Goal Directed Research for Innovation Planning in Emerging Markets

What differentiates the research conducted to inform the design of an innovative product or service, in an untapped market? Michael Kimani asked me this question during a recent Skype conversation and I promised to write out the answer.

  • Goal directed research for innovation planning seeks to discover opportunities for new products and services for a particular market or population segment.
  • This means the scope must be broad enough to gather evidence of a market opportunity, customer needs and willingness to pay, as well as identify the constraints and barriers in both the environment (such as infrastructure) and the target population.
  • Looking for evidence of a viable value proposition and/or a business model is what distinguishes this type of early stage research from traditional product and service design research whose goals are to discover the optimal design solution for a particular task and target audience.
  • Unlike academic research, there may not always be a hypothesis to be validated at inception, nor the outcome pure knowledge.
  • Instead, there is a goal driving the design of the research, whether broad focused and exploratory, or narrow focused and specific.
  • This initiating goal can be set at three levels:
    • Sector specific
      • An example of sector specific goal setting would be to explore the potential for financial products and services for a bank. Alternately, this can be framed as identifying opportunities for innovation in financial services.
    • Demographic specific
      • A startup with a product or service under development may want to discover which segments of the target population should be prioritized for their product testing and launch. Alternately, a consumer products manufacturer might want to explore wholly new markets and the customization required for their product range.
    • Outcome specific
      • A popular outcome specific research framing that is sector and population agnostic is “What are the barriers to adoption for our intended innovation among this target audience?” We have conducted such research for a wide range of objectives, from the introduction of sustainable agricultural techniques among farmers in rural East Africa, to insights driving product development for a fintech startup.

The challenge in untapped markets is a dearth of legacy data and consumer insights, hence the need for more discovery driven exploration upfront prior to drilling down to specific research focus areas. In the forthcoming post, I will share our customization of Vijay Kumar’s innovation planning methodology developed over the past few years in situ during projects in East Africa. Note that subsequent research to inform the specific concept design of a product or service will have more of an indepth focus on the target demographic and their particular context.

How do we make a business case for an innovative concept given the data scarcity for the African mass market?

Anzetse Were writes some thoughtful points on the challenges facing private sector innovation in Kenya, and Africa. Two of her points caught my attention, in particular:

With regards to the private sector, an interesting point raised is that innovation targeting it must have a business case for adoption otherwise the innovation won’t be absorbed. Innovation must demonstrate that the short-term inconvenience of adoption will pay off in the long term.
We have a real problem with information asymmetry and data bias. [… ] strategies for market penetration and sharing cannot be rolled out since the lack of data means the private sector doesn’t know where the market sits.

While Anzetse has specifically focused on the interface between the private and the public sector with regards to innovation, the points she brings up are nevertheless a challenge for either or both parties.

Size and value of the market opportunity for an innovation when data is scarce

Investors in innovation for new and untapped markets need the numbers to make sense of the opportunity. A dollar value and estimated size of the market are among the conventional metrics used to provide evidence of a return on their investment. How substantial is it?

In the African context, the mass market where the volumes can be found tends to be heavily biased towards the informal sectors, and still for the most part based on cash transactions. Textbook approaches to sizing and valuing the market space fall short without accessible and relevant data.

A few years ago, we were faced with a similar challenge for Village Telco, a social enterprise launching an innovative ICT device for low cost voice and data communication. They had developed the Mesh Potato,  a device for providing low-cost telephony and Internet in areas where alternative access either doesn’t exist or is too expensive. It is a marriage of a low-cost wireless access point capable of running a mesh networking protocol with an Analog Telephony Adapter.

They were looking to enter the Kenyan market, with the notion that the cyber cafe industry would make the best target audience for their device. Their investors wanted to know the size and value of the market opportunity prior to launching the product in Kenya. Although this happened just over 6 years ago, Kenya had already made a name for itself as a forward looking mobile phone market unafraid of experimentation.

