On Seeing

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Microtrader’s market stall, Karatina market, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2013)

Michael Bierut writes a paean to the power of observation in his introduction to the new print run of George Nelson’s How to See. His concluding words resonated deeply:

The unifying theme behind all of Nelson’s lectures – and, indeed, behind his life’s work – was a simple, and optimistic one: by seeing more clearly, one could make better, more thoughtful, and ultimately more humane choices about our manmade environment, that world “God never made.”

Not only did it make me want to run right out, on a snowy Sunday night, and buy the book – I’ve made a note to myself – but it made me reflect on my own work and it’s underlying philosophy of Understanding and Sensemaking before attempting to design for complexity and diversity.

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How value flows in informal trade networks, Busia, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2016)

When I read Michael’s words describing Nelson’s methods for photography and documentation, I recognized my own. And more importantly, I recognized George Nelson’s contribution to the discipline of industrial design, even down to his undeniable influence on curriculum along with Charles Eames.

My first exposure (yes, you saw what I did here) was in 1989 at the Eames’ inspired National Institute of Design where the introduction to photography as a design tool included developing your own black and white snaps in the darkroom. It changed the way I thought about the function and utility of a camera – from vacation accessory to appendage and tool. Three decades later, my preferred choice is a small point and shoot that comfortably and inconspicuously fits into the palm of my hand.

Niti with her camera, Mamelodi Township, South Africa (Photo: Dave Tait 2008)

I learnt to look for patterns in the photographs, at night, after the end of each day out, when the daily routine of downloading, sorting, filing, and transferring a copy to the external drive took place.

The first two or three days are often just noise, the stimulation of the overburdened senses in the sights and sounds of the bazaars and the landscape and the people. But soon, if you know you’re looking for it, the chaos starts to coalesce into signals that begin to weakly emerge and this then helps refine the focus of the discoveries and the directions for further exploration.

Eastern Cape, South Africa (Photo: Niti Bhan 2008)

And, sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, that series of snaps taken from a speeding car, can turn up a thing of beauty. Or a mundane visit to the wet market provides a composition of harmonious hues and textures.

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Kibera Market, Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2011)

I’ve never been able to do it as deliberately and consistently as professional photographers, but it doesn’t stop me from taking my camera out whenever something catches my eye.

As global firms (MNC) pull back from emerging markets, what does this mean for Africa?

tumblr_nwsbz0ytDw1qghc1jo1_500Last week’s issue of The Economist drilled down deeper to cover the retreat of globalization – at least in the most visible form, that of the multinational brands dotting cityscapes around the world. The retreat of the global company, they trumpet, the end of Theodore Levitt’s vision.

Credit Suisse takes a concise yet comprehensive look at these weak signals in their well-written report that frames the situation as a transitional tug of war between globalization and multipolarity – an inflection point, rather than a retreat. They make it sound like missing the turn at an intersection and having to come back to the traffic lights to figure out which way to go.

Duncan Green of Oxfam captured the essence well:

But the deeper explanation is that both the advantages of scale and those of arbitrage have worn away. Global firms have big overheads; complex supply chains tie up inventory; sprawling organisations are hard to run. Some arbitrage opportunities have been exhausted; wages have risen in China; and most firms have massaged their tax bills as low as they can go. The free flow of information means that competitors can catch up with leads in technology and know-how more easily than they used to. As a result firms with a domestic focus are winning market share.

In the “headquarters countries”, the mood changed after the financial crisis. Multinational firms started to be seen as agents of inequality. They created jobs abroad, but not at home. The profits from their hoards of intellectual property were pocketed by a wealthy shareholder elite. Political willingness to help multinationals duly lapsed.

Of all those involved in the spread of global businesses, the “host countries” that receive investment by multinationals remain the most enthusiastic.

The first thing to note is that the global MNCs being considered by The Economist are primarily the legacy ones  – fast food chains like McDonalds and KFC (Yum Brands) – whose shiny logos used to represent the liberalization of the closed markets of India and China.

Even at powerhouses such as Unilever, General Electric (GE), PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble, foreign profits are down by a quarter or more from their peak.

or the few examples of emerging market brands that have gone global such as China’s Lenovo which purchased IBM’s Thinkpad and India’s Airtel which bought into the African market.

