Value Webs: Structure and Characteristics of the African Market Economy

When these markets are analyzed, moreover, they turn out to have a structure very unlike those of the West. ~ The End of Corporate Imperialism by CK Prahalad and Kenneth Lieberthal, HBR “Best of 1998″

When Prahalad and Lieberthal wrote this sentence over twenty years ago, they were referring to the huge consumer markets of India and China, based on quantitative metrics alone, eg. size of population segments. It, however, can also describe the situation on the African continent as long protected regional markets liberalise and open, such as Ethiopia’s or Nigeria’s, or as rapid adoption of mobile telephony digitalizes the ecosystem, best known in Kenya, but now being seen to be happening in Senegal or Ghana. Very few countries on the continent can’t be said to be digitally transforming the everyday lives of the mass majority, most of whom are employed informally and more than 95% are on prepaid/pay as you go purchasing plans for their smartphone or mobile internet services.

I use the label prepaid economy to categorize this digital economic activity only because of the dominance of the model regardless of white collar or blue collar, urban or rural, or educated or not. However, the description below is what is more important than what it is called. I first noted the emergence of this ecosystem almost exactly a year ago, written on 7th January 2019:

We were exploring the emergence of commercial activity on digital platforms in Kenya, and debating whether it could still be considered as an element of the existing informal economic ecosystem, or, was it something wholly novel and different?

What is emerging is not simply the digital version of the existing informal economy, its a novel hybrid that deserves consideration in its own right. Yet, calling it simply the digital  or the app economy would conflate it together with the developed world’s version, overlooking the unique characteristics that distinguish it as very African. ~ Africa’s emerging digital, social, mobile economy is neither formal nor informal but a bridge in between

Today, what I am writing to do, is put this theoretical wordplay together with the visual modeling we did of the informal trade ecosystem’s value flows that allowed us to map the webs of supply and demand – B2B and B2C – at the last mile of the East African Community’s regional trade ecosystem.

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Posted in Africa, African Consumer Market, Analysis, Business Models, East African Community, Economy, Ecosystem, Frameworks, Mobile platform, Perspective, Platforms, Research, Sub Saharan Africa | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Less Technologically Advanced Societies are not necessarily backward or primitive: Assume at your own risk

This illustration by Jeroen Meijer of Jam Visueldenken of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, was created for our team during a workshop to capture the insights from a feasibility study on agritech we had completed for the Dutch government’s sustainable agricultural value chain development at Wageningen University’s Economic Research unit back in mid 2013.

I’m pulling it out again now because I think it helps me communicate the complexity of the human-digital economic ecosystem we see across East Africa, especially as it links the rural and urban, as well as the formal and informal. Today’s blogpost will be based on the case of Kenya.

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Posted in Africa, African Consumer Market, Afrique francophone, Airtime, Analysis, Assumption filter, Base of the Pyramid, Biashara Economics, Business Models, Cashless transactions, Consumer Behaviour, Design, East African Community, Ecosystem, Emerging Markets, Frameworks, Indigenous & Traditional, Informal & Flexible, Innovation Planning, Kenya, Marketing, Mobile platform, Perspective, Prepaid Economy & Informal Sector, Research, Rural Economy, Strategy, Sub Saharan Africa, Technology, UCSD, Value | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When digital ecosystem development is far faster than physical ecosystem development

I have the advantage of having seen the evolution of the crop of company sponsored student projects (10 to 12 annually) for at least 7, if not 8 of the annual PDP Galas at the Design Factory (which is only 10 years old) New product development direction is moving towards artefacts and services that integrate into a wholly new hybrid physical-digital ecosystem.

In late 2017, BCG’s Henderson Institute posted an article on theme, but from the more industrialized legacy infrastructure context of countries which developed in the past century. Here’s a juicy snippet from the middle of their introduction of the concept of hybrid ecosystems.

[…], we believe the acquisition is not an isolated occurrence but part of a broader trend: the shift from the largely digital ecosystems that dominate today to ones richly exploiting both the digital and the physical worlds. This shift signals opportunities not only for digital giants but also for physical incumbents to build new digital-physical ecosystems. Orchestrators of these hybrid ecosystems must follow some new principles and adopt a set of behaviors different from those that purely digital ecosystems require.

So, my anecdotal observation on the direction of evolution of new product development is being supported by the think tanks that feed management consulting verticals like corporate strategy and future roadmaps.

I am right now in Nairobi, Kenya. And all around me, a rapid digitalization triggered transformation of the everyday economic activity is taking place in front of my eyes. I was here doing user research among informal sector businesses with a digital footprint earlier this year in March, and that too was following up on first movers we’d met back in early 2017.