Our challenge was two-fold: We were to look at 2nd and 3rd tier towns, not just Nairobi and Mombasa. Village Telco was looking to connect the unconnected. And we had to estimate the size and value of the market opportunity for a sector – internet cafes – that was primarily cash based and informal, particularly given the rural and small town geography we were considering. There was little or no data available to even get a handle on the number of cyber cafes operating in Kenya.

Secondly, we had to get an idea of the price point at which the product would be acceptable to this target audience. Keep in mind that the device was wholly unknown – an innovation – and there was nothing comparable on the market.

A qualitative approach to quantitative estimation

Given that this was not a conventional research project, and time and resources were constrained to a market analysis, we designed a minimal viable market discovery phase that would permit us to gather enough insights directly from the cyber cafe operators in order to estimate the size and value, as well as recommendations for pricing and market entry.

In late 2011, Kenya’s administrative divisions were still the original provinces.

Based on population density and relative income demographics, as well as an ICT gap analysis of voice and data services – reports available through Kenyan government institutions – we planned an optimal route that maximized exposure to the types of locations Village Telco had specified whilst sampling cyber cafes across a range of infrastructure access and regional income. This coverage was completed in less than 3 weeks.

Surfacing trends through indepth open ended interviews

Where we invested our time and effort was in identifying entrepreneurial and innovative cyber cafe operators in the smaller towns and villages we visited. The vast majority of internet cafes are run as side businesses by the owners who might be white collar employees or civil servants, and often managed by employees. It was the cyber cafe owner operator who saw their business as a growth opportunity that we were seeking.They not only knew their market but had seen the opportunities to grow and expand their services.

They were able to give us an idea of the future of the cyber cafe business in their region, a rough estimate (few businesspeople are willing to openly share revenue data) of the scale of their business, and the trends in decline or growth of the types of services they offered.

Through the data gathered, we were able to estimate the high growth regions for internet cafe services – Nakuru town for instance had seen the number of cybers grow from 10 or 15 in 2007 to upwards of 50, primarily due the increase in tertiary education institutions. Kilifi, on the Coast, had seen a doubling when a local university campus opened.

At the same time, we were able to gauge the value of the opportunity space by using the proxy of the proportion of owner/operators to manager/employees – the former were more likely to be interested in the Mesh Potato than the latter.

Our route planning also provided evidence of the pathways for innovation diffusion, outwards in a hub and spoke model from the central hub of Nairobi’s business district where new electronic products landed from the manufacturing centers of Asia.

Sitting down face to face with the cafe owners and showing them the product and what it could do gave us the insight on pricing and market entry strategy. By the end of 5 weeks from start to finish, we were able to make a business case for innovation meant for a data scarce environment.

Innovation means breaking new ground

While the effort on the ground was very different from a conventional market analysis exercise due to the need to elicit information directly on the market and the product, the time and resources invested by the client were no different from an analysis based on secondary sources and accessible data flows.

The nature of the African mass market is such that pioneers entering the market will have to break new ground, not only with their products and services, but also their approach to analyzing and evaluating the business case for investment. It is not an impossible task and should not be considered a barrier to entry.

How informal financial services can lower the barriers to formal financial inclusion

Around 2 and a half years ago, I was on a short visit to Abidjan, the capital of Cote D’Ivoire as a guest of the African Development Bank. They were holding an innovation weekend for young women and men in the Francophone West African region who were interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

David O. Capo Chichi, who used to work back then for MTN, a major telco very kindly took me around the informal markets on his day off and we got to talking to market women about their financial management habits. One interesting behaviour linking the informal with the formal came to light.

An established spice seller told us she had a savings account at the bank, but accessing the bank’s services were a huge barrier – the opening times ate into her business hours and the long wait times meant loss of income from potential customers. At the same time, because she was dependent on cash income from daily sales, it was more convenient for her to put a portion of money aside on a daily basis. So what she was doing was paying a tontine collector for the service of showing up at her shop everyday and collecting her small amount of cash set aside for savings. He would hold it safely for her for a month and then she would take the total saved up amount back from him, take the day off work and go deposit it in her bank account. That was the only way she could have the flexibility and negotiability that budgeting on her irregular cash flow required and still access the benefits of a secure safe interest earning savings account at the bank.

