Adam Bolton AMBA Membership Director talks about Tailoring in Malawi

Will you use your MBA to make a real difference to micro-SMEs and entrepreneurs in Africa?
Adam Bolton, AMBA Membership Director speaks about the value of the skills he developed through his career and how he used them to develop a tailoring business in Malawi by Skype.

Throughout my career I’ve been blessed with a wealth of personal and professional training and development. Over the years I have gained a degree, two post-grad business qualifications, attended numerous seminars, courses, conferences and more recently participated in webinars and online learning covering a wide range of subjects including sales and marketing, strategic development, finance and accounting, risk, law and legislation, people management, leadership, problem solving and project management as well as soft skills such as presentation and negotiation skills, decision making and managing people.

I’ve always believed in the importance of continuous professional development and strived to develop new knowledge and skills. Perhaps it’s in the genes- my father taught himself to speak Welsh in his 80’s! I’ve also been lucky to work for organisations that have encouraged professional development, after all the knowledge and skills I have acquired are the tools that enable me to do my job well, to develop my teams, and ultimately to benefit the organisations I’ve work for.
A lot of what I have learned I’ve assimilated into my day to day work; a lot I’ve probably forgotten! And pretty much all of it I take for granted. But where would I be if I hadn’t had access to this training and development? Of course it’s possible to get on in business without formal training- there are exceptions to every rule but even very successful entrepreneurs with few or no formal qualifications need support and guidance from non-execs, mentors, business advisors and key staff, for example, Richard Branson, famously a high-school drop out, surrounds himself with MBAs to actually run his Virgin business empire.

About a year ago I was introduced to Mirriam. Mirriam lives in Malawi with her husband and two children and is an entrepreneur. About a year before we met she had set up a small business employing a local man who she knew, who was an excellent tailor. Malawi has been impacted in recent years by an influx of cheap Chinese manufactured clothes, these were often poor quality or not of the right design, but they were affordable so were popular. The problem was that they weren’t very stylish (and Malawians like their clothes) and they weren’t very good quality so didn’t last. Mirriam had spotted a niche in the market- repairing and altering these clothes to create more distinctive designs which lasted longer. She had had initial success promoting the business through word of mouth to her friends and family but was stuck as how to grow the business. She was juggling being an entrepreneur with being a mother, wife and holding down another job.

Mirriam had a vision, she had drive and enthusiasm, and an entrepreneurial spirit, but she didn’t have the knowledge or tools to take her business forward and that’s where I came in. Or more specifically where Grow Movement came in. Grow Movement link micro-entrepreneurs in Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda with business professionals from around the world, utilising mobile technology. We work as volunteer consultants, working with 4 projects a year, each for 12 weeks. We initially spend time building trust and learning about the business and the drivers and motivations of the entrepreneur, then we mentor them. We aren’t there to tell them how to run their businesses, but to offer support, guidance and the tools to enable and empower them to achieve their vision.

In Mirriam’s case she wanted to be able to give up her other job and run the tailoring business full time, employing more local people as tailors and designers and expanding the business into design and manufacture. We looked at her current income and worked out what level of income she would need to be able to go full-time. We looked at her cash flow- she wasn’t always being paid on time (if at all) and put in place some simple measures to ensure that she got paid upfront or upon completion of the work.
We looked at sales and marketing techniques- how she could promote her business to a wider customer base and use her current customers to promote the business for her; we researched larger customers and potential markets such as school uniforms, wedding suppliers and work wear and made some contacts online.

We looked at how she incentivised her tailor, (he was paid per job, irrespective of how long it took him to complete and while he was very good, he was very, very slow!) and put in place incremental rewards for quality and quantity, she also looked employ a part-time less experienced tailor to take on the more simple work.

The concepts that I shared with Mirriam are bread and butter to an MBA, the very basic building blocks of any business or project- strategy, sales and marketing, finance, people management- but if you haven’t been exposed to these concepts where do you start? Another significant benefit, I learned later, was having the opportunity to talk to someone who understood the challenges, who Mirriam could bounce ideas off, who could provide critical appraisal- exactly what we use our networks, colleagues and peers for.

The weekly sessions took just one hour of face to face time (by Skype), plus time between each session preparing and doing follow-up work, but this wasn’t onerous- in fact I really enjoyed doing it, it was stimulating and rewarding. Logistically it wasn’t always easy- my work schedule was quite heavy, sometimes Mirriam had other more pressing challenges and sometimes we were let down by the technology, but with some understanding, patience and determination we got there in the end. I was sad when the assignment came to an end but was delighted to hear back that Mirriam was doing well, the business was flourishing and she was in the process of setting up another business with her sisters!

So why am I telling you this? Well, the answer is simple- as part of its #UGANDA600 impact evaluation project Grow Movement is recruiting more consultants and I’d like to ask you each to consider volunteering. We already have a number of AMBA members (myself included) on board and it would be great if we could increase our representation. It’s a fantastic and worthwhile way to share some of the knowledge and skills that we have been privileged enough to gain, it’s personally rewarding to really make a difference and it can be great fun.

To find out how Grow Movement came about watch this TED Talk given by founder Chris Coghlan, at the London Business School in 2012, I challenge you not to feel inspired!

For more information on how to get involved visit the website and to sign up as a volunteer consultant please simply fill in this form.

Grow Movement is supported by London Business School, Imperial College, London and Cass Business School

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

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