What’s being touted as their competition are regional brands, who aren’t as stretch out globally in terms of their supply chains, and less vulnerable to currency volatility. Further, the majority of these global brands are heavily dependent on their B2C marketing and sales – the question of whether they ever managed to understand their new markets is a topic for another post.

And so, we ask, what will this mean for the emerging economies of Africa, who are only now seeing the first fruits of FDI? Who will come and develop their consumer markets?

India and China apparently. And strategically – through unbranded affordable commodities and the acquisition of successful regional consumer brands – rather than the legacy MNC approach influenced by Levitt. Even Japan recognizes this, as they seek to piggyback on the Indian experience.The economics of scale that propelled the first rounds of growth for the manufacturers of washing machines and the automobiles never did make sense infrastructurally for the majority of the African consumer markets.

Instead, the patterns pointed out by The Economist and Credit Suisse imply that opportunities will lie among regional stars – Equity Bank of Kenya, for instance, whose regional footprint is surely but steadily creeping outwards across the East African Community and trading partners – or, the telcom brands such as Tigo (Millicom) who innovate for each of their local markets.

The jobs and exports that can be attributed to multinationals are already a diminishing part of the story. In 2000 every billion dollars of the stock of worldwide foreign investment represented 7,000 jobs and $600m of annual exports. Today $1bn supports 3,000 jobs and $300m of exports.

Godrej, for instance would be considered a regional Indian giant rather than a multinational in the conventional sense of a Unilever or P&G.

Where [MNCs] get constrained is, they are driven by lot of processes that are global. For a smaller organisation like us, we are completely empowered; decision-making is quick and we can initiate changes very fast. We are more agile and have an advantage over them.

Yet their expansion outside India shows a “pick and choose” strategy of markets they’re comfortable entering.

The group’s acquisition strategy hinges on identifying unlisted companies built by entrepreneurs looking for capital, picking up stakes and working with them to scale up their businesses.

At least two homegrown Kenyan FMCG brands – skincare by a global giant and cosmetics by private equity – have been acquired. As have snack foods, spices, dairy products, and other products that cater to local tastes. The best known being Fan Milk of West Africa. Private equity such as Abraaj make no bones about going after consumer driven opportunities.

Given these choices, sustainable African businesses who understand their consumer markets have an opportunity to establish their brands and grow – with the financial help that’s strategically becoming available.While Chinese imports make the market highly competitive and price conscious, fish and tyres are substitutable goods in a way skincare and cosmetics are not.

African consumer companies – formal, informal, or semi-almost there-formal – need to hustle right now.

The retreat of the MNCs offers a chance to exhale, and expand, and grow, but the advent of the East implies waking up to the need for serious strategic thinking about domestic comparative and competitive advantage – one of which is incomparable knowledge of local consumers, culture, and needs, and critically, experience of their vast informal sectors and cash intensive economies.

A Precursor for Systems Design and Social Change from Finland

Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund, has released an excellent analysis and work plan for systemic change at scale – how to change the national mindset to become a society focused on sustainability and wellbeing.

I remember noting Finland’s leadership in systems design and strategic planning back in 2007 during our Cox Europe Mission to observe multidisciplinary creativity in business and higher education. One of the reasons, I still believe, why Helsinki became a World Design Capital.

This report considers the circular economy (or, REculture as I’ve often called it). While the whole document is entirely the work of Sitra, one cannot help but recognize the contributions made by Doblin, the pioneer of design planning back in Chicago. After all, all of us who were taught by Larry Keeley were introduced to the 10 types of innovation  page 44).

This gives me hope, as my team and I start exploring the method for triggering systemic change for an entirely different kind of complex, adaptive system – that common in the developing world context. This means that we can draw upon the lessons we learnt back in school and then seek to evolve them for the disparities in the operating environment.

Unlike Finland, where there is high trust in the system, and things run rather smoothly, even after the worst blizzard, the average rural market town in East Africa has unreliable and inadequate infrastructure, higher mistrust in systems, and almost no credible sources of historic data for any kind of trends analysis much less an easy and affordable way to monitor and evaluate anything less than highly visible (mobile phones) gross changes in the ecosystem.
sitraThus, while we can be inspired by this straightforward roadmap for the Finnish context, I already know that our progress will not be as simple or linear. Most likely we will have a lot more exploration and discovery, such as mapping the landscape, as well as needing to adapt our approach in conditions of greater uncertainty where planning is a challenge, and preparation means survival.

