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The first year in post leading a container-based sanitation business in Ghana

In this blog post Kelvin Hughes, CEO of Clean Team Ghana for the past 19 months, reflects on his journey joining Clean Team and the key areas he has prioritised to develop the business.

Clean Team is a social enterprise delivering safe and affordable sanitation services to low-income households in Kumasi, Ghana. The enterprise provides customers with a container-based toilet that can be used in their homes, with a sealable internal cartridge to collect waste. Professional waste collectors collect the waste from each house, replace the cartridge and clean the toilet. The waste is then transported to the city treatment site, ensuring safe disposal.

The business currently provides 2,500 toilets, delivering improved sanitation to 12,500 users, and has grown and professionalised substantially over the past year. In order to develop the business and provide more toilets, the operations team has doubled in size, with a focus on the recruitment of more sales agents. Integrating technology solutions has also enabled the finance team to deal with the growth in payments via mobile money. It has been a true team effort to reach this point.

When joining a social enterprise operating in what can be a challenging market, it is easy to meet customers frustrated at the current situation, and dive in to try and fix the issue. But passion solves little at scale and, in my opinion, some clear-headed thinking must partner that drive in order to develop something both useful and sustainable.

There are three key things I have observed as CEO of Clean Team since joining last year:

Investing in staff is key

It is the staff at Clean Team that enable the business to develop. Investing in their professional development and satisfaction at work helps retain the people we need for the business to grow and succeed.

Training has been a powerful tool this year and investing in regular training internally has been one of our greatest successes. Most people are doing something they didn’t realise they could do a year ago, and we are formalising staff development with individual bespoke training plans to ensure learning and adapting continues.

Adopting a people-led approach has transferred into the field and how we speak to customers. Increasingly, we are training the team on active listening to ensure that we are putting people first and not reducing customers to just numbers on a sales report.

This shift has contributed to improved customer service and relations. Our monthly customer churn has reduced to <1.5%, and active listening now plays a crucial part in the sales pitch.

Building staff awareness of the main drivers of the business creates ownership

Complimenting staff training has been building the team’s understanding of the business plan and next stage of growth, to ensure a commitment to Clean Team’s mission and how we will get there. An afternoon discussing the component parts of gross margin or customer acquisition cost can have big ripple effects and bring greater awareness of different areas of the business.

We have seen gross margin grow more than 10%, despite a high inflation rate in Ghana. Gross margin is an important metric for us because it helps push the business towards financial breakeven and sustainability. Each member of the team understands how their role fits in and contributes to this key driver of the business by putting forward ideas for how we can create greater efficiencies.

Transparently tracking the process towards an improved gross margin at both team and individual meetings means that it’s no longer just the finance team pushing this forward.

Creating a culture of openness is essential to fostering new ideas and innovative ways of working

Social enterprises are often pioneering and at the forefront of trying to demonstrate a different way of operating. Creativity and innovative thinking are needed to solve problems, but not every idea will work.

We have built a culture of understanding that doing anything worthwhile means that it won’t always go to plan. As a small and growing business ideas are vital, and importantly, ideas coming from everyone with their breadth of perspective and experience. Creating an environment for ideas to be put forward and tested has been increasingly important for the business to grow.  

Whilst the business has made huge strides recently we are continually going through the process of learning and improving. As we move into the next stage of growth, and towards providing 5,000 toilets to customers, dedicated marketing and consumer insights functions will be key areas of development. At the core of this, we will continue with a people-led approach that recognises the value of empowering staff, listening to customers and thinking innovatively, in order to drive the business forwards.

It’s been a pleasure leading the team to this exciting point and there is genuine enthusiasm and energy as we look to scale the business. The passion for change will remain but mated to clear thinking and high-quality analysis.