Sep 11, 2008

Business - Helping small businesses grow

As a young girl growing up in the Philippines, Yasmina McCarty would buy and eat a lot of green mangoes from a vendor named Malou. “She wanted to send her daughter to school,” says Yasmina, who says the woman still sells green mangoes, and that she’s exactly the kind of small businessperson that she and her partner at, Nandini Narula, want to help.
The award-winning GreenMango is described as an affordable and accessible marketing platform designed to help small entrepreneurs in developing countries grow their business. The two founders, who met while working in the microfinance sector, constantly grappled with finding the answer to the question, why don’t small businesses grow? “Despite working so hard, they don’t get the income they need after all that hard work,” says Yasmina, who, along with Nandini, has work experience spread across more than a dozen countries. The lack of access to finance, to information that can tell them the prices of commodities and help them decide on the right market rates and make the market place accessible to them, in terms of a space to conduct business from, are the main stumbling blocks.
GreenMango is a Web site where small, local businesses and services such as plumbers, electricians, other handymen, cooks and henna artists can enrol to be listed for a fees of Rs 99 per year. The listings come replete with ratings and reviews from customers. “GreenMango centralises credible information and its multiple access points (Internet, in-person and SMS) uniquely reach all income segments in India. By bringing these small businesses online and giving them the power to market and promote themselves, it levels the playing field for poor entrepreneurs to compete with other local businesses,” says Yasmina.
Right now, GreenMango services only Hyderabad but would like to expand to other cities as soon as possible. “There is a big gap in the market for these kind of services. Many people, young professionals, middle-class families, want this kind of help but don’t know where to turn to for information, and these services, typically housed in poorer neighbourhoods, haven’t been able to promote themselves beyond putting up a signboard,” says Yasmina, who says brand-building activity for Green Mango is restricted to word-of-mouth right now.
GreenMango employs about 10 people who comb the city’s slums and low-income neighbourhoods to locate people who run such businesses. The number of categories and people listed is growing significantly, says Nandini, who is the technical brains behind this project, which was incubated in February 2007. One can search for the business by type, name and area. This is probably the only Web site of its kind in the country, says Nandini, who lives in the US and says India is a very different market. There are similar sites in the US but they assume that those businesses have Internet access. Here, even the average, middle-income Indian, may not have Internet access at home, only at work. However, they are comfortable with SMS and so GreenMango’s information is available through the mobile phone as well as through a call centre. Branded vans travel through various neighbourhoods, creating further awareness.
GreenMango is an experiment in social enterprise and believes in good financial returns both for the society it’s involved with as well as its investors. The founders do not part with much information on the financial aspects of the business other than to say the Web site is privately funded and believe it can be profitable. In October 2007, GreenMango was selected as the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards Laureate for Asia. It is a unique entrepreneurship competition for women created by Cartier in partnership with the Women’s Forum, McKinsey and INSEAD. Nandini says the award is given for viable business opportunities which also have quite a bit of innovation built into their business models. This year, GreenMango was also selected for the Echoing Green Fellowship which supports socially minded businesses trying to create a new value offering, and bagged the third place in the global Big Idea competition.

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