As part of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, dozens of student-led teams are innovating solutions to critical quality-of-life barriers around the world. In this series, we learn more about individual teams' efforts to develop solutions that could earn them implementation awards of up to $10,000 at the IDEAS Global Challenge awards ceremony on May 3.
Service providers in Sub-Saharan Africa form a significant portion of the workforce. However, these individuals, including carpenters, plumbers and hairdressers, rely on word-of-mouth marketing and often lack the ability to generate interest in their businesses.
As basic mobile phones have become widespread, the team True Africa sees an opportunity to develop an SMS-based directory that contains basic contact information and ratings. The team aims to become a trusted and accessible information source for the public while increasing the visibility of service providers who often go unnoticed.
Over MIT's Independent Activities Period (IAP), True Africa visited Togo with support from a Technology Dissemination Fellowship from the International Development Initiative (IDI) to interview service providers and conduct market research. True Africa team members include Claude Grunitzky, a Sloan Fellow from Togo; David Ly, an MBA student in the MIT Sloan School of Management from Senegal; and Matthieu Monsh, a PhD candidate in the MIT Operations Center from France. Here, Monsch spoke about his team's identification of the information gap and their proposed system.
Q. Why did your team choose to address this issue of information access in Sub-Saharan Africa?
A. Two of my teammates are from Africa — one is from Togo, and the other is from Senegal. They have a lot of experience in how things are over there. The challenge is that communication there is only through word of mouth. You find a plumber to repair your house or a hairdresser to cut your hair by asking your friends or randomly walking on the street and finding your hairdresser. There's really no way of finding a service provider outside of your network, even though there might be good services out there.
Our idea was to address that challenge by making the market a lot more efficient with a technology that virtually everyone has. Most people have cellphones, just with texting capabilities and a black and white screen, but everyone has one. It's a fantastic tool to enable people to connect with one another. The idea is basically to build on this and allow service providers to have an entry in an online directory. This will be accessible from mobile phones, and people can query in that directory and find out about, say, a hairdresser that has great reviews, because our system will also incorporate reviews, kind of like Yelp or Angie's List. The hope is that we'll help these service providers find new clients and build new business in a much more effective manner than just waiting outside their shop.
When I went to Togo with Claude in January, we spent two weeks walking on the streets every day. We would walk into people's shops and ask them a few questions. They said that they would spend all day in their shop just outside their door, waiting for new clients. Some shops were in good areas and had a wider reputation, and thus had a fair number of clients. But some shops were on side streets or just starting their business; they were having a much harder time finding clients. They had no way to get their business started.
Q. How does the mobile directory work?
A. It's pretty simple. Many people have a basic cellphone, so our system would be a mobile directory that people can access from their mobile phones. They would dial a code, such as *123, on their cellphone and it would bring them to a menu that has several options. The main option would be the directory, so they can select that, and then they can search by profession.
Let's say I'm looking for a tailor. I'd type "tailor" in the menu, and then I would select the neighborhood. Then I'd see a list of different tailors, sorted by ratings, and could then pick which one I'm most interested in. I'd have the option to call that tailor or send them a text.
We're not trying to replace word-of-mouth; we're trying to enhance it. It's still true that the opinions of a family member matter more than the opinion of a random stranger. If you were to go to Yelp and see your sister's favorite restaurant, it would matter a lot more to you than the random username of someone you've never met. We're trying to capture this by having favorites. You could enter all of your family members and your friends and save them as favorites, and then the algorithm would use your favorites to let you know who they prefer as a tailor or who they prefer as a plumber. It would recognize who your close friends like and then recommend those same people to you. It's kind of like word-of-mouth on a bigger scale.
Q. If you win an award through IDEAS, what would your plans for the next year be?
A. Our plans right now are to start with Togo, which is a relatively small market, and do it as a test run. We already have a contract with TogoCel [the state-owned mobile network provider], and we should also have one with Moov [another mobile provider] pretty soon. We met with both companies on our trip to Togo in January, which was funded by the Technology Dissemination Fellowship from IDI. It was an amazing experience.
Since we should have those contracts in place, we're hoping to launch in June. This is the first step, and then we'll see how it works over the summer and into the next year. If it goes well, the goal is to expand into the rest of francophone West Africa, adjusting for the things we learn in Togo. We're a lean start-up and doing this ourselves, so an award would definitely help to outsource something. And that would help us get started much more quickly.
For more information about True Africa, visit the team's blog or their IDEAS Global Challenge page. Learn more about how to get involved with the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge on the competition's website.