I stand on the shoulders of giants

On the first day of 2019, instead of looking back over just the past 12 months, I am going to look back ten years. There’s an African proverb which says if you don’t know where you’re coming from, then you don’t know where you’re going.

The photograph above was taken towards the end of 2009, at a design event in New Delhi, India. Its the only one I have, so I’m using it here though its rather unclear and blurry. I am lucky to be standing between two giants in thinking about design, both of whom were my teachers, one each, in each graduate school of design I attended on two continents, in two different centuries.

On the left, grinning through his beard, is the late MP Ranjan of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, who was a legend in his own time.

The system after all, remained at the heart of Ranjan’s design philosophy. People, processes, relationships and the environment unified into an ecology within which every design solution had to exist in harmony; there could be no product without a paradigm, and no concept without a context.

On my right, is the late John Heskett, author of the book Industrial Design, and teacher of planning for design in a multidisciplinary way.

Communicating clearly the value of design that designers can contribute to any organization is a continuous challenge. Understanding economic theory as it shapes business attitudes and conversely, how design can shape economic value, can be a valuable means of integrating design into business thinking.

As I reflect upon my own work, in thinking and writing about design, as well my design practice, I can see how each of these forward looking thinkers and teachers shaped my approach and methodology for problem solving in conditions of uncertainty and adversity.

Ranjan’s hands on systems approach to design blends well with John’s lenses of economics and business, particularly strategy and policy, together offer a powerful framework for undertanding the complex adaptive systems within which interventions and innovations are intended to be introduced.

Heskett once said, in class, that an invention wasn’t an innovation until it was adopted by the end users, thus gaining the critical mass necessary for transformation, an inherent quality of innovation. While Ranjan never failed to remind us of the people involved – in both creating new design solutions, and embracing them – when we undertook to intervene.

John taught me Design Policy and the impact of Market Forces on Design Planning. Ranjan introduced the fundamental methodology of the design process and systems thinking.

If I am, today, finally comfortable with labeling what it is I do as design, it is because of having had both of them in my life.

May they rest in peace.

Tips on managing African fake news articles and websites

Today, I was faced with the challenge of having to choose between two conflicting quotes attributed to the same spokesperson, during the same press conference. Attempting to uncover an authoritative source for the content in order to discern which of the two was authentic led me down a rabbit hole of fake news sites allegedly from Kenya. The exercise led me to write up my experience, and share my thoughts on navigating the minefield of fake news articles and entire websites, now that the issue has taken over African content as well.

The subject matter concerned China’s alleged takeover of Kenya’s Mombasa Port in case of default on the infrastructure loans for the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). This has been making the headlines, together with Zambia’s purported problem with seized infrastructure. Matters came to a head today as yet another report – this time by the reasonably credible ZeroHedge – repeated the same messaging without digging further to check whether any of the anti-China allegations were, in fact, true.

At the same time, the daily news curation was churning up reports of a Chinese government spokesperson refuting the allegations that China was poised to take over the Port of Mombasa. So I went digging for more on the topic and churned up a news website that named the very same spokesperson as stating something outrageously unbelievable.

Note: All the sites linked below on How to spot fake from true have been vetted by me by reading through their advice, and their credentials. Someone has to watch the watchers!

Standard tips on distinguishing fake news from genuine tend to highlight two main points:

1. Is the article so outrageous that it makes you blind with anger? If so, it is very likely fake.

2. And, if so, check the website’s About page* to assess its credibility. This was the result when I followed through on the outrageous:

Sure looks like a credible source to me, no? Once I was able to identify the fake news website, I went looking for more authoritative sources to establish the credibility of the Chinese refutations, in case they, too, turned out to be faked.

An Embassy of China page offered the first data point that the refutations were indeed official, and later, on Twitter, Anzetse Were, linked directly to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, doubly ensuring that the refutations to the allegations of China’s take over were official and authentic.

