Kenya’s informal economy clambering on to the information highway through their smartphones

Sometimes cliches are the only way to communicate the sheer breadth and depth of the transformation now undergoing in the informal sectors, such as trade and light manufacturing, thanks to affordable smartphones and data bundles.

I began calling it digital and not online yesterday when we discovered many people didn’t recognize the word “online” in a question, and thought of it as their smartphone or an app. The next billion online, with their prepaid airtime on low cost devices, have recognized the market potential of the “internet” in the form of Facebook but do not yet recognize the concept of either “online” or the internet.

It was commonly perceived as things you could do with a smartphone that you couldn’t with a feature phone. MPesa, with its robust USSD system, could be used with a 15 year old phone, and thus, like sending a text, or making a phone, has become a basic feature of their mobile phone.

Everything else is magic.

Kenyans have leapfrogged more than just landline infrastructure in their embrace of mobile telephony. They also leapfrogged conceptual understanding of the internet, websites, HTML, and pages, that those of us who began with desktop or laptop computers had visualized conceptually as a model for our own need to understand the system.

We’re seeing wholly new ways of thinking about apps, tools, and services in the “digital world” – which, I find, is the easiest way to describe the span of technologies that most developing countries must straddle – from 2G to 4G and 5G, African countries can’t afford to turn off 2G like Singapore can. Too many people are still using old Nokias, and I was able to purchase an unboxed 2009 model Nokia for $25 in Nairobi’s Central Business District last week.

The future will remain unevenly distributed in the digitization of the informal economies of developing countries, but this is giving rise to interesting developments. Where the system is technologically “backward” as compared to the linear progression in the developed world, it will not have a development path to follow but will and does go off in its own direction of transformation.

What we are seeing here in Kenya is a hybrid digital economy that can be accessed by both featurephones and smartphones, the only caveat being the tradeoff made on the richness of information streams available for each category of device.

This to me also feels like what the mobile internet experience will be like for another decade in Kenya, and a local approximation of societal and demographic change for any other developing country context.

What will not change is the vast majority data management habits – 97% of Kenyan mobile subscribers are on prepaid airtime plans, although there does seem to be a segment of customers who are beginning to see the advantages of postpaid services. I met one of Kenya’s 3% – a Safaricom Platinum customer.

The role of the grey market in Africa’s mobile telephony boom years

The grey market refers to goods which have been manufactured by or with the consent of the brand owner, but are sold outside of the brand owner’s approved distribution channels – which can be perfectly legal. (1)

In Africa’s teeming business districts and electronics mega markets, the concept of grey market products underwent an evolution over the past two decades as it reflected the development and eventual maturity of the mobile phone market. Always, however, price arbitrage drove the parallel industry.

In the beginning, grey market products were those that met the conventional definition I’ve shared above from Investopedia. Because the majority of the African continent – barring North Africa and South Africa which were considered more investment worthy – was initially overlooked as a target audience for the world’s branded mobile phone manufacturers, African traders and merchants would source products from the Gulf – Dubai being a key hub for re-exports in consumer electronics – or ‘fairly used’ phones from the then more advanced European countries.

Thus, by the time Samsung’s Mobile division woke up to the opportunity in sub Saharan Africa about a decade after the first introductions of cellular telephony, they discovered Samsung devices being sold openly in markets they had not officially entered as yet. The challenge for them, back then, was that these handsets tended to be European models, and not really engineered to hold up under more adverse African conditions. Not only was the grey channel capturing marketshare that should have been theirs but potentially negatively impacting their brand as more fragile than the notoriously durable Nokias which were popular ‘fairly used’ models for that very reason.

The secondhand and refurbished phone market provided the necessary affordability for far more people than just the rich or upper middle class who could afford the phones and models then being sold in sub Saharan Africa.

It was only the completely unexpected great surge of growth around 2002-4 that spotlighted clearly the latent and untapped mass market opportunity for low cost mobile devices, and the trend began to develop a phone “for Africa”. Motorola won the the GSM Association’s first grant for low cost phones, priced at around $30, in 2005, but was ironically never to achieve the exponential sales and success of Nokia.

