Anjani Bansal is the Partner at Global Bain Corporation. Anjani, former Country Lead -Private Sector Partnerships at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, worked with the foundation for close to a decade. He also founded Flowstate – an angel investment fund focusing on agricultural technology.
Q) You have seen stories of satellites, agriculture and finance from several places within and outside India, some successes and some failures. According to you, what is leading to execution complexities? Are there real technology barriers that people didn’t think about earlier or is it about team building or luck?
Anjani Bansal: Applications of certain technologies such as remote sensing and advanced data analytics in agriculture are still evolving. Their use cases that provide a clear value proposition and economic benefit to different participants across the value chain are in varying stages of maturity. So there isn’t actually one big success story yet that you can point out as the gold standard. Also, there used to be a big technology barrier maybe three to four years ago. However, now I would place these technologies at the lower end of the technology risk spectrum.
While technology risk has declined, applications at scale embedded within the business models of large agri-businesses and financial institutions are the next frontier. This will take time but I see tailwinds driving capability and mindset in several players to make this happen. In fact, I believe that’s an area where SatSure is taking big strides and paving the way for others to follow. There is a clear recognition of the value proposition in the current and changing context of food and agriculture in the country.
Q) Please share your advice on how to select the right partners for startups as they explore new and emerging markets such as Africa.
Anjani: Maybe just to share a few experiences and then you can figure out how to apply those.
- It often requires time and patience. Since you mentioned Africa, there is a popular African saying that “if you want to go fast, go alone and if you want to go far, go together”. I have seen this play, time and again in the African context. The underlying idea is that you have to spend time in the country with the people, build relationships at a personal level and gradually work towards achieving something substantial. Build deep contextual knowledge and insights about a country so people have confidence that you are in it for the long-term and can become a trusted partner.
- Engaging with people with deep experience and leaders in those countries is the key. Approach them with a learning or growth mindset and build relationships. Leverage those relationships as a channel for relevant introductions, facilitators of negotiations, and sounding boards for your decisions. Make sure you don’t over index on one or two people as we all have our biases.
- Finally, collaborations with other startup founders in these countries could create opportunities. I have seen other founders who are also grappling with similar questions you are asking. So engaging with them and trying to figure out how they have solved some of these issues also gives you new ideas to work with.
- One more point that I would like to highlight is that when it comes to governance, continue to maintain the highest standards. Do not compromise at all because sometimes I have seen some people try and take shortcuts, which in the long run is mostly harmful. It is better to deal with these challenges thoughtfully and be patient rather than trying to be a cowboy.
Q) While pursuing opportunities in the international market, how can startups leverage relationships with organisations like World Economic Forum or the Gates Foundation on UNCDF to get stronger and easier inroads into these markets.
Anjani: You may need certain partners such as financial institutions, agriculture businesses or infrastructure companies to enter new markets. Organisations like global philanthropies, DFIs or Multilaterals usually have on the ground teams in several countries in Africa and would be a really good starting point for a startup to build relationships with people. One can be fairly confident that the people working for you in such organisations are people you can trust, in the kind of information they provide you and the connections that they are making for you. It can give a startup an entry point into some of these countries that the startup might not be familiar with and thus, it can leverage those relationships to then have those initial introductions with some of the large organisations that can become your operating partner, such as banks.
One advantage of several African countries is that they are relatively small. So if one has a connection in one of the industry associations, there are fewer degrees of separation from the industry association to some of the major companies in the case of African countries.
Similarly, such organisations are often organising startup oriented events and activities. So participation in these events provides a platform to showcase your startup and product, which then generates inbound queries.
Often when I operate in Africa, I hear from our counterparts is that people who want to engage in the country, don’t demonstrate sufficient nuance about the African context and therefore, the other side is not really sure whether these people are the right partners or not.
For example, if you are going to Nigeria, which is a large country with a large population and has different socioeconomic and political challenges happening in the north and south, you need a nuanced strategy of geographical regions/provinces and population segments that you want to reach. If you can demonstrate that level of specificity, you will significantly increase your chances of finding the right partners and also be able to differentiate yourself. However, do not underestimate the work required. It is not easy to do this in India, then imagine what will it take to do it well in a different country.
Q) How effective have you found the marketing platforms in establishing successful local partnerships? How does one make use of it?
Anjani: I think it’s important to take a strategic approach to identify marketing events and conferences that would add the most value in terms of reaching
out to the key audience, which could include customers, future employees, investors, etc. Don’t ignore such platforms but think through which ones will provide you best return for investing your time and how you would want to engage, be it speaker, sponsor, participant to have side meetings, etc.
Try to have consistent messaging about your company so over time you get associated with a certain product category or technology, and you are the ones people cite as an example. Don’t cede ground to the competition. Marketing and communication are powerful tools, and most good entrepreneurs recognise that early. The spray and pray mode of showing up at every possible event will distract you from more important goals.
Not everyone is good at everything. Identify who is the best spokesperson for your company, doesn’t necessarily have to be the founder. Leverage your team’s strength to represent your company at marketing events.
Q) Should a startup hire people locally in the foreign markets with the current tough times?
Anjani: There are a couple of ways to go about it. As a start-up, one would want to efficiently utilise the capital. Therefore, while hiring locally is something I would suggest, you have to think about it in terms of where do you see your greatest ROR (Return on Revenue). For example, I don’t think you would want to hire a person in 10 African countries. It will become an HR nightmare to deal with labour laws of 10 countries. So you have to figure out which are your highest priority markets and then think about how you can hire them locally. This also addresses the issues of not being able to travel in the current situation. I think a few strong employees are better than a large number of average performers, and this becomes even more important when hiring internationally. Look for people who can operate under ambiguity rather than specialists because you are likely to face different situations in new countries with only a few people. Also, you want to minimise your time spent on hands-on management.
Another approach we have tried is to work with some local advisory companies. These organisations could work as your extended arms to identify markets, engage with potential customers, develop proposals, provide country context into your strategy. Quality of team is very important so its useful to test one or two such companies. It gives you the flexibility to find your feet in a country before hiring employees.
Q) For a new technology, customer education becomes important. SatSure has gone through the customer education part in India. When we are going to new geographies such as Africa, do we have to go through that cycle again?
Anjani: I think product-market fit in India does have value in African countries. There is a similarity in context and customers’ needs at least in certain sectors such as agriculture and financial services. So demonstrating a clear value proposition for customers in India is useful for engaging with potential customers in Africa. The key is to make it sharp and clear and weave in your knowledge of local context to explain how you will customize your product. I think it’s powerful to show that you already have significant traction with similar customers such as banks in India, and you have the capability to customise and understand what those customisations could be. Preempt the need for clear case studies, real product demos with some customisations.
Particularly in Africa, there is a lot of philanthropic or development aid money that flows into the economy and biases the decisions made by potential customers. You must accept this reality and engage with development organisations as well to educate them of your product as they might influence the final decision of your potential customers in some cases.
Also, there is some degree of familiarity between African and Indian industries. So demonstrating your value proposition and traction with Indian customers does help you gain better receptivity with potential customers in Africa. You could even try to leverage the African presence of your Indian customers to make warm introductions.
This article was originally published in The SatSure Newsletter (TSNL)