We met with Somtou’s co-founder, Ted Boulou, one of 30 changemaker entrepreneurs who participated in the Slush Impact Accelerator Program held in Finland. He shared his vision for Somtou and how the base of the pyramid is the last frontier in business.
Q: What motivated you to start Somtou?
A: I’ve had success in my career, but I think the way I am different is my level of empathy. The ability to understand local customs is key in base of the pyramid markets. You might have the ability to physically build a highway in Dakar, but not everyone will be able to understand the local determinants to make it effective.
We have to understand how to solve problems on a local level. For example, in the past I worked on electrification, which has a lot to do with how the community is organized. How you recover your bills and how people are perceived as non-payers are all going to affect how you do business in that community.
Somtou is a window to the informal sector. Approximately 60 percent of GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa is made in the informal sector. Yet there are no B2B [business-to-business] solutions targeting those entrepreneurs. They tend to be out of our normal scope.
There is universal need to manage business better. No one wants to sit with pen and paper at the end of the day to manage cash flow. We had to look outside the box and learn what different services were needed by someone in the informal sector in order to help their business.
Q: How do you apply the local culture’s context to produce Somtou?
A: People connect through the physical form. For each cultural setting, you should have a different path to resolve the need. That path for Somtou is a combination of software and hardware rooted in the cultural context of the users.
We chose material for the devices that were culturally appropriate for the targeted population. For example, in Dakar, buses are colorful, and the technology should reflect this culture. Why should it be gray like an iPad when everything in Senegal is colorful?
The wooden parts that make up the hardware are also different. We usually think of plastic, but why not go for wood? Why don’t we use local materials? There is also an economic gain when we don’t have to source materials from another part of the world. We believe in utilizing materials available locally. It is a trend globally, but particularly relevant for Africa.
Q: What insights have you learned from working closely with the base of the pyramid population?
A: The base of the pyramid is sentimental in a way. Trust is the basis of business. Empathy is the key to do business. We aim to maintain close proximity with small businesses so we can improve their payment system and ease the logistic distribution of their products in a way that fits their culturally-specific needs.
On the flip side, Somtou provides a window into how the base of the pyramid works. From there, you can imagine many other solutions can be created to work with the population. Somtou can provide an entry point for businesses and stakeholders that want to work with the base of the pyramid.
Q: What is your biggest challenge?
A: To convince investors and potential partners that this is the way to do things. It is an unconventional way. We’ve created this solution and device based on a deep understanding of the BOP market. For example, a computer would be too big and a tablet would be too fragile in small informal shops. Technology should be culturally and locally rooted.
Q: In five years, what is your vision for Somtou?
A: I believe that the base of the pyramid is the last frontier in business. Large firms do not realize how much they will need to adapt in order to work with the base of the pyramid. For brands to succeed in this market, they must re-learn the way they do business. Somtou is already well-positioned for this market.