Wellington IBM senior IT architect Mike Goddard learnt new ways of doing business during his work experience in Tanzania. He also became aware of new business ideas in the mobile space.
Goddard was one of 100 people chosen from a global pool of more than 5,500 applicants to be part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps programme. The leadership development initiative is designed to train leaders, as well as address issues in developing markets.
A further 500 IBM employees will be chosen for the programme over the next two years.
Goddard spent a month in Tanzania last September, helping develop growth strategies and management plans for KickStart, a non-profit organisation that develops and markets new technologies in Africa — in this case a foot-powered water pump.
His team of nine — with members from Germany, Costa Rica, Japan, the US and Italy — worked at the front-end of two KickStart projects, developing a requirements definition and solution outline for the ‘Beep me’ project and a stock management programme for the water pumps, says Goddard.
The ‘Beep me’ project was especially interesting as it revealed business opportunities that he wasn’t even aware about, he says. The background for the project is that despite the poor infrastructure in Tanzania, in terms of roads and power, cellphone coverage is reliable and very cheap, he says. A SIM card with a phone number costs about 50 cents.
“Even the poorest farmers have a SIM card, but they don’t necessarily have enough money to have a handset,” he says.
Instead, when needing to make a phone call, people will go to the nearest village and rent a handset, he says. Or, if they own their own handset, they may go to the village and pay for charging the phone.
‘Beep me’ aims to make it easier for farmers to contact KickStart support and sales staff. Usually, farmers would ring using their SIM card and a rented phone and then hang up to avoid call charges. The idea is that the person at the other end hopefully rings back. ‘Beep me’ is designed to get a free-of-charge dialogue going, says Goddard. Calling a number would generate a text message with options, giving the caller a different number to call for further information or to get someone to call them back, he says,
The natural option for a free-of-charge phone call in the developed world — the equivalent of a 0800 number — does not work in Tanzania.
“It’s a cultural thing,” he says. “People don’t trust that they are not going to get charged for it.”
Goddard’s task was to define the requirements for the project and to do some network testing.
In regards to the water-pump project, he says once a pump is sold KickStart staff will follow up with the farmers, who often live in remote areas, “off a dirt track, with no postal addresses”, says Goddard.
When visiting farmers, KickStart’s sales and support teams use handheld devices with integrated GPS technology to mark the location of the farm and record any issues, he says.
With the help of handheld technology, KickStart’s staff can map out the number and size of fields a farmer has, simply by walking to each corner of a field and marking the coordinates.
Goddard says it is amazing how on one side of the scale, there is leading-edge mapping and GPS technology, and on the other is the foot-powered water pump. Power is unreliable and some farms have no electricity at all, he says. The pumps are powered by two levers that you stand on, similar to a stepper in the gym, he says.
In collaboration with KickStart’s research and development team, Goddard and his colleagues also looked at different options for keeping track of the water pumps. Up until now, stock management of the pumps has been done by hand. A sales representative would literally count them, he says. The IBM team investigated the cost of putting a barcode or RFID tag on each pump. The RFID option would raise the cost by $1 per pump, which may not sound much, but for a farmer, who would have spent six months’ income to buy the pump in the first place, that difference in price is significant, he says.
The water pumps really make a difference to the farmers, says Goddard. If they didn’t have the pumps, they would have to fill up a bucket at a well, walk to the field and empty the bucket – back and forth, all day long.
The impact of dealing with the farmers in Tanzania will be with him for the rest of his life, he says.
“The first farmer I met talked about how the pump had changed his life and what it had meant to his family. He was now able to buy food and medicine for his children,” he says.
The work experience in Tanzania taught Goddard to slow down and think a bit more, he says.
“In the Western world, we tend to focus on the deliverables,” he says. “Now I’m thinking more about how the team works and what we are trying to achieve.”
Meetings in Tanzania are very different. Most meetings are face-to-face and if you don’t take the time to say hello and ask how everyone is, you will be seen as rude. “They haven’t lost touch with human interaction,” he says.
It was also valuable to learn to work in an international team, says Goddard. Three months before the trip, the team started preparing for the project via audio and video conference calls.
Most of Goddard’s calls were — on a good day — at 11pm, but more often at 3 or 4am, he says.
After arriving in Tanzania, where the internet has dial-up speed if it’s available at all, Goddard realised how dependent he had become on the internet. “We take it for granted, but in Tanzania you can’t get to it. We had to think of other ways of working,” he says.
He often reached out to his network, firing away emails with questions when the internet was up, he says.