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:

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.


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.

Book Review: Operation Elop, the final years of Nokia by Merina Salminen and Pekka Nykänen

Design auditing the new Life Tools for Nokia, Sept 2009, India

Operation Elop, uploaded by Harri Kiljander has just been made available in English and I’m already on Chapter 8. I saw the editor’s tweet 23 minutes after he said “It’s done and available on Medium under a Creative Commons license” and I haven’t stopped diving in and out since.

It starts with a memorable day in Finland – 10th September 2010 – so memorable that one asks “Where were you that day?” and people remember. I remember it well, and I have photographs to prove it. My life changed rather dramatically in the year that followed, and the period that the book covers is the same period I was away from Finland, having already decided to make my home here for the remaining years of my life.

Its complicated, this history of Nokia’s demise. The impact on Finland was palpable, the responses ranging across the spectrum of human emotions. You have to know that I was in love with Nokia and the changes they had wrought across the developing world. In 2007, there’s a photograph of me sitting in their lobby stunned from the impact of coming face to face with a corporation that conveyed the values of their brand. And its because of Nokia’s design and innovation researchers blogging their exploratory user research across Africa that inspired me to do what I have been doing for the past 10 years. Every chapter in this book has been adding new layers to my own personal journey.

I’ll highlight the one paragraph that’s important to me. When all the news was breaking over the years, I thought that Nokia was splitting their product development energies too broadly. In fact, in May 2011, I was invited to a feature phone workshop to present on the future and on Africa. What I said we wanted to put on t-shirts, “Don’t get stuck in the missionary position.” They were taking a Mother Teresa route in Africa instead of focusing on what they were good at – robust engineering and products that stood up to harsh climes and rough usage. At a value for money price point. I didn’t know it was already too late, but here’s the key snippet from the book that helped me make sense of things from long ago as I read it today.

From Chapter 19:

In 2010, the foundation of Nokia’s business consisted of devices priced at a few tens of euros ($30–50), with which one could make calls, send text messages, and use simple web services. Thanks to efficient production, feature phones yielded larger profit margins to Nokia than smartphones. The amazing efficiency was based on the S40 operating system, which had been introduced in 1999. Nokia conquered the world with S40. It was made possible because the system could be tailored at a low cost to mobile network providers operating in different regions. By 2012, Nokia sold 1.5 billion S40 devices across the world.

This was squandered in the race to the top, the glamour of being world famous, complicated by so many factors – all simply and accessibly laid out in the book – that it still makes one weep to think of what might have been. All I know is that the Nokia I own today doesn’t even have predictive text.

I want to thank the translators for their hard work and effort. The book has been a joy to read and it’s kept its Finnishness in choice of words, and sentence structure. You can read it online or download it for free.

An Open Letter to Social Enterprise Startups Looking at Africa

Dear Young Entrepreneur,

I receive emails from you, on average, once a week, sharing excited news about your plans to enter the African market, or pilot an innovation, or disrupt some existing solution. I’m thrilled and pleased for you, and wish you the best for your future plans.

However, I must write this today, after receiving yet another email last night. Most of you write me asking for insights on your planned approach, or to request a call to “tap my deep expertise” of the African informal economy and consumers. I truly appreciate your thinking of me as the go to person for these matters.

Yet, there’s a gap here between our thinking that’s rather obvious to me but doesn’t seem to be as obvious to you. Professionals like doctors and lawyers have studied and worked hard to build their deep expertise in their areas of speciality over decades. I have done the same. I am now in my 50s, and have accrued over 25 years of experience with new markets on 4 continents.

Would a doctor or lawyer agree to offering their insights and deep expertise to you based on an email request for a phone call or conversation? Or would they prefer a business appointment be made or consulting fees for the call be discussed first?

If the latter, then why is there an expectation that I, with my business operating expenses, and overheads, would be willing to give away the same effort and time invested in developing expertise to you?

I understand that startups are cash crunched, I’ve consulted with many of them, but they’ve always found a way to respect my learning and my experience even if we discover that our fee structure may be nominal or there’s an extension of time for payment. Offering something in return is not simply a matter of a business transaction, its a matter of respect. Respect for my time, my effort, and that very experience and expertise that led you to reach out to me in the first place.

