Felipe Perini interviewed Lauren Thomas in the fall of 2014.
Lauren Thomas is the director of Mozambikes (http://www.mozambikes.com/)
Which problem are you trying to solve with Mozambikes?
How did you become interested in that problem?
In general, people walk hours each day in Mozambique, 4 to 6 hours to collect firewood or water for their homes or 30 kilometers to get to a clinic. At the same time, people live on approximately 2 dollars a day, or below that, so their incomes are very limited by transport options, how much they can carry, how fast they can carry, which markets they can reach. That way, in all aspects of life, a bicycle is a really powerful tool here in Mozambique, but the bikes that were available for sale when we first started looking at the market were very low quality, and still too expensive for the people who needed them. We thought about how to correct the fundamentals of the bicycle industry in a way that enabled the people who really needed them, to access bikes.
Where are you operating?
Specifically Mozambique, but we have a goal to reach Africa in a broader way
So as you said, people use this bike not only for work, but for all aspects of life
Correct, the bicycle is everything. About 70% of Mozambiquens are in the informal sector, which means that they are sub existence farmers or they are buying and selling here and there. For both of those types of profile, of person, a bicycle increases their strength and their speed, which basically increases their income.
Would you say your costumers in Mozambique are the low-income population or everyone?
The solution that we devised is branded bicycles, so that private sector and public sector find the bikes interesting as a bonus for their employees or as a permanent advertising. In that aspect, we are targeting procurement managers, sales managers, country directors, or middle-class Mozambiquens that have a need for a few branded bicycles. The end-users are more low-income Mozambiquens.
Have you been receiving feedback from the people in Mozambique?
Yes, we actually are doing a monitoring and evaluation program this year. We got some funds from the USAid and we are using consultancy that we met through the Mentor Capital Network. When we won the Africa Award, and one of our in-kind prizes was with the consultancy Change Matters, and we expanded our relationship with them with a proper consultancy agreement, where they are devising our monitoring and evaluation plan so we can really understand the impact we are having in Mozambique.
Did you ever experience any competition in the area you operate?
There is always competition. Anyone that says there is no competition is not thinking broadly enough, because in reality competition for bicycles are feet, but there are also other bicycles, motorbikes, cars. There are no other operators doing branded bicycles, but there are cheaper, lower quality bikes. If someone doesn’t see the value in the branding, or having higher quality, then by default they would just purchase this other poor bikes on the market. For us it is always such a shame, because, in reality, per useful year, our bike is far cheaper.
Do you think about expanding your operations for another country in the future?
Yes, we definitely do. I find myself always saying “soon, once we perfected this model here in Mozambique, we will expand to another country”, but I realize that it never becomes perfect, there is always more, a way to expand. We are looking for debt capital right now, but instead of just looking for inventory capital as we have been for a bit, I think we are looking for a mix of capital, debt and equity, so that the equity would be for this expansion. We can easily expand into South Africa, Swaziland, even Zimbabwe from our current office. The model is very scalable.
Have you been dealing with any unexpected problems recently?
Unexpected no, the general problems continue over the life of doing a business in Mozambique. A big problem is that investors are not interested in Mozambique, whether for language or residual Portuguese colonial system rather than their British system, the same investors that are all over East Africa and South Africa just don’t come to Mozambique.
Have you received any help from local companies or the government?
Local companies definitely, it tends to be more a client-partner relationship rather than just help from companies.
You recently started a crowdfunding campaign for $100,000.
What are your plans if you get that money?
A lot of it goes directly to the mission of the non-profit part of our company, which basically gives away bicycles to people that are earning below 2 dollars a day. So it bypasses the concept of finding the partners here in the market to brand the bicycles. It acknowledges that there is a large amount of people here that will never be stakeholders of branded businesses. Maybe they could be if they are in the community where the business is still aiming to operate, but is more difficult. So the non-profit goes directly to the poorest community and gives away bicycles to the people that we screen, and it often ends up being women single mothers that work in the agriculture or vulnerable families.
But the other thing that we wanted to do with the fundraising was to do a bit of branding overhaul. People in the world love bikes, and if there is a charity that they should really identify with, it should be one that is putting people in bikes. It should be easy for bicycles to raise money, and I think that there is definitely a connection that we are not necessarily making, because we never had anyone professional really writing our story and helping us out with this. So we found a very nice group out of London called Within and they are very eager to help us, and they will do some pro bono, but some of their work would need to be funded.
How have you benefited from your contact with mentors and feedback?
We perhaps have benefited more than most. One of our in-kind prizes was a consultancy with ChangeMatters, and they suggested a few different grants that we should apply for, and a lot of them were already on my list, and we weren’t eligible, and I wasn’t sure that it was going to go anywhere. But then they came up with one I’ve never heard of, and together they helped us write the application, and we won. It is a 100 thousand dollar facility, it’s our largest grant, it’s with USAid, and the woman from ChangeMatters, Amy Kincaid, has a very good relationship with them, she knew the team, she knew everything about the grant. I’d say that relationship has been worth at least 100 thousand dollars.
Do you still keep in touch with any of those mentors?
Yes, we keep in touch with Amy Kincaid of ChangeMatters, certainly. We actually are using part of 100,000 to do our first monitoring and evaluation in social impact report, and ChangeMatters is our consultant that is handling that.
What resources have you found that are very useful for social entrepreneurs?
We have been very fortunate to participate in some of the session with a group called Thousandseeds. They do coaching for social entrepreneurs, and they are quite good. We are on Practitioner Hub, which is a nice portal that gives some information about social enterprises. I always read the Mentor Capital Network emails, I think the links Ian (MCN ED) share are really interesting, he’s got a good sense of what would be interesting for me to read, so I like clicking down and seeing what news links he is sharing. The Stanford Review, the SSIR (Stanford Social Innovation Review), also has some really neat articles from time to time about SRI (Social Responsible Investment) and social enterprise here and there.
Do you exchange ideas and talk to other social entrepreneurs about different projects?
We do by participating in all of those types of conferences and competitions. We went to the Innovations Against Poverty conference in Zambia last year with Sida, since we won a Sida award, and just last month I was in Kenya at the Seed Symposium.
How many people do you employ?
12 more or less full time paid employees