Adapting to COVID-19: Tele-coaching for sanitation entrepreneurs in Cote d’Ivoire

The USAID-funded Sanitation Service Delivery Project (SSD), a 7-year effort begun in 2014, a regional urban and peri-urban sanitation service delivery project, implemented by Population Services International (PSI), in Benin and Cote d’Ivoire. The project aims to catalyze the private sector and create a dynamic market for on-site sanitation, capable of providing quality, affordable sanitation products to households in urban and peri-urban areas. 

As part of its facilitative approach to strengthening service delivery, SSD recruited small-scale (micro) entrepreneurs in 15 municipalities to develop or expand product and service offerings in sanitation. Most of the entrepreneurs were operating informally, offering a range of products in concrete and masonry.  Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a central part of the SSD team’s work was to provide direct, on-site supervision and coaching to these entrepreneurs, to diversify and improve the quality of their service offerings and to strengthen the capacity of their businesses in sales, financial management, and customer service. Then the pandemic forced us to change how we operate. 

COVID-19 Adaptation – Tele-coaching 

Travel and meeting restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced a pause in all field activities, significantly affecting the on-site coaching activities. In response, SSD rolled out a new tele-coaching program to ensure that our entrepreneurs continued to build their capacity on critical skills, such as product installation, marketing, accounting, and obtaining legal business operating status. With only a year and a half left in the project, it was critical to strengthen these skills so that entrepreneurs would be able to continue successfully operating after the project’s close. 

Then, in an unexpected turn of events, the SSD team observed a rapid increase in the rate of critical skills development among entrepreneurs in the new virtual format, as compared to the rate of progress made using SSD’s previous in-person coaching approach. Tele-coaching resulted in more individualized technical assistance, leading the entrepreneurs and SSD staff to focus more intensely on addressing specific challenges and weaknesses. 

Here’s how they captured and capitalized on this unforeseen benefit. 

Steps for Establishing Tele-Coaching 

A cross section of the SSD team was involved in establishing the tele-coaching adaptation, including sanitation technical staff, the sales department, and management. 

  • As soon as COVID-19 travel restrictions were put in place, the project conducted a new diagnostic study covering 36 of the entrepreneurs affiliated with the project, to assess the baseline level of entrepreneurs’ technical and managerial skills, human resources capacity, and legal status. The assessment identified shortcomings and specific areas for improvement for each entrepreneur.  
  • The team then developed a set of monitoring and performance indicators, based on the diagnostic results. These indicators were used to score each entrepreneur’s initial productivity, organizational capacity, and performance capacity before coaching was initiated.  
  • The entrepreneurs were classified into three performance groups based on the indicators: “sous-performance,” “performance,” and “sur-performance” – under-performing, performing, and over-performing.  

Results from the diagnostic assessment showed inadequate sales, poor stock management, weak financial management, and insufficient staffing in most enterprises. There were also significant quality issues with products due to improper use of equipment or failure to follow manufacturing procedures.  

Tele-coaching methodology 

The team primarily conducted tele-coaching by sending and receiving voice messages with coaching notes through WhatsApp. The use of voice messages in WhatsApp allowed for streamlined communication between the SSD team and those entrepreneurs with low literacy levels. For entrepreneurs who were unable to acquire a smartphone, or who did not have access to the internet, tele-coaching was conducted through routine phone calls. 

Coaching on Product Construction and Installation 

Before installing soak pits or septic tanks, entrepreneurs often needed technical support from SSD on issues such as soil analysis or dealing with space constraints. Prior to the pandemic, installers would wait for coaches to be available to visit the site to answer these technical questions. However, the team found that tele-coaching was equally effective and much more efficient for answering these questions. The entrepreneur simply had to take a picture of the environment, send it through WhatsApp to the coaching team, and immediately receive direct support and advice from the technical department throughout the construction. 

