Scarcity as a driver for innovation

Frugality and affordability are very much in the news of late, what with the most recent essay on Change Observer and this post on Paul Polak’s new blog both highlighting similar concepts but from the point of view of very different markets. It seems to imply the trend towards frugal design or extremely affordable yet relevant and useful products is emerging to the forefront of the mainstream, regardless of whether its the sophisticated mainstream consumer culture or the challenging markets of the lower income demographic. In which case, this is a timely moment in which to give a brief introduction to the conditions of scarcity within which we looked at informal manufacture, fabrication and innovation during our recent trip to Kenya and how these conditions drive innovation. Necessity, after all, has always been the mother of invention.


Infrastructure availability or systems that we take for granted such as running water, stable electricity supply without voltage fluctuation or blackouts is an ongoing challenge in this operating environment (the majority of the unevenly developed world). This need not necessarily imply “poverty” so much as scarcity or uncertainty – for example, the latest Economist has a great article that underlines this point with regard to India’s chaos having little to do with its economic growth potential and ability. The variability of infrastructure not only influences product development for these markets but as we recently noticed, drives innovation in sometimes surprising directions that we may not always perceive of as an “unmet need” immediately.

Tap (Faucet) lock, Nakuru, Kenya 30th August 2010

These are locks for your water tap, available in the jua kali market in Nakuru, Kenya. They not only prevent the unauthorized use of your water (particularly if its from a tank of finite capacity that you may have paid good money to get filled) but also protects your tap itself from theft (the metal can be sold as scrap to be melted down and reused).

Fuel and energy

While much of the drivers for renewable energy solutions in the developed world are concerned with environmental and energy security issues, (valid in themselves yet still considered a luxury, imho, in the mindset of the customer due to premiums), product development and invention in the emerging markets is based more fundamentally on scarcity and need for affordable reliable power and fuel supply. Does this change the way the problem is framed for the inventors/makers and how does this shift in perspective influence the solution development? As Paul Polak points out:

If you don’t design to realistic customer-derived price points from the very beginning, any tool you design for a poor customer will never be adopted at scale.

Aluminium smelter’s workshop, Nairobi, Kenya September 2010

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a solar lantern for a poor customer per se – it can be the micro-entrepreneur who wants to lower his costs to the minimum in order to maximize his daily profits. Here is an aluminium smelter’s workshop, the can on the left contains used motor oil which he burns to melt the scrap metal down into ingots for reuse. On the other hand, he is dependent on electricity supply to power his air blower that vaporizes the heavy oil enough for it to burn and loses income if the power is out.

Transportation and distribution

If you’re in the informal economy, you don’t have access to the far flung top of the line logistics and distribution networks that other businesses do, or at least not at scope and scale available. Furthermore, due to the variance in infrastructure and operating environment, this is a challenge even for the biggest companies if you’re in a market like India’s much less the less developed nations. I’ve touched upon this further in this article but here I’m bringing this forth as one more element of scarcity that acts upon the operating environment, and so can lead to some ingenious and/or innovative solutions. Developed in context, they are often very affordable and relevant as they seek to solve locally observed problems.

Modified boda boda bicycle, Maker Faire, Nairobi Kenya 27th August 2010

Boda bodas are bicycle taxis popular in Africa, particularly East Africa, originating in Kenya. Here, these two makers from a smaller town outside of Kisumu came to display their specially modified boda boda. The back carrier has not only been elongated to increase the carrying capacity of the vehicle (which is what this is) but the gentlemen had also figured out that 250 kgs was the average load therefore they had calculated the necessary size of the modification accordingly. In addition, since their local area was both hilly and had uneven paths, they added shock absorbers to help the driver and improved the braking mechanism. Of course, they’d also added the facility to both charge your mobile front at the front of the bike while charging a car battery at the back from the dynamo. There is fodder for an entire article on the bicycle as the platform for innovation in emerging markets but that’s for another day.

Materials and Tools

Far more than in India but I can’t recall the situation in the Philippines at this moment, was the obvious scarcity of appropriate and affordable hand tools, small machine tools and raw material in Kenya.And certainly, there’s no Home Depot or some such there. And Kenya is supposed to be the most advanced in this sphere in the East African region. I would really like more information in this area so please write in or comment if you have knowledge.

Scrap from aluminium casting ready for re melting into ingots

Hammerheads made from old car axles

This earlier post compares two simple manual machines, the local variant of which uses far less energy and material to effect the same purpose and this one takes a look at the prototype of an affordable coffee grinding machine.

Working capital, cash flow and insurance (Risk and uncertainty)

A natural but challenging side effect of operating in the informal economy is access to financial tools and support systems available to small businessmen everywhere else. Bank rates are very very high (the risk of Africa!) and so access to capital for investing in new machines or growth is hobbled by the owner/entreprenuers insistence and preference on saving up and using cash instead. This takes time, slowing down economic development at the grassroots. Microfinance tends to favour consumer behaviour rather than investments or micro-enterprises and regardless, does not tend to take irregular income streams into account.Interestingly enough, mPesa is making a difference in this sphere but again, as a workaround rather than a product targeted at this need. This aspect of products designed to support micro-entreprise was the biggest challenge in the Philippines as well as my colleagues at the Philippine Business for Social Progress have informed me. These very same lacks, one could call it a systemic mistrust, drive creative solutions of a sort perhaps that may not always be preferred as much as the more positive ones mentioned above.

Backpanel of inverter, Nakuru, Kenya 30 August 2010

For example, the gentleman who makes these inverters is forced to put Japan components on his products so that customers will take the risk to purchase his product. He also offers a 1 year warranty and installs what would be an off the shelf, plug and play comp0nent anywhere else himself on the premises. The display and control shown here has inspired a lot of insight on contextual knowledge of technology – “Up for on”, issues of trust and commitment as well as the risk aversion already seen among BoP consumers.

While this has been wholly focused on Kenya, the conditions of scarcity are only variations on the themes that can be seen around the world. In the meantime, they offer much food for thought on the operating environment.

First published October 7th 2010 at Aalto Design Factory, Finland

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