Making the Most of Your Internet Connection: the View from a Rwandan Cooperative

Last week, my friend David posted a story about Isano, an HIV/Aids cooperative in Rwanda run by twelve women in the Niboye sector, Kicuikro District. They sell handmade products such as scarves, bags and wallets. In the past week, they have been given a free computer and an internet connection so that they may sell their goods overseas. Congratulations Isano! The story about them reads:

“The computer and Internet connection will help us market our products to Rwandans and the outside world to expand market reach and enhance the group’s earnings,” … Gatesi noted that the group had for long wanted to tap into the opportunities presented by the Internet, but were curtailed by lack of computers and Internet connectivity.”

I have read a lot of similar stories about the power of the internet to scale business. Thanks to books like Friedman’s “The World is Flat”, there is common belief that having an internet connection makes it easy for people to forge new connections across vast geographical distance. However, having done a great number of interviews with small businesses in Kenya and Rwanda, I think it is important to stress that the internet does not make the world flat, face-to-face contact is still important and cultural and social barriers remain. People have to be strategic if they want to use their internet connectivity effectively. I thought I would provide some simple tips about how Isano (and other cooperatives) might use its new connection to its full potential.

  • Maintaining Old Contacts vs. Making New Contacts

I want to start by stating loud and clear that the internet is in some ways more helpful at allowing people to maintain contact with existing clients than it is at allowing people to establish contact with new clients. The Internet speeds up communication and transactions, making long distance business easier to conduct. For this reason, it is often bigger and more established businesses that benefit the most, not the little guys. If the cooperative wants to exploit its connection, it has to think strategically about using its existing relationships to forge new ones. Establishing new contacts is all about trust; making oneself seem trustworthy in the eyes of the client. Part of this process is about image- appearing attractive, organized and reliable- but it is also about situating oneself in a shared social and cultural network with the client. In short, we are more likely to trust a friend of a friend or someone who shares a similar culture than we are to trust a complete stranger.

  • Social Media > Websites

For this reason, the cooperative might start not with a website (which also entails an immediate cost and a certain level of technical expertise) but a blog, a twitter handle and a facebook page. These things are all free and are also more ‘social’ allowing people to easily situate you in their social networks. This is something that my former colleague Chris Foster thought I should stress, that having a website is becoming less useful as more and more people just use social media.

  • Make the Most of Existing Contacts

Being effective online means mobilizing one’s connections offline. This cooperative has people rooting for it to succeed. Its members also benefit from living in a country with a very proactive government, which routinely helps local businesses make contact with overseas clients. Rwanda also has a lot of connections with American pro-entrepreneurship and evangelical groups. Many churches (at least in the UK) have fair trade shops that sell handicrafts. It should use these connections as much as it can. Once the cooperative has designed its ‘shop window’: i.e. an attractive catalogue and an attractive online presence (facebook, blogs, an Etsy shop, an Ebay shop, a paypal account, etc), it should ask these contacts to put them in touch with shops and buyers overseas working in the fair trade world. Using these face-to-face contacts helps build a bridge to faceless strangers overseas.

  • Make the Most of Tourist Word of Mouth

Rwanda is a tourist destination. People come to see its gorillas, its beautiful green hills and the “success story” that many businesspeople and journalists like to rave about. The cooperative should make the most of these tourists. Most of them will be on facebook. Many of them will be on twitter. Some may even have blogs. The cooperative should establish itself on the tourist trail, finding ways to bring these tourists into its workshop and asking them, sweetly and politely, to rave about their cooperative on social media. Perhaps tourists can share details about the cooperative’s website on facebook. Perhaps they can tweet. Perhaps they can blog. In interviews with businesses in the tourism sector, this social media strategy was incredibly important for small businesses struggling to make themselves visible up against the big established tour companies. In case the members of the cooperative don’t already know, tourists LOVE to share photos and other evidence about their holidays online.

