Social Media Studies

Syllabus for this semester’s Social Media class in Aalto Computer Science Dept, including high school students

One of the things I’m doing for myself as I go back to school as a full time student after 30 years exactly is taking the classes that will bring me uptodate as rapidly as possible on the current state of the art in higher education and the post Millenial generation now at University. All three of my courses that started Monday this week have been over subscribed by students, and I have it on hearsay that good old fashioned engineering design of machines and moving parts has never had fewer students attend the first lecture on Wednesday than ever in its 20 year history.

Yesterday, I knew by the end of my Exploratory Data Visualization class that I was going be exercising those parts of my brain that haven’t done any exercise to keep in shape any time in these past thirty years. Oh no, what have I done to myself?

Teacher was very kind to me, after class when I went to confess I hadn’t learnt to do any programming language since BASIC in 1982-83 plus the Fortran they introduced me to in High School and which I learnt more of at Engineering college in the 1980s.

Sure, we have a unique set of skills that serve us well to navigate this hybrid digital world without flailing, even though we have not had the time to invest in catching up programmatically which we know from past experience will take us an extra effort of cognitive investment because we’ve fallen so far behind in the past thirty years we know we have a lot of reading to do to catch up even to pick up a new tool for data visualization.

The sad part is that we want to be as facile with these new fangled tools as we were with our own first generation ones. We were the pioneers in our generation. My father was an early adopter/innovator so I’ve always been exposed to buggy first concepts in the market. It tests your skills to get it to run the way you want it.

But today, the metrics of skills and knowledge for such a heavily digitized economy have themselves changed, not just the fields of knowledge. Communication requires programming knowledge if you want to maximize your audio-visual toolkit of content making. My generation of users made do with handheld digital point and shoots, basic UCD photo tools like WordPress and Flickr, we are the C in the B2C of first generation digital globalization.

Otoh man does not live on digital skills alone. Clothes must be made out of cloth and the whole must be organic, natural, and sustainable. Who will lead the way without 5G to make the human race unemployable?

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While you were out: 15 years later

The locus of Industrial Design and Manufactured Product Development has shifted halfway across the world to Asia – South Korea, China, India, the ASEAN. Wherever there is manufacturing and industries, there will be the necessary critical mass of skills, experience, and knowledge for industrial design to flourish.

In December 2004, I wrote an article for the industrial design magazine Core77 on the shift of manufacturing and production away from its historic origins in the original industrialized countries to the emerging economies of Asia, most famously China. Back then, major product development firms such as IDEO and Frog were opening offices in Shanghai to be closer to the factories producing the products of their design studios. And, the idea was that the fuzzy front end of innovation – the conceptualization of product portfolios, the strategic design planning, “design thinking”, et al – would remain behind to provide higher value projects whilst the mundane activities of preparing the final design for manufacture would be outsourced to ‘CAD monkeys’ closer to the factory floors.

“..with the increasing commoditization of the back end, low intellectual investment portion, a service that most OEMs in China can now offer as part of their service, industrial design firms need to restructure to focus more on the product definition end, the early research, the strategic design planning and platform innovation end of the development cycle in order to generate revenue and stay profitable.” ~ Michael Winnick, December 2004, Core77

Fifteen years later, all I see when I browse for writing on design, in the English language, are articles with UX in their titles, replacing human centered design or product design that once was prevalent – it is the digital products and services sector that has filled the vacuum left by the departure of  industrial design and the production engineering. User experience (UX) with its elements of strategy, multidisciplinarity, and the necessary human-centeredness has come to represent the design industry in the professional writing I see on company blogs, Medium channels, and magazines.

Harry West from Frog Design noted as more nations develop the technological, transportation, and human capital infrastructure to compete, their comparative advantages turn more to creative designs that are able to command high value not only because of their function and reliability but also because of the experience or special applications they provide to their customer. ~ pg 13, Industrial Design: A Competitive Edge for U.S. Manufacturing Success in the Global Economy, NEA Report 2017

In the meantime, the Chinese city of Shenzhen has evolved into a recognized innovation hub in the relatively brief period of time since I last wrote on this topic. Much of this evolution has been built on the back of the low cost manufacturing that originally made Shenzhen’s name.

