, and receive both prescription and prescribed treatment packages for their patient, Healthy Entrepreneurs is able to maintain quality of e-disbursement. All data points go through their system, which makes it possible to control and distribute this service and products without having a physical intervention with a medical doctor or pharmacists, while delivering at home in rural areas. Their technology is a unique asset to continue to expand the health education, services and products that empower the community-based health entrepreneurs, as well as the villagers getting access to health education, health checks, preventive health services and related products.

it’s all about building trust

How to deal with building trust of community-based health entrepreneurs, while also prevent, once a trusted position is built, that this trusted position leads to harmful practices? The selected community health entrepreneurs are also part of the national health system, being (educated) as community health workers. This helps, but this does not always mean there’s trust, it is a beginning. A key factor contributing to building trust is the reality that Healthy Entrepreneurs does the stock & order management, distribution and value chain orchestration (into the rural communities), assuring availability of quality health education, services and products while maintaining low(er than market) prices. “There is finesse, it is not just the standard private sector approach, and it is also not the standard governmental approach, and that is where we set ourselves apart”, according to Joost, founder and CEO of Healthy Entrepreneurs. Part of the solution to build and maintain trust is that the services delivered fit within the governmental charter, it’s clear what services they deliver and what is allowed, and what not. Government officials do evaluate and perform checks. There is a clear exit procedure, for those who do not perform well. But, going back the first point, bringing a reliable source of income and actually organizing a reliable supply chain (delivering the treatments and medicines), is something that is key to trust. Which is done with both data and performance insights, on individual and
cluster level. Healthy Entrepreneurs as an organization contributes to being a reliable partner to deliver health related services and products supply. Reliable for both government and community-based health entrepreneurs, and even more important to the rural communities.

A powerful combi: social capital, additional income and long-term commitment

c4cOne success factor for expanding services and products that grow communal wellbeing, is the combination of additional income with the fact that there is long-term commitment from the health entrepreneur. This becomes effective, in combination with what I coin “social capital” -based on existing literature and definitions-. If there are stipends by the government for the work the community health workers deliver, it’s often irregular, fragmented and not sufficient. More often than not, the additional income provided by Healthy Entrepreneurs, being a community-based health worker, provides a solid base and is appreciated over the stipend. Keep in mind, for some countries there’s not even a stipend, and being a health entrepreneur is the main source of income. On top of income, there’s another pearl in the oyster, the long-term commitment to the rural communities. Most of the time, the health entrepreneurs are based in the community, which means that they’ve built long-term relationships with their neighbours, and with neighbouring villages. This is a safety measure, a quality assurance hard to get anywhere else in the world. The community-based entrepreneurs will not perform harmful practices, like overprescribing, as a result of this. Also, because most products are paid with credits, so over-subscription is also financially risky for them, due to the risk of non-payment. “People are not so much cheating each other, and they are really supporting each other”, according to Joost, “this is where the community intervention is. The reason why I’m here, because I’m so much inspired by the way communities can look after themselves, and they will do so.”

c4cSolar Sisters is working with 10.000 female community-based entrepreneurs clean energy solutions in several African countries. Solar Sisters recruits, trains and supports women in their local mostly rural off-grid communities, to become clean energy entrepreneurs, selling solar lamps, home systems, clean cook stoves, some times fans and clean water filters. Solar Sister as an organization does the bulk purchase of these solar devices , inventory management and distribution to the independent women entrepreneurs out in the rural communities. The female clean energy entrepreneurs come together in monthly sisterhood group meetings. This meeting also serves as the distribution point. Addressing energy access is the mission of Solar Sisters. The solid foundation is based upon a network of women entrepreneurs, because that is the most effective way to speak to the needs of the customers: women as heads of households. Women are the most trusted way to explain the clean energy products and that they are worth investing in. “Our ‘solution’, the network of women, became our mission.” Having women entrepreneurs be the distributors of clean energy is the best way to distribute clean energy and create economic opportunities. The more economic opportunities the more women are able to drive stable communities and families. “Economic activities that stay and stick in the communities, not being sucked out. …
that is what becomes this little local engine of improvement for the whole community.”, according to Katherine, founder and CEO of Solar Sister.

