Two sisters have launched a cell phone business that’s changing lives in Tanzania and learned plenty along the way.

By Kim Waeber (Co-founder, kidogo kidogo)

The idea for kidogo kidogo came from co-founder Kristen Waeber, who also happens to be my sister. Having spent a lot of time working in the telecommunications sector in the developing world, she knew a lot about the value that a mobile phone played in people’s lives. She attended mobile health conferences and heard of how mobile phones are used to send free mosquito net vouchers to prevent malaria. Kristen heard from farmers who told her by accessing market-pricing information on their mobile phones they were able to make more money selling their crops.

She also heard directly from women about how a phone gives them the power of information to help them run their businesses more effectively. After having read a report by the GSMA called Women & Mobile a Global Opportunity, she learned that women in Africa were 23% less likely than men to own a mobile phone and that the main barrier to ownership was the cost of a handset. She came up with the idea that mobile phone donations could be subsidized by cell phone cases purchases in the U.S., and kidogo kidogo was born.

The Importance of Mobile Technology

Kidogo kidogo, which means “little by little” in Swahili, the language spoken in Tanzania, is a one-for-one business where for every two cases sold, kidogo kidogo donates a mobile phone, a SIM card and 5000 Tanzanian Schillings of mobile credit to a woman in Tanzania without a phone. Phones in developing countries are so much more than just a way to update social media or text your friends. A mobile phone is a flashlight, a watch, a calculator, a camera, a doctor, a teacher and a radio. In Tanzania, mobile banking is extremely common, and a phone provides women a way to make secure banking transactions. Mobile phones allow expectant mothers to receive health reminders and updates. Women with mobile phones also report a much higher feeling of personal safety than those without. These phones are helping women support their families, run businesses and stay informed.

Starting a small business, we have learned that five key things are critical:

Issue a Challenge 

Our biggest obstacle has been explaining to people why a mobile phone is so life-changing. When starting a mission based business you need people to immediately empathize with your cause. In our case, unless you are tuned into the developing world, aid and telecommunications, you probably are not aware of the importance of a mobile phone to these women. So we ask skeptics to take a one day challenge: turn off your cell phone. You won’t have an alarm clock, access to your bank account, a way to call for help if something happens, access to market information, email, a radio, a way to reach your friends and family, a way to get directions, a flashlight, the list goes on and on.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live, a mobile phone improves your life.

Value Friends and Family

Another thing we have learned is how critical it is to have a good support system. If you are a small business, you will need friends and family who believe in your cause and will help you along the way. You need them for grassroots marketing, for their social media networks, their advice, their ideas, and their encouragement.

‘Going Up’: Perfect Your Pitch

You need a solid elevator pitch. Marketing your cause happens every day and not always when you are expecting it. You should work on your 60-second story that can make someone you just met passionate or at the very least intrigued by what you are doing. Every entrepreneur is passionate about his or her own cause, but making other people passionate is what will help you sink or swim.

Harness the Power of Polls

When picking our initial collection, we both assumed our favorite designs would be the most appealing to everyone, however, when we sent out a poll, we were shocked at some of the feedback. I’ve talked to other retailers who have had similar experiences. People have different tastes, and your favorite might not be the best product to sell, let your consumers tell you.

Pursue Your ‘Overnight Success’ Expectations

While, you’ll read this and think, “Yes, I know this won’t become a household name overnight, it will take time”, you’ll still be let down if you don’t. We heard several times not to expect overnight success, but we believe entrepreneurs should be disappointed when they are not on the front page of The New York Times in the first month. You need to believe that your product, company, blog, etc, should be successful, or why are you doing it? If it doesn’t happen you regroup, put your head down, and start working on month two.

How would you fare without your cell phone for a day?

kim-waeberAbout the guest blogger: Kim double majored in finance and logistics, transportation and supply chain management (University of Maryland) and has both an MBA (Mount Saint Mary’s University) and a Master of Information & Digital Resource Management (Columbia University, New York).