Archive for the ‘Business Models’ Category

Rural Household Financial Management on Irregular Incomes

While all farms are not alike, and scale and variety and geography differs, the pattern of household financial management holds its fundamental logic across continents.

click to expand image

As we saw previously, an experienced farmer tends to fall somewhere in between a salaried employee and an odd job labourer in their ability to predict with any reasonable degree of accuracy when they might expect cash income to arrive and approximately how much. They are able to estimate the quantum of the crop, and when it will be ready to harvest. They may already have buyers or a market.

However, in practice, farmers rarely rely solely on these infrequent lump sums for managing their household finances – a big harvest once or twice a year, maybe three times depending on the crops and the local geography. Instead, they manage on sophisticated portfolio of investments, each maturing over different periods of time, as a way to mitigate risk, as well as smoothen out cash flows over the course of the natural year, and minimize the impact of uncertainty or shock. The drivers for these goals are the foundation for the variety of business practices observed across sectors in the informal economies of the developing world.

You will find even the humblest farmer, as long as he owns the patch of land on which his homestead is built, even if his fields may be further away, doing some or all of a combination of these activities to manage his income stream over the course of the natural year. I will explain the basics, and then give examples from different regions.

Managing A Portfolio of Investments based on “Time and Money”

The illustration above captures our attempt to map the various cash flow patterns from the farmer’s portfolio of investments. Consider each cluster of elements as a “deposit” with varying times of maturity for cashing out, as the need may be. For example, cows give milk which can be sold for almost daily cash returns, as can the eggs from chickens. The fresh produce from the kitchen garden matures far more quickly than staples such as maize or beans. And, if there is a cash crop such as tea or coffee, this may taken an entire year for the harvest to be monetized. At the same time, various farmyard animals are invested into when young, maturing over time for sale, as an emergency cushion or for earmarked expenses such as annual school fees.

Thus, over the course of the year, cash arrives in hand with varying degrees of frequency, and periodicity, thus ensuring the farm’s ability to manage regular household expenditure on a more or less regular basis, even though there are no predictable wages. Nor, is the farmer burdened with credit and debt over the time whilst waiting for her 2 or 3 major harvest seasons.

Variance in regional seasonality influences coping mechanisms

While the foundational framework of the farmstead’s domestic financial managment remains the same, regional differences due to geography, and thus seasonality, influence crop choices, number of harvests, and the details of the coping mechanisms selected by the farmer to manage her financial portfolio.

For instance, in rural Philippines, in the rice growing Visayas islands, only well situated farms benefit from three rain fed rice harvests a year whilst the majority must manage on two. Thus, farmers invest in piglets, calves, or even cull chicks for nurturing into fighting cockerels which sell for more than 10 times the price of a regular chicken. They stock firewood, coconut husk, and supplement their cash money needs through petty retail during the low season.

In rural Malawi, outside of Blantyre, the farmwife who is a member of beekeeper’s cooperative, distills traditional wine for sales 2 to 3 times a week, boosting her cash flow frequency instead of waiting for the annual honey harvest.

Minimizing volatility to enable financial planning

Thus, we can see that even under conditions of uncertainty, farmers have established the means to manage their household expenses, including periodic ones such as school fees or loan repayments, on irregular and unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources. Their sophisticated portfolio of investments contain “deposits” that mature over varying times, for different amounts, and their planning, thus, goes into ensuring that the volatility between income and outgoing expenses is kept to a minimum.

Next, we will see how less agriculturally dependent sectors of the informal economy base their financial management patterns on the rural economy’s foundation of portfolio management.

 

Collected Works
Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment – Links to organized series of articles on the topic

Will the global trade war lead to more sustainable (and local) consumer products?

In a study titled “Competing In the Age of Multi-Localism”, ATKearney said mounting trade tariffs and other pressures have upended the global strategy – think mass-market production and achieving economies of scale – that has been a business hallmark since the early 1990s.