  • Target Prominent Spokespeople Online

Ideally, the cooperative wants to target people who have a lot of contacts online. Remember the whole crazy KONY 2012 business? While you may not agree with the organization’s slightly neo-colonial message, we can all still learn a thing or two about their social media strategy. Their video went viral partly because the organizers targeted specific celebrities with a lot of followers (some of whom are also supporters of Rwanda). They were damn strategic about who they contacted and it worked. The celebrities might not have even watched the video; they just saw that it was something humanitarian and re-tweeted it. I have seen a similar strategy work for smaller campaigns; the organizers found a sympathetic celebrity on twitter and asked them to re-tweet a fundraising pledge or a call for people to join a demonstration. Again, the cooperative should target Rwanda’s high profile cheerleaders, people like Tony Blair, Bill Gates, Rick Warren, Howard Schultz, Josh Ruxin, among others. They could also try targeting celebrities that have professed a (quote on quote) “passion” for Africa and/or sustainable fashion such as Kate Spade, Vivienne Westwood, Livia Firth, Hannah Pool, Mia Farrow, Christina Aguilera, Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Samuel Eto’o, Angelina Jolie, David Beckham, Shakira, Oprah Winfrey, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Scarlett Johansson, Salma Hajeck among others. Again, you might not agree with all of these peoples’ politics, but you are using them and their networks to reach your audience!

  • Positive Messages

Another lesson from KONY 2012 (again, not supporting their ideology, just drawing lessons from their social media strategy) was the power of personal and positive messages. They did this incredibly effectively (see the link above from Forbes Magazine). The cooperative should think strategically about “the story” behind the cooperative and portray a positive (and simple) message about social change.

  • Constant Contact

On a more practical note, the cooperative must stay on top of daily communication. They should assign members the role of checking messages once or twice a day (at a minimum) and respond to all messages quickly and politely. They should also have a strategy that works if the key person gets sick or has to travel. A common mistake is letting messages build up and keeping clients waiting. If you don’t respond quickly, people will think that your business is not serious. The quicker you respond, the better feedback you will get. This tip cannot be over-emphasized.

  • Make Sure People Can Find You Online

Cold calling (that is calling complete strangers out of the blue) is risky when you don’t have a strong online presence. People may not trust you if they can’t find you online. It is really important to first establish an online presence (and perhaps get recommendations on your blog or facebook page) before making cold calls to clients abroad. Clients will probably ‘google you’ to see if you exist. Make sure they can find you. If you send them an email, include the url of your website or facebook page, your twitter handle, etc. so they can cross reference you easily and immediately.

  • What about a Name?

On that note, if you want to be found online, you have to come up with a good name! The name should be easy to remember and easy to find. You might consider putting “Rwanda”, “HIV” and “Handmade” in the name, as this will make it easier for people to find your site if they have forgetten your name. I would also google “arts and craft, Rwanda”, “arts and craft, Africa” and other similar searchers and see what you find. You don’t want a name too similar to your competitors.

  • Fresh Online Content to Improve Search Rankings

If the cooperative wants to appear high up on top of search results, it should update the content (photographs and stories) on its website frequently. This will help it to stay high on the search ranking. It could also approach one of the many aspiring software developers in k-lab (a tech hub in Kigali) to help it improve its ranking. The cooperative might ask if these developers if they could offer the service on a pro-bono basis to start with and if he/she brings in a lot of business, they could offer him/her a cut. It could also approach organisations like Digital Opportunity Trust, asking if they might have volunteers or interns that might help them build their website or set up a blog, facebook and twitter profile.

  • Discovering the Latest Trends

Being far away from your market means that you might not know what is hot and fresh. One way of overcoming this distance is to look at what other sellers are doing: what fashion or fair trade websites are doing, how do they present their stories about fair trade/social change, and what is selling like crazy. As Chris also noted, the web changes quickly and so the cooperative should be ready to change its approach and experiment from time to time. The cooperative could peruse websites like Indego Africa, Anthropologie, asos, StyleSaint, Etsy, Okay Africa, Same sky, Shopsoko, Little Blossom Project, Scarves for Hope, and other websites for inspiration.

If you have other tips for Isano and other small businesses using the internet to reach customers, please drop me an email at lauramann82@gmail.com and I shall be happy to add them.  

*Thanks to Chris Foster, Marie Berry, Louise Hart, Laura Stebbing, Isabel Mena-Berlin, Ramsey Nasser, Angela Koh and Margarita Dimova for their suggestions on this post.

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