Day 9: Marathon Day

When I went to sleep Tuesday night, I felt like I had run a marathon!  Tuesday was demonstration day, and it was a huge success!  The women were running a few hours behind (called being on “African Time”), but were all set up outside Sumi Market by 11:00AM.  Simply due to the commotion created by our group, a larger crowd gathered quickly around the porridge table.  We got a great response to the porridge mix, and everyone was very impressed by the very high quality (fine flour) as well as the fact that it was grown and milled right here in Mbale.  People had a lot of questions about how to cook the porridge, where to buy it, and how to get seeds to grow it themselves.

Market Study

Mike and I had been planning on doing a market study this day when everyone would be in town, and this ended up being a perfect setting.  It is difficult for anyone, but especially a “Muzungu”, to gain the attention of an individual on the street.  This is in part because people here have been approached before by people conducting similar surveys.  Because we were giving out food samples, however, the people around our station were more willing to give us their time.

We devised a set of questions that would help us understand a family’s purchasing decisions, particularly when it comes to porridge.  Understanding as much as I can about this thought process will be a huge step in my own research, so I was very pleased to be able to learn so much in one morning.  We asked questions like: How many people are in your family?  Who does the cooking?  The purchasing? And so on… And then we also wanted to get a better idea for why people serve what they do to their families and whether the middle class was, in fact, the appropriate market to target with our high-quality, high-protein porridge.

I certainly learned about many interesting habits.  I spoke with one middle-class couple who told me that they do not consider nutrition when making purchasing decisions even though they can afford enriched products. An exception would be if they are buying for a newborn baby.  They feed their children exactly what they were fed growing up, and their reasoning is that both of them are healthy and strong, so they have no reason to think that the same food would affect their children any differently.  When this conversation was continued, however, this couple became more and more curious about amaranth porridge, and even more so once they tasted the quality of our product.

In speaking to more people, I got a feeling that the middle class is more concerned with product quality, while the lower class is more willing to sacrifice quality for price.  If they are not paying a lot for their food, they are willing to accept more grainy porridge with bits of dirt or sand.  (Yuck!)

I was also given the impression that Ugandans associate “local” with low quality.  This goes for all food, not just porridge.  In speaking with one businesswoman, I learned that many Ugandans tend to want to buy local product because it is cheaper.  If someone is looking for high-quality product, though, they will look on the product labels for a food that was produced abroad.

Very few of the people we spoke with had heard of amaranth before, but I got a strong impression that people can be convinced to buy amaranth porridge (or even another porridge enriched with amaranth) if they were enlightened about the health benefits.  The market will need to be sensitized and educated about why protein, iron, fiber, etc. are important to the body and how Grain Amaranth provides such nutrients.

All in all, this was a successful run.  Although the sample size was not very large, I felt as though I was able to interview a few “extreme users,” who all had a lot to share with me regarding their own views of the whole market.  This helped to build on the knowledge that I have already gained during my time in Mbale.  I feel confident that the middle class is the group to market our porridge to because most of them eat porridge at least once a day and because they can afford to buy food in the supermarkets.  On the other hand, many members of the lower class cannot afford to shop (or at least not for high-quality product), which is why they tend to grow all or most of their own food here.

When thinking about the market in a city like Kampala, however, I have a difficult time understanding how purchasing patterns may differ among the classes.  I would not be surprised to learn that almost no one has a garden in Kampala.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t as many lower class individuals living in the city to begin with.

Entrepreneur Interview

I also was able to have another interview with a woman entrepreneur today named Hope Mpamile, who is the owner of a print shop in town.  I met her when I went to make copies of our amaranth brochures, and she was very happy to speak with me about her business.

The largest takeaway from this interview was learning about the obstacles that Hope faces as a businessowner in Mbale.  First, she described for me her high turnover rate at her shop.  People tend to move around a lot and not want to stay in one job for long.  (Sound familiar?)  She is frustrated whenever she puts in a lot of effort to train her staffers on her equipment, only to have them leave a few months later.  Second, and even greater an issue, is the unreliable electricity in Mbale that can be devastating to Hope’s business if out for an entire day.  The power often goes out during high winds, when posts tend to collapse.  Then, because things “just move slowly here,” it can take many hours before the problem is fixed.  Because Hope’s printing business is so dependent on power, she would like to buy a generator for backup, but she does not have the capital right now to make such a large investment.

Despite these obstacles, Hope remains motivated to be successful in business.  She wants to see her employees succeed, and she wants to pay them good wages.  Her husband is a former banker who left his high-paying job to become a pastor, so Hope also feels that she has great responsibilities to her family.  It does not come as a surprise, then, that Hope is most motivated on the days that she has full power and a shop full of customers.

MicroFinance

After a few successful hours of interviews, Mike and I visited a few Microfinance Institutions in town.  It was more challenging than I thought it would be to get the information that I wanted.  I decided to try be completely open with the first place we visited, so I told them that I am a student who is interested in learning more about microfinance.  I suppose I wasn’t surprised that this didn’t get me very far; the woman who I was speaking to shooed me away and looked back down at her work.

Next we tried approaching the MFI as business consultants from the US who are working with a microenterprise here.  We explained our desire to learn about the MFIs in Mbale so that we can pass on the information to the entrepreneurs we are working with.  Mike used the phrase “shopping around,” and I think this helped to catch their attention.  We still didn’t get too terribly far with any of the trials, but we were able to take a few notes on loan requirements and interest rates at various institutions.  Another good learning experience.

Dinner

Today I was introduced to a new member of the Uganda Amaranth Project team, Bill Moore.  Bill is a successful businessman from Chicago with a huge heart for Christ and an endless amount of wisdom and energy.  He has come to Uganda to learn about the project and potentially help develop a more sound business plan for amaranth porridge distribution.  A few new issues have arisen with regard to the bakery’s internal operations during our time here, and some changes are necessary, particularly with Mannu’s hierarchy structure.

Bill joined us for a late dinner at the Hotel, and we had a very intense discussion about Mannu and how to move forward.  There are some big ideas being tossed around that might require quick action, although that tends to be an oxymoron in the context of international development.  As we are nearing the end of our trip, I realize how critical it is that the project is left in a healthy state.

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