… businesspeople leading Shenzhen’s transition from “factory of the world” to a global center of technological innovation. The city accounted for more than half of China’s international patent applications last year, far outpacing Beijing, a Nikkei analysis finds.

Having been the ‘factory of the world’, the city is full of experienced hardware engineering talent, that in turn provides the critical mass for technological innovation. This 2017 Fast Company article on Shenzhen’s hardware accelerator captures succinctly what I mean when I say the locus on Manufactered Product Development (as opposed to purely digital) has shifted East:

Late in 2015, Bronx native Nisan Lerea and a friend toiled away in Lerea’s parents’ basement on a waterjet cutter, an effort that began as a senior thesis project at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. Now he’s 8,000 miles away in Shenzhen, China, sharing an apartment with three colleagues, trying to turn the prototype into a commercial success.

Lerea’s company, Wazer, joined HAX, a venture-capital firm and hardware accelerator. “We got excited about the idea of doing development in China because we knew we were going to have to rely on the supply chain here,” he says.

Wazer’s 3′-by-2′ waterjet cutter costs less than $5,000, sits on a desktop, makes digital cuts, and is geared toward small businesses, artists, custom mechanics, automotive hobbyists, and tinkerers who perform these functions manually. Capable of cutting through glass, ceramic tile, stone, carbon fiber, copper, steel, titanium, and other hard materials, its cutting functions are otherwise available only from industrial-scale machines that cost between $100,000 and $1 million.

This locus will not move back, even if manufacturing and industries were to flourish once more in the erstwhile developed world. The deeply interconnected value webs of global supply chains, however loosely joined, have for too long been centered around the hubs of industrial production rather than the fuzzy front end of innovation planning. The concept for Lerea’s waterjet cutter may indeed have been born in Pennsylvania but it could not have come to life in any viable and feasible manner without having to go abroad.

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The Colonized Self

In the mid to late 1960s, my maternal grandfather sought to expand his industrial operations outside India, and began exploring the idea of establishing a manufacturing footprint in the newly Independent nations of South East Asia. By 1970, once the troubles of May 1969 had settled down, a joint venture was founded in what was then known as West Malaysia, and a factory to produce such light engineering goods as hacksaw blades, machine tools, and gauges was set up in the newly built industrial estates of Shah Alam.

As new factories mushroomed in Shah Alam, jobs were found aplenty, and Malaysia thrived with growth rates of 7% to 8%. We became the first of the Asian Tiger economies.

John Drabble’s Economic History of Malaysia sheds light on the timing of this expansion and the choice of country:

However, since about 1970 the leading sector in development has been a range of export-oriented manufacturing industries such as textiles, electrical and electronic goods, rubber products etc. Government policy has generally accorded a central role to foreign capital, while at the same time working towards more substantial participation for domestic, especially bumiputera, capital and enterprise.

The attraction of foreign capital; the export orientation of the factory; the industrialized nature of the venture; and, the promise to provide employment and capacity building for locals; made for an attractive partnership between the long established Indian industrialist and technocrat, and the tiny group of local capital with long historic ties to the Subcontinent. For British Malaya, the colonial administration’s labour policies created a far more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society than has been the norm in other parts of their Empire – Malaysia, and its breakaway island, Singapore, consider Tamil and Mandarin, English and Malay as their official national languages, and the local cuisine reflects the blending of cultures over the centuries. It is hard to feel like a foreigner in either country, to be honest, but perhaps I’m biased having spent a lifetime as an outsider looking in.

And so, my father, the newly appointed Managing Director of the joint venture Malaysian Gauge & Tools Sdn Bhd, relocated from Calcutta to Kuala Lumpur, and on Christmas Eve, 1970, my very young mother arrived with two little girls in tow. We were now officially expatriates, as we were known back in the day. (The politicization of the word expat is a very recent thing). This meant we were restricted to studying in schools that would accept foreign students, and the choices available in the decade after the establishment of Malaysia in 1963 were few.

Two prep schools run on British lines for preparing children to return Home to the UK to complete their education, and the American style International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) attracting the global diplomatic community. Over the course of the next 13 years, I was to attend them both, graduating from ISKL in 1983, after picking up 7 GCE O Levels from London University by the way of The Garden School, in 1982. But back in 1971, I began my international education in a kindergarten run by the Swiss, the closest my mother could find that resembled the Montessori kindergarten I’d been attending in Calcutta. It was close to home and even now I can picture the playground and the classroom very clearly in my mind’s eye.