By 2009, the grey market came to mean counterfeit as cheap Chinese phones flooded the market thanks to informal traders flying to and fro from Hong Kong with suitcases stuffed with handsets. Back then, coherent brands had not yet emerged from China’s factories, and I owned a dual sim NKIAC with lots of bells and whistles as a souvenir. They were known to have their problems but offered a trade off for the aspirational owner to be – an affordable entry point online, until an established brand could be purchased.

Around 2011, however, the Chinese OEMs had woken up to the African market’s sustained double digit growth in both device sales, as well as new subscribers of mobile services. And, jumped on the Android bandwagon, sensing a boom on the horizon as big brands dithered.

This was the turning point that was to change everything about the mobile telephony ecosystem in sub Saharan Africa – Nokia’s fade out, the rise and subsequent dominance of Transsion Holdings with low cost yet branded smartphones, paving the way for the smartphone and app economy maturing rapidly across the entire continent today.

In a way, it was also the end of the gray market in terms of fakes and counterfeits, as connectivity and social media demands required functioning operating systems and apps.

In another, the original grey market, as defined, came back to it’s role in providing affordability to the aspirational and ambitious, and in Nigeria, is credited with bringing about the smartphone revolution, just as it boosted the original mobile telephony transformation of the previous decade.

Mobile Phones and the Informal Economy

Western Kenya, June 2012

Over the past week or so, I’ve been scanning literature from African researchers on the broad theme of mobile phones and the informal economy. Here are some of my top findings:

  1. The Mobile Phone is a Business Tool and Income Generator – Regardless of the region (and cultural context) of study –  Cameroon or Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya or Botswana or Tanzania; and, regardless of whether the research methodology was quantitative or qualitative, respondents across the board considered their mobile phones as a critical capital expense for running their business, important for boosting efficiency, productivity, and incomes. In these studies focusing on the informal economy, respondents were micro and small enterprises, most often owned and operated by a single individual.
  2. Mobile phones and cellular services opened entirely new avenues of employment, particularly for youth – More visible in the earlier years of Africa’s mobile revolution, but still important enough today, are the new avenues that the ecosystem and infrastructure opened up for young people.  A slew of supporting services such as airtime sales, voucher sales, mobile money agencies, phone sales, download services, call booths, et al each had their day in the sun as a promising new way to tap into the double digit growth sustained by African mobile markets in the past two decades.  Most notably, mobile phone repair shops stand out as a whole new career path enabled by cutting edge technology. And, some of the best known hardware and software hackers went on to bigger things.
  3. Mobile money agents preferred to banks – Studies on this theme – if they were conducted where mobile money had reached critical mass – noted that mobile money agents were often considered as “one of us” by informal sector businesspeople as compared to forbidding requirements and investment in time required by banks. Mobile money agents were located conveniently in the same markets, often in neighbourhood shops, were open for longer and more convenient hours, and even on weekends. They were definitely more flexible and accommodating of the needs of informal sector commercial activity, and often a critical part of the business person’s network than any bank.

These three things caught my attention as showing up over and over again the literature, regardless of whether it was a PhD dissertation, an academic’s paper, or an MBA student’s thesis.

References:

The diffusion and Impact of Mobile Phones on the Informal Sector in Kenya (2010) – Wakari Gikenye and Dennis Ocholla

The role played by the informal economy in the appropriation of ICTs in urban environments in West Africa (2008) – CHENEAU-LOQUAY, Annie

The Economic and Social Effects of Mobile Phone Usage: The Case of Women Traders in Accra (2015) – Dissertation, Yvette A. A. Ussher

Mobile phones in the transformation of the informal economy: stories from market women in Kampala, Uganda (2016) – Caroline Wamala Larsson & Jakob Svensson

Cell Phone Repairers in Cameroon, 2000-2013 (2015) – Walter Gam Nkwi

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.