Systems thinking and the mobile platform for economic impact and wealth creation

I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time now, percolating as it has in the back of my mind but it was Mark Kaigwa who finally spurred this writing. This is not all about MPesa, though it will take a look at some of the issues why its runaway success in Kenya has not yet been duplicated elsewhere, beyond the obvious brought up in most articles of “its the banking regulations” or “its the distribution network”.

Much credit of the fundamental thinking that will underlie this post’s premise must go to Wambura Kimunyu with whom I’ve discussed these issues on Twitter.  Furthermore, I believe that if we can frame the problem (and thus the potential solution) correctly, we may be onto something that could in fact make a big difference to the many ways  we attempt to enable and support social and economic development.

Some background

The topic today is the mobile phone (which I’ll also refer to as the mobile platform, since the phone aspect is but a feature of this handheld device) and its role among what is popularly known as the BoP or those at the Base or Bottom of the Pyramid, yet when I think about the very many pilot programs and attempts to spur development via the mobile platform or, as in the case of MPesa, to launch game changing mobile money transfer et al systems elsewhere, what immediately comes to my mind is a reflection on the issues that plagued the analysis of the success of Asus’ eeePC when it was first launched back in late 2007.

We take very affordable and very portable netbooks for granted today but back then in time, the category did not exist until Asus launched their 7″ linux based, open source, rugged and durable beauty for around USD 400.  It was referred to as a “subnotebook” back then and caused much head scratching among the developed world’s leading lights, even as it spurred all manner of competitors to focus on the two most obvious elements of its perceived success criteria – “price” and “form factor”.  Whereas I argued, that what made the Asus eeePC so successful was its fundamental premise – to be an easy to use affordable device squarely aimed at emerging markets and how it was this positioning that drove every other element, including its form factor and price. By focusing only on the obvious, without taking the holistic thinking and underlying value proposition into consideration, competitors were overlooking many of the details that supported its initial success.

Some framing

I see something similar happening with one of the most obvious success stories in the “Mobile as a platform for economic development of the BoP” bandwagon.  MPesa shows up in most analyses of “Business models or mobile thingies that are helping the poor” reports churned out so faithfully by researchers everywhere, yet the question arises, should it be even considered in that sandbox of things that help the poor in the first place? And by doing so, are we overlooking some of the factors of what makes it work so well in Kenya as well as misinterpreting that it was meant to be used only by the poor?

When the first reports of MPesa’s hiccups in South Africa came to light, it was then that Wambura first tweeted about the lack of the banked that were critical to spur the unbanked and thus the overall uptake of the service.  That is, if the MPesa ecosystem did not have enough banked people with money to circulate, then there wouldn’t be enough unbanked nor would there be enough money to circulate etc etc leading to the challenges that they are facing in South Africa now.  You needed the banked to bank the unbanked.  It sounded counter intuitive to me back then but over time as I observed many different facets of this activity across different strata in Kenya it came to me just how much sense this made and also how relevant this aspect was for the success of anything that should be considered as a means to improve incomes among the BoP when using the mobile platform (or otherwise, to be honest).

Why so?

Some systems thinking

That is, for any solution designed to enable the flow of wealth – mobile money transfer for example – or improve wealth creation at the BoP – it was not enough to simply target the poor alone. It would not work as a “Solution for the BoP” primarily because the BoP do not have any liquidity,  even if they do indeed have assets especially in rural areas, or they do not have the cash for it to flow through the system in the first place. Thus solutions aimed at improving economic activity for the poor needed ‘non poor’ actors in the ecosystem in order to inject cash into the system and thus make it flow (and one hopes, grow).

Taking this thought one step further, MPesa – assessed as a holistic ecosystem for financial transactions – has been so very obviously successful in the Kenyan context primarily because it is used by everyone, regardless of their economic standing or bankedness (if I may coin a non word).  In fact I believe that the number of banked actually surpasses the number of the unbanked – there is a link there that right now is not in the scope of this post but we can look at it later.

And thus, when ‘Solutions on the mobile to help the BoP or poor’ are considered, they should be looked at in terms of the complete ecosystem including the critical question of Where will the money come from into the system in the first place?  Without which, they will limp along as a cash poor system with little wealth to circulate, achieving nothing for the BoP in question. Look at this article on MPesa repositioning itself in South Africa towards higher income brackets and away from the original target audience of poor rural women. QED.

Solutions meant to improve economic conditions for the BoP cannot be focused only on the BoP.

Rather the focus needs to shift to complete ecosystems that fill a vacuum of need – usually in infrastructure or services – that include actors from differing socio economic strata in order to make a viable difference to larger population involved.  Not only is MPesa a clear example of this framing – it filled the vacuum of “how to securely and affordably send money” – but it did so for everyone and anyone who wanted to do so.

Similarly, when I consider my favourite example of the Mumias Sugar Company and their payroll management pilot program for their daily wage sugar cane cutters, I see the same potential for a greater impact on social and economic development for the lower income demographic involved in this system. The solution is one that is win win for all stake holders – from the company who doesn’t need to send armed guards with cash into the fields to the workers who now not only have savings accounts but don’t need to carry lumpsums of cash around with them on payday.

I also hear that real time inventory management and other enterprise level solutions for supply chain management are also moving onto the MPesa/mobile platform in Kenya – again involving the tiniest duka as well as the big name manufacturers or distributors.  Again we can see the potential impact on inventory management and thus, cash flow, even at the bottom of the retail pyramid, where its most critically needed and we can project the potential that it will improve the economic standing or at least help smoothen the variability of income streams that these smallest players in the informal economy require.

Will all stakeholders benefit? Yes. And will the members of the ecosystem who happen to fall into the so called BoP category benefit? Most likely. And more likely than if only the lowest segment was involved in a system of this sort rather than participating in the larger ecosystem of buyers and sellers.

Bottom line

Bringing all this back to the framing of the solution space or rather, the analysis of the success factors, I believe that a simple shift away from seeing only the obvious – mobiles! money! BoP! –  system level solutions that fill critical infrastructural and service gaps in locales where there are few or inadequate alternates and that serve many including the BoP can and will do far better to improve the economic wellbeing across the board of society that those that focus on one demographic alone.

Note: This was the original post that inspired the editor’s version published on Afrinnovator.

One Comment

  • "Solutions meant to improve economic conditions for the BoP cannot be focused only on the BoP."

    This (and the whole post) struck a chord with me. Being a youngster in University I admit getting swept up in the craze of "social entrepreneurship for the poor" and microfinance and impact investing and [insert hip term here]. However, as I have sat back and really tried to understand it all, I think I am beginning to get a clearer picture of why these practices are not "enough".

    There is nothing wrong with "solutions for the BoP" BUT if they are not integrated for the benefit of "socially" innovating the entire ecosystem then the initiative could end up being in vain.

    Thank you.

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