Therefore, we can now state with confidence that China is NOT taking over the Port of Mombasa in case of default on the SGR loan*. And, we discover that the other African story used to support this one, that of Zambia’s ZESCO being taken over by China for default in loan payments is ALSO false, having been refuted by the Zambian government, and reported by a reasonably credible news source, in this case, Reuters.

This goes to show that the fake news problem in Africa has gone beyond electioneering, and social media, and invaded mainstream news media via search engines such as Google News. It thus behooves us to be doubly careful in ensuring that outrageous actions allegedly conducted by one global power or another are carefully verified and vetted before repeating them mindlessly like ZeroHedge had done.

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I am working on making up a list of the most common African news sites that show up in the popular news engines, like Google, to be wary of, or they are outright fakes.

* The Kenya Times was a genuine newspaper that closed in 2010. That makes this site doubly suspicious.

Emergence of a decentralized digital economy? Snippets from Nigeria and Kenya

Continuing the conversation from the recent posts on app enabled demand redistribution as well as digital platforms being used by informal sector economic actors to boost their own productivity and efficiency, I thought to share snippets from these two recent articles I just came across, as cases in point.

From Nigeria, West Africa: How WhatsApp groups are fostering collaboration in Ikeja Computer Village

“I stay because it has helped my business in so many ways. Right now, from the comfort of my shop, I can reach out to other vendors when I need an item so that when they respond, I know exactly where I’m going to get it.”

And, from Kenya, East Africa: Drivers’ group launches Bebabeba taxi app

As I mentioned in my previous post, anyone can afford to build their own app to manage demand and supply, and, spurred on by the introduction of global players like Uber or Taxify, local drivers’ associations are doing exactly that, except now, its on their terms.

Lessons from African Fintech for the Gig Economy

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to share my research on the past decade of mobile ecosystem development across the African continent with Dr. Antti Saarnio, founder of Zippie; co-founder of Jolla (developers of the Sailfish OS, among other things).

“We want to test our product first and foremost in Africa because there is an extensive and established informal economy,” he said.

That captured my attention immediately, since few think of the Africa’s vast “informal” commercial operating environment as a strength to be leveraged for competitive advantage, preferring to hope against hope that it will disappear into thin air to be replaced by the more familiar structures of the formal and organized sectors.

And, it got me thinking about the African fintech space, and the lessons it may hold for the rapidly proliferating gig economy in the ‘developed’ world. And, since at this point of time, all I know of Zippie, Dr. Saarnio’s latest venture, is that it’s a blockchain based mobile OS – not the kind of thing that you’d expect to be piloting in Africa – I asked him to elaborate on his thinking a little further.

Easy, he said. Not only does the informal economy dominate, with established norms and coping mechanisms, but its a mobile first and mobile only environment where people are already comfortable with the exchange of value in digital form, be it airtime or currency. People are already incentivized to think about boosting their productivity through newfangled digital tools on their smartphones. More often than not, the younger urban population is educated and tech-savvy, and in places like Kenya, ready to try something new.

I couldn’t argue with his assessment. In fact, I’d take it a step further, based on my own decade’s worth of research into the informal sector’s financial behaviour and cash flow management practices. The developed world economy is beginning to show signs of convergence, in pattern and in the types of challenges faced when attempting to manage in highly uncertain situations, on irregular and unpredictable income streams, often with the very same elements of seasonality – time of abundance and scarcity – as seen in rural Phillipines or India or Malawi.

For instance, Finnish farmers are being driven to use high interest payday loans to tide over the lean times because few other coping mechanisms exist in Finland’s highly formal commercial operating environment. Wedded to the land, they face the same challenges as a farmer in India, Kenya, or The Philippines. Yet no microfinance institutions catering to farmer needs would dream of showing up in rural Finland. Similarly, in the UK, lower income workers, dependant heavily on gig economy apps to generate revenue, can face significant differences in their cash flows from month to month, but again have no recourse but to use their credit cards or high interest payday loans to tide them over. The systems in their operating environment are designed for the past generations’ periodic and regular wages and paychecks, and cannot cope with the irregular cash flow patterns, as prevalent in the informal economy.

