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.

The Resilience of Innovation under Conditions of Scarcity

Kouassi Bafounga works on a storm lantern, Bangui, Central African Republic, January 16, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Inna Lazareva

Innovating beyond the traditional tin lantern – a simple wick attached to the can – Kouassi Bafounga cuts shapes from tin cans and fixes them together with glass, string and a little petrol to produce storm-proof lanterns.

Last year, Bafounga was one of 11 winners in a “Fab Lab” innovation competition run by the French embassy and Alliance Française, a French cultural centre in Bangui, with financing from the European Union’s Bêkou Trust Fund. The finalists, chosen from more than 100 applicants, received assistance to develop their products into businesses.

Inna Lazareva writes on this “creativity from crisis” sharing stories of inventors and makers who must single-handedly create solutions for daily needs in highly volatile conditions of material scarcity.

Given the challenges faced by the Central African Republic, I see these stories as evidence of the resilience of innovation, something often overlooked when we ooh and ahh over the creations themselves.

How can we learn from this?

 

For more on Innovation under conditions of scarcity and Scarcity as a driver for innovation

Lessons for development from the demand driven investment strategies of the informal sector

This shopkeeper in Laare, Kenya provided me with deep insight on how investments in expensive inventory are managed in a heavily cash based economy. He runs a consumer electronics store stocking everything from solar panels, music systems, spare parts and batteries, through to mobile phones and accessories.

His purchasing decisions are based on visible consumer demand, he said, preferring to stock what he calls “fast moving items” that sell and keep the cash flowing than to risk tying up capital in something that might not sell. For instance, he pointed to a dusty 5W solar panel, this has been sitting here for a year since most customers in the area prefer buying 20W or larger.

In this context, “fast moving items” are not the same as the marketing term “Fast Moving Consumer Goods” or FMCG which refers to over the counter perishables and consumables like tea, shampoo, biscuits or soap. Instead, they refer to the product range that sells in the local market, and as my visits to electronics stores in different parts of Kenya back in 2012 quickly showed, each market had different price points and products which tended to be “fast moving”.

In a more economically challenged region, it was black and white 14″ TV sets, smaller solar panels and no name Chinese mobile phones, while in the wealthier region around Kilgoris as we see in the previous post, its flat screen Sony Bravias and very large solar panels that sell.

Local demand drives decisions, and thus business growth strategies and investments. Can this insight not also inform development strategies?

The Economist has just published this article on how fish farms are experiencing a boom in response to the growing demand for food from the big city:

The task of feeding that huge population has not been accomplished by the government, by charities or by foreign agricultural investors. It is the work of an army of ordinary Bangladeshis with an eye for making money. Mr Belton’s research shows that the number of fish-feed dealers in the main aquaculture areas more than doubled between 2004 and 2014. So did the number of feed mills and fish hatcheries. Mr Belton has found similar trends in Myanmar, where the fish farms are often larger than in Bangladesh, and in India.

As well as transforming landscapes in a large radius around Dhaka, the fish boom has changed many people’s lives. Aquaculture requires about twice as much labour per acre as rice farming, and the demand is year-round. Many labourers who used to be paid by the day are now hired for months at a time. Seasonal hunger, which is a feature of life in some rice-farming regions of Bangladesh, is rarer in the watery districts. People are eating more protein. Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, a feed dealer, points to another advantage. Because food is now so cheap in the cities, migrant workers are able to send more money back to their families in the villages.

I believe this element of assessing local or regionally accessible demand for a product or commodity before investment is often missing even from the private sector influenced “making markets work” philosophy now prevalent in development strategies. Too often, the “market” is framed as an international one, and an e-commerce platform devised as the bridging solution. Local intermediaries are demonized as “brokers out to squeeze profits at the farm gate” without once considering their role as infomediaries of supply and demand. The very information networks that provide the shopkeeper with guidance on what would sell and what to order are often erased and replaced with an app. Little or no attention is paid to existing consumer demand nor any attempt to link to the existing ecosystem. The informal becomes invisible.

How many of these pilots fail to sustain themselves once the project’s funding cycle ends?

Elements of Handpainted Graphic Design and Signage

The first time I went to Africa, my research companion, a South African designer, very apologetically mentioned the use of handwritten signage in his country. We were there on behalf of Samsung, and our global design research team included members from Seoul, Singapore, and Pretoria.

“Its all rather primitive over here” he said, but I fear my heart was captured.

Look at this signage and graphic design for a radio station in western Kenya. It has its own balance and harmony. It’s primitive only if you believe that fonts must generated by computers, and laser cut in acrylic before it can be used. Mass production is as modern as automation and takes away the unique beauty of the best of the signage that I’ve seen.

There will, of course, always be the aspirational ones, and the ambitious will do their best to satisfy. Some succeed very well indeed.

