In this interview, we introduce you to the Startup of the Month January – Field Buzz – by Frankfurt Forward, as part of our media cooperation with this initiative.
Meet Alexis, who is half British, half French, but still, love to live in Frankfurt. He is the co-founder of the app Field Buzz, together with Habib Ullah Bahar. Field Buzz enables field staff to get better connected to their HQ and much faster information flow. The software (dashboard with web login) and app (for field staff) is used by the likes of United Nations Development Program, Welthungerhilfe, US NGO PSI and BRAC.
The company has two headquarters, one in Bangladesh and one in the Social Impact Lab in Frankfurt, where we did the recording.
During the interview, Alexis is referring to the GIZ (formerly GTZ where Joern was an intern in China) the operational company for international cooperation and development aid from Germany, as well as the bank, backing some of those projects KfW. GIZ is headquartered just outside of Frankfurt and KfW actually has a large presence across many buildings in Frankfurt.
Narrator: Welcome to Startuorad.io, your podcast and YouTube blog covering the German Startup scene with news, interviews and live events.
Joe: Hello and welcome everybody. This is Joe from Startuprad.io today, all your startup podcast and YouTube blog from Germany. I’m right now here in the social impact lab and I do have Alexis here as a guest. Hey, welcome.
Alexis: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Joe: You’re very welcome because you’re the founder of “Tada”, a subtle hint, Field Buzz, which is the startup of the month of our cooperation with Frankfurt Forward with is an initiative of the Frankfurt Economic Development Agency, which is the third home. But enough about that, tell me a little bit about you.
Alexis: So, my name is Alexis Rawlinson. I’m one of two founders of Field Buzz, and well I will have an opportunity to talk about Field Buzz in a minute. I’m British and French, but I’ve been living in Germany now, for the last 10 years or so. Apart from a two-year period from 2013 to 2015 when I lived in Bangladesh, and this is relevant because this was exactly the time when I founded Field Buzz with a Bangladeshi cofounder. And again, we’ll talk about that in a minute, but, so basically, I’ve been living in Frankfurt for 10 years. I used to work at the crossroads between international development and management consulting as well. I did some, some management consulting for a few years and then I also worked in various capacities in international development and I basically, saw what I could learn from the “business world” and apply to the “development world”, as an opportunity to found Field Buzz.
Joe: I see, and, just the first question that popped into my mind when you’re talking about the Bangladeshi cofounder. Does he still live in work from Bangladesh?
Alexis: Yes, indeed. Uh, his name is Habib Ullah Bahar and he’s a–
Joe: Can you say it one more slow, please?
Alexis: His name is Habib Ullah Bahar.
Joe: Hey, hello, salaam. Salaam to Bangladesh, okay.
Alexis: Right, and it’s not just him by now in Bangladesh, but it’s a team of about 35 people altogether. There’s about 40, I think 46 of us right now in the team and 35 of them are sitting in Dhaka in Bangladesh. So, he’s a pretty important part of the whole puzzle with Field Buzz and, as a result, he’s become a pretty important part of my life too; even though we live on different continents and different cities.
Joe: In different time zones, never forget the time zones, they can completely wreck your planning.
Alexis: And different cultures.
Joe: Oh yeah. What is the normal of saying “hello” in Bangladesh, is it “Namaste”, is it “salaam”, is it “hello”?
Alexis: So, you were absolutely right, “assalamu alaikum” is the normal greeting. Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country and that’s the normal way to say good morning or hello. But a lot of people speak English as well, I mean almost everyone speaks English as well.
Joe: And what was the moment when you decided, okay, that is a situation I have to do something about it? What sparked your idea of Field Buzz?
Alexis: Yes, so maybe I should say just for a second, what Field Buzz actually is and does. We create software on smartphones for organizations with field stuff, so–
Joe: Like the International Red Cross?