That is, the characteristics of the gig economy and the informal economy, when seen from the perspective of the end-user, are more or less the same. Ironically, however, those in the developing world have numerous solutions available to them – albeit informal, social, local – available to them to cope with shocks and volatility. These coping mechanisms have developed over decades (and centuries, in the case of India), hence the well known resilience of the local rural or informal economy.

As uncertainty increases globally, there are numerous lessons to be learnt from the mostly ignored informal economies of the developing countries which have provided incomes and employment for the vast majority of their populations, in times of conflict or peace, making sure that food reaches the urban table from the farms out in the countryside, regardless of the adequacy and availability of either systems or infrastructure. This is one situation where the formal economy’s inbuilt rigidity and dependence on predictability and periodicity are its embedded weak spot at a time when flexibility and negotiability are required to ride the shocks and volatility.

Why the Potential of the African Consumer Market Cannot be Considered in Isolation from the Informal Economy

Top flight management consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, Deloitte, PwC et al have been taking a good long look at the emergent African Consumer Market for a number of years now. McKinsey, in fact, has just released a book on the theme, authored by their leading Africa experts. All of them acknowledge the existence of the informal sector in retail and wholesale trade and distribution, recognizing the competitive advantages and disadvantages for modern retail and consumer product companies seeking growth in African markets. They know their clientele must operate in the formal sector, and target the wealthier segments of the populace, and this is what they focus on.

Brookings Institution, however, has now caught up with their version of such a report – drawing heavily on consumer data from all the previous management consulting firm reports mentioned above – and this has inadvertently brought to light a major blindspot in the assumptions being made on the African consumer market opportunity. Unlike the management consulting firms who position their reports for the private sector, Brookings is necessarily forced to consider policy implications of their publication by virtue of their institutional nature.

Therefore, you have a report on the African Consumer Market opportunity that includes sections that attempt to justify the rise of consumerism as a signal of industrial development, through citations based on development indicators from the formal economy in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing, thus necessitating optimistic expectations of the decline of the informal sector. This theory of market evolution predicated on the decline of the informal as a signal of economic development, has, in fact, been debunked by numerous learned scholars in the field of development economics, such as Martha Alter Chen, and Ravi Kanbur.

By taking this route, the Brookings’ report is grounded in the assumption that the informal economy is a separate animal all together and one which will vanish into thin air with the ‘rise of Africa’ and her growing middle and upper classes with the discretionary incomes that make them so attractive to global brands.

This framing reveals their blindspot.

Ghanaian scholar Bright Stevens, and the OECD, both have described the emergent middle classes expected to make up the bulk of the African consumer market as those whose roots are firmly established in the informal economy, and that this emerging middle class is unlike the conventional descriptions of middle class as seen in the developed world.

That is, the emerging consumer classes of the African continent are more likely to earn their discretionary income from various activities that fall within the informal economy than from more traditional white collar employment or civil service. This can be easily discerned from the available data on the proportion of the working age population dependent on the informal economy, and the size of that informal economy, in each of the major consumer markets highlighted.

Take Nigeria for example, Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation. Estimates from the IMF put the informal sector’s contribution to the national GDP as high as 60%, providing employment for as many as 85% of the working population. More than 90% of retail (and related services) is provided by the informal sector. This will not be transforming any time soon into modern retail, even given the penetration of ICTs as projected by the Brookings report.

The African consumer market is not growing in isolation from the informal economy, nor are the impacts of digital commerce only influencing changes in consumer behaviour. A vast majority of these emerging consumer classes are directly involved in the informal sector, and any changes in their spending patterns and behaviour are bound to have corollaries in their commercial activities and business operations. The two are not two separate entities.

In fact, ICT penetration is changing the informal economy, particularly retail and wholesale trade. B2C sales and marketing facilitated by digital platforms are a contemporary reality, visible if you know where to look online. WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram offer scale and reach to enterprising entrepreneurs looking for new customers, and the proliferation of on demand apps for services such as car hailing are promoting wholly new business models for transportation and distribution. This is the current reality evidenced by any number of new startups announcing their arrival in the tech press in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and more.

