Marketing To End Poverty

By:Cindy Kerr Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Collaborator Profile

A Social Enterprise Goes Against The Grain Marketing a Product to Poor Africans

Marketing To End Poverty Marketing encompasses any and every tactic that reaches customers, prospects and increases awareness. For non-profits, marketing includes every effort that communicates brand, cause, solutions and opportunities. The biggest obstacle I’ve encountered in working with non-profits is the way they tend to devalue the impact of a powerful brand. Branding, the image and perceptions people hold in their minds, is absolutely essential to attracting donors, keeping them engaged, communicating to individuals you help and most importantly, creating sustainable impacts that change lives.

It’s a fact that organizations and businesses with a strong brand and communications improve impact and sales. According to Business Week’s Top 100 Brand study, “The companies that gained the most in value focus ruthlessly on every detail of their brands, honing simple, cohesive identities that are consistent in every product, in every market around the world, and in every contact with consumers.“

This is true across the board, whether you are saving lives or selling products.

I was talking recently with a senior marketing executive at a Fortune 500 global brand. She is heavily involved in the company’s foundation and on several boards. We were trying to figure out why so many organizations consider marketing and communications “fluff.” It’s tough to get a non-profit to commit resources to smart marketing that yields results. It’s nearly impossible to raise donor funds for anything remotely considered marketing or “branding.” With today’s increasing problems, decreasing donors, little cash and limited resources, marketing staff, budget and activities have been slashed and dropped even further.

We don't understand why so few get it. Yes, some forms of marketing require resources and cash. There are many tactics like PR, grassroots, online marketing and word of mouth to pursue that don’t drain the coffers.

High yield marketing needs thoughtful planning and willingness to stand out and go against the grain. The few that do get it, see dramatic results in impacts, funding and changed lives. High yield marketing needs thoughtful planning and willingness to stand out and go against the grain. The few that do get it, see dramatic results in impacts, funding and changed lives.

KickStart International is a non-profit that sells a product so that poor farmers in Africa can make a profit and be lifted from poverty. They call themselves a social enterprise and do their best to run the organization like a business. Since 1991, the founders Martin Fisher and Nick Moon have been committed to changing the way the world fights poverty. A manual irrigation pump, branded, is sold in retail farm shops and through on-farm demonstrations.

In Africa, over 70% of the population relies on meager subsistence farming that yields a small harvest. They wait for the rain or use back-breaking buckets to harvest one corn crop a year. Farming is not usually considered a money-making business. Farmers often depend on odd jobs or they leave the farming to the wife and go to a city to get jobs that are scarce and low-paying.

Users of KickStart’s MoneyMaker irrigation pump start successful businesses. They grow multiple crops that make money year round. With a small plot likely less than two acres, they plan, plant, harvest and sell tomatoes, green beans, or kale. The cash they make goes to basic needs -- food, school fees, and medical services.

Sales and marketing is KickStart’s biggest obstacle and highest cost. Convincing the very poor who are risk averse to invest in a technology that is unfamiliar and expensive, is hard. They make do without electricity, running water, welfare, education, tools, cars, or help from the government. A MoneyMaker pump costs $50 - $100, a big investment for one making less than $500 per year.

Skeptics have questioned why they would go to so much effort to sell pumps instead of just giving them away. Years of experience proved that handouts don’t work. The poor person’s greatest need is a way to make money.

Over 80% of pumps bought are used to create businesses, jobs and income to lift a family out of poverty permanently. Less than 30% of pumps given away were used to create a business. Selling pumps creates three times more small businesses than giving them away.

KickStart compiled impact monitoring data that proved every pump sold lifts a family of five out of poverty. A family’s income increases up to 1000% in twelve months. Sales of pumps grew and they expanded into new countries. High profile U.S. donors became interested in this business model that offered a permanent, sustainable solution to ending poverty.

By 2006, funding had increased and awards like Fast Company’s Social Capitalist, Peter F Drucker Award for Non-Profit Innovation was granted. They were invited to high profile conferences like TED. Meanwhile, branding was inconsistent and few resources and little planning were dedicated to marketing.

Then pump sales started to slow down and drop. No global brand or standards were in place for the 600 dealers selling pumps. Each country had a different brand, advertising and product display. Photos were outdated and unprofessional and didn’t show how the product worked. Marketing dollars were being spent that were not resulting in sales or demand. A new pump wasn’t selling. Donor communications were outdated and had different messages.