Thus begins the story of my colonized self.

“i lost cultures
i lost a whole language
i lost my religion
i lost it all in the fire
that is colonization”

~ Ijeoma Umebinyuo

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The legacy of Uber’s business model and app will outlive the company in Africa

As news of Uber’s possible decline and fall filters in, it behooves me to take a moment to ponder the implications for sub Saharan Africa’s digital economic ecosystem, particularly the decentralized hybrid one emerging among the erstwhile informal sectors of the economy, such as motorcycle taxis and other on demand services.

While Uber itself has made waves in all the major urban metros across the continent – Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, etc – its inevitable end will leave a greater legacy than simply copycat taxi hailing services. Granted, the Uber app itself has changed the landscape of private transportation in cities like Nairobi where more than 40 different ride hailing apps are now available to the intrepid driver. And, Uber, in turn, has been changed, its business model forced to conform to the need for cash transactions in addition to the ubiquitous American plastic money.

But the legacy of “uberization” will continue to influence the design of digital services and impact the providers of goods and services active economically in the informal sector. The core of the Uber business model that will remain as a tool of economic empowerment and agency has less to do with customer side user experience of seamless hailing, service, and payment, that made the model disruptive in ‘the West’.

In the context of the digitalizing informal economy, what Uber demonstrated was the power of an app to aggregate demand and redistribute it, based on location and the services provided. That is, where the Angolan goatherd, once had to wait at the livestock market for passersby who might be interested in buying one of his goats, he now has an additional, and passive, marketing tool in the form of the “Uber for live goats” app that permits customers to search for and purchase live goats to be delivered to their doorstep. Demand for his goats is now not simply restricted to the customers who might be visiting a livestock market or a farm but anyone with the app downloaded on their smartphone whose impulse to search for a goat is easily and comfortably satisfied.

This powerful ability of a simple algorithm to collate disparate sources of demand for a good or service and then redistribute them in the most efficient and productive manner among suppliers is the legacy that Uber will leave behind in Africa’s mobile first decentralized digital economic ecosystem.

The prepaid economy offers flexibility and negotiability to those who must manage on irregular and unpredictable income streams, putting control over timing and amount of purchase in the hands of the end user.

The uberized business model has the power to help smoothen out the volatility of their cash flow patterns, as it boosts the productivity and efficiency of supplying demand by collating over distance and time and redistributing it accordingly.

Thus, one sees the incipient ‘uberization’ of anything where demand can be collated in a centralized system and redistributed in the most efficient manner – trucks, cesspit clearing, motorcycles, etcetera – increasing productivity along with the scale and reach of users until one’s truck could conceivably be occupied for renumerative work the entire day with nary an empty trip.

And, one has also begun to see evolution of the business model+app into second order abstractions of collating demand and redistributing supply, digitally able to act as an intelligent intermediary between the available pool of suppliers and the customer side userbase. Regardless of Uber’s own lifespan or its future, this particular legacy will leave its footprint quite considerably on the African digital ecosystem and the informal economy.

Posted in Africa, African Consumer Market, Analysis, Biashara Economics, Business Models, Cashless transactions, Commerce en ligne (e-commerce), Consumer Behaviour, Design, Economy, Ecosystem, Frameworks, Innovation Planning, Marchés africains, Marketing, Mobile platform, Perspective, Platforms, Prepaid Economy & Informal Sector, Research, Strategy, Sub Saharan Africa, Systems, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Decolonizing Africa’s Informal Economy

Photo taken by Michael Kimani at Busia border, Uganda and Kenya, December 2015

I’ve been reviewing the seminal literature on decolonization as it relates to my professional practice, all in various books from the library – Dr Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall’s Decolonizing Design Innovation; Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodology; Kagendo Mutua and BB Swadener’s Decolonizing Research in Cross-Cultural Contexts; specific articles such as Dr. Pranee Liamputtong’s Cross-Cultural Research and Qualitative Inquiry, as well as more contemporary accounts published by the Decolonizing Design collective and the AIGA.

