Archive for the ‘ASEAN’ Category

2017 is the Year Mobile Service Operators Became Banks

South African business headlines read MTN takes on Vodacom for title of Africa’s biggest digital bank and usher in a whole new era for banking and finance on the mobile platform. Having watched this space impatiently for more than a decade, seeing this was a landmark worth noting.

The number of mobile-money customers in the region (Africa) is growing rapidly, having surpassed the number of traditional bank accounts in 2015 to reach 277 million by the end of last year, according to GSMA. ~ Moneyweb, 3rd November 2017

Here’s a curated selection of my journey watching the phone become a bank:

Photograph of Nairobi billboard taken January 2016 by Niti Bhan

Blowin’ in the Wind – perspective, May 2007

A User Centered Approach to Banking the Unbanked in Rural India (PDF, entire process) – January 2007

Pondering the Mobile Innovation Divide – perspective, December 2007

African Potential meets Indian Experience – perspective, May 2008

The Telco and the Bottom of the Pyramid – perspective, January 2009

Systems Thinking Applied To Why M-Pesa’s Economic Impact and Wealth Creation Lessons Affects the Entire Ecosystem – Afrinnovator, March 2012

What is The Prepaid Economy anyway? – 14.7.14, in response to Michael Kimani

Banking Opportunities in Africa – The Banker’s Association of South Africa, 2014

A bank meets a telco – how mobile banking is changing the landscape of financial services in Africa – The Prepaid Economy: African Edition, January 2016

Savings Groups : Observations on Economic Cooperation and Collaboration in Rural and Informal Conditions

Recently, I was interviewed on communal rural economic behaviour, particularly socially cooperative ones  such as informal savings and lending groups. The questions posed were:

  • How has your opinion of savings group changed over time?
  • Why in your opinion, are people in Africa and Latin America countries (developing countries) predisposed to forming savings groups?
  • What is the importance of appreciating the indigenous financial services of the people of Africa (or anywhere else)?

I enjoyed the conversation reflecting on the lessons learnt over the past decade of primary research on household financial management within context of informal rural economies across continents and countries so much so that I decided to capture my reflections here as an integrated answer to both questions.

On the documentary level, nothing much has changed in the years since I first observed instances of cooperative economic behaviour in rural informal operating environments. Here’s a snippet from the Prepaid Economy Project’s report written in November 2009:

These complex webs of the rural community’s social networks of trust were obvious in the patterns of sharing and cooperation seen in every country. Groups would invest and save together, for example, the extremely sophisticated cooperative ladies lending circle which had expanded over time to include the services of a local bank in India; or the beekeepers cooperative in Malawi where half the annual profits were saved in a common account while the other half was equally shared.

Years later, we’re still documenting the complex webs of social networking and trust in informal economic ecosystems, and the wide variety of organizational structures for financial and economic management.

Its our recognition of the role of such groups, and their contribution to the resilience and the ability of informal economic actors to manage in volatile and uncertain conditions that has evolved, and changed. The layers of knowledge laid down over the years, across the geographies and cultures, now allow me to take a step back from the details of any particular context, and understand the patterns of cooperation, broadly, across continents and cultures.

Furthermore, our own increasing depth and breadth of understanding the highly interdependent networks of commerce and trade within the informal economic ecosystem – from farm gate to cross border trade – have led to us rethinking the concept of the end user, and questioning the assumptions implicit in the way user research is designed for fintech, financial inclusion, and other such related areas.

That is to say, the way my opinion changed regarding savings (etc) groups, over the years, has been to recognize their importance as the basic building block of the rural and/or informal economy in the developing country operating environment, rather than simply observing their behaviour as a means for individual household financial management, as we’d done in the very beginning.

Source Alice’s entire value web can be thought of as an informal economic microsystem

From the human centered design perspective (HCD, or UCD = user centered design), which is the basis for our work here at emerging futures lab, we have begun to consider that the “end user” of our design solutions might as often turn out to be the group, instead of the individual member of that group. This has been the biggest change in my opinion, over time, in answer to the first question

For the remaining two questions, I rapidly sketched this continuum of different types of “informal” groups engaged in financial behaviour as seen in cash intensive, rural, and informal conditions, seen below.

