RTO Africa — hiring globally to change lives locally

by Jobbatical March 14, 2017

How a social business is creating tangible change in rural African communities by empowering farmers and small entrepreneurs


In much of rural Africa, lack of access to the right equipment and financial services is holding back millions of small businesses. To unlock their potential for growth and improve the livelihoods of families and communities, RTO, a for-profit social business in Zambia, has developed an asset-financing model for farmers and small business owners.

We chatted with Yue Ma from RTO about the company’s underlying mission and why they’re using Jobbatical to build their team.

RTO’s field team in their Chipata branch

Unlocking the potential of small entrepreneurs

RTO, which stands for Rent to Own, was founded in 2010, when its Canadian and Zambian co-founders were working extensively in rural Zambia. “They noticed that there were high-potential, hardworking farmers and entrepreneurs struggling to grow their enterprises,” says Yue. “The main reason was that they didn’t have the financial resources to get the equipment to help them grow their businesses.”

The question the founders asked themselves was, “Why don’t we help them source the equipment that helps them grow their businesses and provide it on credit?” That was the beginning of RTO, and the same idea is still at its core today. RTO sells much-needed equipment — water pumps, refrigerators, freezers, power generators and more — to customers in rural areas. Always on the lookout for new products to add to the platform, RTO has also launched renewable energy assets, light duty trucks, bicycles, and motorbikes in the year and a half Yue has been part of the team.

Happy customer: Dorris with her new power generator. All photos courtesy of RTO Africa.

Even in the most remote areas, clients get the equipment delivered to their doorstep. Along with the essentials, RTO offers a bundle of services that help clients maximize their chances of success: helping with equipment selection and making sure clients find a payment schedule that fits their needs. RTO staff then collect payments from the clients until they clear their debt, at which point they own the equipment.

“Our service is quite unique in Zambia,” says Yue. “You’ll find people offering parts of the services, but no one is doing the package. It’s a niche market.”

The challenges of finding the right talent

A niche market calls for niche talent. “If you look at our team, it’s a mostly Zambian team with the addition of some expats bringing in specific skill sets,” says Yue. “With certain roles, it’s very difficult to source locally because the pool is very limited. Not everyone has the skill sets that we need. Therefore, someone who has a track record of developing IT strategy and building teams would be really, really valuable for us at this stage of our business.”

“We were chatting with other people — investors, partners — to see where else they hire,” says Yue of the company’s struggles with hiring. It was one of RTO’s investors who recommended using Jobbatical to cast a wider net in their search. What RTO is expecting to find on Jobbatical is high-capacity talent, Zambian or international, willing to work in Zambia for a job that’s challenging but also genuinely rewarding.

And why wouldn’t they want to work in Zambia? “In the case of an expat, I’d say Zambia is a very easy environment to get used to in Africa, one of the easier countries to integrate into,” enthuses Yue. “We’ve always had expats here, and people come from diverse backgrounds.”

The challenges of motivating and growing with a team

“The good thing is, you get the best of both worlds here — we are scaling up rapidly, but our culture is a startup culture,” says Yue of RTO’s close-knit team. Expats and locals communicate smoothly and work together well. “It’s an intense teamwork kind of culture. We have our weekly meetings and daily huddles to make sure everyone is aware of other team members’ work.”

New expats are assimilated into the team culture quickly and efficiently. “We make sure they know who our clients and staff are, and really just get into the mindset of a local.” That crucial step happens as quickly as possible after the person’s arrival in Zambia. “And from there, we try to schedule as many field trips as reasonable.”

Yue believes that aligning people’s interests with their work responsibilities is vital to keeping a team motivated. “The company is growing very quickly and there are tons of ideas and new things happening every month. It’s important to keep people informed of those opportunities and try to give as much exposure as possible to these opportunities, so people can actually say, “Hey, this is something I want to do. Can I spend a bit more of my time doing that?” And then be very open to those suggestions. We’re growing as a business, but we also want our team to grow professionally.”

The team celebrating their 1000th client

A crucial part of the dynamic environment of a growing business is exposure to challenges that inspire. “It’s pretty much a norm here,” Yue says. “You get challenges thrown your way and the expectation is that you lead in resolving the challenges and let the team bounce ideas off each other, but take ownership. We’re looking for that new process improvement, innovation in how we do things and how to improve on things.”

Yue believes that in order for a business and its people to succeed, focusing on technical challenges needs to go hand in hand with the company’s driving mission — to unlock the potential of rural entrepreneurs to improve the quality of life for their families and communities. “I can hardly imagine working purely for the challenges without considering the direction you’re heading in — the mission. On the other hand, if you’re focusing on the mission but neglecting the technical challenges — yes, you’re doing something good for society, but how do you know you’re doing it in the most efficient way? It’s important for these to complement each other to keep the big picture.”

At RTO, the big picture is truly an inspiring one. “What’s really cool is that you get to know the impact on our clients,” says Yue.

“When we design any process — whether it’s a new product or a change in how we do things — you see that impact immediately.”

Another happy customer: John, a smallholder farmer

For Yue, that’s one of the most appealing aspects of working at RTO. “You meet the person who has been impacted, and that quick feedback loop is highly motivating,” she says. “It’s so nice when you meet the clients, you talk to them about how they are, how their family is, and you come back in a few months’ time to see that they have access to equipment. You see the active changes.”

“I’ve had clients telling me that with the extra income they’re earning now, they can send their kids to school. It’s really tangible and it’s quite powerful to hear.”

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