Now today I came across this article describing a pilot program in Benin where the private susu (small small) or tontinier, such as that used by the lady in Cote D’Ivoire, have been formalized into a more secure and insured service for the same demographic of informal market women and traders. There’s even a digital component that updates the accounts via the mobile phone.

“The reality is that we can’t be everywhere, and the Susu collectors are near the population. We have to work with them and find the best business model to get them into the formal system.”

Now, this exact same model being piloted by the MFI in Benin may not apply in exactly the same way elsewhere, depending on the conditions prevalent in the operating environment, but its clear that the structures and systems in place at the formal institution can be made more flexible and negotiable – given a “human face” – by working together with the pre-existing informal financial services already in operation.

This behaviour also resembles that seen among the informal cross border traders at the Uganda/Kenya borderland. Teresia who sells clothes under a tree has established a trusted relationship with her mobile money agent. He shows up at closing time to help her transfer her cash into mPesa, thus securing it for her and saving her both time and effort through this personalized service. Though she said she had an account at the bank, it lies dormant, for the same reasons given by the spice seller in Abidjan – “Who can afford to close shop during the day to spend hours at the bank?”

Innovations aimed at increasing inclusion for financial services need not always contain a digital component for them to make a difference for the customer, and lower the barriers to adoption and usage. All it takes is a deeper understanding of the challenges and constraints of the end user in the context of their day to day life.

Context Sensitive Law: What happens when African societal norms meet modern commercial practice?

In short, social forces shape contracts: the stronger the sense of community, the more effective these sanctions are likely to be. The result: A privately ordered system of business behaviour, which exists without reference to the governing law of the state. The underlying adhesive: community.

In the absence of conventional forms of collateral, my contract partner’s knowledge of my financial standing and habits will serve as a guarantor of payment.

While trust may not always be present, and altruistically putting another’s needs before one’s own may be difficult when money is tight and economic needs press, a moderate sense of community does indeed characterise contracting in this setting. This leaves room for private property and individual financial goals, but ensures that one prioritises communal relations when making economic decisions.

This snippet from a short article by Andrew Hutchison and Nkanyiso Sibanda validates our own discoveries from observing the informal trade ecosystem in East Africa. Hutchison and Sibanda’s aim is to  inform the policy question as to whether South Africa needs to develop a dedicated indigenous law of contract. Their research set about moving the study of contracting from the centralised law of the state into the context of what happens in the popular economy – the space where the informal and formal sectors meet.

This is a powerful space for policy and law. Few formal institutions have successfully bridged this space between the formal and informal – my usual go to example are the mobile service providers and their prepaid purchase model as one that fits the needs of the informal context.

Sibanda and Hutchison go on to share some thoughts on their future direction:

We have described these informal rules and regulations as adhering to the concept of ubuntu. Retired Constitutional Court judge, Yvonne Mokgoro, defines ubuntu using the African saying:

a human being is a human being through other human beings.

This means that a person’s individual existence and welfare are relative to that of her community.

Context sensitive law

How are we then to define ubuntu in a given contractual setting in South Africa? “With reference to context,” is our answer. The notion of community described above requires a certain type of social environment. We think that this environment is to be found in South Africa’s popular economy and the relevant empirical literature supports this view. But what about high value contracts between South Africa’s blue chip companies?

We believe that contract law should be context sensitive. This should include which business community’s norms are used in determining the outcome of a given commercial dispute. This is not to say that corporates aren’t African, but rather that the value of community may be different. And even in the informal sector, contracts must be honoured. Under the South African Constitution, common and customary law are presently separate parallel branches. Our research will inform future arguments about how these two branches may influence each other.

I hope they will inspire lawyers and researchers in other African countries to begin looking at the same challenges in their own operating environment. Inspiring policy thinking about customary law in the context of community and business would go a long way to paving the path for an African version of the formal institutions required for a developed economy.

Why does the prepaid model work so well and what are the lessons for business model innovation?

Increasingly, employment is becoming ad hoc and flexible. The gig economy and the informal sector share a common characteristic of incomes which are irregular and unpredictable, unlike the timely wages characteristic of formal employment. Both budgeting and planning thus become a challenge when there’s no predictable paycheck to rely on. Expenses are managed against cash flows to minimize volatility, and payments with calender deadlines become a challenge in planning.