I welcome inquiries and enjoy working with young people. I look forward to hearing from you. I just hope that this letter will offer you some food for thought on how to frame your approach to me.

Zambia’s inclusive approach to various sectors in the informal economy is worth noting

The Zambian government most recently announced that they would provide certificates to illegal (artisanal) miners in order to recognize and formalize their activities. In addition, they were being encouraged to form cooperatives – a legally recognized organizational structure – that would permit further benefits to this informal sector.

Compared to the challenges Ghana is facing with galamsey – the local word for illegal or rather, artisanal mining – one must sit up and take note of Zambia’s decision to lower the barriers to inclusion rather than build the walls higher to protect large scale formal extractive industries.

And mining isn’t the only sector to be so considered by the Zambian government. There was an announcement last year of their intent to legalize street vending – the bane of all developing country cities – and bring vendors – mostly women with families to support – within the formal employment and revenue net.

I looked for updates on this legislation and have yet to find something, though there’s lots of news on managing the street vending and hawking rather than the usual method of chasing them off the streets or confiscating their goods. That in itself gives me hope that we’ll see some pioneering advances from Lusaka.

In fact, there’s an article in the Zambia Daily Mail from a week ago that says “Its the perfect time for vendor training“:

Most of the traders on the streets are women who carry their children along due to lack of caregivers at home. For many women, this vending is considered an extension of their reproductive and domestic role. And so they are willing to risk it all and toil all day so that they could earn enough to cater for the following day’s orders and meals for the family.

However, many of these have dreams, big dreams to grow, provide and educate their children to a level where their offspring will never have to earn from the streets. And with the right training, many, with aspirations to grow their businesses and create a brand for their products, could benefit from financial and business knowledge that they could otherwise not be able to afford.

Some vendors have decided to change from trading in goods that are high-risk (these include foodstuffs such as vegetables and fruits) to those that have less risk such as clothing and other products. However, without any improvement in the level of knowledge of the new trade they are about to engage in, many are likely to fail, and they may return to what they know best, no matter how risky it is. It would therefore be prudent for organisations with the perfect know-how to take this opportunity to offer knowledge that will enable them to make the swap with better planning and more confidence.

Street vending is viewed by many as an economic activity for those with a low level of education. But what the cholera outbreak has taught us is that, if it is left without interventions, the negative effects will spread out and affect the whole nation.

The training I am suggesting could include assistance with regard to business registration, opening companies, tax remittances and branding of businesses, among other things.

I can’t help but underline all that is being said, and express my hope that other cities – Lagos, Nairobi, I’m looking at you – will take a leaf from Lusaka’s book.

India’s Hidden Middle Class and the MNC Conundrum

The Economist writes a rather breathless take on a theme very popular just over a decade ago – the Great Indian Middle Class so longingly hoped and wished for still hadn’t emerged to satisfy the consumption habits preferred by the global multinational brands. Where were they, the article shrilly asked, unquestioningly promoting China’s middle class as an MNC success and overlooking all the challenges documented theretofore.

There’s an undeniable consumer boom visible across India, I’ve seen it and documented it myself. The difference this time around is that its a “hidden middle” – hidden from the lenses that MNCs use to identify their preferred customer for iPhones and IKEA, pizza and burgers. Having worked for both an MNC – All India advertising for Hewlett-Packard India in 1996, and an advertising agency – McCann Erickson 1994-1996 during the first decade of market liberalization, I discover I’ve so much to say to this Economist nonsense that I’ll bullet point my thoughts below to grasp some order from the ramble.