As we have recognized, regardless of continent or community, the group is a basic economic building block. What changes from group to group, depending on its function and its need in the community, is the sophistication of the organizational and money management structure.

On one hand is the simplest form of cooperation – people pool money that one member then receives as a lumpsum to use, only the mechanism of choosing whose turn it is may require some coordination. At the other end are sophisticated economic management structures often with formal registration and recognition.  This includes integration of formal financial institutions and their products – such as leveraging capital in the form of a fixed deposit in a bank for drawing loans, or their services, such as a designated officer from the bank attending chama meetings.

The fact that both simple and sophisticated groups exist within the rural and informal economy imply that the factors that predispose people to turn to cooperative and collaborative solutions for managing their finances in conditions of uncertainty and unpredictability are thus related to factors external to the local culture or society, and have more to do with the similarity of the conditions inherent in the operating environment of the informal and rural economies of the developing world. These include irregular cash flows from a variety of sources, multiple income streams over the course of the natural year, seasonality inherent in agricultural crop cycles, and lack of a social safety net.

Here’s another snippet from the original report of 2009:

Insights derived from the fieldwork lead us to believe that the key factor that makes the ‘prepaid’ transaction model so successful among the BoP is the fact that the decision making is in the hands of the individual. This model gives the end user significant control over time – frequency and periodicity and money – varying amounts, in the hands of the customer and thus fits in with their need to manage their varying cash flow from multiple income sources with a great degree of flexibility.

Furthermore, among rural communities, it was observed that social capital – that is, the community ties and extended networks – plays a significant role in the success of existing informal yet traditional means of borrowing, lending and sharing wealth and expenses.

That is, the negotiability, flexibility, and reciprocity, that trust enables within one’s social ties, is reflected in the prepaid business model that enabled mobile phones to spread rapidly around the world. And it’s this factor that provides the evidence for our assertion that an external business model or payment plan to be introduced into such an informal economic ecosystem succeeds when it resonates with existing forms and structures of financial and economic behaviour.

This is not only why its critical to first observe, document, and understand the existing solutions and behaviours in what may seem to be a financially excluded population, but it provides the keys to the design of sustainable solutions that are successfully adopted and utilized. The bottomline is that the “informal” or the rural isn’t adhoc or chaotic as initial observations might imply, but there are rhythms and structures inherent in the system that may, in fact, be invisible.

Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy in Asia

This is the original working paper of the research conducted on rural household financial management, in developing country conditions, pioneering the use of methods from human centered design for discovery, during Nov 2008 to March 2009, aka the Prepaid Economy Project. It was peer reviewed by Brett Hudson Matthews, and I have incorporated his comments into the PDF.

This research study was carried out with the aid of a grant from the iBoP Asia Project (http://www.ibop-asia.net), a partnership between the Ateneo School of Government and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (www.idrc.ca)

The abstract:


The challenge faced by Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) ventures has been the lack of knowledge about their intended target audience from the point of view of business development whereas decades of consumer research and insights are available for conventional markets. What little is known about the BoP’s consumer behaviour, purchasing patterns and decision making tends to assume that there are no primary differences between mainstream consumers and the BoP except for the amount of their income – pegged most often between $2 to $5 a day.

In practice, the great majority at the BoP manage on incomes earned from a variety of sources rather than a predictable salary from a regular job and have little or no access to conventional financial tools such as credit cards, bank accounts, loans, mortgages. This is one of the biggest differentiators in the challenge of value creation faced by BoP ventures, particularly among rural populations (over 60% of the global BoP population lives in rural areas).

Exploratory research was conducted in the field among rural Indian and rural Filipino populations in order to understand how those on irregular incomes managed their household expenses. Empirical data collected by observations, interviews and extended immersion led us to identify patterns of behaviour among the rural BoP in their management of income and expenditure, ‘cash flow’ and ‘working capital’ and the significance of social capital and community networks as financial tools. Practices documented include ‘conversion to goods’, ‘stored wealth’, ‘cashless transactions’, and reliance on multiple sources of income that mature over different times.