“It’s no longer a viable strategy for many companies,” the study said. “The age of multi-localism has arrived.”

The above snippet is from a recent Forbes article and caught my attention immediately. The implications for global value chains, not to mention product development, manufacturing, and the logistics of distribution are enormous.

“A one-size-fits-all business strategy across markets appears to be more unworkable now than ever,” the study said.

Its taken a wee bit more than a decade, but this is possibly the best news I’ve heard in a long time. The report from AT Kearney is available here and my previous musings on emerging markets, globalization, and product development can be found here.

This conversation with continue.

The Mobile as a Post Industrial Platform for Social and Economic Development: Top 3 Trends in Africa

Source: CHI2007 “Reach Beyond” http://www.chi2007.org/attend/plenaries.php

Just over a decade ago, in San Jose, California, I was invited to speak as the Closing Plenary for the CHI 2007 25th Anniversary Conference. The theme was “Reach Beyond”, as this was the 25th Anniversary conference of the Computer Human Interaction society, and as the closing plenary, I was tasked with articulating the vision for the next 25 years of man machine interfaces. This was in May 2007, mere weeks before the launch of the iPhone. That’s important to note, because Apple’s little phone transformed the world of humans interfacing with computers in its own way. You must remember that back then we didn’t really send texts in the United States, and the mobile and it’s role in society had nowhere near the transformational impact it was having in the developing world. mPesa had just begun to catch attention in Kenya – particularly the Central Bank’s – and there were no such thing as apps or smartphones. This is the background and context in which I gave my talk, which sank without a trace in the history of impactful communication ;p

It was in April 2006, that I first wrote about the mobile phone as a post industrial platform, and as a driver for innovation, in its own right. Two snippets:

One of the recurring patterns I’ve been seeing of late is how mobile phones – not just the handset, but the system as a whole, have become drivers of innovation in emerging economies.
[…]
Not just in India or China; this phenomena of the handphone – freed from the shackles of state sponsored infrastructure required for landlines in the majority of these developing nations – has demonstrated its effect in improving the micro economy and providing opportunities for the entrepreneurially minded in hitherto backward regions around the world.

Today, 11 years and 4 months later, I would like to highlight the undeniable impact of the mobile platform in Africa’s development story by introducing the top 3 trends that are sweeping across the continent (and capturing global imagination) very briefly in 3 paragraphs below:

  1. Fintech solutions – Whether its mobile money transfers, instant mobile loans, or cross border payments and more complex back-end solutions; the financial services industry is being disrupted by the mobile platform, on smartphones and on feature phones. Mobile technology is rapidly becoming the default solution delivery system for the last mile of money in sub Saharan Africa.
  2. Solar power – This in turn is accelerating the rapid adoption of small solar systems for domestic energy needs in offgrid locations; a new pay as you use or “prepaid” solution for acquiring solar powered products and for charging can be seen to be launched in a yet another African country every month it seems. My favourite example is the solar powered cold room lockers that one can rent via micro mobile payments. In another year, I expect that one could replace the word “solar” with utilities, with the visible increase in solutions for potable water, and a plethora of government services shift online to the platform.
  3. Agritech – From the very basic “farmer information systems”, agritech is rapidly evolving to more nuanced and complex solution delivery via the ubiquitous phone. Whether its using the smartphone capabilities to identify the army worm pest infesting the fields, or decision support systems that let you choose the ideal species of tree to plant, given soil and drought conditions, agritech is a newly emergent megatrend on the mobile for African agriculture.

And the future, the next ten years? What will 2027 or 28 bring about? And, will we still be using the handheld device we have in our pockets right now? I can’t see it yet, but my gut tells me that easy access to powerful computing within reach of each and every one of us is something that will only be transformed but not replaced.