Alexis: Exactly, so you can imagine an NGO, but you can also imagine a private company that has some kind of activity in the field. Like one of our clients is the world’s largest coffee trading company and they—
Alexis: And yeah, they trade 12% of the world’s coffee, a normal coffee corporate based in Hamburg. But they have basically officers in, in many different countries, all the coffee producing countries and they’re trying to interact with the smallholder farmers. And previously they were doing that on paper and it’s very difficult to have traceability, it’s very difficult to build long-term relationships with those farmers. As a result, and by using our software, through the smartphone, everything that you were doing on paper, you start doing through the software. And as a result, you start building up a profile of that farmer for example and you can start offering added value services to that farmer and start building a longer-term relationship, helping the farmer to have greater productivity, but also to become a more loyal trading partner. And, it’s a win-win relationship for all of them. So, we do this in agriculture, we do this in last-mile distribution, so one of our clients is Unilever, another one of our clients is Danone, the yogurt company. And again, what they’re trying to do is to somehow sell their products in innovative, inclusive ways in village areas where their products were not available before. And it’s very hard to do that, it’s very hard to have a large field team, a large sales team if you don’t really know what’s going on.
And through our software, using all the tools that are available on a smartphone like GPS, like scanning QR codes to check that you’ve been somewhere or to recognize a transaction counterpart. Many of the other things that we take for granted in an office setting, you can now start doing in remote places. And, so this is basically what Field Buzz does, is it produces this software for these organizations. But also, you mentioned the Red Cross, Red Cross is not actually one of our clients, but we have 06:39 [inaudible] we have UMDP, we have, a US NGO called PSI, which is a large American NGO, we have BRAC, the world’s largest microfinance organization. So, we have a bunch of pretty large clients also in the NGO sector. And you asked, I mean, the original point of your question was–
Joe: Oh, don’t worry, I love way more when my guests are telling, just freestyling. Go ahead.
Alexis: Yeah, I’m just freestyling, so the original point of your question, which I do want to come back to, was that you know, what was the starting point or where did this come about? But I didn’t feel I could adequately answer that question without first explaining, what is it that we do. And essentially, it’s by myself having worked in an international environment and seeing the challenges around transparency and around efficiency and effectiveness, trying to get things done in what we call the last mile. So, this is basically at people’s doorsteps, so if you–. You can basically split the world, I mean, I’m going to vastly oversimplify here, but you can basically simplify the world into two types of populations, you have the urban middle classes and you have the rural and urban poor. And the urban poor basically is the people living in slum areas or caused as slum areas, and then everyone else who is living in rural areas. And basically, if that second group, the urban and rural poor, there’s basically probably about 4 billion people in the world, so it’s like half the world’s population. And if you want to reach those people in any kind of way, if you want to deliver them some kind of service, if you want to deliver them some kind of product, if you want to buy something from them, if you want to offer some kind of interaction with them, you are going to need to go to their doorstep. And the infrastructure to get there is going to be pretty poor because that, you know, that’s the point of poverty is that people are cut off.
Joe: Like the streets, the power, whatever.
Alexis: Yeah, and if you think about, I mean, some of our projects are in places like Northern Mali or the mountains of North-Eastern Afghanistan, you know, like these are pretty “hard to reach” areas for geographical reasons, for poverty reasons, and also because you’re liable to get shot at; you know, by people who don’t like what you’re doing. So, so it means that a lot of these organizations are trying to find ways to operate remotely and it also means that they find it very difficult. They have like skeleton staff and they find it very difficult to really know what’s going on, behind the mountain or you know, at the end of the village road, at the end of the country–
Joe: Because I would assume like the usual cell phone reception is gone like two days before you reach some of the most remote areas. Especially if you do have the mountains, even here in Germany or 09:58 [inaudible] not even the Alps, you do have difficulties just for cell phone reception rate.
Alexis: Right, but it’s temporary and one of the things that we decided to do with Field Buzz was to work through organizations with field staff, with people and not try to get to the farmer ourselves or not try to get to the village person ourselves, but rather to work through these organizations. And these field staff, they’re pretty mobile, they’re going to that village and then they’re coming back and sooner or later they will get Internet. So of course, the Field Buzz system has to be able to work offline, you have to be able to do all your transactions or your interactions offline without any connection to the Internet. But you synchronize before and you synchronize after, automatically in the background, so, you know, the guy doesn’t even notice, he’s walking along and while he’s walking along, he goes through, sort of a crossroads, where there is some mobile phone reception and the phone will synchronize all the data that it needs to at that moment. And then you can go on to the next remote village after that.
