Micro distribution in emerging markets– key issues to consider

There is increased interest in micro distributors and the potential they hold within an inclusive business model. Well documented micro distribution models include the Coca-Cola MDC (Micro-distribution centre) in Africa and Unilever’s Shakti model in India. Micro distributors can be found in emerging markets where markets are fragmented and modern trade (e.g. Walmart, Tesco) is still in the very early stages of development. Below are a number of issues to consider when activating a micro distribution model.

Advantages of Micro-distribution

Entrepreneurial spirit –A micro distribution system allows companies to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit that is so evident in many emerging markets. However, entrepreneurs must have a long term view to ensure the same consistent quality service is provided to customers.

Flexibility – Micro distributors tend to be more flexible in responding to customer needs. For example, they trade longer hours and can also provide weekend and night deliveries. They can act as a credit provider to low income customers. They “live and breathe the streets” of the communities they work in and are in a much better position to control accounts receivables.

Issues to consider prior to implementation 

Channel Focus – A micro distribution model is not a one size fits all solution for all channels. Micro distributors generally focus on selected channels in traditional trade e.g. mom & pop shops, Dukas (East Africa) and Spazas (South Africa).

Complexity – Due to the complexity of sale and distribution, micro distributors will likely struggle to service modern trade effectively. It is best to reduce the complexity (e.g. reduced stock keeping units) for the micro distributor, including expected tasks and activities. It is important to understand what the micro distributor can successfully take care of in the supply chain.

Role definition – Companies needs to determine which aspects of the business they would like to control. For example, the Coca-Cola model separates order generation from delivery. This allows the company sales person to focus on more value adding activities (e.g. meeting customers, getting orders) and the micro distributor to focus on warehousing (neighbourhood warehousing) and distribution.

Supply Chain impact – When implementing a micro distributors system, companies must assess what impact the distribution model will have on the rest of the supply chain. For example, compared to larger distributors, micro distributors will require smaller drops sizes that will impact the warehouse and transportation infrastructure and processes.

Shared infrastructure – Profit margins are normally thin and it is important to determine if there are any opportunities to share infrastructure (e.g. warehouse, transport) with other non competitive manufacturers and distributors. This can significantly reduce cost and make the distribution model viable.

Regulatory issues – Companies also need to assess the impact that regulatory issues will have on the micro distribution system. This could include business licenses, zoning and transport bands (e.g. restrictions on delivery trucks during peak hours).

Standardisation – During the design phase, companies need to standardise processes and systems as it will reduce set-up and training costs. For micro distributors, distributor turnover (the number that close down) is high and it is important to evaluate how set-up and training costs could be reduced.

Support – Micro distributors also have limited resources (e.g. capital, employees) and normally require a bundled approach (e.g. training, finance, process design) to ensure their operations are sustainable and viable.

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