Social Enterprise is HARD to do
Starting a business is hard enough, but starting a business that has a social focus is even harder. For Micro Drip, we are still very much working to refine our business model so that we can successfully sell to the Base of the Pyramid (BOP) here in Pakistan, those who live on less than $4/day. For Micro Drip, one of the most difficult challenges is that we can have the greatest low cost, high quality drip irrigation system in the world, but ultimately success for a farmer depends on much more than our system: microfinancing, stable water source, good seed, fertilizer, storage, know-how, distribution to markets, etc. As a result, we cannot simply sell our system off the shelf; we have to think about ways to directly and indirectly (through partnerships) address the problems that come before and after our product.
A second difficulty that we face is the seasonality of our product. There are two growing seasons in Pakistan each year with most farmers growing cotton during the summer season and wheat during the fall season. Unfortunately, drip irrigation cannot be used with wheat given the density of the plants/acre. Vegetables can be grown during both seasons and offer much higher prices, but the lack of storage and access to markets forces many farmers into cotton and wheat, which are more stable with much less risk of going bad.
A third difficulty that we are tackling is how to motivate local sales reps in the communities that we serve. CEMEX, a Mexican cement company, has successfully mobilized a large network of local promoters in its program Patrimonio Hoy, which helps clients who make between $5-$15/day to save money for do-it-yourself home improvements. While there are some successful models out there, many social businesses are struggling with this issue, as it is often difficult for local sales people to make sufficient income selling a single product. Where sales channels to the BOP already exist, it is much easier for existing sales people to add additional products to their offerings. Unfortunately, we are not aware of any other sales channels that reach our target market that would be willing to add our systems to their existing portfolio.
In spite of the challenges, we are committed to bringing irrigation solutions to the poor farmers of Pakistan. Drip irrigation increases crop yields by 30-100% all the while decreasing water usage by 50-70%. This translates into more money for poor farmers and ultimately has the potential to free farmers who are imprisoned in debt and a subsistence life.