As I reflected on my readings over the past week, it seemed to me that there were more of us articulating the need for decolonizing our lenses for evaluating the operating environment of emerging economies without ever having framed it so. In my own case, I’ve been writing on the need to adapt design tools developed in Chicago and Palo Alto for the sub Saharan African context for more than a decade now, and in my practice that is exactly what I’ve done. But until I was advised to read up more on the concept of decolonization of knowledge by one of the professors, I had no idea that this was the theoretical framework behind what I was saying and doing in practice.

Reviewing the literature was eye-opening to me, and reminded me of Cornell Professor Ravi Kanbur’s paper on the informal economy: Mindsets, Trends, and the Informal Economy. A snippet I reference often is as follows (pg 5):

The administrative mindset on informality has somewhat more complex roots. It is best illustrated by a strand of the dual economy literature which goes back to colonial times. Indeed, the term “dual economy” was coined by the Dutch anthropologist and colonial administrator J. H. Boeke in his characterization of the economy of the Dutch East Indies. The distinction here was between those activities that fell under the purview of colonial rules and regulations, and those activities that were beyond the legal and administrative reach of the colonial government.

My reading of the colonial administrative literature brings to mind the notion of a wall which separates the formal from the informal. On this side of the wall is the well-ordered colonial state, subject to a set of laws and regulations, managed by its administrators and officials. On that side of the wall is the (mostly native) informal economy, ill understood and misunderstood by colonial policy makers. It is perceived to be chaotic, disorganized, with criminal elements.

The colonial yoke has been lifted but not the mindset. Post-colonial administrators the world over, particularly at the local level, appear to have the same mindset as their colonial predecessors. Informality is a symbol of underdevelopment, a nuisance to be swept away and kept out of sight in the modernizing path of the national economy. This obviously meshes conveniently with the analytical mindset which sees informality as in any case dwindling with development.

It is clear from Dr Kanbur’s words that he too talks about the need to decolonize our mindset regarding the informal economy and its role and relevance, without necessarily framing it within the literature of decolonization. And, it is clear that what I’d been saying of late in recent years about the need to recognize the informal economy in sub Saharan Africa as a commercial operating environment in its own right, falls under this same umbrella of thinking.

Though I still have a long way to go in articulating and documenting this within the streams of relevant academic thought, I feel confident enough to state that the time has come to decolonize the informal economy, particularly in the African context, where it is less of a shadowy grey illicit activity as it tends to be in the formal advanced economies of the OECD, and more a matter of the local indigenous economy being framed by the lenses of colonial history.

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Transition to Student Life

Click for full size hi rez image

I’ve been too busy to blog since August began, transitioning into the spaces where I will be a fulltime student once more, after 30 years. Now that the rush of registration and photography and getting all the keycards sorted is over, my time is my own again and I can write. You can see my face in the bottom right hand corner of the Aalto Design Factory staff wall, among the denizens of the Research Wing.

My very first classes are in Aalto University’s Computer Science department, and will begin from the 8th of September. They’re Master’s level courses, not doctoral, but I’m not taking them for the credits. As I told my professor, I’ve been out of academia for so long, I need to find my way back in again. I must learn the formal language of user research and product design, for digital ecosystems, on the mobile platform. And, where better to immerse myself on this topic than in Finland, the birthplace of GSM?

Tomorrow, I promise to begin writing again regularly on the blog. This time, on design.

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“You can call my name” – A poll on labels that divide us

Hand curating an Africa specific economy, innovation, and enterprise timeline on Twitter means that I come across a plethora of labels to describe the rest of the world outside of the mainstream. And, in the global mainstream media, this tends to mean the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Given the recent spate of headlines on stereotypes and racism in the English language internet, I was moved to run this poll among an audience that is primarily from the African continent, and diaspora, along with a sprinkle of others interested in the informal economy and the mobile internet. After all, we only get to read about these things, and nobody has ever asked us what we want to be called, they simply label us as lumpen masses to be commiserated with. I promised to write up this post, and to see if I could find the background and history for these labels that we despise.

The Third World

Cold War alliances circa 1975. Green is non aligned or neutral.

