Exploratory User Research in the Rural Economy

When I first began developing the attributes by which to select representative user profiles for the original fieldwork to begin understanding the “prepaid economy”, that is, household financial management in rural India, The Philippines and Malawi, it was based on people’s ability to plan and budget.

Sustainable Value Chain 8

One can plan best when one is certain of the amount of money incoming and its date of arrival, thus one is best able to manage household expenses on a regular salary on a periodic calender based schedule.  If we cluster rural residents by their ability to accurately estimate the amount of money against its arrival, then the salaried employee is at one of the continuum of certainty. He or she knows exactly how much they will receive and on which date. The other end, however, is the most uncertain, such as the case of the daily wages labourer who may or may not be called for work on a particular day or week.

The farmer, if experienced, tends to fall in between these two points, as they are usually able to look at their crops and estimate approximately the yield and readiness of the harvest. This simple framework of time and money allowed for a reasonably representative sample of any particular region where geography is responsible for the climate and the seasons. The uncertainties faced by local farmers were broadly the same.

Now, we hope to take a closer look at this segmentation model to better refine our understanding of rural economies. At which point did a farm transition from mere subsistence towards aspirations? How? What distinguished a member of the global emerging middle class (GEMs) from one who was barely able to hold house and hearth together? Which other actors were critical to the rural economy, delineated in this case as the last mile of the agricultural value chain, and who were the supporting cast ? All farmers in a region are not alike – how would we begin to cluster sub-segments and which additional attributes would help us?

As a starting point, here are some of the key insights that have already been consistently identified:

  1. The greater the span of control the end user had over their time and money in a payment plan – the amount, whether it was in cash or kind; and its timing i.e. the frequency, periodicity and duration, the greater the likelihood of its success.
  2. Seasonality was a fact of life and cash flows over the course of the natural year reflected this aspect. High seasons and low; wet seasons and dry – the rural economy was closely tied to the land, the ebb and flows of income affecting everyone in the farming community, from shopkeepers to truck drivers.
  3. Liquidity does not reflect wealth, nor cash expenditures a signal of purchasing power.
  4. Affordability is less a matter of absolute price and more dependent on the flexibility of the payment pattern.
  5. In the majority of the developing world, the rural economy is flexible, informal, local, social and interdependent. Trusted social networks were the basis of looking upon the community as insurance in bad times and resilience in the face of uncertainty and adversity a recurring characteristic.

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