Joe: And from what I understand, your software, your App actually helps you to do like offline recordings, whatever they may be, handing out trucks, selling high-end gaming gear, whatever, in areas where we don’t have cell phone reception. And as soon as you get to the next area, where you do have reception, it synchronizes as soon as possible, right?
Alexis: Correct. The one thing, I think this is a very good characterization you gave, there are two things that I would challenge or question. The first is about that high level, high-end gaming gear, although one should not underestimate the tastes of poor people, just because they’re poor doesn’t mean that they have, you know, that they don’t see differences in quality, by the way. But, still, I mean, yeah.
Joe: And usually for some developing countries, it’s very important that you do have a good quality cell phone just for the simple reason, there are, for example, no landline phones. So basically, your cell phone gets your entrance into the world, your connection to the world.
Alexis: Right, I mean the cell phone is becoming increasingly important for a lot of these communities, that’s definitely true. The second thing that I wanted to question was the way that you called it an App and you’re right that there is an App element to it. All the people who are out in the field while you’re out in the field doing something, then indeed you log into an App, you have your unique username and password, you log into the App and you do whatever transactions you have to go through the App. But everyone else who is, kind of, all the other stakeholders, everyone who’s back in headquarters or the donor agency or whoever else is involved in that project or in that activity in that organization will actually be logging in through a web platform. And again, with a unique user name, that unique role that allows them to see certain things and not that doesn’t sound, and there they can, you know, they can see maps, they can see graphs, they can start and basically, they can start piloting the organization a lot better. And you can imagine trying to be an airline pilot like you’re flying a plane and you don’t have anything in your cockpit, is like, that’s pretty hardcore piloting, right? As soon as you could get cloud cover, you’re in trouble, but modern airliners, you know, have a whole range of instruments where you can actually see, okay, this is my attitude, this is my speed, watch out, there’s a mountain down here, all that kind of stuff. And we’re basically trying to provide the same sort of approach for fieldwork, for organizations and really, the key for us is that we’re talking about organizations so it’s
not like a one time you go in and do a one-time survey of people in the village. The idea is that you’re building up relationships with those people, that you are building up recurring transactions that you know, you go back, if I’d go back to the coffee example, the coffee farmer example. You’re going to go back to that same coffee farmer over and over again and you are going to register that farmer and then every time they sell you coffee, you’re going to register it in the system. Every time that an agronomist from your organization comes and delivers training to them, every time they get financing from you, all of these sorts of things, are all going to build a profile. Over time, you’re going to start noticing the differences, in terms of interactions, in terms of improved livelihoods, in terms of loyalty.
Joe: And the big advantage is, for example, with this coffee company, they may search somewhere, here in Germany, somewhere in South America, and there are people in the field are actually working with their coffee farmers and then they recorded on the cell phone and the data is there a few days ahead or a day or two ahead of the actual coffee delivery from the farmer.
Alexis: Right, yes. You’re basically talking about instant or crazy instance, like real-time data except in the special case where someone is offline when they do a transaction, in which case it will be delayed until they come back online. But, essentially, you’re talking about having access to real-time data and to be able to aggregate that data and analyze that data straight away and to react. So, when there’s a crisis, and I’m not talking about the aquatic company, I’m talking about any organization, when there’s a crisis or there’s a problem or there’s an issue or there’s an opportunity, you know, what action to take. And this is really one of the big, big problems of international development, is this lack of transparency and this lack of effectiveness that, there are good ideas in headquarters, but once they tried to, they start rolling them out into the field, you know, it gets bogged down, it gets “gunked” up and we’re trying to resolve that issue.
Joe: I see, basically, everybody who wants to know more, go down here, in the show notes, there will be a link to your LinkedIn profile, as well as to your website and everybody can learn more. And what I would also like to talk about a little bit is about Frankfurt, you may be able to see Frankfurt here in January, we do have a little bit snow, it’s cold, but not as freaking cold, as, for example, New York is right now. I was wondering, you’ve been telling you live for, about 10 years now in Frankfurt, how do you like Frankfurt, what does it mean to you and what does it mean for Field Buzz?
Alexis: Yeah, I love Frankfurt, I didn’t have to say that, but I want to say it.
Joe: He doesn’t have to; I don’t have a gun here.