This paper will share our observations from the field; identify some challenges these behaviours create for business and also explore some opportunities for value creation by seeking to articulate the elements that BoP ventures must address if they are to do business profitably with the rural ‘poor’ based on their own existing patterns of financial habits and norms.


The Conclusion:

In sum, it can be concluded that the challenges for value creation can be quite different for BoP ventures interested in addressing the rural markets. From the observations made in the field, we can highlight three key implications for business development. These are:

  • Seasonality – with the exception of the salaried, everyone else in the sample pool was able to identify times of abundance and scarcity over the course of natural year in their earnings. Identification of a particular region or market’s local pattern of seasonality would benefit the design of payment schedules, timing of entry or new product and service launch, for example.
  • Relative lack of liquidity – The majority of the rural households observed tended to ‘store wealth’ in the form of goods, livestock or natural resources, relying on a variety of cashless transactions within the community for a number of needs. Conventional business development strategies need to be reformulated to take this into account as these patterns of behaviour may reflect the household’s purchasing power or income level inaccurately.
  • Increasing the customer’s span of control over the timing, frequency and amount of cash required – Since the availability and amount of cash cannot be predicted on calendar time, this implication is best reflected by the success of the prepaid mobile phone subscriptions in these same markets. When some cash is available, it can be used to purchase airtime minutes for text or voice calls, when there is no money, the phone can still receive incoming calls. Models which impose an external schedule of periodicity, frequency and amount of cash required may not always be successful in matching the volatile cash flow particular to each household’s sources of income.

Seasonality as an element of contextual planning for emerging consumer markets

livestock flows eac fewsnetGrowing up as a Hindu expat in multicultural ‘West Malaysia’ of the 1970s and 80s, it was a matter of course that every festival would be a big occasion. We had Christmas in December, and Chinese New Year soon after, to be followed by Hari Raya (Eid) and Deepawali – each of them deserving of TV specials and decorations on the streets.

Seasonality of cash flows and income streams in the informal and rural economy translated in the urban areas as festivals triggered a boom in consumer sales. India’s formal economy still keeps watch on the onset of the annual monsoons, as those rains will have documented impact on their 3rd quarter sales in the peak festival season of October and November, leading into the wedding season.

In Eastern Africa, this seasonality is seen, among other things, in the lives of pastoralists and livestock farmers. As Eid Al Adhar approaches in a few days, livestock sales for the annual sacrifice are reaching their peak. Trade in meat is one of the staple income sources in the arid lands and the Port of Mombasa is one of the keys to the distribution networks.

The livestock trade to the Middle East accounts for 60 percent of Somaliland’s gross domestic product and 70 percent of its jobs.

This, however, is changing, as the Port of Berbera will soon receive millions of dollars of investment in improved infrastructure. The element of seasonal cycles over the course of the natural year, however, will not change. And this is worth noting for those considering the emerging consumer markets in the developing world.

Beyond word of mouth, however, it is hard to get a proper idea about the economic impact of Ramadan. Perhaps because of sensitivities around dealing with a religious institution, international organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and United Nations Development Programme have not conducted research on the precise economic impact of the custom.

FMCG majors already feeling the pinch of shrinking domestic markets are finally taking note of this entire opportunity space. In Indonesia, Unilever, Beiersdorf and L’Oreal are making halal face creams and shampoos to court Muslims as sales in Western markets taper off.

There are patterns of trade around major holidays in each region, be it Chinese New Year or Dussehra, and the informal sector prepares for, and relies upon, these expected bumper ‘harvests’ in their cash flow. It will be interesting to watch what happens in the context of the African consumer market as the Asian giants begin to eye it seriously as the last frontier for significant growth.