The Informal Industrial Ecosystem: An Introduction to REculture

The Art of Seeing Beauty in Garbage, Kenya, September 2010

This article introduces and explains some things I’ve been seeing in the informal industrial ecosystem in the developing world context for almost a decade now. First noticed in 2009, I then named it REculture, a neologism to capture the vast and complex ecosystem I saw in the revenue generating facility of recycle, replace, repurpose, reuse and resale. Given contemporary interest in developed country concepts such as the circular economy, and other sustainable and ecological initiatives, I thought it timely to sit down and attempt to synthesize the past work before proceeding to write more on current events.

What is REculture?

I thought I’d start from the beginning – is there, for example, a difference between “the entrepreneur” and “the producer”, “the creator” and “the innovator”, if at all? And if none, then perhaps start to fill in some few blanks based on our earlier thinking on the BoP “consumer” and their mindset, worldview or value system.~ June 2009

In July 2009, I was inspired by my observation of a man sitting under a tree in the administrative district of New Delhi with a visibly large bag of buttons by his side. His service, to the civil servants rushing to and fro from important governmental meetings, was to quickly repair a missing button from their suit jacket or shirt. Not unlike a shoeshine boy, this gentleman’s service was on demand, while you waited, his fingers flying rapidly with the needle as he sewed a reasonable facsimile of your missing button back on for you.

Look at the unusual yet welcome niche he had found for himself! A repair service that could only work in this part of the city where the common uniform was a suit and tie and important visitors the norm.

Once he opened my eyes to what it was I was seeing on the streets – the entrepreneurial opportunities squeezed out of the margins of daily life – I began noticing such services more and more. Repair, re-use, re-purposing, resale, and, in their own inimitable way, recycling of used up or abandoned products of industrialization were turning out to provide a significant chunk of the revenue streams of many of the informal sector’s service providers who now became visible to me.

In June 2009, I wrote:

…many other such observations got me thinking about the whole RE culture among the BoP. Stepping back, if you take the broad space of REuse, REpurpose, REpair and REcycle – its the low hanging fruit for the BoP entrepreneur’s opportunities for income generation. In fact, REpair is an entire professional service area in its own right, perhaps a subset of the opportunity space in the informal economy with varying degrees of skill and ability required.

But coming back to the other three, it seems at first glance that they look to be more or less the same thing i.e. how different is it to reuse a plastic bottle to contain some liquid from recyling it? particularly if the manufacturer had intended for it to be a disposable container? Yet, from the big picture perspective, one can say (and it has been said before) the whole concept of recycling is a cost in the OECD world whereas its actually a source of income, in a myriad ways, among the BoP.

The second thing that struck me, when I pondered these signs of a post-consumption economic ecosystem, was that the actors in the informal sector – whom we now discuss as traders, fabricators, service providers – were still then thought of as the “Bottom of the Pyramid” or the BoP – the economically vulnerable, the marginalized, the low income barely making ends meet on a dollar or two a day. There was no attempt at segmentation, this was the lumpen mass of the next 4 billion. Even though the late CK Prahalad had called them out as micro-producers, creators, and innovators, in his seminal book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, those who had grabbed the label with both hands and run with it were still thinking in terms of consumption. “How do we make products profitably for the poor?”

What about the creators, the makers, the innovators, and the producers in the informal economic ecosystem?

Again, back in June 2009, I wrote:

I am attempting to evaluate whether all our previous observations and learnings viz., “Life is hard” (the mindset and values of a customer at the BoP particularly one living on an irregular income) can help us begin to understand the other side of the coin, that is, the “innovator” or “creator/maker” or simply, the “informal business owner or service provider” at the BoP.

At this point at least, it seems to me, that rather than quibble about each individual word choice to describe “who” or “what” they are, perhaps we’re better off looking at the “why” and “how” – by this I mean, that the driver of motivation is to generate an income stream (the why) and the gaps observed, as mentioned above, are the opportunity spaces (the how). That is, the BoP seem to display more of a tendency towards ‘opportunity spotting’ (not quite the same as the word opportunists, though that may also apply in many cases or situations), filling the niche quickly with a service or product. Some of these services have arisen spontaneously around the developing world, mobile phone repair comes to top of mind.