The term Third World has its origins in post World War 2 era geopolitics of the previous century. Strictly speaking, “Third World” was a political, rather than an economic, grouping per Wikipedia. As you can see in the map above, Finland and Sweden are as green as India and Indonesia. These were the Non aligned nations – the NAM is worth reading about if you have not come across the concept before, I grew up with it as an Indian citizen – or, like Sweden and Finland, they were neutral in the Cold War that raged for decades between the United States – the bloc in blue; and the USSR – the bloc in red.

So… one wonders, when and how did “Third World” come to mean the poor and the dispossessed?

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The Perfect Storm: A Continent, A Phone, A Business Model

In the mid 1990s, in a small city in northern Finland, engineers and designers began work on the product development of a mobile phone that would eventually become one of the best selling Nokia models ever – the 3310, released in Europe and the Far East in the year 2000. The continent of Africa was not yet on their radar as a target market. Its iconic success for its legendary durability was still some years in the future, as was its impact on sub Saharan Africa.

Around the same time, in 1994-5, Portugal Telecom’s mobile telephony division TMN, invented the prepaid business model whilst researching ways to lower barriers to credit, and thus reach a wider audience for their services. They, too, weren’t thinking about the farmers, traders, or vegetable vendors on the African continent, for whom the prepaid plan was to be a godsend, matching their needs for flexibility and control over timing and amounts expended on cellular services. This, too, was still a handful of years in the future.

Meanwhile, across the African continent, the 1990s were a bleak time of rising prices, dropping employment rates, and meagre economic growth. African nations were still adjusting to the impact of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed by the IMF and the World Bank in their attempts to boost the lacklustre developmental progress. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants had been laid off as Africa strove to meet the demands of liberalization and globalization [aka Washington Consensus] and young graduates left universities with few opportunities and fewer jobs. Uncertainty was rife, as Cameroonian scholar Walter Gam Nkwi observed1, and this was to prove to be a fertile field for the perfect storm that was on its way.

Liberalization of state owned monopolies such as in telecommunications in the mid 1990s opened the doors to private sector operators in cellular telephony, and thus, to competition. In the early days, circa the late 1990s, telcos used a forecasting model for sales and revenue projections to inform service pricing and payment plans that was reliant on number crunching annual growth in adoption rates from a hundred different markets where mobile telephony had already been introduced 2, and then compared against a selected basket of countries with similar economic and demographic attributes to their target country. This approach provided metrics that were to prove to be laughable within the decade. For instance, in 1999, Kenya’s Safaricom forecasted reaching 3 million subscribers by the year 2020 (Kenya crossed 41 million subscriptions in 2018), and Botswana’s Mascom3 to consider themselves comparable to Germany if they met the target of 6000 subscribers per year in the first three years.

These modest forecasts led to telcos assuming a High Margin; Low Volume business model targeting the wealthy who would be eligible for credit required for a monthly subscription. In addition, they expected businesses, government departments, and non govenmental organizations of all stripes to sign up for reliable communication services given the inadequate fixed line infrastructure and the moodiness of its service quality. After all, Africa’s declining growth in the 1980s and 1990s, together with the SAPs, had made a hash of the economy and poverty was endemic. Nobody really expected much from these markets, and investments in cellular infrastructure was limited to capital cities, major trunk roads, and a handful of other urban clusters.

It took two African visionaries, independently, to consider the prepaid business model as the key to Africa in 1998. For Strive Masiyiwa, it had been a long hard fight for 5 long years to crack the telecommunications monopoly tightly held by Mugabe’s government before he was able to launch Econet Wireless with its Buddie prepaid plan, transforming the Zimbabwean market. In London, a Sudanese telcom engineering consultant, Mo Ibrahim, saw the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid that an African mobile services operator could reap, if only he could make it happen. For him too, prepaid was the wedge that would drive demand among the African populace navigating economic uncertainty on irregular incomes. Celtel would go on to pioneer per second billing in LDCs like Malawi in 1999, and capture the lion’s share of the market as price and service became affordable in the bite size pieces that began to match local cash flows. Both men would later be quoted as saying it was prepaid that made their fortunes.

Mobile telephony adoption in sub Saharan Africa (Source: IFC)

Rapid improvements in the prepaid billing model made by advances in software and switching technology, as well as GSM standards for telecommunications, again led by the Finns in their northern stronghold, over the next few years made all the difference as they permitted greater fractionalization of purchasing power thus lowering the barriers to adoption for the vast majority of the population. By 2003, airtime vouchers for voice and text messaging on mobile phones could be purchased for as little as 50 cents, if not less. This ability to purchase bite size pieces of communication triggered the hockey stick curve of adoption of mobile telephony seen in the chart above.