As a Finnish entrepreneur, I’m grateful for this contextual opportunity to be inspired by this living example even as I proceed further with my own work.

Exploring the Scope of Biashara Economics

biashara2There’s a dearth of research on the economics of biashara – the everyday commerce that keeps daily life running. And this hampers the efficacy of the design of programmes and policies meant for operating environments where the informal economy may be providing employment for more than half the working age population, and often, as high as 80 to 90% – India is at 92%, just for context.

This is not yet a literature review, although that is next on my list. It’s an attempt to capture the realization, while reading a couple of fascinating articles on the South African township economy, that the underpinnings of the informal retail and trade economy were not themselves the subject of research.

We stand firmly on the shoulders of giants, I realized, when reading these papers, though they maybe few in number. Without John Keith Hart’s body of work, none of us would be here, not even the “informal economy” –  the label itself attributed to his work in Ghana in the early 1970s. And without Martha Alter Chen’s rethinking of the informal economy, I wouldn’t have taken the path that I have this past decade.

…as long as you lump together the activities of the people like selling hotdogs door to door (although buying it from a wholesaler informally), distilling wine for the village, keeping small shops within walking distance when towns are far away or even urban services ranging from garbage disposal to dishwashing to repairing shoes – with the “firms that are hiding from formal regulations and don’t want to pay taxes etc” any formal programs or activities, whether from the social and economic development angle or the corporate profitability angle are going to act at cross purposes.

Martha Alter Chen writes in “Rethinking the Informal Economy” that India stands out as an example where the informal economy has been accepted, acknowledged and now slowly being addressed by government policy. Not in order to dissolve it or remove it but to work with it simply because the incomes of far too many people are dependent on it and no formal systems can be put into place to take care of each and every corner of the country nor her billion citizens.

One can then take what seems to be working, called “creative, resilient and efficient” by Hart, quoted by Chen, and enable systems that support it further, fostering development and increasing success rates at the touchpoints where the informal and formal meet.

So, it is with their distant blessing I will also put forth all that we’ve uncovered about the economics of informal trade and commerce, in the context of the various existing studies which overlap and provide us with insights or confirmation on our own findings. Including the tag “biashara economics”; I’ve now created it’s own category.

The dangerous assumption that there’s no competition from the informal sector

In addition, the informal economy of open street markets still dominates 90% of retail in large countries like Nigeria and Kenya, meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room to grow. ~ Quartz Africa, Jan 2017

Failure is a risk, and an inescapable function of the amount of resources invested, not just money. Time, effort, and managerial ambitions are also losses that destroy value for companies. Danger, then, lies in leaping to assumptions that turn out to be wrong. This is one of them.

First, a bit of history. Just over a decade ago, the Indian market was opening up to world’s investment flows in the retail sector, and estimates of the potential were as rosy and glowing as Africa’s today. From The Economist in April 2006:

Most Indian shops belong to what is known, quite accurately, as the “unorganised” sector—small, family-owned shops surviving on unpaid labour and, often, free land for a small stall. “Organised” retailing accounts for only 2-3% of the total, and of that, 96% is in the ten biggest cities, and 86% in the biggest six. However, organised retailing is growing at 18-20% a year and inspiring a rush of property development. Shopping malls are springing up in every big town: some 450 are at various stages of development.

By 2015, it was clear that these ambitious potentials were never going to materialize, though many malls did spring up in cities across the country. Last year, I covered this topic looking back at the growth projections and the subsequent real numbers achieved from the perspective of the resilience shown by the informal retail sector. I noted, in August 2016:

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious – formal retail has only reached 8% penetration in the past 10 years. Nowhere close to the 25% expected by 2010. Mind you, these were all the management consultancy reports bandying the numbers around.

I bring this up because I’m seeing the same kinds of projections happening right now for the African consumer market by the very same firms.