Kenya’s digitalization trajectory resembles that being described by BCG Henderson Institute and I have the visual documentation backed by interview write ups going back the same duration of time.

I think what I am seeing here is that the developing world has been able to leapfrog on the back of the mobile but the impact of this is still unevenly distributed based on each specific country’s state of mobile economy. Its high time GSMA put out the major telco markets for their own specific ecosystem reports instead of lumping it all as sub Saharan Africa.  Kenya’s digitalization on the mobile platform may not take the exact same outcomes and solutions to begin modernizing its economy; but parts of it are definitely converging with the digital global value chains.

The digital global value chain – DGVC – has connected up the digitalizing informal trade sectors of vast swathes of the developing world. In early adopters like Kenya, we know the smallest woman trader, sitting on the side of a busy road with her goods laid out on a tarpaulin is aware of the digital marketplace potential of social media apps on her smartphone.

I can map the emergence of the Kenyan hybrid digital-physical ecosystem, with emphasis on linkages between the rural and the urban; the formal and informal; and all parts in between. What I must figure out how to do is disaggregate the static parts from the dynamic parts; or, at least cluster them by whether the change is  short term one or one likely to take a longer span of time. Only then would my approach and methodology be one that can capture the context in a dynamic fast changing environment of uncertainty.

Which, in turn, describes our current era as handheld digitalization and social media are transforming so many aspects of daily life and work. Ergo, Kenya is digitally developing far faster than its physically developing but this should not imply that it cannot become a developed nation digitally first.

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The Research – Practice Gap for a Kenyan Mobile Startup Business

There is very little literature on business operations management, and product development methodology  that actually helps African SMEs and startups to navigate their own operating environment with its local characteristics. Analysts struggle with frameworks and processes developed in highly industrialized contexts as a means to evaluate the strategies of businesses and solutions with local or regional ambitions.

The gap in information is particularly visible for mobile startups and technologists navigating the challenges of their own operating environment rather than that of Silicon Valley, which tends to dominate technology oriented business news and actionable content.

After meeting with Kenyan startups and technology oriented SMEs I am inclined to work on a plan to address this gap. I don’t yet know what form it will take. I know that the 2008/9 prepaid economy research badly needs updating in the age of digitalization, and this is a start towards mapping the mass majority’s digital operating environment on the mobile platform.

Posted in Africa, African Consumer Market, Analysis, Biashara Economics, Business, Business Models, Design, Frameworks, Innovation Planning, Mobile platform, Perspective, Strategy, Sub Saharan Africa, Technology, User research | Leave a comment

Is Design Prepared to be Responsible?

Last week, I was invited to join a 60 strong group of pan African thinkers in law, human rights, gender, debt and related issues to convene in Nairobi to explore the concept of predatory lending now being delivered direct to your handheld device. As a human centered designer, I was rocked back on my heels to discover the human rights related impacts and consequences of what might be thought of as a simple mobile app design.

Yet, designers are rarely, if ever, introduced to the concept of human rights and how to design responsibly with awareness of the outcomes and inadvertent impact on the target audience.

The earliest stages of the design process – also known as the fuzzy front end of innovation – are where the maximum control can be made to bear on the final outcome, including its cost of deployment. As fintech designers, do we know how the safeguards and filters we’re building into the digital service make the end user feel?

Without going into too much detail about predatory lending to the lower income aka base of the pyramid, I would just like to say that in my opinion, there is also a systemic design flaw that lowers the bar to failure.

I have named this flaw the Systems Monster, and he squats there between our best intentions and highest hopes for the greatest good, and the actual outcome of our actions and strategies. How often have we heard “It is the system” when we have struggled to make our good intentions manifest themselves in the real world to benefit the unemployed, or the underprivileged?

The system is set up for the convenience of the banking and financial industry, and tend to be designed on calender time schedules – a holdover from an era when everyone had regular wages arrive in a predictable periodic cycle. Fully four fifths of Africa’s working population is informally employed, whether by the formal sector or within the informal economy. They manage their household finances on irregular income streams and unpredictable cash flows. The only thing that distinguishes the subsegments of the population is the accuracy of their ability to predict the amount and the timing of their next influx of cash/money.

Yet, the system, that is the processes and structures of the formal financial institutions such as banks, is designed around the predictable – the regular amount of salary that shows up every week or month, and the stable – this paycheck is from one source, an established and known employer such as a big company or the government. This predictability and stability allows the bank to take the risk of issuing loans and mortgages for short terms and longer durations, secure in the knowledge that the amount will be repaid on a regular, predictable, calender cycle – 500e every month plus interest for the next 15 years.

The inherent conflict between the flexibility and negotiability required to minimize the volatility between incoming and outgoing cash flows, and the predictability and regularity required by the financial institutions means that the system is set up to make you fail. You are bound to miss a payment at some point and you are penalized for being unable to negotiate with a faceless digital app.