What is not transforming as rapidly are the policies and regulations concerning formalization, and those barriers and costs still hold sway. Trade and services are still likely to remain within the informal sector even if their productivity and efficiency are being improved almost daily by the adoption of new and improved communication technologies. Viable pathways for their integration into the formal economy are few and far between. And, their progress and development is hampered by obsolete models and worldviews, as though they’re stuck in stasis.

It is this blindspot that makes the Brookings report at odds with the current landscape of the African operating environment for consumer oriented companies and global brands, particularly in the most promising markets highlighted such as Nigeria or Kenya, or even Angola.

The African consumer market cannot be considered in isolation, as though it’s on its own trajectory of evolution and development, separate and apart from the informal economy. Nor can one segment decline without having impact on the other. Their linkages and interdependencies are far too closely intertwined for that to happen. The rise of the African consumer class will remain linked to the health of the resilient and persistent informal economy for some time to come.

 

Further reading: How Africa Is Challenging Marketing, Harvard Business Review, June 2014

The Quiet Digital Revolution: Indigenous Innovation in Intelligent Information Systems

Big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are the buzzwords of the day, along with the obligatory blockchain and bitcoin. Much is being written on their potential to solve Africa’s problems, or India’s challenges. In turn, each has been promoted as the next big thing to address poverty and its discontents. Yet, we note, that all of them, without exception, assume implicitly and some go as far as to articulate explicitly, that these future and potential solutions are the sole purview of the first world’s silicon centers. “We know best, and we are the experts in this, as in so many other things, when it comes to the context and conditions of developing countries.”

However there’s a quieter digital revolution taking place, using much the same cutting edge technologies and techniques. One which is emerging from the deep contextual knowledge of local needs and local challenges, tapping into opportunities in relevant and accessible ways. I found two exemplars of this ongoing trend worth highlighting here, one from Kenya and one from India.

From Kenya, technology enabled livestock insurance

Andrew Mude, a senior economist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), created a program that protects pastoralists against losses from drought, an increasing scourge for nomadic communities in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. The index-based insurance uses satellite imagery revealing how much foliage has been lost to calculate the projected impact on the herds. It eliminates the need for an actual census of dead animals. More than 3 million pastoralist households in northern Kenya depend on goats, cows, sheep, and camels, and the high rate of livestock losses during droughts is a major cause of childhood malnutrition. With their households constantly on the move, the payments give families enough money to survive economic downturns without having to sell off their herds. Foreign aid programs from several nations help subsidize the cost of the insurance.

Mude, 39, says his interest in finding new tools for economic development comes from his parents, who were the first boy and girl from the Marsabit district of northern Kenya to attend high school and who later helped other villagers acquire an education.

Dr Mude won the 2016 Norman Borlaug Award from the World Food Prize for his innovative program that provides pastoralists with livestock insurance.

From India, Data Intelligence Drives Microtargeted Development in 290 Villages

SocialCops partnered with the Tata Trusts and Government of Maharashtra to drive rapid development in Chandrapur. The story behind this pioneering initiative of the Maharashtra government required the data-mapping of three blocks of the district at an unprecedented level. In this remote, inhospitable setting, a mammoth task was conducted —a survey to gather data in villages on every single individual.

The objective: setting up a real-time data system that can help the authorities and communities plan at the local level according to their specific needs.

Computing power and data intelligence allows for a customizable, human centered approach to social and economic development at scale, and India, with her vast population and their myriads of unmet needs, is showing us how to do it right, for future scale.

As their blogpost says, a quiet digital revolution is underway.

