Learning From Living Goods
It is Wednesday, November 9 in Kampala, Uganda. The morning is bright and it seems like it might be a rain-free day in a month that seems to be excessively, even dangerously, wet. It is a typical day for Betty Kyazike, the acclaimed Tula Branch Manager for Living Goods. She prepares for the ‘In Service Training’ for her Community Health Promoters (CHPs). Today’s topic is about how to effectively sell commodities. The training will be followed by a ‘restocking, ’ where she will open her storage closet and sell health and lifestyle items at a wholesale price to CHPs. Think mobile pharmacy or the ‘Avon ladies’ for health. The majority of CHPs go door-to-door, some create a home store, and others mobilize for larger community meetings to teach and sell their products.
Living Goods, the creation of Chuck Slaughter, focuses on community-based health promotion and economic development for poor women in Uganda. Despite its youth, Living Goods has already built a platform for success and has caught the attention of donors, the Uganda Ministry of Health, and several other NGOs, including Nuru. Our strong interest landed me in an externship position to learn more about the internal structure and operations of Living Goods and lend a helping hand where needed.
In a nutshell, Living Goods starts a new ‘branch’ by using local leaders to recruit women to interview for a Community Health Promoter (CHP) position in their government determined ‘zone.’ Each woman takes out a loan in the form of uniforms, commodities, and fixtures to promote sales. She undergoes extensive training on healthcare and sales strategy, and then sets off to build her own business with the continual support of the organization. CHPs can diagnose symptoms for malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia, then treat the diseases with the appropriate drugs. Their commodity repertoire can include upwards of eighty products ranging from soap to sanitary pads to solar power lanterns with phone charging capabilities.
Betty is an energetic, animated woman who has a keen understanding of her community, how to be an effective sales woman, and how to motivate her branch. For this reason I took an immediate liking to her, and she came to be friendly toward me when she found out I used to work near the village she grew up in south of the capitol. Today Betty was asked to step away from her usual duties to accompany me on an excursion through her district. Our task was to interview community members to learn about brand recognition, CHP reach and client satisfaction. We found that households that are visited by a Living Goods CHP, or locally known as a ‘musawo,’ were quick to praise the organization and their representative. They often noted their thankfulness for having been treated quickly and effectively. Those who had not heard of Living Goods were eager to be put in touch with their musawo after learning that Living Goods‘s drugs are cheaper than other retailers, that they would not have to pay for transportation to a clinic and that they would have a treatment option when one is too weak to make the long haul to see a health professional.
The CHPs’ success is largely due to the trainings and refreshers they undergo, their ability to make money, and the motivation to help friends and family prevent diseases that often leads to a loss of life.
While in the field with Betty and several of her colleagues, I made note of the similarities and differences between Living Goods and Nuru’s operations.
Living Goods faces several of the same challenges we do: homevisits not always being carried out as planned, health worker dropouts, and the struggle to find balance between not too much and too little information during trainings. I can say that due to a solid monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system they are quick to identify and address these issues, and we can learn a lot from their adjustments.
Some of the key differences between Living Goods and Nuru are: Nuru is focused on a holistic approach in a more rural setting where cash poverty and illiteracy are extensive. Living Goods thrives with strong set of systems and trainings in an urban, peri-urban, and somewhat rural settings using a business-focused loan approach. Regardless of the differences, we still have so much to learn from each other.
I had the good fortune to spend time with a few of the Western staff: Joe Speicher, Ellen Vorder Bruegge, and Armando Huerta who have helped catapult Chuck Slaughter’s vision into reality by creating the trainings and systems that exist today. Among many, the areas in the Healthcare Program I am looking forward to critically examining and improving as a result of my time spent in Uganda is our use of mobile technology to corroborate what our CHWs are doing at the household level, and also to both inspire and monitor them; our reference and training materials for staff and CHWs; our record keeping procedures to improve case management and monitoring; and of course, our sales system.
Living Goods runs a tight ship and seems to have a great handle on what is happening in the field with a balance of proven business strategy and innovation. With an incredible group of staff on the ground and behind the scenes, good foundation from which to launch, and a eye for improvement and expansion, I believe Living Goods is heading for a bright future and hope to keep the information-sharing door open between our two organizations.