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“Where do you see yourself five years from now?” What a strange question. It would never have been a plan or a pipe dream that I’d be sitting in a coffee shop in Nairobi writing a blog about living in Africa using marketing to improve people’s lives. This is part of my story, from an advertising executive in Chicago to entrepreneur in Denver to social enterprise specialist in Africa. masaick

One: Hitting Bottom at the Top

My first job after graduate school was in the vibrant and “windy” city of Chicago, as part of the agency teams in the 1990s that built McDonald’s global brand. I was a cog in the wheel of the machine that developed the advertising and promotions to sell burgers, fries and kids meals (TOYS, burgers, and fries). As a young account executive I learned from the inside how a company with thousands of restaurants, hundreds of franchisees and 800,000 employees stays one of the most known brands in the world.

With a desire to learn, willingness to work long hours and a few good mentors, I advanced up the ranks to be part of the team that developed the Disney/McDonald’s movie promotions and toys that led kids to beg their moms… “Can we go to McDonald’s?  I learned from the best of the best how to think like a brand and act like a retailer. Multiple trips to Disney world, meeting the creators of movies like Toy Story and Little Mermaid, and the summer Olympics were awesome. But, I reached a point where my soul was deeply conflicted. As exciting as it was working with one of the worlds top brands, I was peddling saturated fat laden junk food and chemical filled carbonated drinks that were contributing to obesity and disease. I wasn’t a junk food junkie.  I was a pusher.

I hit bottom by getting  sick. Recovery led to a healthier lifestyle.  I got a job at an agency in Denver, where the sun shines and the mountains beckon. I became more conscious of what I was putting in my body and what I was creating in my life and work. As I practiced yoga and played in the mountains, working in advertising did not feel right. I wanted to help causes and companies who needed marketing strategy not TV commercials.

With a deep breath and leap of faith I started ckarma, a boutique strategy firm and committed to doing work for products and services I believed were making a positive difference. We applied big agency branding, strategy and thinking for small businesses and nonprofits. I was free to recommend  solutions without any predisposed media or tactic in mind.

Two: The Physics of a Quest

Reading is a key component of a happy and fulfilled life. When I was four years old after my mother read to us I would hide under the covers at night with a flashlight and my stack of books from the children’s library. In the morning my book was right there beside me. Words were a better friend than a teddy bear because they filled me with stories and ideas of far off places, interesting people and imaginary kingdoms. To this day I read every night.

I write down quotes and idea that resonate.  Occasionally one hits a deep chord and sinks into me like rain on a dry and dusty dirt road. These are key ideas. A cold and snowy Denver winter in 2006  led me to Kenya. It was the “physics of a quest”.

The autobiography Fools Rush In by Bill Carter, about his experience in war torn Bosnia. He stumbled into Sarajevo after a personal tragedy and became a self made aid worker for the plight and people. He ultimately forged a friendship with the band U2 and produced the documentary that accompanied their hit song “Miss Sarajevo.” In his reflections of that extraordinary time he writes about “The physics of a quest”

which is to say that there is a divine hidden force behind human question that is as natural and inevitable as gravity or equilibrium or mortality. That equation works something like this — if you really do commit to going out there in the world (or in there, deep down in yourself) on a search for truth, and if you really do bravely cut away all that is comforting and confining to you, and if you really are prepared to see anything that happens to you as expression of truth that has been offered up for your own benefit and learning — then revelation will not be withheld from you.”

Three: At the Moment of Commitment, the Universe Conspires to Assist

Bill Carter’s crazy and impossible story led to ideas about what I could do. I felt a pull back to Kenya after climbing Kilimanjaro in 2004 and spending time in Nairobi. I’d helped small companies and causes with marketing strategy with good results. Flipping through an issue of the magazine Fast Company,  the Social Capitalist Awards caught my eye. One of the winners was KickStart International, a nonprofit social enterprise in Nairobi and San Francisco that manufacturers and sells manual irrigation pumps to farmers. They sell manual irrigation pumps to farmers in rural areas in several countries so that the farmers can grow cash crops and make it a business. The impacts are stellar, each pump increases a family’s incomes 1000% and lifts them out of poverty.

I found the email addresses of the leaders and asked if they needed any help in marketing. Right about that time they had critical sales and marketing problems that their board has mandated they fix. Sales of their irrigation pumps were low and costs remained high. Donor funding was at risk if they did not turn it around. The physics of a quest were at work.