End of life 1998 model Nokia in use in 2008, South Africa

By this time, the robust well engineered Nokia models of the late 1990s were entering the secondhand markets, both locally in Africa, as well shipped in bulk from the wealthier markets of Europe, as people upgraded their devices to keep up with the times. Available for as little as $10 or $20, end of life Nokia phones were suddenly made affordable for the masses, who did not hesitate to put down their hard earned shillings or kwacha or rands for the chance to become connected, at last. Hand me downs by wealthier relatives and devices sent home by migrant workers also played their part in this heady period of adoption and growth. It would take the visible impact of the hockey stick curve of growth for Nokia to turn their focus on the African consumer and her needs, before phones were being designed and built for this market.

Photo Credit: Ken Banks, kiwanja.net

This was the perfect storm of design, engineering, and business that came together on a fertile field to create exponential growth in mobile handset sales and mobile service subscribers in Africa (among the informal economy) that would lead to the next 15 years of annual growth rates of more than 30%, only beginning to show signs of slowing down in 2018.

There was a flurry of research on understanding the impact of mobile telephony in the informal economy and among the low income demographic also known as the bottom of the pyramid in the early years of mass market penetration circa 2007 to 2010, but there has been little or no study taking the long view of the changes that the sudden intervention of modern telecommunications and ICT have made on society, particularly among small businesses, traders, and manufacturers in the informal sector. Commerce and finance have been disrupted by the mobile in the past ten years, and daily life including rural/urban linkages and relationships impacted for the past fifteen years.

What can we learn about this digital society emerging without the trappings of legacy infrastructure and institutions? Early signals of a decentralized digital economy are emerging, and in today’s context, what can these emergent and novel models of supply chains, distribution, marketing, and commerce show us for the future ways of organization for inclusion and impact in our increasingly smaller and more connected world?

Now, what I will study is the longer term transformations that have taken place in the past 15 years in Africa, using the case of Kenya – the world’s leading mobile money market and the testbed of innovative products and services on the mobile platform for startups and companies from around the world.

Posted in Africa, African Consumer Market, Afrique francophone, Airtime, Analysis, Articles on Design and Innovation, Base of the Pyramid, Biashara Economics, Business Models, Cashless transactions, Commerce en ligne (e-commerce), Consommateurs, Consumer Behaviour, Design, Economy, Ecosystem, Emerging Futures, Emerging Markets, Flexibility, global, Informal & Flexible, Innovation Planning, Kenya, Mobile platform, perfect storm, Perspective, Platforms, Prepaid Economy & Informal Sector, Research, Rural Economy, South Africa, Sub Saharan Africa, Systems, Technology, User research | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement and the Age of Interoperability

I have been writing on cross border mobile financial flows across the African continent since early 2015, when the partnerships and agreements made between African telcos to provide interoperability between their mobile money services first began to hit the headlines. In my last post back in August 2016, I asked if Cross Border Mobile Money Would Boost intra African Trade and Regional Integration?

Today, however, recent moves have made this question moot, and inspired me to dive into the topic again. Transformation is taking place across the African continent, than simply innovation on the mobile platform alone, one directly leading to greater regional integration and intra African trade.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA)

Fifty-four African nations met last weekend in Niamey, capital of Niger, to launch the pan-African free trade zone, the world’s largest. The AfCFTA aims to, among several other objectives, create a single market for goods and services and facilitate the free movement of people, capital, goods and services. If the massive deal works as hoped, it will connect 1.3 billion people, creating a $3.4 trillion single continental market, not unlike the European Union. Such trading is expected to begin on July 1st, 2020.

