Bidhaa Sasa: Leveraging Social Networks to Reach Last-Mile Consumers – Even During a Pandemic
Bidhaa Sasa, which means “products now!” in Swahili, is a last-mile distribution company, operating in Kenya and Uganda. The company distributes a range of household consumer goods directly to customers, most of whom are women working on small farms. Since launching in 2015, Bidhaa Sasa has sold more than 100,000 products, serving more than 40,000 households. The company plans to expand its operations in both Kenya and Uganda.
Rocio Perez Ochoa, Bidhaa Sasa’s co-founder, spoke to the Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA) about Bidhaa Sasa’s efforts to reach last-mile consumers, the company’s network-based business model, and the challenges of operating during a pandemic.
This interview is part of a series of conversations CCA is having with business leaders across the clean cooking sector.
CCA: Can you describe Bidhaa Sasa’s products and services?
Rocio Perez Ochoa (Perez Ochoa): We sell three categories of products: solar products, cleaner cooking solutions, and farm equipment. We look for products that are currently not reaching rural areas but that are at the front end of the innovation chain and will make a difference in people’s lives. Since these products can be quite expensive and out of reach for most of our customers, we offer payment plans to decrease costs and increase accessibility.
CCA: What makes Bidhaa Sasa unique compared to other companies in the clean cooking sector?
Perez Ochoa: What sets us apart is how we leverage social networks, both for marketing and for our payment plan systems. When we started seven years ago, no one knew us or the products we were selling. They had no reason to trust me, a foreigner in their community, when buying a new gadget that they had never seen before.
Social networks, which are very strong in rural areas, are our key ingredient. Since we do not have physical shops, we operate entirely through in-person engagement and word of mouth. We use a direct marketing approach to showcase our products, visiting people’s homes or presenting after church while building relationships and trust with community members. Clients promoted our products, which led to community members better understanding how they could benefit from our products, whether it be spending less time preparing meals, saving more money on fuel, or improving their health by using improved cookstoves. Eventually, we became a trusted retailer. There are not many examples of overcoming that trust barrier that I’ve seen working at scale, so that’s what makes Bidhaa Sasa special.
CCA: Could you tell us more about the payment plans Bidhaa Sasa offers?
Perez Ochoa: In selling our products, affordability is our main priority. The pay-as-you-go technologies only work for electronic goods, and we need something suitable for all kinds of products. We decided to offer basic payment plans. There is a risk involved with payment plans, especially since most of our clients do not have formal salaries, pay slips, or credit histories. However, in rural communities, there is an abundance of social capital. We realized we could utilize these social networks to prescreen people’s trustworthiness. In practice, our customers buy products in groups of six people, on average, who act as cross-guarantors in case somebody falls behind on their monthly payments. For a $54 product, each member in the group of six would pay $9 each month for six months, making the product affordable.
CCA: How does clean cooking fit into your overall strategy for meeting the many energy needs of last-mile customers?
Perez Ochoa: Our clients, many of whom are still using sticks and stones and crouching in a smoky environment for several hours a day, will say, “It’s a shame that we’re still cooking like our grandmothers.” It’s more shameful to realize that solutions to this problem have existed for a very long time but have not reached these people. At Bidhaa Sasa, we offer a range of cleaner cooking products, from LPG, to wood, to charcoal, and even electric cooking, to give people the choice of how they like to cook. Through our payment plans, people can afford to buy higher quality products that will last longer, saving money as result. We are also seeing more men cook. While women make up 80% of the customers for most of our products, men account for 40% of the customers for LPG. By increasing clean cooking access for last-mile customers, we’re also seeing this shift in the gendered dynamics of cooking responsibilities.
CCA: How do you see your business and the broader clean cooking sector developing over the next 5-10 years?
Perez Ochoa: My wish is for Bidhaa Sasa and the sector to focus more on electricity and gas in the coming years. I find it shameful that 3 billion people still have to cook with biomass. I feel hopeful for electric pressure cookers (EPCs), as we’ve witnessed electrification improve in Kenya and Uganda, and I’d love to see more clients switch from biomass to EPCs. I’m disappointed with the lack of support for LPG. I think the social and environment impact is misunderstood by donors and investors in the Western world. Since gas is accessible and affordable already, I hope that it will be considered as a clean transition fuel.
CCA: What were the biggest challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you overcome them?
Perez Ochoa: A pandemic is a disaster when your business model depends on physical connections, especially since most of our clients do not have smartphones. During lockdowns, all we could do was make calls and send texts to a limited number of clients. Some people could not or did not pay, either because they lost their job or because we could not go to collect payments. The weakest point in our business model is that we deeply depend on the physical meetings, which digital solutions or catalogs cannot replace.
CCA: What are your biggest takeaways from managing a business during a pandemic?
Perez Ochoa: The pandemic showed us that personal networks and social capital are strong and resilient. We survived through word of mouth from preexisting clients, despite not being able to meet up to run our business. Since 15% of people stopped paying during the pandemic, we’re catching up on repayments, but our business model continues to rely on personal connections.
I wish we had started our IT refurbishment and digitization a year earlier because we would have been in a better position when we were forced to do everything remotely. We also learned that you must have very good business infrastructure in place for visibility and scale. With each of our teams dispersed, having these systems in place is crucial for maintaining a strong, united team that carries the business.
CCA: What advice would you give to other companies working in the clean cooking sector, specifically those operating with last-mile- or distribution-focused business models?
Perez Ochoa: First, make sure you understand your target market and then choose your problem wisely. In our experience, it is better to choose issues that are obvious, not ones that need complex awareness campaigns. For example, we tried to tackle the problem of water purification and we failed because there is no perception of there being a problem with unclean drinking water. However, cooking is perceived as a problem regarding the lengthy amount of time one spends preparing meals. People typically resonate with solutions that save time and money, so if you demonstrate that a product can do both, you have a win. Second, last-mile distribution is very difficult to scale unless you have a clear playbook and a deep understanding of the culture you are trying to build.