Second, this time it’s not just a management consultancy report with all the research and analysis efforts they pour into making their case. It’s not been distilled into one single yet dangerous sentence:

meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room

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“Plenty of room” (Photo Credit: Yepeka Yeebo in Accra, Ghana)

There’s an inherent assumption within the assumption that the myriads of little stands, market ladies and their longstanding relationships with customers and suppliers, and the entire ecosystem which exists, such as in the photograph above, can simply be bulldozed over with a granite and marble mall development covered in shiny unreflective glass.
It didn’t happen in India, and it’s not happening in Africa. From Ghana, this news article on mall development says:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongside the dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.

cth8lgkwcaauetyFurther, and more dangerously, this blithe assumption of a cakewalk where an informal sector so tangibly exists, overlooks the innate ingenuity of those who seek a dignified life even while hustling for a living. And that there’s no competition or customer service.

Snapshot of the Dynamics of the Urban Informal Retail Trade in Nairobi, Kenya

Informal Economy Dynamics - Updated

Made by Latiff Cherono – click for larger image

Latiff Cherono quickly made up this diagram during a brainstorming session with Francis Hook and myself on the ways and means to further disaggregate the general category of “Informal wholesale and retail trade” that the Kenya National Statistics Board uses to lump together the second largest sector providing employment in Kenya after agriculture.

jobs2 In urban conditions, vending and hawking of this sort is the largest source of income for the formally unemployed.

As you can see in the map visualizing Latiff’s analysis of a well known location for street vendors and hawkers to operate breaks down traffic flows not only by speed but also takes in account both static and dynamic forms of informal trade.

It may look chaotic but there are principles underlying the decisions made by both pavement vendors and mobile vendors (streethawkers in traffic) for their location of choice. These relate to the speed of passersby and potential customers – both wheeled and heeled, as Francis is wont to say – and closer analysis will most likely provide evidence of attempt to drive more footfalls to the shopfront, so to speak.

An example is the way pavement vendors locate themselves on either side of the busy bus stops, while mobile vendors who vend their way through traffic focus on the bottlenecks created by the roundabout and the traffic police.

We’re still in early days yet but time and money seem to be two of the factors that describe the attributes to segment and categorize the informal retail sector in urban Africa.

Innovation, Ingenuity and Opportunity under Conditions of Scarcity (Download PDF)

coverIn July 2009, I was inspired by working in the Research wing of the Aalto University’s Design Factory in Espoo, Finland, to launch a group blog called REculture: Exploring the post-consumption economy of repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle by informal businesses at the Base of the Pyramid*.

Within a year, this research interest evolved into a multidisciplinary look at the culture of innovation and invention under conditions of scarcity and it’s lessons for sustainable manufacturing and industry for us in the context of more industrialized nations.

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Emerging Futures Lab, July 2010 (Aalto Design Factory)

As a preliminary exploration, my research associate Mikko Koskinen and I timed our visit to Kenya to coincide with the Maker Faire Africa to be held on the grounds of the University of Nairobi in August 2010.

This photographic record of our discoveries (PDF 6MB) among the jua kali artisans and workshops of Nairobi, Nakuru, Thika, and Kithengela, guided by biogas inventor and innovator Dominic Wanjihia captures the essence of the creativity and ingenuity it takes to create without ample resources and adequate infrastructure.

A synopsis of our analysis is available here.

 

* The publishing platform, Posterous, died a short while later and we lost years of work. I’m looking into reincarnating REculture on Tumblr soon.

 

Signs of Interdependency between the Formal and the Informal Economy

bridging economiesThere is a lot to be unpacked here – I made a mindmap of the urban African entrepreneur who is the backbone of the visible emergence of a consumer class. I’m drawing from my experience of the Kenyan context. I started this in response to Michael Kimani’s Storify recently on the mythical “middle class” and the African consumer market.

We know that this demographic, regardless of the efforts to label it “middle class”, is quite unlike the traditional bourgeoisie that built the developed world a century ago. We can call them the informal bourgeoisie – solid members of society who nonetheless break stereotypes of the white collar, university educated, salaryman.

More often than not, they are entrepreneurs and businesswomen, traders and makers, and workshop owners, who bootstrap their lines of business through the traditional means available amongst what is still called the informal economy. If they’re lucky they might have finished high school, or even graduated from university, but a degree is not a prerequisite as it might be in a private sector job.

