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Listening to Mame Dior Ndiaye, it is easy to feel passionate about using affordable Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solutions to deliver energy and financial solutions to rural communities in Mali. Mame recently gave us some insights into her journey and that of Baobab Plus.

Mame starts off by explaining that before joining Baobab Plus, she gained her experience working in fintech companies, particularly in mobile money. Joining Baobab Plus presented the opportunity to better understand energy access issues in correlation to financial inclusion.

“I was seeking more direct impact for my work when I joined Baobab Plus. What is great with solar products is that the impact on people's lives can happening quickly. For example, children who previously were not able to study after dark are suddenly able to!”

Mame begins by setting the scene for why Baobab Plus was needed.  She explains the company was borne out of necessity in Mali, the tenth largest country in Africa with the fifth highest birth rate, and an average of six or more children per family. Here, the electrification rate was still around 20%, with increasing marginalisation of people living in rural areas, particularly women and children. So Baobab Plus was founded to address certain aspects: access to energy and digital services in rural areas; raising living conditions with a model that provides affordable household and other products previously out of reach; and providing employment opportunities for young people in rural areas.

When asked about what makes her and her team so passionate about this project, she notes that she wakes up up every morning knowing that the work she does and that of the team helps rural populations. She notes that the business understands that energy access is a springboard to much more transformation. Yes, one begins by brightening up customer homes previously in the dark, but as products are extended, this also supports access to information and entertainment with solar-powered radio or TV solutions, and enables people to stay connected to their family through simple things like charging their mobile phones. Many rural customers of Baobab Plus are farmers and do not have access to microfinance institutions, so when Mame’s team reach out and discuss options with them, they are very interested about the opportunity to become eligible for a small loan; to buy more farm inputs, or invest in their activities. 

It is this motivation that led Baobab Plus to apply to the Mastercard Foundation Fund for Rural Prosperity for support in 2017, so beginning its journey with the Fund. Mame explains that Baobab Plus in Mali needed a financial partner to support its approach of providing an asset that is paid for over a long period of time in micropayments (asset financing).  It also needed a partner that would understand the real issues of its beneficiaries in rural settings, and one that understood the Baobab Plus business model, and shared the company values and vision.

With a professional and supportive relationship, the Fund has enabled critical objectives at Baobab Plus Mali to be met. First, it allowed exponential growth in the team from just 3 staff at the time in Mali to 141 over three years. Employees presently exceed some 40 administrative staff and 80 field sales agents. They incorporate a high percentage of women and youth. Secondly, the unique PAYG product was new in Mali and needed to become trusted and accepted in rural areas. Fund support allowed Baobab Plus to invest in developing customer relationships and trust over time, part of which included trainings (such as conducting product demonstrations in towns and villages), and which has successfully built confidence in the Baobab Plus team and product quality. Third, the Fund supported the setup of new offices in Bamako, important for future growth and sustainability. Mame is particularly thankful for the physical site visits made by the Fund, to appreciate on-ground realities, even at times when offices were makeshift and implementation plans were not yet accelerating.

When asked about the Fubd-supported project achievements, Mame narrates a personal story.

“One day, while I was in the field with the team, we went to a farmer's house to install a TV solar home system. Once we turned it on, a dozen children suddenly appeared from nearby houses to see this. We could see incredible joy on their faces. As a mother, I was truly touched while witnessing this moment. I also saw the pride in the eyes of the household owner who had decided to purchase this solution to give his children ‘access to the world’.”

Mame sees her role as CEO as a personal challenge that took her out of her comfort zone. She had to learn a lot about energy access, and especially off-grid energy, and feels fortunate to be part of a young and dynamic team, trying to reach ambitious goals with high standard values. 

Baobab Plus wants to be a life partner for its customers, helping them improve their lives step by step overtime, not only providing them lighting, but also providing access to financial and digital inclusion to unleash their full potential.

Mame is very proud of the team and results achieved in the three years of working with the Fund. In that time, Baobab Plus Group has acquired 30,000 customers in all regions of Mali. Growing trust in the brand in Mali has seen increased demand for solar products and more interest in microloans. Baobab Plus has managed to turn a profit and is attracting partners beyond the Fund such as through the Lighting Africa programme. She is also proud of the socio-cultural aspects achieved, citing an example of families and neighbours now able to come together more often to listen to the radio or watch TV to relax from work, or not having to go to town to charge one’s phone. These lighting solutions also have real benefits in providing a sense of security at night, and for school children to be able to study more in the evenings, as well.

“Customers satisfied with the products they are using are recommending Baobab Plus to other customers and to family and friends”

Looking at the insights Mame can draw on from the journey with Baobab Plus on this Fund-supported project, she highlights two points. First, there still exists a challenge to rural customers accessing credit given poor or non-existent credit histories but also other logistical challenges like getting to and from cities to repay loans. This issue is partly being addressed through the proliferation of mobile phone access and use of mobile money, but there is a way to go, and various other complementary services are needed in this regard. Secondly, she notes an interesting finding where in the PAYG scenario, it is not that a customer does not want to make a micro (re)payment or cannot afford to, but often that the rural customer does not know how to. One way Baobab Plus addresses this has been its investment in customer engagements via its field agents and provision of call-centre support under the purview of a Customer Experience Manage. Such services build confidence and knowledge on how to transact safely and securely with Baobab Plus through mobile money.

The most significant challenge Baobab Mali has been facing as it conducts business is two-pronged: a political crisis in the country; and the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. This meant severe supply chain disruptions for importing products into Mali, and lockdowns which affected field agents’ movements and employees’ safety. The uncertainties made it difficult to plan effectively, but Baobab Plus found a way to innovate. It set up pre-sales from its call-centre for example, and targeted urban populations through social media to purchase items for their rural households. 

Initially, Baobab Plus underestimated how much time was needed to source, recruit and train the right team members, which was made more difficult in the field by impassable roads even difficult for motor bikes, particularly during heavy rains. This meant the company slowed down its initial expansion plans, but now is back on track as workaround solutions are found. The slower take-off has had a positive effect in giving more time to product development, which is better localised and user-friendly than first intended, such as lighting having extra-long cabling for installation in different rooms or locations in a household. The company also found teams needed more training and training tools before targeting new areas for Baobab Plus. The end result is a better product, better trained and motivated staff, a better understanding of the market and importantly, happier customers.

Would Baobab Plus partner with the Fund again, if it could? Yes, says Mame. The process from application to selection and tracking milestones achieved was not an easy one, but it has been rewarding to see the successes as a result, particularly in transforming livelihoods in Mali. Baobab Plus is better placed to continue its work and growth at the end of its project life with the Fund and is already extending its approach to other markets such as Nigeria. It has sourced new partners and financial support, and continues to grow with resilience, providing affordable PAYG products to rural communities in Africa.

By Colin Azavedo, Communications Consultant, Mastercard Foundation Fund for Rural Prosperity.

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