It feels as though its a far more active than passive quality – poverty and hardship can be a powerful motivational driver in itself, though we tend to overlook the ingenuity and creativity involved.

That is, back then, just over 9 years ago, I connected the dots I was seeing in this space – the mindset and values of the low income customers and their post consumption behaviours, taken together with the “RE” space where visibly they were earning income – and framed it so:

That is, the lower income market tends towards maintenance and extending the lifespan of the products (through repair or repurposing it) they purchase rather than disposing it for convenience or replacing it for a trendier style. All very obvious, you say, but its this very same quality that leads to the wide variety of opportunities for the entreprenuerial or the innovative to make some money (or even a living). From the very basic, in terms of skills and ability such as the button repair guy to the complex, such as the mobile phone hacker, all of these services meet an ‘unmet need’ in the market, an opportunity gap which they can fill.

However, what’s interesting about this is the fact that these opportunities would very rarely be either a) spotted as one in mainstream consumer culture; b) not be a gap per se due to a difference in mindset/worldview OR even c) not be profitable enough, given the comparative cost of labour vs the price of the product involved. These conditions for making money, and more so, making money that is deemed a valid ROI seem only to be available among the lower income demographic and in the developing world.

For the precondition to their success is also a sufficient customer base seeking such a service and their willingness to pay for it,  and that, imho, emerges from their mindset as BoP consumers, one quality of which is their need to Maximise the return on their investment (purchase). This shows up in this context as a wish to REpair, REuse, REsell (for REpurpose or REcycling or whatever along those lines) – I doubt if they’ve stopped coming by from door to door among the ‘consuming classes’ in India to buy old bottles, newspapers and other sundry junk. (A sign of development if it stops?)

Once I could “see” the entire post consumption entrepreneurial activity in the informal sector, I went back to my research documentation conducted in rural Philippines and India for the original ‘prepaid’ economy work, and pulled out the patterns seen in the photographs that, when fitted together, showed all the evidence of an entire industrial ecosystem. As a working title for this seemingly vast economic space within the informal economy across Asia and Africa, I had called it REculture – the group blog went on spawn a magazine.

An entire industrial ecosystem within the informal economy based on the discards of the consumer lifestyle

A discarded Kraft cream cheese bottle would be picked out of the garbage by a waste picker and sold to an intermediary who would clean and sort these by colour and size and sell them on to a fabricator, who in turn, would convert these into affordable – and handmade mass produced – kerosene lamps, completed with spot welded wick tube.

An entire industrial life cycle from “raw material” through to “mass production” supported by distribution and retail. The only difference? The informal nature of the entire value chain and the post consumption adaptation of the materials and discards.

My concluding thoughts at the stage in which I’d left my explorations almost a decade ago can be summed up thus:

So, at this point, early stages of exploration though it is, one could say that the whole area of “post consumption” consumer practices – most of which have withered away like the appendix in the ‘rich’ world – forms one major  basis for both products and services, with value addition to varying degrees, in the ‘informal economies’ of the developing world.

There are insights to be teased out here on flexible, adaptable, ‘on demand’ business models ~ but applied outside the virtual world. Scarcity of resources and circumstance force lean overheads and inventory. Constraints of demand and customer purchasing power create their own flows in the chaos. Is there a pattern to the flow of the informal after all?

What next?

I summed up this history so as to provide me with the foundation and backdrop to pick up the threads of this conversation, now with the added insights of the past decade, and the increasingly sophisticated frameworks of framing the informal economy as a commercial environment in its own right, populated with entrepreneurs and niches that the mainstream overlooks.

As the topics of sustainability, resource conservation, and the circular economy become top of mind and critical, the early lessons from the developing world will only become more important going forward. I’ll be writing more under the category and tag “REculture” for old times’ sake.