In this post, I’m only going to write about something that struck me last night when I was staring at the mindmap. The line that links business to entrepreneur can also be considered a bridge between the informal economy and it’s business practices, and the upcoming formal markets of urban population centers.

The successful workshop owner or regional trader rapidly acquires the signals of his or her business success in the form of consumer goods and increased expenditure on staples and necessities, including upgrades to choice of schools and church. I believe that formal financial services and products such as bank accounts, credit cards, and various apps on a smartphone are part and parcel of this.

In effect, the entrepreneur is the link between the informal economy which provides employment and income to the vast majority, and the burgeoning formal sector in consumer facing services and products.

The formal economy is more likely to be dependent upon the health of the informal sectors than the reverse.

This interdependency, and relationship, is important. I will be coming back to this diagram again to unpack more of what I’m seeing here. For now, it’s enough to have figured out that initiatives meant to eradicate the “pesky” informal trade might have greater implications than initially assumed.

Top 3 Assumptions About the African Consumer Market

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Treichville Market, Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Claims have been made about the Great African Market Opportunity – in retail, in real estate, in banking, and packaged consumer goods – that drive investment decisions and marketing strategies. Yet, reality has been less opportunistic than imagined – Nestle’s struggles in Kenya back in 2015 are one such example.

Here are the top 3 assumptions, if left unpacked or unquestioned, that can make or break a new market entry strategy in the African Consumer Market. For most of the continent, it’s safe to say that the majority of the mass market are primarily employed in the informal economy.

1. Price is the problem
Affordability is not a matter of price but access to payment means or method. Upfront lumpsum cash transactions will narrow potential customer base down, depending on the season, or the income source.

What this means is that there are whole categories of products that would have had a larger audience but do not due to barriers set up by their own transaction model.

Accessibility and Affordability are thus not a function of the Price itself but the lack of flexibility in the business model. Flexibility drives consumer segmentation in the African Consumer Market, as product purchase decisions get made based on cash in hand and cash flow patterns.

2. Consumer Segmentation Metrics are the Same
The factors that influence the segments of the population who have the potential to be consumers are the following:
– Urban or Rural
– Sources of Income

Factors that do not influence “poverty” (ref: textbook market segmentation)
– Education
– Location
– Employer

Example: Schoolteachers are considered part of the rural elite in Kenya, accruing community status and respect. Yet, they may be on a fixed salary within a lower pay grade, albeit teaching with a Master’s degree, with less purchasing power than a school dropout with a successful trading business.

Assumption: Demographic attributes traditionally used such as Education level or stability of Employer correlate to consumer purchasing power or disposable income.

3. Brand Loyalty is absolute and unconditional
Consumer insight reports on the African market opportunity tend to highlight the high degree of brand loyalty prevalent among customers, and leave it at that. Recommendations then emphasize first mover advantage or capturing customer loyalty, with the assumption that once locked in, this will create a committed customer for life. Why brands matter so much is rarely, if ever, asked.

The assumption is that this brand loyalty implies pricing blind consumption and status seeking behaviours. While this may certainly occur at the upper end of the income spectrum, these drivers are not likely to be as common for decision making among the mass majority audience. Demand drivers for brand loyalty more commonly noted are:

– the need to minimize risk (of loss)
– maximizing the return on the investment (in the purchase) including status signalling and reputation factors, which have a role in accrual of social capital leveraged for business activities in the informal sector.

Trade-offs are constantly being made in purchasing decisions, influenced by a variety of factors. Yes, compromises may be made on groceries in order to pay for a branded product, but simplistic interpretations of this behaviour lead to egregious errors in the design of customer experiences.

Implicit Assumptions commonly held about Informal Markets

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Woman owned and managed informal retail in Mozambique via Twitter

  1. “Informal Economy” always means illegal, shadowy, gray.
  2. High volume of low value cash transactions imply poverty, ignorance, lack of sophisticated money management.
  3. Operating with a lack of infrastructure and institutions implies ignorance, lack of ambitions and aspirations, and motivation.
  4. Lack of cash implies lack of purchasing power – particularly in rural settings.
  5. Lack of formal retail markets and packaged consumer goods implies lack of knowledge, information, and choices.
  6. Lack of competition, due to all of the above.
  7. Entering markets where informal retail dominates will be a cakewalk.