Kenya's Got Your Goat Need a 150-lb. mbuzi shipped tomorrow in Nairobi? An African startup does it with vouchers.
By G. Pascal Zachary

(Business 2.0) – Let's say a Kenyan immigrant living in the United States wants to surprise his folks 8,000 miles away in Nairobi with something special for the holidays. Cash? That's easy, but a pretty cold way to say "I miss you." Store-bought gifts? No surprise there. Hey, how about a 150-lb. sacrificial mbuzi--a live goat? After all, a goat is the ultimate symbol of respect in the Kenyan culture. Just one can feed an extended family, even a small village. His parents can be proud--and enjoy a feast.

But where does a smart shopper go to find just the right goat? Neiman Marcus? The local Piggly Wiggly? Nope, no U.S. company--not even eBay--is set up to ship live goats from one continent to another. No, for quality goats and no shipping costs, go to Mamamikes.com, the website of a three-year-old Nairobi-based service. Place your order, pay by credit card, and the folks back home receive a phone message that their voucher is ready to be picked up at Mama Mikes's office and redeemed at a local Nairobi farm. The delighted recipient can have a prime mbuzi home the next day.

Economists and entrepreneurs aren't really in the market for goats--what intrigues them is Mama Mikes's clever voucher system. The company markets vouchers for everything from groceries and roses to gasoline and doctor's appointments.

These seemingly unremarkable purchases could soon make remarkable inroads in a giant global market: One in nine U.S residents were born outside the country, and according to the World Bank, they send home more than $31 billion annually in cash and products. Banks and transfer agents such as Western Union and MoneyGram charge commissions of 10 to 20 percent on cash transactions. But Mama Mikes charges simple flat fees--$4.99 or $9.99--on purchases of any size. That creates plenty of incentive for émigrés to buy goods and services rather than send home cash.

American companies have so far left this emerging field to foreigners. A service similar to Mama Mikes caters to Nepalese living in the United States. Another concentrates on Ethiopians. But Americans are bound to pick up on the trend. "Won't Western Union have to deliver goods to Africa someday?" asks Kuria Githiora, a teacher in Michigan who hails from Kenya and spends about $500 a year with Mama Mikes. Western Union--with 188,000 outlets around the world--says it's watching this new market evolve. But at $99 per mbuzi, maybe not for long. -- G. PASCAL ZACHARY