Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

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.

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.

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

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.