  • One of the first things I’d noticed in the March 2017 trip was that the style and flavour of the markets we’d used to frequent had changed. There was indeed a consumer majority now but it wasn’t the global elite preferred by MNCs. Where once malls were full of western style wear, and one could identify a woman’s economic and social strata by her fashion choices, these lines had blurred and democratized so much so that the market itself had changed.
  • Aspirational purchasing meant that pricing had to suit the pocket of the ambitious though the clothes were local versions of global styles. Everyone in the city wore western wear, though obviously of Indian cut and make. What I saw happening was what India has always done for centuries – absorb the foreign influence and make it uniquely her own. Its been two decades and the time is about right for the unique Indian middle class to emerge.
  • This hidden middle harks back to the original concept of middle classes – perhaps a factory worker who is now paid enough to maintain a motorcycle, an ATM card, and all the mod cons in his one room home. Or, the now grown up children, educated in English, taking over the discarded jobs of the former English educated elite in the call centers and the banking halls, the plethora of hospitality outlets and airlines, to bring a sheen of polish that hitherto never existed for their parents’ generation.
  • This middle class prefers their spicy Indian food, dolled up in a fast food outlet, looking like a Big Mac but tasting like home. This middle class will add paneer to their pizza and cumin to their soda water. You won’t see them at all if you’re hawking your pineapple on your ham.
  • This middle is 300 million strong I’d agree with the Indian executives mentioned in the Economist article. They can sense it but they can’t deliver it up in the manner that the research reports and multinationals require. That’s why there’s a huge missing middle, the same reason why Africa’s consumers are invisible for the most part, they don’t look like the Consumer nor fit the segmentation attributes.
  • One quick example that ports across cultures and countries is the taxi hailing app divide – there’s a local variant, Ola, that’s 1/3 to 1/5 the price of the global giant, Uber. The Ola driver accepts a variety of payment mechanisms including cash. He said to us that Uber was more popular in the better parts of town and considered an upper class product, while Ola was for everyone, even his own wife. This kind of brand segmentation exists up and down the spectrum of goods and services, rooted as it is in elements of India’s heritage and culture. And the mass majority brands will always take the lion’s share of consumers away from any imported brand. Unilever is quoted in the Economist article but the company had been known as Hindustan Lever for decades before hand and has faced its own struggles with indigenous upstarts like Nirma.

And, I suspect, that global multinationals, barring a few who’ve been around forever and a day, may never really crack the Indian market, just like they haven’t really done what they’d set out to do in China either. An ideal moment, on the other hand, to rethink the consumption driven growth frenzy required of these brands.

NB: The shopkeeper’s sign claims to sell both wholesale and retail.

Formalization is no panacea for micro-entrepreneurs, a liminal space is necessary for growth

Yesterday, my bank sent back a client’s payment though I’d presented the invoice and other paperwork. I’m a registered micro-business in the highly formal economy of Finland, and the bank I’ve been with since 2009 has upped their internal regulations after a spate of bad publicity surrounding the Panama papers. I’ve been caught in the middle of changing rules though the kind young man sitting with me at the bank did tell me I was neither alone in this nor was it rare among their customers. They’re going through changes.

We talked a little about the work I do among women entrepreneurs in the informal economies of East Africa, and he pointed out that Finland was a very difficult operating environment for startups and entrepreneurs. They recognize this. He observed that my experiences at this formal end of the spectrum could only help me with my work on the other end. I had to agree, though I left the bank empty handed, having been turned down by their corporate banking side as well.

Still, I haven’t come here to moan about my banking troubles so much as to point out that the young man was right. Neither end of the spectrum of formal and informal is healthy for a rapidly evolving newly born business or micro venture. Too little support and growth is slow and painful; too much regulations and you fall off the wagon everytime your business changes or their rules evolve.

What is needed and rarely articulated is a grey area between formal and informal – a liminal space if you will. One that allows for change and acknowledges the experimentation and iteration that is the natural part of the development process. A common cliche is to liken a young or small business (my small business is 12 years old) to a growing child who might sometimes have to burn a finger on a match to learn about fire.

What perhaps is needed is to codify this ambiguous moment or period and discover ways to fit that within the formal structures of a highly developed society, as well as adapt it as a stepping stone in the unstructured informal underdeveloped locale. These bridges need not be identical in details so much as concept – that an entrepreneurial venture’s nature is such that it needs room to move and grow unhampered whilst still receiving the support and facilities that it requires.

There’s hope yet for me, allegedly. The bank has set up a startup unit and I’ll call them today to see if there’s anything that can be done. Else I’ll have to look around for another bank. In the meantime, the taxes still have to be paid and the remittance problem solved. Wish me luck!