All Hail the Business Model Behind the Global Gig Economy

Uber driver Mohammed, New Delhi, 26th November 2018

The first world’s ardent embrace of the gig economy is already over. Buyer’s remorse is setting in, even though it may have helped global unemployment hit its lowest point in forty years. What will remain, however, is its impact on the usually overlooked Rest of the World, where the ability of an app to drive demand and scale reach, affordably and instantly, is currently transforming informal economies across the African continent, opening up whole new opportunity spaces for the social, mobile, youthful generation. Easy to set up and deploy, this app driven business model offers a flexible and negotiable solution to the age old problem of demand and supply in a mobile first world. My only question is whether it’ll turn out to be as world changing as prepaid mobile airtime?

Africa’s Delivery On Demand Apps are Transforming the Informal Economy

When women in rural Rwanda can buy sanitary napkins and contraceptives, on demand, simply by pushing a few buttons on their phones, you know the digital informal economy is here to stay. And, its not just imported apps and social enterprises pushing this digital commercial activity. The “uberization” of the African informal economy is well underway across the entire continent, inspired in part by the visible success of the now ubiquitous ride hailing apps.

The concept of using your phone to access a product or service, on demand, has taken root as a viable and feasible business model for startups from Angola to Ghana to Nigeria, and Rwanda, of course. And, its spreading beyond the usual suspects to yet-to-be recognized nations like Somaliland as well as it’s far less stable neighbour, Somalia. The impact of this will be felt long after Uber itself has lived or died, as the case may be.

For the vast majority of the workforce in the informal sector, this approach to business development increases their reach and customer base, with net positive impact on their income streams and cash flows. You don’t have to sit and wait passively for a customer to show up if she or he can ping you for an order on your phone. Your discoverability has been exponentially boosted by technology.

Its far to early to gauge the impact on the entire informal economy’s productivity, but certain sectors are already evidencing the effects:

  1. Transportation – of people, of vegetables, of cargo – you name it, you can now find an app to transport it. Startups are responding to the wide variety of local needs in addition to launching Uber clones in their local metros and regions.
  2. Services – grocery shopping, laundry, housecleaning, plumbers, electricians, artisans et al – all of these are coming online, albeit unevenly across segments and geographies depending on the individual startups and their capabilities.
  3. Goods – From consumer products to fresh produce, live goats to tractors for rent; the low costs and barriers to entry of an app that collates and coordinates demand and supply is an easy win for entrepreneurs who can work out the kinks in their operations.

In addition to what the apps can deliver to your doorstep, this “uberization” of the informal economy is also transforming mindsets and behaviour, of both the buyer and the supplier. There are two approaches to leveraging technology to boost your business – doing it yourself via social media platforms, thus building your brand; and downloading an app that takes care of promotion and discoverability for you.

Each has its pros and cons, but from our earliest discoveries whilst conducting user research among social commerce merchants and customers in Kenya, we can see the differences emerge between traditional traders in the informal marketplace, and the tech savvy traders straddling the virtual and the real. Long established business development strategies that worked in the cash intensive informal economic ecosystem are being forced to transform in response to these tech enabled ‘interventions’- whether to the benefit of all is also too early to tell. But if the patterns of mobile phone adoption are any indication, there’s a tsunami of change underway.

From the Caterpillar to the Butterfly: Africa’s Mobile Boom Years Are Over, Here’s What Next

For the past 15 years, Africa watchers have been waiting for her mobile phone industry to reach a critical landmark – almost full saturation of the market. This milestone may be close at hand, as recent news and data show. In June 2018, Kenyan mobile subscriptions reached 98% penetration, a 13% jump over the previous year, the highest ever recorded, even with all the caveats of youthful demographics and many users owning more than one line.

And, it isn’t just Kenya, long known to be early adopters of innovation and technology. The African mobile market, as a whole, maybe reaching saturation point as the latest IDC data shows. Phone sales continue to show signs of decline. Unlike previous slowdowns of smartphone sales1 which were economy related and feature phones continued selling, this time the decline can be seen in both categories, implying the great African mobile subscriptions growth boom may now be over.

Even Nigeria, recently found to have more people living below the poverty line than India, has achieved more than 80% mobile phone penetration, with hopes that the end of 2018 will see 100%.