Alexis: Because it’s just one start off with a month for Frankfurt, right. But, I don’t have to say it, but I, but I want to say it. I don’t know why Frankfurt, at least in Germany, I mean, I think internationally it’s not the same, but in Germany, for some reason, Frankfurt doesn’t have a good reputation. People say, “Oh, it’s boring”. And so, I don’t think that’s true. And also, in terms of, why does it make sense for Field Buzz, so basically, sorry, just to finish on the personal note, we’re sitting here in the social impact lab, they’ve supported me and supported us for the last few years, so we’re very grateful to them. And this is in the heart of Buchenhain, which is a lovely part of Frankfurt if you’re ever in town, come and visit Buchenhain and the 17:58 [inaudible].
Joe: You’ll have down here in the show notes, the link to the social impact lab as well so you can find it. Actually, what came to my mind is what I’m always saying about Frankfurt because most people say, “Ah, Frankfurt is ugly, Frankfurt is whatever” It used to be ugly, they did a lot. But actually, what’s my personal experience is, Frankfurt, has as many beautiful places as any other city here in Germany, but unfortunately, Frankfurt is very good at hiding them.
Alexis: Yeah, and, if you only stay in the towers and around the central station, you’re going to get a negative impression of Frankfurt, but if you come out to some of the neighborhoods where people actually live and, and Buchenhain is a great example, then it’s actually a great place to live. And I thoroughly recommend it, but more importantly, Frankfurt is a great location for our startup. I mean, as I said, our startup is not only in Frankfurt, we also have our Dachau office, which is equally important, I mean it’s really important for us. And this is something I guess a little bit particular about our startup, is that we really have two founders, equal weighting, I’m more on the client and project management side and Bahar is, my co-founder is more on the engineering product side. And we really have our team in two locations and we really think as one organization across multiple locations, we also have a few people in a few other cities. But whereas, where some of our projects are found, but the special thing about Frankfurt, is that it’s really not just about finance. I know that there’s a bunch of other industries where, Frankfurt does play a leading role, like, you know, transportation and logistics and I think life sciences, medical–
Joe: Never forget cloud computing, Frankfurt still has until this day, the busiest Internet nod in the world. So, it’s also pretty good, that’s why all the cloud service providers, all the big cloud companies are here in Frankfurt as well.
Alexis: Right, all our Internet is hosted, all our servers are hosted on AWS, Amazon web services, and when people ask, “But where is it geographically located?” And I’m like, “Frankfurt, actually”.
Joe: There are many data centers, it’s one of the booming industries here, in Frankfurt, they have more and more data centers built.
Alexis: But one of the hidden champions of Frankfurt, which is the one that is most relevant and most interesting for me, is that Frankfurt is also the heart of the international development scene in Germany. We have GIZ, which is, one of the two German institutions for international cooperative development aid and KFW, which is the other one, which is down the road. And I love KFW because KFW is our best client.
Joe: We have to say, set a disclaimer, I used to be an intern of GEZ back in the days in China. They help other countries with development, development-aid, implementing those projects in KFW is 21:08 [inaudible] it’s a bank and they provide the financing for infrastructure, any type of project.
Alexis: Right and KFW provides all kinds of public sector financing, also in Germany but also abroad for developing country projects. And they’re actually are our best client, we have eight projects with them by now. And, so yeah, so the two most important institutions in German development are in Frankfurt. And as a result, a lot of the consulting organizations, a lot of the NGOs, a lot of the people who are doing interesting things around international development in Germany are in Frankfurt. And this is somehow rarely appreciated it.
Joe: It’s usually overlooked, right?
Alexis: Yeah. So, I mean, of course, I’m half British and I’m half French, I could be living in Paris, I could be living in London, but if I’m going to be living anywhere in Germany, Frankfurt is the most rational place to be, apart from also where the heart is.
Joe: It’s also good for logistics and a lot of other stuff, but basically, I’d like to thank you very much for this awesome interview. I love it when I don’t have to talk too much. Everybody who wants to learn more about Frankfurt Forward, about Field Buzz, about the social impact lab, KFW, GIZ, just go down here in the show notes and you’ll find the link. Thank you very much. It was just a pleasure having you here.
Alexis: Thank you very much for having me on your show.
Joe: And, hope to be back into social impact lab sometime this year or the next year.
Alexis: Thanks a lot, thanks
Narrator: That’s all folks, find more news, streams, events at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, sharing is caring.