Lyndsay Handler, the Managing Director at Fenix International was recognized at the inaugural MTN Innovation Awards as the “Outstanding Woman in Innovation”. Lyndsay has won other awards and been recognized for her work around East Africa. She’s very passionate about her work, I found out when I scheduled a meeting with her and she cancelled last minute because she felt she needed to go to the field to give her sales team a push as the year came to a close. And when we finally sat down to chat, I could see the passion as she spoke about touching over 300,000 people in 50,000 homes with ReadyPay, and her life and times in East Africa:
Tell me about you, something I can’t find in a Google search or on your LinkedIn profile.
I’m deeply passionate about 3 things:
- Building businesses in Africa and I’ve been passionate about this since 2003. I came here to do Public Health work but by the end of my first summer here I said I don’t want to be in public health anymore, I want to work with entrepreneurs to build businesses in Africa, East Africa Particularly.
- Secondly I’m very passionate about our customers and how we can bring them lifechanging tech.
- I love building teams. I love finding and hiring really exceptional people.
How did you get into Fenix International?
In 2009 I moved to Western Kenya, I was living in a small village outside Kakamega and my goal was to start a business. I had worked for 5 years for Village Enterprise helping entrepreneurs star businesses and I wanted to start one of my own. I did lots of research and in the 1st 2 months of living there, the neighbor to my left had a kerosene fire and the whole house burnt to the ground. About 4 weeks later, the house on the right burnt to the ground and they lost their 1 year old daughter in the fire.
There’s friends of mine from Stanford who started solar companies and I reached out to them and asked them why these lights weren’t available here. They had offices in several countries including Nairobi but they weren’t reaching the rural communities. So I became passionate about creating distribution and financing that enables these people to afford this technology.
SO I was running this business in Kenya and I was purchasing products from different companies, I purchased a few units from Fenix and I really liked them and so I got to know the founders and I had my first child. With my business I was going to have to raise a lot of money or have the opportunity to join Fenix. They had a great technology, we already had a good relationship, I was here on the ground so I joined in January 2012.
You’ve lived and worked in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. How is it different in each of these countries?
They are all very different and unique in their own ways, but equally there are a lot of similarities that do create an East African community. I think you can build businesses that operate in all three markets and a lot of things will translate but you do need to know how to customize them for those unique markets because each have some unique needs.
From a business stand point, you can create a Pan African business but you just need to take into account a few unique places.
But I will say that I love Uganda and my family and I see ourselves staying here for a long time.
What are the highlights of your work in Uganda and with ReadyPay specifically?
1st is the customers. We’ve brought them an affordable, quality home power system to 55,000 households, touching over 300,000 lives for lights, phone charging, radio, TV and we’re allowing them to create a credit score with us. We’re giving loans to people who have never been in the financial system, and banks won’t lend to them. I think that access to finance is one of the keys to getting out of poverty, to improving the quality of life, and getting out of poverty.
Do you have trouble with some customers not keeping up with their payments? How do you deal with that?
We’re taking a risk, definitely there will be some people who are unable to pay, for one reason or the other. When we identify the customers who are having trouble keeping up with payments we pay home visits and call regularly. Our goal is to have a conversation with customers, and we have a flexible policy, we don’t just swoop in and reposes if you miss a payment. If they are being honest with us and are in touch, we have ways to help them get back on track.
We have found that people who aren’t paying because of either short term issues or long term issues. We work with both, for long term, we offer them the opportunity to return the device, come back and pick it up again in the future when they are ready to continue. We even give them the chance to return it and get their deposit back if it’s in good condition.
We also have a few who abuse our system, we deactivate their units and we want to send a message to those who are paying that there are advantages to paying on time, as well as a message to those who are defaulting that they are hurting their credit score so that it doesn’t make sense to tamper with the product.
WE believe that instead of coming down with sticks, if you create value for customers, they are less likely to default.
How do you distribute your product and ensure it reaches those who need it the most in the rural communities?
We work with MTN dealers network so that they are available around the country. We do technology well, we partner with MTN that does distribution well, no need to reinvent the wheel. We like to use data to inform our team, so we are always analyzing our stock and sales patterns and work with the distributors to get it to where it’s needed more.
There’s also the Fenix sales team that manages a team of ReadyPay Champions. These are commission based sales agents. They go to the deepest parts of the rural communities and identify people who need this product and tell them about it. These champions are the ones who get us to the customers in the rural areas, and we make sure they make a livable wage from distributing ReadyPay.
Apart from distribution, what’s the nature of your relationship with MTN?
We work with them to market the product. One of MTN’s main goals is to bring Mobile Money to more people. When they did research they realized that a number of people in the rural areas didn’t have a lot of reason to use MTN Mobile Money regularly. So providing them with solar through ReadyPay gives them both a reason to keep using it to enhance the quality of life and also to keep their phones powered up. This helps MTN meet their objective as we also meet ours which is to get our product to many more households.
How is the government helping your business?
The government has allowed solar product to get into the country VAT free. It’s very important that this legislation is upheld, it makes sure customers can access this product in a more affordable way. We hope they maintain that. In Kenya it was taken away but they put it back because in a period of 6 months very many people couldn’t afford these products.
There’s a lot of discussion around legislation in the finances sector. Legislation that supports mobile money inherently supports companies like Mobile Money. I think fintech is critical to opening access to capital for customers and businesses in this market so the more the government can support FinTech with legislation that enables innovative financial services companies come in and work directly with customers it wil open up a lot of capital in this market.
Congratulations upon winning the Outstanding Woman in Innovation at the MTN Innovation Awards last year. What words of advice would you give women who are looking up to you and wondering how they can get where you are?
First of all, I never even at any moment that the fact that I’m a woman would make it harder to succeed. I think the three things that I would say are:
Identify mentors in leadership roles and develop a strong relationship with them as you develop your career. Ask them for advice, ask them for help when faced with difficult leadership decisions and don’t be afraid to ask them to connect you with other great mentors, partners or investors as your business grows.
Work towards leadership roles in non-professional settings as well, such as sports teams, debate teams or other communities and groups. Leadership experience outside of the office will build your confidence, will help you develop key leadership skills, and will make you a better leader at work.
Have confidence that women can do everything that men do and focus on learning and delivering results at every stage of your career.
What can we expect to see from Fenix International in the near future?
We’re starting to offer new products including loans for power upgrade, either more panels or batteries, you can get a data enabled phone or an education loan for your children if you have a good credit score. We pay it to the school directly and they make payments on Mobile Money. We are also testing cash loans. We really believe in life changing products, so we want to be sure that whatever product we deliver has a very big impact on our customers’ lives.
Random fact about you?
I love the sport of ultimate Frisbee, I played it seriously in college and I now play with the Uganda National Frisbee team and we went to world Championships in Dubai.