Replication as a business model

Is “copycatting” a good idea? Or is it merely that people have not thought of anything better?

The photo above is one corner from Mongu’s main crossroads – The Roundabout, for anyone who knows Mongu. This corner has few buildings, leaving space for people to set up katembas; booths to sell small items over a counter. Notice that two of these are identical Zoona money transfer booths. On the same corner.

About 3 weeks ago, I visited the booth in the background to send money to a friend in Lusaka. Since that time, the booth in the foreground opened. Not visible from this angle is the other new booth, across the street on the left. Three booths of the same business opening at the same corner would make more sense to me if this were the money transfer district of town. But it’s not; of the Zoona booths and shops mushrooming about town, this is merely the location where I could get a decent photo.

Location of Zoona katembas, SE corner of Mongu Roundabout

Zoona has been around for a while, but something has changed in the past few months to stimulate the sprouting. Yes, it’s true that people here want to transfer money and are even willing to do so at high rates (I paid 10% on my transfer of about USD$20). Nonetheless, there cannot possibly be enough business to support every booth that opens.

Although I noticed the Zoona proliferation, it shouldn’t surprise me. A few years back, there was a similar explosion of katembas selling pay-as-you-go cell phone air time; now I notice the many air time booths that are abandoned and rotting. Meanwhile, the Station, Green, Black, and Kapulanga markets are filled with vendors selling identical wares. And it seems that nearly every shop in town stocks 40-or-so items that I feel I could list within a few minutes. In the small-scale trading that is such a big part of people’s activities here, it seems that the primary business model is to look at what other people are doing…and then do that too.

Should I then be surprised that the groups with which I work are requesting support to copycat existing businesses without differentiating themselves or filling voids? The groups have proposed opening a corn/maize mill on the logic that the current mills are making money. Ditto for retailing flour and fish. Double ditto for operating a chicken hatchery.

So I ask “It seems that the number of people grinding corn is about constant, and none of the mills seem that busy; won’t your mill just fight for customers with the other mills, leaving everyone worse off?”

The answer to my question comes in the form of blank stares and claims that “success is possible.”

In their book of proposals about how rich people can collaboratively and respectfully help poor people become less poor, Brian Fikkert & Steve Corbett call the dynamic that I have described above the poverty of the imagination (or something like that, the actual book is sitting on a shelf in Canada). Although I appreciate Fikkert & Corbett’s purpose, I found their resolute faith in their own belief systems off-putting, and it caused me to trust them a little less. Despite that, I do not completely discount the interpretation: seems to me that a little more imagination would be a good thing.

In his book “African Friends and Money Matters,” David Maranz proposes an additional explanation that might fit this situation; seen from the perspective of intercultural relations. According to Maranz, the pervasive economic logic in Africa holds that “The value of a development project is not to be measured by its long-term success.” Summarizing from memory, I believe the exemplar of this obseration was the story of a young man who received a flock of chicks from a development organization. The man raised the chicks in his apartment – or at least tried to, until he ran out of feed. Which might have been better anyway since his apartment was becoming unfit for human habitation. According to conventional development logic, this scenario did nothing to improve the man’s situation, and might have even created a temporary health hazard. However, from the perspective of the man, the project was a success that allowed him to eat more chicken and even have a little spending money.

Maranz has his critics, and even I have an issue with him referring to “success” when I think he means “ongoing financial self-sufficiency.” Nonetheless, I don’t find him to be judgmental and I appreciate his attempt to get Westerners (like me) to open their minds to an alternative economic logic that does what it does very well. Following this logic, it won’t be disastrous if there’s no money to buy electricity to run the mill, or the groups end up eating the flour and the fish, or someone’s house becomes a receptacle of starving chicks.

But do I buy the logic that external support to start a scattered and collapsing business with fleeting benefits is a good thing? Not easily.

Maranz’ interpretation does not sit together comfortably with Fikkert & Corbett’s: accept the validity of assessing long-term projects on different terms while not accepting a poverty of imagination. How do you round that square? Although it’s not obvious, I might have some ideas.

For me, part of the way forward is through ongoing involvement. If the groups get a shot to start the businesses that they want to and they are successes (on their own terms) it will all be a learning experience for me. Maybe the groups  were onto something after all?

In the (more likely, in my opinion) case that these fail, maybe that can be a learning experience too? Hopefully, we will then be able to think of something better.

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