Finally, the silver bullet of micro-finance can be buried in peace

Six years ago, in March 2009, after my return from The Philippines where I’d first conducted fieldwork using design ethnography methods to understand household financial management at the erstwhile Base of the Pyramid in a rural region, I had written:

Another eye opener was hearing the story about a micro-finance loan for enabling local women to start their own small businesses. The woman in question runs a sari sari store as seen in the photograph above in a small cluster of houses. She participated in the program about 4 years ago and took out a loan of 5000 pesos to start the shop. It was based on the Bangladesh model according to her memory of the introductory seminar by the loan officers and they would be required to pay it back over a period of 25 weeks (6 months). The experience made her so unhappy that she will never take out such a loan again, poor woman entrepreneur or no.

The first payment was due exactly one week after the loan was disbursed – she’d barely set up her shop, bought inventory of stocks, figured out pricing and what to do, already she was under pressure to start repaying. She used the capital to pay the interest and wished that there had been a grace period to get the business up and running. After all, it was not a cow or a mobile phone, something that could conceivably start earning money in the first week after purchase. A shop needed time to start generating cash flow as people in the neighbourhood discovered the location and spread her prices (the lowest in the walkable distance) by word of mouth. The pressure was intense and created tremendous ongoing tension every week. It just wasn’t worth it and she was glad to have gotten out from under the cloud.

Others, she says, are still trapped in the ongoing cycle of taking out constant loans for working capital and repaying back, never quite earning enough to buy a decent amount of inventory and thus earn enough to get their heads above water.

Was this bridge between “poverty and progress” meant to drown the BoP in consumer debt? The whole experience sounded like a vicious downward spiral for the new business owner/entrepreneurs.

Now, finally, after years of suicides and scandals, such as in India, and debt burdened poor, as in South Africa, there’s a spate of articles digging the grave for this usurious practice of “loans for the poor”.  I could see this train wreck coming but when silver bullets capture the imagination of the powers that be, small voices barely heard can rarely make a difference. It takes years of failure, and so many lives ruined, before donors, funders and institutions wake up to the problem.

The question still remains, however, whether anyone cares enough to design a more viable solution/s, and to put an end to this nonsense, or, whether under the new name of financial inclusion, market forces will continue to drive the implementation of cheap and easy money dangled in front of the poor?

 

China’s revival of ancient trading ties along the historic Silk Road

The South China Morning Post has a great infographic on a favourite topic of mine – the Great Silk Road.

backpage-infographic-0725

Some related posts:

On the new Silk Route – Experiencing Africa’s informal trading network with China
The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World

RIP Google BebaPay – Requiem for a cashless payment system

Less than a year after going live, Google is closing down the BebaPay smart card which was introduced as an NFC based cashless payment mechanism for Nairobi’s public transport.

Last year, I’d analyzed the context and the operating environment in which they’d launched their service, on hearing the news that they’d been struggling to gain traction. I’d gone on to add my thoughts on designing services for the informal economy, where a vast majority manage on irregular incomes and transactions are primarily in cash.

Today we note that Kenyan BebaPay card holders have been advised to use up any remaining balance and/or turn in their smart cards for a prepaid MasterCard, issued by the same bank that Google partnered with. We also note that Google had shut down their payments pilot in The Philippines and is apparently planning to step out of the payments space.

This gives rise to food for thought – are they shutting these initiatives down because of a pivot in business strategy away from payments, leaving the way open for MasterCard? Or, and this is of interest to me from the design planning perspective, did their inhouse approach to new product development create a situation where they found themselves struggling to lower barriers to user adoption of their services, and thus led to their decision to withdraw from the entire playing field?

Tech driven innovation

I have the experience of a deep dive or immersion – in the operating environments of both Kenya and The Phillippines – exploring the way people manage their finances whilst juggling their irregular income streams to minimize volatility and plan for their expenses. These new markets are so different from Google’s accustomed playing field that their usual approach to new product introductions may not be the right fit, if indeed they seek to expand their reach beyond their existing sphere of dominance.

On the interwebs, we have become accustomed to the concept of companies that launch products in beta, still buggy and finding their way. Over time, we have also come to recognize Google’s habits of shutting down services, regardless of how much we may weep or wail –> Google’s RSS Reader, for example, is one still missed by many in the old skool.