With the encouragement from a business-minded board, Nick and Martin made a commitment to act on the need for marketing leadership to turn around the sales. I joined the team in Kenya as a volunteer and then a consultant. I’ve worked for top agencies on the biggest brands in the world and helped countless small businesses and non-profits. What happened the next two years was the most challenging, overwhelming and rewarding marketing assignment of my career.

It took a year of working day and night assessing, researchins, planning, testing, traveling, fighting parasites, visiting shops and learning farming. My mud caked boots revealed insights into the sales challenges and understanding of small-scale farmers across Kenya, Tanzania, Mali and Burkina Faso. The brand needed instant recognition and powerful visuals with an audience unfamiliar to the technology. We had to show how the pump and spray worked. It had to translate in four languages, use few words, cross different cultures, avoid tribal issues and of course be cost-effective.

Before launching the campaign there were major issues to be addressed. Change was needed in operations, sales, and distribution. We faced resistance from some who didn’t “get it.” The number of stores selling pumps had to be culled to only the best locations. Sales strategies were changed to include more on-farm demonstrations. Significant resources were committed to creating displays, advertising, brand standards, photography and sales training. Then, post-election violence in Kenya threw off plans and set the country into a tailspin.

In 2008, “Farming is my Business” marketing campaign launched. Displays, advertising, billboards and a promotion propelled sales efforts to change the negative perceptions about farming and show how a MoneyMaker pump is all one needs to be a successful businessman.

The commitment paid off.

By the end of 2008, KickStart had realized a six hundred percent increase in pump sales. People lifted out of poverty doubled in two years. Most important, over 428,000 people on our planet were lifted out of poverty permanently.

The results were unprecedented; the highest since they began in 1991. The Kenya program sold over 1,500 pumps in December 2008, their highest sales ever, especially when the country was raw from violence that displaced over 300,000 people. Consistent global branding was in place in the country programs. Donor communications showed powerful impacts with a clear message. The campaign won an International Communicator Award. Marketing To End Poverty The September 21, 2008 Time heralded KickStart International as one of the world’s Top 25 Responsibility Pioneers. “Eighteen years ago, KickStart's founders, former aid workers Martin Fisher and Nick Moon, were branded as heretics for selling irrigation pumps to poor Africans. But experience had shown them that business models work: people are more invested in the success of a tool they buy than in one they are given. So far, the aptly named MoneyMaker pumps have helped 85,000 families increase crop yields and lift themselves out of poverty.”

One morning I went with a colleague to interview John, a twenty-something farmer near Nairobi to learn about how buying a pump had changed his life. He decided to try farming after an unsuccessful attempt to make a living and get a job in the city. We crossed neighboring fields that were bone dry before getting to his plot. His corn was tall and verdant. The green beans and tomatoes were close to harvest. He calculated quickly in his head the profit from each plant, his costs, and what he would plant next. With a huge grin, he introduced the goats he’d bought for his parents and showed off the small concrete house he was building for his new wife. “I’m a businessman” he said. “Welcome to my office.” He got it.

Seth Godin is considered to be one of the best marketers in the world, with 10 books and the most popular marketing blog on the planet. He devoted a recent blog to non-profits. In “The Problem with Non” he postures the reason non-profits fail to move forward and be potent marketers is their resistance and fear of change.

He posits, “Where are the big charities, the urgent charities, the famous charities that face such timely needs and are in a hurry to make change? Very few of them have bothered to show up in a big way. The problem is the same …It's easy to buy more stamps and do more direct mail, it’s scary to use a new technique… When was the last time you had an interaction with a non-profit that blew you away?”

Thank you to the few who “get it.” They are willing to change risk and invest. Unfortunately, KickStart has had to cut back on marketing efforts due to decreased funding. Sales of MoneyMaker pumps have slipped in the last six months. As soon as funds are available, their marketing will again be “turned on.” Every day I am inspired to cultivate excellence and see a few more good organizations that are willing to change their ways and change more lives.

Cindy Kerr, founder of ckarma Marketing, has more than 20 years expertise in branding, strategy, advertising, cause marketing and campaigns that increase sales and awareness. ckarma Marketing is an outsourced marketing and communications firm that transforms non-profits and businesses committed to making a positive difference. Award winning strategy and creative campaigns raise awareness, engage donors and increase impacts. ckarma brings a deep understanding and passion for non-profits and social entrepreneurs in U.S. and Africa. Visit to learn more.