Marketing matters [New blog series: AT, Entrepreneurship & Finance - with Assistive Tech Impact Fund]
This blog series was authored by Dr Rhys Williams, with insights from our UK aid funded AT2030 programme - Assistive Tech Impact Fund. Part of GDI Hub innovation arm: GDI Hub Accelerate
Ask any entrepreneur what they are working on right now, and they’ll provide you with a laundry list of business activities. For entrepreneurs in the assistive technology sector, it is no different, but on top of the demands that are common to all founders, there’s additional work. The assistive technology for Low- and Middle- Income Countries (LMICs) is hard to navigate because founders must navigate the layers of stakeholders, whilst also developing quality AT that lives up to regulatory requirements, and establishing support systems to ensure people have access to quality well maintained AT in the long-term. This is all on top of continued product validation efforts, manufacturing, importing and exporting, taxes- the list goes on. One area of business development that seems to be consistently ignored by entrepreneurs in the assistive technology sector is marketing. As one AT entrepreneur put it:
“Do you know, when people have a million jobs to do, sometimes marketing can get lost”
They aren’t the only AT entrepreneur who has neglected marketing, with many others reporting that marketing just isn’t an area they have invested time into. However, the deprioritisation of marketing has far-reaching consequences. One person that we interviewed who works at an AT company, but came from a commercial background explicitly called out the lack of strong marketing in their organisation as a key barrier to their companies sales process, financial sustainability and growth. The lack of marketing expertise and mastery by AT companies also has a larger knock-on effect. Without the presence of AT companies being felt within entrepreneurial ecosystems across Africa, awareness of our sector remains low. Low awareness of assistive technology and disability innovation makes it a challenge to attract stakeholders like investors and high-quality talent that are needed to keep AT companies growing and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
In high-income countries and well-developed entrepreneurship ecosystems, the ‘growth’ playbook for startups is relatively simple, and involves significant spending on digital advertising. For entrepreneurs in LMICs, it isn’t that simple, because many people still do not have consistent access to the internet. Therefore, companies in LMICs typically need to use all types of marketing and advertising, making use of digital methods and social media, in tandem with more traditional channels like print, TV and radio. A blended approach helps to provide coverage and ensures that no customers are inadvertently excluded.
The need for a blended marketing approach however may be changing, with COVID accelerating the digitalisation of customers. One AT entrepreneur that we spoke with noticed that in 2020, they experienced a significant increase in paying customers, compared to non-paying customers:
“For the first time in Nigeria, we had a 49:51% mix of funded versus fee-paying clientele. This was surprising to us, like oh, we are able to get 49% of our clients as fee-paying clients.”
To try and figure out why they had a rapid increase in paid customers, they spoke to customers and found that many had come online during COVID, and became aware of their AT via social media and digital marketing. This digitalisation of customers also coincided with their team receiving social media and marketing training just before COVID hit.
So for other AT entrepreneurs building their business, it’s time to take marketing seriously. Even if companies are not in a position to hire marketing professionals, the founding team can at least start to upskill in this area to get their company and AT out into the world. As we see more and more companies crack ‘shouting’ about AT, we’ll not only see individual companies grow through sales, but we’ll also begin to see more and more ecosystem stakeholders wake up to the opportunities that this impactful sector has to offer.
All of our research contributes to the UKAID funded AT2030 programme. Sometimes our insights are often collected through confidential interviews so we can’t attribute the original source.