Text messaging makes mama mbogas’ lives easier

By Omondi Julius Odera, Kenya

Innovative students have initiated a programme incorporating text messaging, to bring merchandise that is sold by mama mbogas to their doorsteps.

Their solution, Soko-Text, uses the power of text messaging to aggregate demand for food and unlock wholesale prices for the micro-entrepreneurs, or ‘mama mbogas’ selling vegetables in urban slums.

The move is intended to help curb the rampant insecurity problems faced by the women entrepreneurs from the slum dwellings of Nairobi, as well as providing a guaranteed market for smallholder farmers growing vegetables.

With over 3 million of Nairobi’s population dwelling in slums, 90 percent of this population relies on mama mbogas for their daily meals, and therefore the wellbeing and safety of both mama mboga and the vegetables greatly contributes to the development of the economy as a healthy nation equals to a healthy economy.

Suraj Gudka, a Kenyan student from the London School of Economics, having witnessed firsthand the hassles encountered by the women vegetable sellers from Mathare slums, grabbed the chance when it availed itself through a social enterprise competition called Hult Prize. Hult is the world’s largest student competition aimed at solving the world's social challenges. It pools budding young social entrepreneurs emerging from the world’s leading universities.

Suraj, together with his four counterparts from the London School of Economics, positioned their idea to be in line with Hult theme, which was to provide a solution for social problem through creation of an enterprise. Their idea was to develop a product that is aimed using technology to try and link up farmers and the mama mbogas from many slums in Nairobi.Soko-Text links up the supply chain from smallholder vegetable farmers to the end retailers, the mama mbogas in the outskirts of the city centres.

Suraj notes: “We are focusing on vegetable sellers who live in low class residential areas; these are areas where people are a law to themselves. Muggings, rape, drug abuse and all manner of social evils reside, but they cope, through thick and thin to serve the masses."

The business enterprise saw the group voted as runners up in the Hult competition and showered with a lot of praise from some of the eminent figures like Bill Clinton and Mohamad Yunus.   

“We established a hotline number for text messages where we can communicate with the mama mbogas and get the orders for the day and then aggregate it and supply in bulk to their doorsteps and at cheaper prices,” said Suraj. The process entails registration of all the interested vegetable retailers who then start receiving their supplies at their doorstep without their having to undergo the tedious early morning journeys to the markets. The retailers communicate to the firm by sending a text message informing them of the quantity and type of order they need for the following day. They give the retailers an 8pm deadline time of sending the text order. The firm then aggregates all the orders received from the various retailers and informs the farmers on the quantity to be purchased. The vegetables include kale, spinach, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes, among others.

The team, together with their driver, then pick up the goods early in the morning from the various farmers and transport them to the depots located in the densely populated slums of the city. He explained, “The firm has enhanced its delivery and commitment and we ensure that we deliver the commodities at the depots before noon from where the mama mbogas come and pick their respective orders.”

Because the firm sources the vegetables from the farmers on the ground, it achieves prices around 20 percent lower than the market prices. The initiative is currently running as a pilot project in Mathatre slum and has received backing from most of the vegetable retailers in the area. “We have received a lot of appeals by many mama mbogas who were not included in the pilot program to be considered for inclusion. Based on the success of the past four months, we hope to commercialise it from the beginning of December 2013,” explained Suraj. 

He added that the firm had to try and see the viability of the project before commercialising it. “We are now upbeat about the success of the initiative and we want to incorporate the roughly 5,000 mama mbogas in the city, who sell to over 3 million people living in most of the slums in Nairobi. The goal is to ensure that vegetable retailers’ work is minimised and also the population is fed on hygienically safe and fresh produce.

”The mama mbogas who are already using the system say they are saving a fortune. Rose Waithera, one of the beneficiaries of the pilot initiative noted: “I no longer have to worry about my security and the loss of my little capital to the thugs who used to prey on us early in the morning as we headed to the markets like Gikomba to replenish our stock. I am not only saving my transport and time but also am guaranteed to get the best fresh produce which we are assured of its safety by Soko-Text team.

”She also boasted that the initiative has assured them cheaper prices for the goods as opposed to the prices at Gikomba markets. Over 15 depots are to be set up in every slum by Soko-Text to ensure the success of the project. Each slum area in the city is targeted by the programme and Suraj added that the depots are to be situated near the mama mbogas a distance of about 10 minute walk. The cost of the text message is also affordable by the retailers as it only costs about Sh1. With the country’s mobile phone penetration at over 75 percent, the integration of mobile technology to try to provide solutions to the masses like Soko-Text is hailed by many stakeholders in the industry.

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