What caught my attention was a little snippet from the essay written by the former Indian High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mahesh Sachdev.  He not only points out that informal cross border trade is rife across the continent, but that with the launch of the AfCFTA, Africa was finally dismantling one of the last major legacies of colonialism – the artificially drawn borders breaking up and fragmenting the ancient overland routes criss-crossing the continent since prehistory. Sachdev concludes:

Subsequent colonialism and mercantilism destroyed internal trade routes, replacing them with an ecosystem in which Africans had better links with their foreign “mentors” than among themselves. By the AfCFTA, the Africans are only trying to correct this historic distortion.

https://www.tralac.org/resources/infographic/13795-status-of-afcfta-ratification.html as of 8th July 2019

The Challenge of Intra African Financial Flows

Financial flows across the continent will be critical for the success of the AfCFTA. Stone Atwine wrote a couple of months ago:

…we can’t facilitate trade without smooth payment systems. It is particularly difficult to move money between African countries. The current regional payment systems are of poor quality or completely non-existent. Cross-border payments are expensive and sometimes slow, which is not ideal for regional trade.

In fact, cross border flows, particularly between currency regions such as those prevalent in Francophone West Africa and her neighbouring Anglophone countries of Ghana or Nigeria, are expensive and difficult because they must be settled outside the continent. The most recent SWIFT report illustrates the situation clearly:Transactions take time and money in fees and currency exchange losses through the formal financial and banking system. Nigeria’s regional traders often prefer to use the parallel market, through the regional Hausa currency bureaux networks, for direct naira to CFA franc conversions, and research quotes wholesale commodity traders on their need to carry sacks of paper money across the border to complete their transactions.

More recently, Mouhamed Kebe points to the need for the liberation of financial services as the key to unlocking the full economic potential of the continental market. And, at Niamey last week, the Afreximbank launched the first continent-wide digital payment system to facilitate payments for goods and services in local currencies – the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPSS).

However, what is being overlooked by both Atwine and Kebe is the informal trade ecosystem prevalent across the continent, the majority of whom may not consider their bank as the first choice for transactions. As the former Indian diplomat in Africa, Mahesh Sachdev writes:

Indeed, the logistical and financial networks across the continent are poor and customs formalities are foreboding, but these can be eventually overcome with stronger political will. Moreover, vigorous “informal” trade across porous national borders is already a fact of African life.

Africa’s informal cross border trade networks

It is this vigorous informal cross border trade and its reach, scale, and impact, that is currently being overlooked in all the assessments of the future of intra Africa trade in goods and services, financial or otherwise. Only rough estimates are available for the value of the informal flows across borders in Africa, some of which are given with caveats that the margin of error could be as high as 40%. What is known, however, that 4 times as many cross border traders are likely to be operating outside the ‘formal’ economy, than are within it.

The most common reason given is the bureaucratic nightmare clouding every aspect of international commercial activity, sometimes more so when its a neighbouring country. Benin’s Port of Cotonou, for instance, has grown into a major revenue base and employer by serving the much larger Nigerian market’s import needs. The changes to be instituted for the AfCFTA to be active will take time and effort to implement. Trade will not pause in the meantime, and it remains to be seen how the informal trade ecosystem will be affected, if at all.

Women play a significant part in informal cross border trade, although their role and market visibility tends to depend on their region’s culture and norms. In West Africa, women who trade have garnered respect, reputation, and influential power, the most successful coming to be known as ‘Nana Benz’.

Cross border trade networks, Olivier J. Walther et al (2015)

Finally, intra African informal cross border trade is neither ‘informal’ in the sense of casual or ad hoc, nor is it simply the purview of the marginalized and vulnerable as INGO reports would have it. The extensive research conducted by scholars like Olivier J. Walther, and others at the OECD’s SWAC, inform us that traders and their intermediaries form extensive social networks spread across their region of activity, able to coordinate and complete complex transactions with a brief phone call.

Informal Package Tracking at Kenya-Uganda Borderland. Photo by Michael Kimani, December 2015

The Role of the Mobile Phone

Its that brief phone call – the one that informs a far flung currency bureau outlet of a Hausa or Somali trader’s cash needs and validates the recipient. The phone number that acts an “informal” package tracking mechanism. The call that brings an order from a regular customer “across the border” and provides the means to receive his payment via mobile money.

Its the mobile phone that connects the far flung networks, whether directly through a phone call, or indirectly through various social digital platforms. And, its the phone that boosts the trading capacity and reach of the businesswomen who now don’t need to cross the border with their goods on their head. As their network of customers and vendors stabilize, this powerful handheld device becomes their primary tool for commerce and communication. Many traders leave their bank accounts dormant, and turn to the convenience of mobile money – agents tend to be part of their daily transactional network and facilitate services such as cashing in and out at times convenient to the businesswoman rather than to the bank.