But once you step away from your tech savvy audience in the broadband segments, to the millions of noobs coming online, with an entirely different contextual knowledge of technology and its practices, I don’t believe you can summarily make the same moves you could have earlier, without there being a bigger backlash.

700,000 commuters have been left stranded in Nairobi, forced to find a replacement for an innovative tech solution that they were forced to adopt in the first place when the government put their cashless policy in place for bus fares.

This is the real world, and these are real people, struggling to make their way home after a hard day’s work trying to make a living.

This isn’t the minor inconvenience of not being able to use Reader’s free service to grab your favourite RSS feeds.

These are also new markets for the Google brand. One where reputation, commitment and longevity matters. These are not your regular customers tied to your GMail or other services, like the rest of us, that we still come back to search or check our mail even if you take away a toy or two from your playground. Particularly if you’re looking to provide a service for the lower income bracket in the developing world.

The Ugandan tech blog Dignited pointed out the demise of Google’s Trader – yet another service meant for the untapped and emerging newcomers to global connectivity – and this implies that a pattern of unreliable behaviour has already established itself in the enduser’s mindset.

They embraced your shiny new bauble you launched for them with such fanfare and then you yanked it away.

This won’t be an issue only for Google, tbh, its a part of the design culture for the digital era. And one, perhaps that needs a momentary rethink when considering the next billions coming online.

There is a larger conversation here, I can tell, on design, process and methodology and its evolution in response to more greatly intertwined world we live in. On the internet, which is now ever more global, the flap of that butterfly’s wing can indeed reach further than you envisioned.

 

Human centered design for financial inclusion: Lessons from fieldwork in rural India, The Phillipines and Kenya

Introduction

Financial inclusion has become mainstream thinking in economic development. The vast majority of the unbanked live in the developing world, and a significant proportion of this population are rural residents. One can easily surmise, without recourse to statistics, that the bulk of the target audience for institutions seeking to offer them affordable and accessible financial services are part of the rural economy.

Now, the role of human centered design and its toolbox of methods and processes is being recognized as mission critical for successfully enabling these initiatives. So little is understood about the rural economy, particularly that of the developing world, that without the insights that design ethnography (also known as user research or more broadly, exploratory user research) among the end users can provide, barriers to adoption will remain unaddressed.

With this in mind, I thought to share lessons learnt during the past 6 years of experience in the application of human centered design processes in order to observe and understand household financial management behaviour in rural Africa and Asia.

Human Centered Design

Human centered design traditionally applies the insights from user research to inform and inspire the design of a product or service. At the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago, there were scores of methods and frameworks for every step of the entire process. In particular, the analysis and synthesis phase after fieldwork was completed was considered critical in identifying the actionable insights that would drive the conceptual design and subsequent development of solutions. All of this required that we frame the problem correctly at the very beginning, in order to ensure that our findings would be relevant and appropriate. Here’s a diagram that captures the entire concept:

Adapting human centered design for understanding rural household financial behaviour

Back in late 2008, when I first began framing the original problem statement for the iBoP Asia Project’s first Small Grants Competition, I quickly realized that the methods and tools as developed and disseminated in Chicago, could not be directly applied without adaptation to the distinctly different operating environment, and, the then unusual objectives of business model design.

Firstly, the tools and techniques for user research developed and refined in a first world sophisticated consumer market accustomed to decades of market research, telemarketing and surveys of all stripes wouldn’t work among lower income rural residents in a developing world context. They had little or no exposure to market research or design research of any sort, and surveys and questionnaires tended to imply government census takers or some kind of social study by an NGO. After all, it is only now that we are taking the “financially excluded” seriously as potential customers with wants and needs in their own right.

Secondly, back then, nobody had yet applied human centered design methods for intangible outcomes such as insights on household financial behaviour or the conceptual design of a payment plan for a community. User research conducted as part of the human centered design process was for consumer facing client companies looking to improve existing products or develop new ones i.e. very tangible outcomes. My research question was:

What insights can we derive from observing and understanding how those at the BoP currently manage their household budgets to inspire new transaction models or pricing strategies for businesses wishing to serve the poor more effectively, yet profitably?