I started out as a volunteer for six weeks to do an assessment and plan and ended up working with them for 2.5 years in Kenya, Tanzania, Mali and San Francisco.

Four: The ckarma Marketing Principles in Practice

I wasn’t sure how to fix their sales problems and I certainly didn’t know about marketing in Africa. So, I did what had worked before and applied the thinking and strategic approach I had simplified into five principles.

  1. Know what your company does well, what it truly delivers and stick to it. This often means stop doing what is not working.
  2. Understand who your “ideal” customer is and what is important to him or her. Effective marketers have a specific target audience and understand the demographics (age, income, job, family size, location) and their psychographics (motivations, their fears, dreams, joys and pain points) of each of those distinct audiences. Find out what your customer values,  where they go to look for information and market to that.
  3. Examine the macro market trends, landscape, economic factors, timing and opportunity. Where is the market going and what are the trends indicating it will go next? Who are your competitors and where do you think they are going next? What macro economic or political factors will impact the business?
  4. Decide on a value proposition, or USP (unique selling proposition) that is the intersection of what your company does well, that your customer values highly and is fits with the current macro landscape. The USP becomes the guiding light for business strategy, marketing strategy and what you communicate externally and internally.
  5. Develop and then execute a strategic and achievable plan for your product or service to be known, seen and heard by your ideal audience. Marketing and sales are two sides of the same coin.  The plan pivots around reaching ideal customers and increasing word of mouth. We start with existing customers because they hold the most potential to obtain new customers. An effective plan touches customers/prospects in five to seven ways, speaks to what the customers value and reaches them where they are looking.

We agreed to focus on their top two irrigation pumps because they had the most potential to lift farmers out of poverty and they could effectively measure the impact. They had to stop focusing on the other products.

I studied the research and impact monitoring data then went out to the fields and met with farmers and their wives who were using the pumps. Farming in East Africa is seen as a low status profession and was at times looked down on as not a viable way to earn money, yet MoneyMaker farmers using the irrigation pumps were successful. They could grow produce that sold for more money and harvest four or five times a year compared to once or twice without irrigation.

I traveled with sales people and staff to find out the challenges they were faced with in selling and in life.  At every turn there were challenges to overcome. I had to navigate the cultural, tribal and language barriers and respect where they were coming from, which often meant backing up three or four steps to gain agreements among staff and management. At every step I encouraged people to speak up and come to me with solutions, not just problems, which was unheard of. I never assumed things were done until I saw it through myself.

KickStart needed a compelling and aspirational brand strategy that would make farmers feel proud. We needed a visual connection that irrigation= cash crops = success. Sales efforts had to center around demonstration because the products were completely unfamiliar and untrusted. The $100 for an irrigation pump was a major purchase and people needed to see the pumps in action before they would believe it worked.


Farming is my Business sign

We overhauled their brand, communications, merchandising and sales tools with a new campaign “Farming is my Business” that featured successful farmers with luscious tomatoes and green beans grown through irrigation and sold for cash. When I visited the shops where sales staff were trying to sell, most times the products were in a far corner gathering dust. We created a demo unit where the pumps were displayed outside shops showing how they irrigated with a bucket of water.

The sales people didn’t understand how to sell the newest pump so we invested in training and sales incentives. We changed the way sales were done by doing more demonstrations on farms, instead of sitting in shops waiting for customers.

The campaign resulted in 800% sales increases in Kenya and the highest sales to date.
It enabled thousands of small-scale farmers to be lifted out of poverty.

KickStart asked me to help them change their donor communications so we followed a similar process which led to uncovering the link that centered on the entrepreneurial spirit of the farmers. Mission accomplished I returned to Denver in 2009.

A year later I was back in Kenya with a new job to help launch a telecom across Africa. Today I work with the social enterprise SunnyMoney  selling solar lights to kick out toxic kerosene for the 85% of Africa’s population who don’t have access to electricity.

I would love to hear from you.



Cindy Kerr

Author Cindy Kerr

Cindy is a senior marketing & communications specialist. She spent eight years in Africa leading marketing for social enterprises SunnyMoney & SolarAid, KickStart International, Nova Academies and Bridge International Academies. After a career in advertising, she started ckarma marketing to deliver unique web and print communications that drive results for companies and causes making a positive difference. She leads branding, websites and customer engagement.

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