MPesa merchant paybill numbers distinguished by destination – mobile wallet and bank account, photo by Niti Bhan, February 2019

Mobile money has only increased their efficiency and productivity, whether its receiving small amounts directly into their wallet, or whether its large payments facilitated by such services as MPesa directly into their bank accounts. Though workarounds have already been established for cross border digital payments such as visible at the borderlands of Uganda and Kenya – wholesalers’ agents in Kampala keep a Kenyan SIM active for MPesa payments – African telcom providers have already recognized the importance of interoperability for boosting transactions and revenues.

Slow to pick up pace, as telco negotiated with telco, what 2019 brings us is the ‘age of interoperability‘, now seen as a key facilitator for economic growth. And, it is this that is driving the dream of regional integration while lowering costs and increasing efficiencies of intra-African, all the while remaining under the radar of institutions and their observers. And, it takes the concept of seamless digital payments on the mobile platform beyond the scope of simply mobile money or p2p transactions, as we will see.

The Age of Interoperability

While Tanzania is considered first to have established interoperability of mobile money services, it is Ghana who has surpassed the entire continent in adoption of mobile money and in the implementation of interoperability between various financial payments platforms.

…seamless cross mobile money network transactions became possible in May 2018, following a challenge thrown to the Ghana Interbank Payment and Settlement System (GhIPSS), the telcos and financial institutions […] described the Mobile Money Interoperability (MMI) initiative as successful. He said it has provided a very efficient way of funds transfer for many people, opening up the mobile money payment platform and enabling people and businesses to use it in different ways. Beginning with just 96,907 transactions in its first month, public usage of the cross-network platform grew phenomenally to 502,873 transactions in May 2019.

Interoperability has boosted the use of mobile money payments, and even telcos deem it to be a profitable undertaking. Two major telcom providers across the African continent joined hands to launch a pan-African mobile money platform – Orange and MTN’s Mowali. The GSMA – the telco industry’s global body – is very excited by this move, and help us understand the power of interoperability on a continental scale:

Interoperability solutions make it possible to send money between any two financial accounts, transforming the financial landscape for everyday consumers. Greater interoperability of financial services, including across mobile money accounts, stands to accelerate growth in Africa.

The objective of Mowali is to encourage the everyday usage of mobile money by unlocking access to a diverse payments ecosystem beyond the individual user’s own provider. The introduction of a common payments acceptance brand through Mowali will accelerate online and physical merchant payments. International remittances, payroll services, and a wide range of other financial services will also be made easier by the convenience and reach that Mowali will bring to consumers across the African continent.

In addition to industry led initiatives, mega donors are cashing in the game from the perspective of the financially excluded. Francophone West Africa’s BCEAO bank has just received a grant from the African Development Bank (supported by the Gates Foundation) to develop an interoperability platform for its member countries – the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU).

The grant will create an interoperable digital payment system that will allow consumers to send and receive money between mobile wallets, and from these wallets to other digital and bank accounts. That is, the WAEMU countries that surround Ghana will now also be working towards the same degree of interoperability for digital payments, in parallel with the Orange and MTN platform’s launch. To assess the combined impact, here are the countries where Orange (Left, 2018) and MTN (Right, 2017) are active on the African continent.

 

 

 

A Pan African Digital Economic Ecosystem?

Given what we’ve already seen happen in Kenya, and East Africa, as the outcome of the rapid adoption of mobile telephony and mobile money among the informal sectors of the economy, the foundation is being laid for the hybrid digital economic ecosystem to connect up with each other and scale across the entire continent. It is the value flows that will accelerate beyond the borders, and link the regional value creators up not only with each other, seamlessly, but also provide the accelerant to flow outwards beyond the continent’s borders to the rest of world.

It is highly likely that Africa’s “informal” trade ecosystem might be first out the starting gate by the time the implementation of the AfCFTA begins to lift barriers to the freer movement of goods, services and people. And, given the evidence that mobile money prevalence is linked to a decrease in the informal sector, the actual outcome in 5 to 10 years time might turn out to be far more transformational than ever imagined.

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