What is the responsibility of the fintech service’s designers? To perpetuate the financial exclusion barriers within their novel design or to seek to adapt their user interface to the needs of their target audience?

Posted in Africa, African Consumer Market, Airtime, Banking, Base of the Pyramid, Biashara Economics, Business, Business Models, Design, Ecosystem, Innovation Planning, Perspective, Prepaid Economy & Informal Sector, Rural Economy, Strategy, Systems, Technology, User research | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Characteristics of our currently emerging future

I am tempted to leave this blogpost unwritten, illustrated only by this photograph of an analysis & synthesis workshop I did with my master’s thesis worker on the data that will drive her master’s thesis and my first journal article. I have checked the flexibility of my doctoral research plan and understood that the opportunity exists within this first semester to change it as much or as little as I please. I am grateful for that wriggle room as I set out to discover what could conceivably be a viable career path for me given that I’ll probably be around 58 years old when I finish my degree. The conversations I had were highly informative and subsequently a rather coherent vision of a consensus reality – an emerging future – can be pieced together.

Digitalization: A broad word that makes it meaning in context and is a function of face to face encounters but all of you reading along will nod in understanding when I say that this is one of the transformations that will inform your career trajectory and future path. It is the biggest difference between my father’s workspace, business landscape, and operating environment, and mine. Whilst he’s always online now, he was 60 when the internet became available to the private individual user in 1994 or 5 in New Delhi where he happened to be based at that time. For many of you, smartphones were already a part of your childhood, most likely your earliest teens. The digital divide, as currently defined, might not be vast given that the generations of early adopters have always been present with the onboarding youth, but the contextual divide is immeasurable and impossible to shorten in any optimal manner. For my digital generation, who fall in this category of earliest adoption of evolving technology, this era puts us at the edge of viability of our own careers and professional journey. Some of us find ourselves back in school. I can say that I was probably influenced by Nokia Chairman Risto Siilasma’s example of going back to school to learn about AI and related technology (he has written what is called an ‘explainer’). He is only two weeks younger than me. Regardless of our chronological age, the rapid transformations of our global “informal” social ecosystem of value exchange is one which will influence and drive our decisions regarding our employability and future directions.

Resource Scarcity: This is what I’m hearing in the Engineering school where I am a PhD candidate in the Mechanical Engineering department. This is not a development aid problem but a systemic ecosystem engineering design challenge. And it is not one the Global North can achieve on its own. After all, so much of the world’s manufacturing has moved to lower wage locations, and these tend to be mostly in the Global South. Africa’s circular economic ecosystem would keep a researcher busy for years.

Global, social, local: We are all next door to each in the virtual world. The whole concept of neighbourliness has changed. I have learnt to call this a socio-technological system, and am discovering its an entire field of study with its own Master’s Degree and fulltime professor. His 5 year contract was crowdfunded through a student led initiative to raise money from the private sector. This digital world will be our operating environment in our cyborg world. This was a factor that I was debating for the past couple of weeks, just how much of an impact will digitalization have on all kinds of aspects of our life. Was it still only a confined to the screentime thing or permeating through our ‘meatspace’ as well? I have come to the reluctant conclusion that we cannot avoid it but I will not get a smartphone either.

Flux: Change and transformation will be the only constant, and uncertainty will become the norm. This is not a bad thing. Rural communities have always been recognized for their resilience and persistence in the face of adversity. Managing volatile conditions and uncertain and unpredictable cash flows builds in flexibility at the systemic level and my guess is that this happens intuitively since I have observed similar clusters of coping mechanisms that resemble each other in as far apart locations as rural Philippines, rural India, and rural East Africa. We cannot externalize risk and uncertainty anymore.

Flexibility: Thus, as a natural outcome, the ideal systems in such a described landscape are the ones with the most viable and feasible tolerance levels built in at the design level. Here, my use of the word design is very specific to engineering design and machinery that makes and runs things. One example of what I mean relates to climate change. We will see increasing variability in quality of infrastructure and environment due to the unpredictable impacts of climate change, even if we manage to bring a halt to the juggernaut this week. Our appliances need to go back to becoming the robust well engineered easily fixable electro mechanical artefacts they were and not go further into fragile delicacy and too many unknown electronics. I have written on this aspect by studying the case of Whirlpool’s world washer launch failure in India.

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Homework and Essays

My world has changed now that I have made myself a fulltime student at Aalto University. On Mondays, I have a full day of class, morning and afternoon. And I have homework with deadlines. This past week I found myself thinking how much I appreciated refreshing my worldview by going back to school. Today, I am exactly 53 and a half years old.

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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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