it evolves around sense of belonging and self-governance

The sisterhood meetings are more than just a transactional hand-over of the clean energy devices, it’s forging bonds and grows a sense of belonging. The women determine dates, location and topics to discuss, it’s their venue for self-governance, at the same time the sisterhood meetings give a shared purpose and feeling of togetherness. The assurance that there is a whole institution behind them, that they make up and are part of this, is incredibly empowering.

agency based training is key

c4cExpanding services and products is realised through the agency based trainings that are provided, in the sisterhood meetings. They focus on leadership, self-belief, addressing personal challenges, they are core parts of the training. Trainings are flexible, and focused on adult-learning, mostly through learning by doing. This part of the training modules, next to the more standard doing-business and connected selling training, is the most crucial one to success. Training that meets the women where they are, is key to success of growing impact. Women keep coming to the sisterhood groups because they find them valuable, they take ownership and grow leadership and make sure others join too. Or they take sisterhood groups to the next town, help to set-up a sisterhood group there too, knowing they have enough women in this area. Solar Sister as an organization does not impose anything on them, no external expectation. Because it is up to her. It is very centric to the woman herself. Which limits organisational ambition, but that (organisational growth in itself) is not the priority.

walking the extra mile to build a social and green market

Tracking the products the female entrepreneurs are selling, is a good business practice, that provides insights in rural demand for clean energy and challenges to access to clean energy. Once you switch into the model in which you provide capacity building, meaning that you become a female business coach (in stead of selling solar devices), you’re changing from a pure business to a true social enterprise. Finding the right staff for this is not easy, you’re also competing against NGO’s donating energy devices. Building the market requires investing in women empowerment and female leadership development.

How to address after-sales service, can be a challenge, but the fact that these female entrepreneurs are based in or near the community is providing the required trust for after-sales. These women are ‘famous’ in their community and are trained on the whole warranty and repair processes. This is one of the most important support that Solar Sisters as an organisation is providing to their network for female entrepreneurs. The clean energy women entrepreneurs do not have to wait for the full 6 months before they get their product replaced,
because that would destroy trust. They are trained to do simple repairs and know where to find technicians in the vicinity. This (and more) is all needed and key to successfully building a clean energy market (against all odds).

Value chain orchestartion is required

Last but not least, we learned, that a hybrid model – a social enterprise as a ‘value chain orchestrator’ is required to expand services and products of community-based micro-entrepreneurs. Like Katherine explains: “even though it is a high-touch system, the Solar Sister as an organization is very lean, including all country offices too. Serving 10.000 female entrepreneurs with less than 200 staff, is pretty amazing. One of the biggest ‘inefficiencies’ is the physical distribution of the products. We combine the distribution with the training.” Business model wise, they subsidize part of our organization with funds for training and advocacy. Solar Sisters earns an income from sales, but that only represents about 50% of the total costs. The other 50% is the investment in capacity building of rural female entrepreneurs. So, it is a hybrid model, they rely on each other, the organization and the network. It is slow-going. It takes a lot of time. Similarly, Healthy Entrepreneur is built as a social enterprise with a hybrid business model too. Where the network of independent health entrepreneurs rely heavily on the reliance of the supply and high-quality health related products, services and education from the Healthy Entrepreneurs’ organization. Both pioneers Healthy Entrepreneurs and Solar Sisters are intentionally orchestrating the value chain from health (related) products and clean energy devices producers to rural communities, gearing it in such a way that most of the value creation sticks with the enterprising people, the villagers and their communities.

We hope you enjoyed the learnings and that you can take (parts of) them forward. Our Learning Circle call was even richer than what I have shared here, so please feel free to watch the full recording!


Foto credits go to Healthy Entrepreneurs and Solar Sisters