Thus, I found myself not only having to adapt the methods and tools available to me, but also develop frameworks to sample a representative segment of the rural economy given the conditions and criteria of the operating environment. This I will share now for everyone else who will now be using the human centered design  approach for financial inclusion.

Framing the problem correctly

This was the most important element in ensuring the successful outcome. Tina Seelig has written on how REframing a problem can unlock innovation, a valuable insight when you’re already immersed in your own environment like a fish in water. But when we step outside of our accustomed operating environment to one which is dramatically different – a poor rural region for example, we can so often be overwhelmed by the sensory overload that we are unable to contextualize the challenge from the end user’s perspective. We’re too busy noticing all the differences and unable to distinguish the important from the mundane or identify macro patterns of behaviour because we are distracted by the minutiae of daily life.

The impetus for this line of research came from observing the success of the prepaid business model as mobile phone sales took off across the developing world. So my initial problem statement had been “What makes prepaid mobile airtime work so well for this demographic and what can we learn from this successful adoption to inspire business models and payment plans for other products and services?”

That emphasis on the mobile phone and its attendant business model would have narrowed the focus of my research and thus, influenced my questionnaire and observations. On the other hand, by shifting the focus away from what interested me, and broadening it to encompass the challenges of daily life, I would be able to perceive the entire context within which any particular business model or payment plan worked. That is, I took a step back from just the mobile phone or any one particular payment plan to understand the rhythm and the patterns of the rural economy. I framed the research as follows:

The focus of our exploratory and user research in the field will be to understand the challenge of planning household expenses and budgeting when incomes are mostly irregular and unpredictable.

This allowed me look at the larger patterns at play in the rural economy and as I was find out later, provided a foundation for understanding the cash based informal sector prevalent in both urban and rural regions of the developing world. That is, it formed the basis for understanding what makes the informal economy tick, something that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I’d kept the original focus as narrow as why prepaid airtime enabled the rapid adoption of mobile phones among the lower income demographic.

Takeaway for framing the design research problem statement

When you approach your client’s particular interest area in the broad space of financial inclusion, don’t just focus on their specific interests without considering the entire ecosystem within which the intended produce or service will reside.*

Rapid prototyping to test research protocol and questionnaire

The beauty of the human centered design is that nothing is expected to work the first time its built. Prototyping and refining the design based on user feedback and observation is embedded in the iterative nature of the process. This is also part of design thinking – the willingness to experiment to see what works, usually with the participation of the end users.

Thus, when I first set out to use design methods in this wholly new way (seeking to understand household financial management among the rural poor), I insisted on a ‘prototype’ location first. This allowed me to test the questionnaire – it was completely thrown out right after the very first attempt to interview someone – as well as develop the framework for sampling uncertainty in the informal sector.

Don’t imagine that your carefully prepared questionnaire and the rest of your research protocol will hold up in the field. Be prepared to evolve it in order to see what works. That’s why its so important to frame the problem statement first so that you know what you’re trying to understand. We’re talking about sensitive topics when researching for financial inclusion, and our goal should be tread respectfully towards greater understanding rather than rigidly following research protocol.

User profile identification matrix for sampling a representative pool

Design ethnography aims to gather an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior. The qualitative method investigates the why and how of decision making, not just what, where, when. Hence, smaller but focused and representative samples are more often needed, rather than large random samples.

Since the object was to understand how those on irregular incomes planned and managed their household expenses, a variety of claimed income sources such as farming, shopkeeping, job or minicab driving was deemed important to be identified in each location.

In order to ensure that the sample best represented the local context and situation, a qualifying chart was developed ad hoc in the prototype location (India) as a method to approximately evaluate an individual’s ability to predict the timing and amount of their income, and thus plan their expenses.

This found to be useful in ensuring that the widest possible variety of local influences on cash flow were represented in the sample pool, not merely the majority of the population who were farmers, all of whose fields of wheat or rice would tend to ripen for harvest around the same time.

