Dints international—supply chain innovation and positive change

Friday, 20 February, 2015

This is Part 1 of our three-part interview with Geoff de Mowbray, CEO of Dints International. Watch this space for parts 2 and 3 early next week.

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“Outside every minesite,” says Geoff de Mowbray, “there’s a lovely bloke with a 20-foot container. And he’s got steel toecapped boots, and reflective vests, and he is without a doubt the best-placed person to sell to that mine. 

“The mine wants 1,000 pairs of steel toe capped boots. But he can’t afford to buy the stock, and they won’t pay him in advance for those goods because it’s too risky. So he loses out to someone, probably offshore, and he doesn’t get the benefit.”

This place of shadow between idea and reality: this is where Dints International comes in. How? By  “delivering innovative and effective supply chain solutions for the mining and heavy machinery industries in Africa”. 

Origin story

Geoffrey De Mowbray, who we met at the UK Department of Trade and Industry stand at Mining Indaba 2015, spent his teenage years in Cameroon. There, it became apparent to him that business opportunities were not fair: contracts tended to go to offshore companies or contractors, and there wasn’t always feasible access or benefit for local communities. 

He made the decision early in his life to respond by using business as a tool for development. “I decided I wanted to drive change where I could,” he says, “and on the other side, make money. Because I believed that the two, if you do them well, are mutually self-perpetuating.”

The driving question, then, was this: How to make companies more profitable by making them more ethical? The conclusion: “find a mechanism that benefits all stakeholders.” He offers a simple macro example: when mines go on strike, they lose billions; when, through open, transparent engagement with workers and communities, they find a way to prevent strikes, they don’t lose billions. 

The micro example is localisation strategies. Everyone’s very keen to get local suppliers on board, de Mowbray says, but there are fundamental challenges to the ability of those suppliers to supply the goods. Hence the man in the container—who, de Mowbray elaborates, was “probably a distributor for someone offshore once, until they took the contract and shafted him.”

This one is a particularly pertinent issue because Dints was created as de Mowbray’s response. Through Dints he hopes to create a mechanism—which he describes as “mainly a finance play”—whereby Container Man is enabled to trade in his environment, using his existing relationships. “And that,” de Mowbray says, “is perfectly doable, using technology, using finance.” 

It’s not without challenges, of course: he brings up the example of an initiative of the Unidos platform for the natural resources industry to use local suppliers in Mozambique, which proved too complicated to be effective, because it was lacking the necessary mechanisms for efficiency—a dynamic evident across the world.

The business case behind this is de Mowbray’s belief that SMEs, with advantages of nimbleness and adaptability, represent a major part of the future of good business worldwide, and particularly in Africa where, broadly speaking, entrepreneurial culture is strong. The advantage from the mines’ point of view, on the other hand, is that strengthening SMEs offers them a market where competition to provide services is strong and costs are driven down as a result. Governments, meanwhile, get more taxes, benefiting citizens. 

In this context, says de Mowbray: “I genuinely can’t think of a stakeholder in that situation who loses out.” The all round benefit is no accident: “while I’m in business,” he continues, “my main goal is to drive as much positive change as I can.”

Commerce for development

While the model as described is commercial, de Mowbray is adamant that it encourages development - not least because it’s applicable in the same way to any supply chain or size of producer, down to the provision of tomatoes for the minesite restaurant. It’s a simple solution that ticks the boxes for all players in the chain and sets up a positive spiral that’s ultimately to everybody’s benefit.

Technology is an essential component in making this happen. Pricing provides a general example: 15 years ago, a rural rice seller in village had to accept their trader’s price; now, however, for the cost of a couple of SMS messages he or she knows exactly what the going rate is and can negotiate on the back of that; and this change is the same across industries, from low-level agriculture to small-scale gold mining. Massive uptake across populations gives the market the backbone to deploy tools like Dints’ offerings effectively: “business, de Mowbray says, “comes down to people and technology.” He smiles. “You do have to have people.”

Tech vs jobs

The people question is an interesting one, especially in the context of Dambisa Moyo’s contention earlier the same week that technology is in fact a net destroyer of jobs, and a big one—and as such one of the keystones for a rather miserable view of the next 20 years or so of world history.  We asked de Mowbray about the flipside of technology.

“It’s undeniable that it’s changing the labour force dynamics,” he concedes, “but that’s not always for the bad.” He provides an example from the mine: “Caterpillar’s on site with their stock of parts; they issue a printed invoice to a mines employee standing there whose job it is to enter the invoice manually into the mine system. Not much job satisfaction, low paid, and she spends most of her day texting because its soul-destroying. Attention to detail isn’t going to be a top priority. That is something that should be replaced by technology. But other jobs can be created on the back of that.” Underpinning his belief that this change, which he sees as inevitable, can be a net good is the belief that the human element can’t be removed, no matter the pace of change. “What won’t ever go away is the fact that people want to do business with people.” It will change jobs, he concedes, and people are looking to cut the big costs; no-one currently appears to have clear mastery of that dynamic. “But things change.”

We ask him about Chris Griffith’s contention earlier the same morning, when he argued in a presentation on modernising Anglo American Platinum’s mines that while technology will remove jobs, it’ll make the remaining ones qualitatively better, enabling employees to be better trained and skilled, live closer to their communities, earn more money and be more satisfied. “Jobs will go,” de Mowbray agrees, “but elsewhere jobs will be created. I don’t think you should remove the human element: I want computers to run the analysis for me so that a typical buyer in a mining company can be presented with correct information on which he can make decisions. I don’t want the computer to make the decisions.”

END OF PART 1

In Part 2 on Monday, we discuss the long game, the difficulty of transferring long term social goals into reality.
IMAGE courtesy of Lifa Communications