What ‘Mama Mboga’ can teach SMEs & Big business

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In the run up to the GES that just recently concluded, I postulated that one of the speakers should have been a ‘Mama Mboga’.

For those who may not know, ‘Mama Mbogas’ are those ladies with informal stalls that supply many of us with fresh fruits and vegetables in quantities and portions convenient to buyers.

A number of people were amazed at my temerity to suggest this. “This is not the stage for such! This is for established companies!” One gentleman informed me.

Well, I beg to differ.

Today’s “big” companies like Apple, IBM, Google, Dell and HP were at some point mini and micro enterprises and were in fact, quite literally, founded in garages and university dorm rooms.

Hearing from entrepreneurs at this stage will go a long way towards reminding us all that everyone, no matter how big, started somewhere, and started small.  The alarmingly prevalent narrative that you can become the next FaceBook overnight is one that needs to be extinguished.

If you ask most budding entrepreneurs what they need to get started, most of them will inform you that they require money. Capital. If you dig further and inquire what exactly they will spend that money on, the number that will have answers starts to taper off.

Others will inform you that they need a place to work (read: office).

Which is fair enough.

But look at the typical Mama Mboga. They do not have officers, or any formal place to work from. But come the evening you will find them set up at an available spot, hard at work.

Or take the question of capital. Most of us, if we were to sell fruits and vegetables, would start off by getting together some capital to buy our first consignment of stock.

A candid conversation with a few surprised me.

One lady informed me that she had negotiated a credit line with her suppliers and paid when she was collecting the next consignment for sale. In other words she took Monday’s stock on credit and paid for it on Tuesday, when she was taking Tuesday’s stock for sale. Also on credit.

Another told me that when credit from suppliers was unavailable, they were able to raise cash by getting loans from each other. So rather than raise say 10,000 from a single source, they would raise the same 10,000 by getting 1,000 from 10 different sources.

When it comes to knowledge of customers and value addition, Mama Mboga has a lot to teach us too.

Many of them add value in very simple ways that make all the difference to customers.

For instance, while you can buy entire maize cobs, many have taken the extra step of additionally removing and washing the kernels for you.

Of for those busy housewives and / or bachelors and spinsters, many Mama Mbogas will pre-wash, cut and package skuma-wiki, cabbage or whatever vegetable is in season, so all you need to do is put them in a pot and cook.

Many will even know your tastes over time and be in a position to suggest to you what you should buy. For instance the lady I usually buy from knows of my fondness of cooked green bananas and knows the sweet spot when they are not too rip and not too raw and keeps and packs a bunch she knows I would like in advance.

When it comes to partnerships and networks, Mama Mboga stands head and shoulders above many of us.

Much as some specialize in particular fruits, and others in particular vegetables, if you ever need something exotic like kiwi fruit or jalapeno peppers, she will either ask you to come back tomorrow (when she will invariably have what you want) or she will refer you to someone who will have them.

Others will partner with, or at least co-opt someone to increase her avenues of revenue. Have you ever wondered where those guys in traffic selling bananas and shelled peas come from?

In short, there is a lot that we can learn from this hard working lady who has been feeding us for generations about financing, logistics, cash flow management, partnerships and business. Let us learn.

Food for thought: I usually tell my friends that there is no ‘Skuma Wiki Association of Kenya’, and yet that ubiquitous vegetable somehow finds its to dinner (and lunch) plates all across Kenya. Have you ever asked yourself how?

(Conrad Akunga is co-founder of Innova. He can be reached at cakunga@innova.co.ke)

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