For example, in the Philippines, the representative sample pool, by primary stated source of income, included a rice farmer, a minicab owner/operator, a sari sari shop owner, a door to door frozen food seller and a furniture craftsman with his own workshop.

It was also ensured that the range of remittances (from zero to only for savings) received by the individuals was also varied. Individuals with full-time jobs were not considered nor were those whose sole source of income was remittence from abroad.

Takeaway for developing your own matrix for sampling the local populace

This chart formed the basis for sampling across various income streams. The employed have a regular salary, they are able to say with accuracy exactly how much money to expect and on which day. The odd jobs labourer, at the other end of the spectrum, cannot predict if he will get work on any particular day nor how much work. The farmer (generalized here) is able to estimate approximately when the harvest will be ready for sale and its value, though naturally not as accurately as a regular paycheck.

If you are only looking at farmers’ incomes then consider a spread across cash crops, size of harvest, crop mix and produce sales patterns. There are high potential farms and low potential ones.  The idea is not to end up with your entire pool of people with similar patterns of cash flow. If you’re looking at a village or rural population cluster, consider agribusiness services such as shopkeepers and transporters, as well as other service providers such as water delivery, small kiosk, market traders etc.

The reason for this is due to the variance in people’s ability to plan for savings, loans, mortgages, credit or other financial products based on their ability to predict their cash flow. The more uncertain your income stream, the more risk averse you’re likely to be.

Locations in country

Choosing locations to sample depends on the aim of the design research study – are you looking at the  entire country? Or just one particular region? Based on geography, different parts of the country may have more or less food security, so again it makes sense to sample from at least two if not three distinctly different areas based on their economic standing.

From the perspective of financial inclusion, it doesn’t make  sense to only look at two similar economic regions with cash crops, unless your study’s focus is a middle or higher income level demographic.You may also wish to consider a spread of profiles based on their distance to the nearest market town or financial services institution. Patterns of behaviour will differ based on time and money it takes to travel. For instance, even if your income streams gave you the confidence to consider a loan, the cost of travel may not make it worth the effort.

Final thoughts

The informal and rural economies are far more sophisticated in their financial management than we are able to perceive in the first instance. Designing solutions that work with the rhythms of the natural seasonality are more likely to be adopted than those which impose calender schedules. Negotiable flexibility and trust based webs of cooperation are part and parcel of the hyper local rural economies. How can we retain these pillars of community life and resilience in the face of adversity and uncertainty even as we seek to include the marginalized with our modern tools and technologies?

* See the problems with introducing Google’s Beba Pay design without taking entire ecosystem into consideration

Reflecting on this blog’s genesis after 5 years

I started this blog in late December 2008, in earnest and every day during the first prototype fieldwork for The Prepaid Economy project, one of the iBoP Asia Project’s first batch of Small Grant winners from the ASEAN region. For the first 5 months of 2009, this blog was on the mainpage of my website as I felt my entire enterprise – Emerging Futures Lab – was being entirely supported by this grant.

It was only in April 2009 that I began my next phase in advancing my experiential knowledge of preparing, planning and programming research using design ethnography tools from the field of user centered design (UCD) when I moved to Helsinki, Finland on a project with the then Helsinki School of Economics (HSE) and now a part of Aalto University. This university is the result of an academe-led innovative merger of the independent schools of business, design and engineering (science) which was manifest tangibly in the form of an experimental platform for interdisciplinary innovation research and pedagogy known to all as the Design Factory.

Everything that I came to understand about the patterns at play in the informal rural economies of the developing world was in one way due to conversations and whiteboarding exercises with the wide variety of people accessible to one in the factory. It was only later that it received the formal name of Aalto Design Factory, for most of its first year of existence it was simply “the df” or “df” to all of us early adopters and believers in removal of barriers and silos to effective communication, cooperation and collaboration.

