Assessing the size and value of investment opportunities with an informal economy footprint

There’s an interesting snippet from the Nigerian news yesterday that led to this framing of a necessary problem statement. KPMG’s head of private equity is quoted as saying:

Meeting current needs of the one billion plus population and, the future demands of the rapidly emerging middle class consumers will drive the next wave of Private Equity investment on the continent.

However, investors, according to KPMG, are keener to do business in sectors that have little to no direct relationship with government, or through structures that limit government control and undue influence.

This was the view of ‎Partner & Africa Head, Deal Advisory & Private Equity at KPMG, Dapo Okubadejo, who said that throughout the firm’s ongoing interactions with foreign investors, it was clear that concerns about ‘red tape’ and perceived corruption are still top of mind for investors who are looking to enter African markets.

Given that private equity investments are currently the hottest thing in key African markets, this shift in emphasis to more consumer facing sectors brings to light some unique challenges that investors will have to face beyond the oft mentioned challenges such as variability in quality of infrastructure and inadequate systems:

  • African consumers transact mostly (90-odd% in most markets) in cash.
  • Emerging consumer classes are more likely than not employed in informal sector activities, in small business and trade. This has impact on both their purchasing patterns as well as their cash flow regardless of income strata.
  • Services are mostly part of the informal sector.
  • Greater degree of retail formalization at the front end (B2C) is no guarantee of similar degree of formal structures at the back end (B2B). Distribution, delivery, payments – the entire supply chain – may have components from both the formal and informal sectors.
  • The role of personal relationships and social networks in the information ecosystem and impact on B2B and B2C decisions.

What does this actually mean, though, to the investment community?

A few years ago, Emerging Futures Lab had the unrivalled opportunity to work with Village Telco, a South African social enterprise whose corporate mantra emphasized open innovation. We can openly share our experience of qualifying, from the perspective of investment and potential for returns, an industry sector for which little or no market data is available due to its significant footprint in the cash based informal economy.

While the industry itself – cyber cafes or internet cafes – maybe in decline today due to the proliferation of affordable smartphones and data plans, back then it was a significant market opportunity for an innovative communications technology. Our task was to assess the size and dollar value of this industry and the market potential for Village Telco’s Mesh Potato device. This was complicated by the fact that not only had we to offer product pricing recommendations but we had to elicit purchase intent for an unknown product category.

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Implications for Investment in B2C

This experience was an eye-opening exercise in shedding light on assumptions made in traditional market analyses and pricing exercises.

When such a significant proportion of the industry is operating in the informal sector then many of the heuristic methods and frameworks either did not apply or resulted in skewed outcomes.

The assumptions underlying pricing, for example, focus on utility value, whereas we discovered the majority of informal sector businesses looked at revenue generation potential, intent on maximizing the returns on their capital investment in new technology.

The implications for risk and returns, as assessed by consumer facing businesses, are also influenced by the cash flows and patterns of the informal sector. When the majority of transactions are in cash, how does this influence decision making?

The specific business or industry itself that PE funds are considering may not be as informal as the internet cafe industry but any consumer facing business in this operating environment will face the implications of the propensity for cash.

To summarize the challenge for market assessment:

  1. Heuristic frameworks for market analysis developed in the context of more developed operating environments may not always offer accurate insights on potential for sales and market share.
  2. Assumptions made on purchasing patterns, pricing and buyer behaviour should not be left unquestioned, particularly if the industry segment has a significant footprint in the informal sector.
  3. Risk assessments may be skewed by the impact of the above two factors in the qualification of a market’s potential or industry viability.

Caveat:

Many of the most visible investments till date have been in FMCG such as dairy or biscuits but The Economist offer their opinion albeit without mentioning the increasing emphasis in the B2C space.

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