The ability to immediately benefit from a technical coach and to receive guidance throughout an entire construction project was appreciated by the entrepreneurs. It also reduced construction delays previously caused while waiting for a technical coach to arrive.  

Coaching on Sales, Business and Management Skills 

The other main topics of tele-coaching were management skills and marketing, addressed through weekly, tailored sessions. The weekly sessions were organized around individual support plans for each entrepreneur, which were developed in accordance with their level in the scoring grid, and the weaknesses identified through the diagnostic study. WhatsApp also proved helpful for management coaching, as it enabled entrepreneurs and the project team to exchange documentation such as sales invoices, mail, or other documents related to their business. 

As COVID-19 restrictions relaxed, the SSD team was also able to add quarterly field visits to validate the sales results reported by entrepreneurs, build personal relationships that made tele-coaching more effective, and adjust development plans as needed.

Tele-coaching Results  

As a result of this adapted, tele-coaching approach, the SSD team was able to continue supporting entrepreneurs during the pandemic to achieve the following outcomes to date: 

  1. Legal formalization of activities: 65% of the micro-enterprises coached now have a legal registration, and an additional 5% have applied for registration in the trade register and with the tax administration. 
  1. Sales capacity: 30% of the micro-enterprises in the tele-coaching program expanded their teams, recruiting an average of two artisans to support production and installation of sanitation facilities. Nine of the micro-enterprises now also have their own commercial sales force, with an average sales team of four employees per business. SSD continues to strengthen their skills in sales force management.  
  1. Sales channels: 60% of micro-enterprises started with only one primary point of sale for their products. To expand sales channels, SSD linked entrepreneurs to local hardware stores. By June 2020, their toilet products were being sold through 111 hardware stores and represented 35% of total sales.   
  1. Financial management: The diagnostic survey showed that 64% of entrepreneurs had no financial management system and could not track their profits, expenses, and losses. Coaching has helped the entrepreneurs better manage their finances to ensure the sustainability of their operations. Today, all of the entrepreneurs now keep a sales register, and 35% of them have opened bank accounts. 
  1. Business investments: Tele-coaching has also resulted in many entrepreneurs increasing investments in their own businesses. While in the past they had hoped for the project to provide free motorcycles, four entrepreneurs have now purchased their own, realizing the investment would pay dividends by increasing their ability to acquire customers and deliver services. One entrepreneur purchased 500 square meters of land for $1,600 to set up a permanent production site for prefabricated toilet components. Other entrepreneurs have made household investments to improve their living conditions. Ongoing coaching aims to increase the share of income that entrepreneurs reinvest into their enterprises. 

Lessons Learned 

Having successfully adapted our urban and peri-urban sanitation service delivery project, the SSD team offers the following insights to other programs that might benefit from this optimized approach. 

  • Individualized tele-coaching, based on results of a diagnostic assessment and follow-up monitoring, is an effective approach for strengthening the technical, marketing, business development and management capacities of SSD entrepreneurs. 
  • Messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp, offer ideal communication channels between project personnel and micro-entrepreneurs due to their ease of use. In particular, the WhatsApp platform allows for entrepreneurs and staff to exchange images and voice notes, facilitating communication with entrepreneurs who may have low levels of literacy. 
  • Establishing clear performance indicators for entrepreneurs helps them to develop their own businesses. 
  • Coaching relationships are most effective when the same coach consistently works with an entrepreneur.  
  • Tele-coaching is most effective when combined with quarterly or biannual field visits. 

Conclusion 

The tele-coaching approach ultimately proved to be more efficient than the previous model of on-site visits, as it helped coaches and entrepreneurs to stay focused on improving the most critical skills. The ability to immediately reach coaches for guidance through WhatsApp, coupled with the lower frequency and cost of in-person coaching, enabled entrepreneurs and the SSD team to work more quickly together to troubleshoot issues while effectively utilizing resources. These successes point to the long-term sustainability of the tele-coaching approach and its potential for replicability in future sanitation market development initiatives working with micro-enterprises.   

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