It is in this scenario that the prepaid or pay as you go model works so well for the customer, one of the reasons why its ubiquity across the developing world drives the growth of mobile phones. It puts control over timing and amount of money spent in the hands of the user, allowing them juggle voice and data purchases against available cash in hand.

Here are the lessons for business model innovation applicable for a plethora of products and services, drawn from our decade of research into the financial frameworks underlying the operating environment characterized by unpredictability and volatility, and the success of the prepaid model.


The prepaid model is flexible. There is no rigid requirement on the amount that can be spent, beyond the voucher values of each telcom operator, nor are there periodic calender based deadlines such as those in a monthly bill. In Nigeria, traders have been found to top up their phones multiple times a week or even the same day, yet purchasing the smallest denomination of vouchers. High frequency of small amounts is a purchasing pattern that resembles their own cash flow while trading in the informal market. They don’t want to tie up their liquidity in airtime in case cash on hand is required for business, yet their trade is clearly dependent on mobile communication hence the frequent recharges.

This flexibility built into the business model clearly puts control over timing and amounts spent in the hands of the end-user who must manage a volatile cash flow situation.


In addition to the daily or weekly fluctuations in cash flow experienced by gig economy workers or those active in the developing country informal sectors, there are larger variations in income level over the course of the natural year. Unlike the regularity of a monthly salary, irregular incomes rise during peak seasons, such as festivals and holidays, and plunge during low seasons. Developing country economies are more closely linked to the seasonality of agriculture, given the greater proportion of the population’s dependence on farming. Incomes can vary as much as 300% for instance, for tea farmers in western Kenya’s Kisii region. Climatic effects also have greater impact on cash flows, and the current drought in East Africa is expected to depress livestock prices in the coming half year. On the upside, seasonal peaks in consumer durable sales are predictable as the regional harvest timings are a known factor. North India’s post harvest season in late October/November kickstarts an orgy of consumer spending during the festivals and the weddings which take place during this period.

Business models designed to take expected seasonal changes into account can minimize the dropout rate of customers when their income changes.


One of the biggest challenges we have wrapping our heads around when considering more rural or cash intensive economies is that liquidity is not equivalent to wealth, or even purchasing power. While this factor can apply to anyone relying on multiple income streams from a variety of sources, I’ll use the example of a small farmer to explain its importance to the design of business models.

The homestead is managed like an investment portfolio, with different sources of income maturing over different durations of time over the course of the natural year. This is also why control over Timing – frequency, periodicity – of payments, such as possible in the prepaid model, is so critical for the success of payment plans. A smartphone might be purchased after the major harvest of the annual cash crop, but its the daily cash from the sale of milk that would be used for recharges (and other basic necessities). Similarly, a calf may be purchased to fatten against the following year’s school fees.


This leads directly to a factor more relevant to heavily informal economies where variance in systems and structures means transactions are more human centered, depending on face to face communication, trusted references, and mutual compacts rather than legal contracts to enforce agreements. Negotiability of your business model, and its close relation, reciprocity – “the give and take” – is an element missing from faceless institutions that seek to serve this demographic.

This is one reason many prefer to seek solutions outside of formal banking institutions, for example, as their opening hours might not suit the trader’s business hours. In Busia, Uganda, most women traders had established trusted relationships with a mobile money agent, many of whom would show up at the end of the work day to assist the trader in transferring the cash earning safely onto the digital wallet. And, unlike the bank, the telco’s prepaid model allows customers to “negotiate” when and how much they’ll pay within the constraints of far more flexible terms and conditions than most other models.

A farmer has “purchased” this solar panel after coming to an agreement with the shopkeeper. He will pay off the total, over time, as and when he has spare cash, and collect the panel when payment is complete. There is no interest charge. The shopkeeper has put the farmer’s name on the panel but will keep hold of the item.