In retrospect, I could have analysed a lot more with the rich deep dive of data I had gathered after my immersion in the field. I had spent 10 days off the www in a rice growing barangay in Iloilo, The Philippines and a similar amount of time but less direct inhome experience in rural Rajasthan, India. On the other hand, in the numerous projects since then, the layers of understanding the balance of flow – the give and take of transactions of value between trusted referrals, juggling the factors of “time” and “money” in order to smoothen the volatility between in the incoming cash and outgoing for daily needs and other expenses – have only deepened in nuance and understanding.

This research path was set upon in late 2008 – just around now, in fact since the deadline for applying for the iBoP/IDRC’s Small Grant was the first week of September. It has been 5 full years on wondering about the inherent conflict between periodic, calender based payment plans, monthly subscriptions and other regular inflows of cash, often paid as a bill of unknown amount due in the near future or as hire purchase payments AND the irregular and sometime unpredictable income streams from a variety of sources relied upon by the vast majority of the world’s households for managing their household finances.

Why the prepaid business model works so well for the informal economy, the base or bottom of the pyramid (BoP) and the seasonal ebbs and flows of the rural economy can all be explained by simply pointing out the fact that this pay as you go system hands over the control over amount to be paid and date it is due to the end user – something that Donald Norman, father of user centered design (UCD) has also pointed out as a factor in user satisfaction with a product and its design.

About 12 months ago I completed fieldwork that took my original primary research on the prepaid economy and its decision making behaviour in order to better inform business models and payment plans and went a few steps further into comparative analysis of experimental results. I was able to compare the sales results of a product line across 4 different variations of payment plans being pilot tested among rural offgrid residents in 2 East Africa Community countries.

This was almost as good as a direct test of the original hypothesis that the greater the span of control over time (duration, frequency, periodicity) and money (amount, cash or kind) a business model offered a member of the informal economy, the better the long term chances of sustaining the enterprise. In fact, I was able to add one more factor to the equational mix which was not considered when I first began this work.

This is what I call “Face time” or combination of social capital, daily proximity and interpersonal relational mix – that which allows you to negotiate on terms of payment such as time and amount with someone to whom you owe this cash or payment and the limits of this negotiation are bounded by the limits of trust between the two of you.

Face time  and Flexibility were the two main attributes of the 4 business models being pilot tested that seemed to capture the range of responses, performance and feedback, yet allow us to distinguish what was different in each model, thus what might have influenced a change.

None of this research was quantitative but completely qualitative groundclearing work to discover insights that would inform more relevant and appropriate business models and other market entry tactics to maximize, within constraints, the adoption rate of innovation (a new venture, a service or business model, an invention) among the population without regular paychecks and easy access to consumer credit. This work has also validated my hypothesis that the tools from user centered design could be used to advantage to grasp and make sense of more complex and wicked problems than could be understood by simple numbers alone.  The methodology being part of product development process also allows for company’s to reach a faster path to market with an innovative product or service or revenue stream in entirety.

The original fieldwork in agriculture dependent rural economies in ASEAN and South Asia and the early work in Africa, all looked at the bulk of such a population, the lower income segments at the BoP. But now with the rapidly emerging global middle classes i.e. those displaying regular patterns of consumption, this knowledge gained can also help assess the worldview and consumer mindset of the emerging consumer markets of sub Saharan Africa.

There is so much yet to be learnt and every single actor is breaking new ground, whether its Econet Wireless and MKopa with their airtime or mobile money pay as you go solar lights and charging or whether its every social enterprise trying to sell a cookstove, a lantern or a water pump to the subsistence farmer. We need to document every instance of success so that patterns of what worked might be of help to better refine and improve our models for market creation at the very end of the global value chain.

The Letter writer: Yesterday’s social mediators

Letter writer Mr Thangaraju s/o Singaram, who is 85 years old and was from Tamil Nadu, India.

Click to enlarge and read the stories of those who were lucky enough to have been educated when they migrated looking for work. They made their living helping others… as the Tamil letter writer Mr Thangaraju says, we weren’t just letter writers but counsellors, mediators and therapists, helping illiterate migrant labour keep their connections alive across the miles.