The number of mobile subscribers grew astronomically in 2017 and its penetration increased to 84% in comparison with 53% in 2016. With an increase in the number of affordable phones entering the Nigerian market and looking at the trajectory of growth between 2016 & 2017 (31% growth year-on-year), there is a strong indication that by the end of 2018, there might be a 100% penetration of mobile subscriptions.2

Healthier West African economies such as Ghana and Ivory Coast have already crossed the magic 100% threshold, as has conflict riven Mali.

Achieving this landmark has not been consistent across the continent, and some countries like Malawi and Chad are still below the halfway mark. However, it is known that Africa may never achieve the same level of penetration as seen elsewhere, given that 40% of the continent’s population is under the age of 163. And so, the current decline in new phone sales can already be considered the signal of a mature market, showing signs of saturation.

From the caterpillar to the butterfly

In a very short generation, Africans have gone from being mostly isolated – from each other, and the rest of the world – to being plugged in, all because of this very powerful device in their hands. The decline of phone sales, or the slowing down of subscriber growth numbers, should be cause for jubilation. The continent is now connected to the rest of the world, and Africans are talking to African across the span of mountains and deserts. Traditional pastoralists receive satellite data informing them of the best locations for forage for their livestock, and they can access insurance in times of famine and drought. Urban youth are trading bitcoins, while their mothers gather in social media groups to trade in goods and information. The entire operating environment of the African economic ecosystem has been transformed.

Where just over ten years ago, Nokia’s greatest concern was how to design ever more affordable and robust mobile devices which could connect people across languages and literacy barriers, now we have a population that has a decade of experience in information technology, regardless of their education levels. Even the most remote or marginalized have seen the phone, and can access its use, through intermediaries and access points. Digital Africa has become a daily matter of fact rather than an unusual achievement for the development crowd. You can see it in the tenor of the research articles, and read the difference between the way the growth of the mobile ecosystem was covered in 20054 and the way its taken for granted now.

The end of an era – double digit growth of the African mobile market – signals the beginning of a whole new phase of development and opportunity – a connected continent, ready for commerce and communication with the world.

Ten years of transformation

Over the past decade, mobile phone ownership has gone from a novelty to commonplace. It has bridged the rural – urban divide, strengthening linkages, both social and commercial. In turn, innovation diffusion pathways have proliferated from the urban centers, and the adoption of new ideas and goods has accelerated, changing aspirations and expectations, particularly among the younger generation. The global African does not need to leave her childhood village in order to speak to the rest of the world or be recognized for her achievements. Social media is there to give him a voice, and a platform.

It is this new reality that has not yet be recognized by the long established experts on Africa and its many varied challenges and unmet needs. The mindset, worldviews, and the consumer culture have changed far more rapidly than the now obsolete snapshot of the poverty stricken, marginalized African that media and researchers base their assumptions and their writing on. Policymakers and programme designers are even less in the know, and the gap between generations has never been wider.

On the upside is a whole new playing ground – my friend and colleague Michael Kimani calls it the informal economy’s digital generation. Young people like himself, graduating with university degrees into a business landscape without the jobs to hire them, are turning to the platform made available by their smartphones to establish themselves and earn a living. In the four short years I’ve known Michael, I’ve seen him grown and evolve into the voice of African blockchain and cryptocurrency, soon to be an educator on the subject, and already organized as the Chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya.

“What a great time to be alive,” Michael’s joyful voice still rings in my ear after our call last week. The digital future is all around him, a playground for him to build and make whatever his mind’s eye can envision.

The end of the world for a caterpillar (the decline of sales & subscriptions) is the birth of a whole new one for a butterfly (the global digital African with a powerful computer in his hands).

We need to throw a party and celebrate!

 

1 Smartphone sales, driven by more affordable Chinese brands, may continue to see growth, but as the IDC states, this growth may come from those transitioning from featurephones.
2 Jumia Mobile Report 2018 in Nigeria
3 The Mobile Economy: Sub-Saharan Africa 2018, GSMA Intelligence
4 Cellphones Catapult Rural Africa to 21st Century, August 2005, New York Times