The greater the span of control over timing and amounts, the greater the success of the payment plan

The prepaid model bridges the critical gap between the predictable formal structures of the large institution and the dynamic challenges of the informal. The bottomline is that the flexibility, negotiability, and reciprocity of the model are more important factors for its success than the conventional understanding of permitting micropayments in advance. Numerous consumer product marketers entering emerging markets experienced this challenge when their micropayment hire purchase models failed customers who might have to miss one or two week’s payments due to illness or other emergencies – their products were repossessed without any recourse to adjustment. Its the rigid calender schedule embedded in a payment plan that is often the barrier to a high ticket purchase than the actual price itself.

None of these factors are insurmountable with today’s technology, and the field for business model innovation for irregular income streams such as those in the gig economy or the informal sector is still wide open for disruption.

Disrupting Predictions: How Stereotypes Distort Expectations

This chart embodies some stereotypical thinking regarding the high growth opportunities now available in low income and lower middle income countries. Its from the just released World Development Report 2019’s concept note on the theme “The Changing Nature of Work”.

Where the cognitive dissonance lies is in the accompanying text which highlights the transformational capacity of digitization and its impact on the nature of work in developing countries. As this snippet shows, Kenya has been showcased as an example of such technology enabled change:Based on this, the chart’s positioning of jobs such as “mobile application developer”, “data technologist”, and even “cyber security consultant” should actually be further to the left, given that its the lower income nations where the majority of the future need will emerge from.

Even fashion designers are not spared, placed as they are in middle income countries. Lagos Fashion & Design Week has become the byword for up and coming fashion brands, sponsored heavily by the likes of Heineken. Kigali is another hotspot for fashion’s rapid growth, and the local brand “House of Tayo” reached the pinnacle of global visibility with their bespoke suit for Lupita Nyongo’s brother, worn for the Black Panther premiere.

The irony is that if this chart is used as is, without correlation to the transformations mentioned in the text, it will end up being the one thing that readers will notice when glancing through the final report. Diagrams and visuals catch our attention faster among reams of text.

Further, if these are the predictions being made, how much of the unquestioned assumptions relegate lower income nations to tourism hubs and farming? Drones are being deployed for healthcare in East Africa, and being tested for parcel delivery where transportation is scarce. Won’t drone operators and robotics engineers find jobs if these initiatives scale as planned? Its the developing countries that face greater logistics challenges, lacking the infrastructure of the developed.

There’s a strong case to be made for the redesign of this chart. It places an unfair burden on lower income and lower middle income countries, and implicitly relegates their future of work opportunities to the less skilled quadrant. Given the current and existing changes already underway, there’s a disruption waiting to happen if this is the chart that’s used for policy planning and analysis.

The African Informal Sector: GDP Contribution vs Scale of Human Impact

The informal economy in sub Saharan Africa (SSA) tends to be measured as a share of GDP, counting its contribution to the national economy. By this metric, Nigeria has the most economically empowered informal sector, contributing over 60% to the GDP. On the other extreme, South Africa, has one of the smallest contributions to the GDP from the informal sector, but the highest unemployment rate.

Yet both Nigeria and South Africa are neck to neck when it comes to the title of “largest economy on the African continent”, or place in the top 3. So what does this tell us about these IMF metrics being used to measure the informal sector?

The human impact story is missing from the equations

South Africa might have one of the smallest informal sectors in terms of contribution to their GDP, but the number of people generating their income from the informal sector is almost as large as Tanzania, whose informal sector contribution is more than double, second only to Nigeria.

WIEGO’s research, from which the above employment figures are drawn, highlights the social impact and scale of the informal sector in human terms. Already, the informal sector’s employment opportunities are growing faster than the much smaller formal sectors in most major African economies. New graduates and working age adults still need to find a way to put food on the table.

Its not enough to simply look at GDP contribution when it comes to the complex value embedded (and untapped) in the informal economies of these nations. Where social safety nets are scarce, and systems variable in their functioning, the human and social impact of the informal cannot be ignored in development planning and policy design.

