Working with International Teams: How Sistema is Using This to their Advantage in Kenya
We spoke with both Sistema Bio’s Chief Operating Officer and Kenya’s Communications Manager to learn how they’re using strong communication and knowledge sharing to drive problem solving in Kenya.
Sistema.bio is, “at a very strict definition, a social enterprise, trying to solve some of the most complicated challenges of our time through a social business approach.” Sistema was founded over 8 years ago in Mexico, working with farmers to enable them to see agricultural waste as a resource. They sell a solutions package that includes a hybrid reactor digester system, technical service, financing and long-term assistance to smallholder farmers in rural areas in order to generate biogas renewable energy and organic fertilizer.
While the company has been around in Mexico for almost a decade, they only recently opened their Kenyan branch back in June 2017. In conversations with their COO Esther Altorfer, and Carlette Chepngeno, Communications Manager in Kenya based in Nairobi, we learned how Sistema Bio is using previous lessons learned from operations in their other locations to ensure sustained success as they scale in Kenya.
Challenges with working across time zones
Sistema currently has operations in five countries across four continents. While the Sistema team sees plenty of benefits to working globally, there does remain the difficulty of having to work across time zones. As Carlette noted, “we’re working with a team with an 8-hour difference, it’s not easy. Sometimes you want something ASAP as things happen. Sometimes I might want support but due to time differences, someone is sleeping in Mexico, for example. Time is hectic to deal with!”
This is to be expected when working in with such an international team. At Shortlist, we certainly can understand some of these challenges, as we find ourselves working with our team members in India and Africa. Despite some of the geographic challenges, for Sistema, the advantages of working with a diverse group of people outweigh the timing issues.
Employees at Sistema say that one of the many benefits of working globally is the opportunity to share their cultural identities and differences. Esther particularly appreciates “hearing at least 3 or 4 accents in English per day, speaking 2-3 languages in one day. That’s really unique and fascinating to learn more about new cultures. Especially in the rural areas, traditions about animal keeping, discovering how similar smallholder farmers are, and still how different they are, their traditions, etc.”
The team is also driven by sharing a vision that helps to create a better world. Esther is inspired to see people from different places work together towards a common mission. “As a team, it’s exciting to meet people with the same passion who are striving to achieve the same change all over the world, who unify around biogas and are excited and passionate about it.”
While there are inherent differences in cultures and traditions across the world, it’s the similarities between people, specifically farmers, that has helped Sistema provide their Kenyan team with tools to succeed from past lessons learned.
Knowledge sharing to chart a growth path
“Farmers, a farmer in Kenya, India, Mexico is the same farmer. Their lifestyle, their day-to-day activities, etc. they’re very similar.”
This observation from Esther is a core component of their understanding of and commitment to their clients. It has helped their team members, whether in Asia, Latin America, or Africa, to support one another’s work. This is affirmed by Carlette: “When looking at data with the communications team in Mexico, between Kenya and Mexico it’s very slight in difference. I was getting a lot on approaches in Mexico and thinking it could work perfectly in overcoming our barriers, like financing.”
This data-driven discovery helped Sistema to more easily provide affordable financing options for their farmers in Kenya. “When we launched in Mexico, we wanted to partner with micro-finance institutions. But that wasn’t easy because the sector is expensive. The interest rates for small loans in rural areas are really exorbitant. Sometimes as high as 200%. That’s not affordable. Now, because of that, our team in Mexico developed an in-house financing in partnership with Kiva. This give farmers a flexible payment plan over a period of time. Knowing this worked in Mexico, we replicated it in Kenya and now also works here.”
A Winning Approach
This approach has helped Sistema get a leg up on the competition in other ways as well, such as by being able to offer a superior product with proven results. “The technology works in Mexico. Therefore it was easy to bring that to Kenya and confidently tell Kenyan people we would give them a 10-year warranty.” Overall, this approach has helped employees to work cohesively from thousands of kilometres away, by constantly thinking about how their work can not only help their in-country team but all members of Sistema. “Maybe it was a communications strategy, or just an area we’re trying to build up, because some of what I do, what our team in India, in Mexico does, is try to learn from one another. We’ve been trying to develop and document the work we’re doing, how we’re doing it, so that someone in another country can find it and use it.”
So what kind of people do well in a working environment like Sistema’s? According to Esther, “people who excel are extremely good communicators, who are able to integrate different cultures and communication habits. People who can create different engagement across different cultures and personality.” In addition to these skills, Sistema is proud of its commitment to the environment and dedication to providing a societal benefit. “ One of our values is that we’re passionate about our impact. The first is that we’re part of the larger movement to make society work for everyone. We’re passionate about our impact so we’re willing to go the extra mile, work the extra hour, and go beyond what a normal employee selling a normal product might want to do.”
Thanks so much to Esther and Carlette for sharing their wisdom with us! We’re proud to partner with Sistema.bio and help them build happy, high-performing teams.