Look at this set of shops – each has its name written in a unique font, or handwriting style, while the whole still manages to convey the brand being advertised with a semblance of coherence. A true artist at work.

My favourite, however, is this one from the wall of an agro-vet dealer’s store. In a context where language and literacy tends to vary across a spectrum of facility, clearly communicating that you can get your cows artificially inseminated here is a bonus. The use of colour and the ombre backgrounds show the work of an artist.

And finally, this combination of a stencil – used for the desktop computer, and calligraphy – though the letter spacing may or may not have been deliberate, holds a position in its own right. That might not even be a stencil but the whole piece is crafted with care.

Why the African Consumer Market is NOT the same as the African Middle Class

Consumer goods store, Kilgoris, Kenya (March 2012)

The biggest challenge faced by consumer facing companies looking at the African Consumer Market is the age old positioning of the “middle class” as the ideal target audience. This middle class is segmented by the same attributes as the original middle classes who formed the consumer markets of the developed world.

This is the outside of the same store. Its located in a town called Kilgoris, situated at the edge of densely populated Kisii in western Kenya, and the sparse land of the nomadic Maasai pastoralists.

When you consider the range, the variety, and the price of the products displayed for sale, and compare it to the small dusty town with just one modern building, you wouldn’t imagine that solar panels worth USD 200 or Sony Bravia flatscreen TVs would be selling like hotcakes. But they do.

No dealer in a heavily cash based consumer market such as upcountry Kenya would tie up his working capital in expensive consumer electronics if there wasn’t a demand for it that meant the products sold quickly enough to keep the cash flowing in. My assumptions were completely upturned by this shopkeeper’s insights – it was the Maasai making purchases after attending the weekly livestock market.

A maasai manyatta Source: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/tag/maasai-mara-game-reserve/

They’d pack 6 foot long solar panels, flat screen TVs, and satellite dishes onto the tops of hired trucks and take them off to their thornbush and mud manyattas. Yet neither you nor I would classify them by any of the traditional marketing department’s attributes as being part of the “middle class” consumer segment.

On the other hand, they were undeniably part of the African consumer market, and as the shopkeeper informed us, they were not only willing to spend on their homes, regardless of what they looked like from the outside, they could afford the best that he had to offer. He showed us his entire stock of kitchen appliances, water filters, jugs, mugs, and even children’s toys and fake flowers from Dubai! It is dealers like this who know best what their customers want and they range as far away as Nairobi to obtain the products in demand.

But I wonder if the marketers and the analysts still seeking the middle class have a clue about this huge market invisible to their eyes? And, whether, they’re looking in the right places?

The Strategic Entry of China’s Transsion into the Vacuum Left by Nokia in Africa

Branded storefront in Karatina, Kenya (April 2013)

If you’re outside Africa, you’ve never heard of them before, but a mobile phone brand called Tecno has been painting Kenya blue ever since I started fulltime fieldwork there in late 2011. It was in Mombasa that I first noticed the name and wondered what it was about. Over the years, I saw the line up of phones even in the smallest market towns and began wondering if this brand would be the new Nokia of Africa.

Transsion, Tecno’s manufacturer, has two other brands on the market – Itel, and Infinix catering to different price points and consumer segments. What sets the company apart is that they are solely focused on the African continent and do not even sell in their domestic market of China. This was a strategic decision, as a recent article says, and their rapid success very likely due to the vacuum left by Nokia. They’ve customized completely for the African market, going as far as to develop cameras suited for local conditions, something no other phone manufacturer has done anywhere on the planet.

“For African consumers, a main medium of entertainment is photos – they love to take selfies and share them with friends. The traditional camera was not optimised for the African consumer because often, for those with darker skin, the photos don’t come out well especially in low light. We did research using over 10,000 photos of African consumers to create a special algorithm to optimise the camera to attract 30% more light on the darker face. We call this ‘Africa Focus’. It’s been heavily popular. It improved our cameras and won the hearts of Africans who like to take selfies.

In fact, Itel is so popular among traders in the Uganda Kenya borderland due to its low price and long battery life, that our research associate went as far as to capture the mound of Itel packaging seen on the rubbish heap.

They’ve brought in local languages and messenger apps. They’ve established a factory in Ethiopia to show their commitment to Africa, and they’ve set a full customer care facility – something glaringly missing from any other imported brand’s portfolio.

In my opinion, they’ve done what Nokia could have and should have done, cater to the emerging markets across the developing world where they’d originally begun connecting people.

And, they’ve shown us that it is indeed possible for a consumer product manufacturer to not only focus solely on the African consumer market but to make an outstanding success of it.

Update:

Quartz echoed the story to share the factoid that in Africa, not only have featurephones sold more than smartphones but Transsion’s brands lead the way.