Connectivity, Communication, and Commerce: The 3 Cs of Africa’s Smartphone Led Future

Recent headlines touted the decline in marketshare being seen by smartphones on the African continent, and the concurrent increase in sales of basic devices. Yet a closer look shows that this shift might only be numerical due to the opening of new markets in heavily populated DR Congo and Ethiopia – first time buyers are likely to start with entry level phones.

In fact, role of smartphones in Africa is not only likely to grow and evolve over the coming 3 to 5 years but its very likely that it will be connectivity apps driving their adoption. We Are Social’s latest report shows Africa’s internet user numbers have been growing by over 20% year-on-year.

The 4th C – the Challenge of Unquestioned Assumptions and Great Expectations

With connectivity and communication, commerce was expected to take off but anyone tracking the headlines would notice the challenges faced by African e-commerce platforms. Some point fingers to connectivity as the issue, expecting to reap benefits from scale of penetration. Others point to high costs of data and devices, or challenges with completing the transaction online.

Looking at the patterns exposed by all the reports and the articles makes one wonder whether it’s the underlying assumptions and expectations that are the real problem. The untapped market is hyped out of proportion by each new entrant who rush in with their disruption to revolutionize the African consumer, only to rush back out again when the traction fails to succeed. This has been muddying the waters of what could have been a considered thoughtful opportunity to transform the social and economic landscape.

Yet its not all negative. If someone was to ask me about how connectivity and communication are driving commerce in the African context, I’d point to the plethora of informal trade in goods and services being conducted daily across social media platforms. Everyday there’s a new product or service launched with a tweet. Groups on Facebook encourage and support the entrepreneurial journey. Cryptocurrency trading is making Kenya famous as a first mover.

The difference in traction seems to be that which is self organized and organic vs that which is institutionalized and/or introduced from elsewhere. The external pressure to succeed in the same terms as that visible in the Silicon Valleys might actually be a greater barrier to the sustainable development of the African online community led commerce, increasing pressure on founders and startups with every negative headline. Maybe the lesson from the informal organic growth online is that might actually be a matter of throw the technology at them and see what emerges without lifting the lid every other second to check progress?

Maybe all that is needed is more locally relevant content, such as already being seen emerging from Nigerian and Kenyan tech blogs, rather than the imposition of metrics and heuristics from developed nation contexts.

Mobile First Africa: Social Media’s Boost to Rural Productivity in Kenya

Now in business for just six months, he also uses social media pages to sell his products, improving his customer reach.

“Through Facebook posts I receive enquiries and orders from Kenyans in the diaspora living in the US, South Korea, South Sudan, UK, Switzerland and Botswana who want the splits to be delivered to their families in Kenya,” he said.

“I also use the page to educate farmers and friends more about brachiaria grass.” ~ How farmers look for new markets every season

Continuing with yesterday’s theme of business productivity in mobile first Africa, this story caught my attention for the way this farmer leveraged the reach and discoverability of social media to grow his business.

Social biashara such as this is diffusing outwards from the urban centers where it first began. Expect to see many more such stories emerge from the unexpected places.

Mobile First Africa: Opportunity for Accessories that Boost Productivity on Smartphones

Long ago, when smart phones were still on their way to changing the world, I remember the product development of a host of accessories that would boost business productivity in a variety of areas for phone owners.

The projector phone was one such innovation, flopping back when it was launched due to the tech not having caught up yet. I bring this up because I read an article this morning that highlights a major challenge for the ‘mobile first’ African market.

“We hear about mobile-first Africa, it sounds sexy,” said Nanjira Sambuli, digital equality advocacy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation. “But how much meaningful work can you get done through your mobile. Are we creating a divide? We are not going to be equal if mobile is the only way. Because mobile is for consuming.”

Today, technology is far more advanced, and as China has shown us, far more affordable. Can a range of productivity solutions be launched as accessories for smartphones to disrupt the African SME market?

The Japanese are already ahead with their answers, such as this keyboard by Elecom. The products are all out there, I think its just a matter of identifying the opportunity and the price point for the African markets.

The continent tends not to be taken as seriously for enterprise solutions as it could be. Informal sectors do not mean lack of purchasing power or opportunity space. Perhaps this is the sector that is now ripe for disruption by an enterprising entrepreneur.