What do you do when plenty of people want to buy your coffee, but you have no way of reaching them?
This was the situation I found myself in as a sales manager for Nestlé Professional, our out-of-home business, in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, in 2011.
At the time, our only means of selling Nescafé in the city’s busy open marketplaces was with heavy push carts, or through machines installed in buildings, but in densely crowded areas, where hardly anyone has electricity, neither of these methods was particularly effective.
Our regional manager set us a challenge. Could we come up with an idea to improve our coffee sales?
I knew there had to be an answer.
After all, we specialise in food and drink services for people who are out and about, and in Abidjan, most consumption takes place on the street.
My budget was too small to invest in any premises or full-time staff, so I needed to create a different kind of business model.
I thought if I provided all the tools required to make the coffee, someone else could invest in a kitchen area to prepare it, sell it, and keep a portion of the profits.
If they earned enough, they could operate a small business from the kitchen, employing a group of vendors to go out every day and sell the coffee for them.
For this to work, the vendors would need something to carry the coffee easily, without spilling it, and without having to put anything down while serving.
I asked a local supplier if he could create a harness strong enough to hold a large coffee flask and several cups, but also light and comfortable enough to wear and walk around in.
I tested the prototypes myself. The first was too unsteady and the second too heavy. But a few weeks and several unsuccessful attempts later, we finally had a functioning design.
It was time to find my first business partners.
I knocked on the doors of people living around the edges of the marketplace, asking if anyone would like to give it a try, using their own kitchen to start with.
No one was interested. I was about to give up when a lady and her son said yes.
The young man was looking for a job but hadn’t been able to find anything. He thought it was a good opportunity to earn some money and his mother agreed.
I supplied him with Nescafé, cups, flasks and the kit, and she let him prepare the coffee in their kitchen.
He went out into the market with some friends and managed to sell all the coffee in just a few hours. He managed to do the same thing again the next day, and the next.
Once I had some proof that my idea worked, I was able to convince a few more people to get involved. Every day they came back having sold more coffee.
I was onto something. I had to tell my manager what I’d started, but I was nervous.
I’d taken a risk and commissioned the kit. I’d sent people out onto the streets representing our business, without his approval.
But when I showed him how successful this trial had been, he immediately saw its potential. He helped me develop the concept into a formal programme.
Today, when you walk around Abidjan, you can’t miss the Nescafé vendors in their red t-shirts, selling coffee to stall owners, shoppers, even drivers stuck in traffic jams.
They’ve built a loyal customer base. They’ve become great ambassadors for the brand. And they’re not the only ones.
They are one of more than 1,300 young men and women in nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa working for what we now call the ‘My Own Business’ programme.
I’ve stopped knocking on people’s doors to ask them if they’d like to get involved. Now, they come to us.
If someone wants to be an operator, we train them in sales, management, hygiene, quality and safety.
We also help people find suitable kitchen areas with a clean, safe water supply to run their business.
They recruit vendors from their community, set targets and working hours, manage payments, ensure product safety and maintain the equipment.
When I see the vendors, many of whom were previously unemployed, earning a living thanks to my idea, I feel proud.
What started with a few coffee flasks and a bit of persistence has grown into something far bigger than I could have ever imagined.