One (last) word: Plastics

A UN report issued on World Environment day  showed dozens of nations acting to cut plastic, including a ban on plastic bags in Kenya, on styrofoam in Sri Lanka and the use of biodegradable bags in China. via

There’s a backlash against plastics that is ongoing in many not so noticed parts of the world today. So called ‘weak’ signals from three major economies stand out for the impact in the near and emerging future of their policy shifts towards the material use of plastics.

The first is India, where a recent waste audit in Bengaluru showed that over 60% of the waste littering the streets was from non recyclable consumer product packaging by both international and domestic brands. By 2020, India will abolish all single-use plastics, and introduce a campaign against marine litter, among other things.

The EU has also moved to ban the same, and the proposal also requires EU countries to collect 90 percent of single-use plastic drink bottles by 2025 and producers to help cover costs of waste management and clean-up.

China, on the other hand, has caused consternation among nations who relied on shipping their plastics off for recycling. They’ve banned imports of contaminated waste plastic, leaving questions hanging such as “And how do you get manufacturers to design a product that is more easily recyclable.” Though I find this conversation interesting for its consistent and tone deaf externalization of the problem – waste management is certainly a developing country problem, but materials technology and consumer packaging innovation is a developed country design challenge.

With more than 50 countries waking up to the plastics problem, there’s a deeper shift occurring in the air, beyond our critical need to protect wildlife and the oceans. That of dependency on oil – in case you didn’t know, the bulk of plastic is made from oil.

Here’s a quick round up of something of things happening in these major economies with significant chunks of the world’s population.

India has just approved a massive new 5000 megawatt solar farm, and as the map shows, there’s many more out there in the desert wastes. The Chinese and Indian solar farms are 10x the size of those in North America.

The number of electric cars on the road has more than doubled over the last three years, and of the global sales of electric vehicles (EVs) last year, China contributed more than half. And there’s a shift now from blind growth towards more strategic product development, with greater impact. Numerous European marques are opening factories and R&D centers in China. And India’s doing its best to keep up.

What is going to be the impact of these moves, combined, from these three major economies on the planet? The head of Shell’s Scenarios* team has already developed a scenario called Sky “which shows that changing the ways we transport people and goods is one of the crucial steps toward the world meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement — keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels.”

On a planetary scale, these trends are the future, and products and business models that do not adapt to them are going to be increasingly obsolete, or suitable only for walled gardens. The use of Fahrenheit is but one example. Conserving humanity’s collective home is far more important for all our emerging futures.

 

*Shell originally developed the concept and tools for scenario planning

Stepping up human centered innovation planning for financial inclusion

Two Ugandan analysts from the Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) programme in Uganda write on the need for more human centered product development approaches in the design and delivery of financial services for rural Ugandans, especially the rural poor. One of their suggestions caught my attention in particular:

(iii) Third, to increase the introduction of new game changing solutions by financial institutions the government needs to put in place policies, laws and regulations that allow for new business models and approaches to financial delivery.

Innovative regulatory approaches like “sandboxes”, where startups are allowed to conduct live experiments in a controlled environment, have demonstrated success in developed markets. Regulators can therefore play a crucial role in being financial inclusion catalysts.

The late C.K. Prahalad, guru of serving the poor profitably, first mooted the concept of an innovation sandbox back in 2006, and the essence of his concept has remained an integral part of my own work ever since.

This approach could be called an innovation “sandbox” because it involves fairly complex, free-form exploration and even playful experimentation (the sand, with its flowing, shifting boundaries) within extremely fixed specified constraints (the walls, straight and rigid, that box in the sand).

The value of this approach is keenly felt at the bottom-of-the-pyramid market, but any industry, in any locale, can generate similar breakthroughs by creating a similar context for itself.

What Jimmy Ebong and Joseph Lutwama, the co-authors of the original article linked above, are mooting, however, is an extrapolation of the concept, where the regulatory and policy framework forms the boundaries of the “sandbox” within which various financial services pilots can be tested in the real world.

Committed and forward thinking governments can make the difference overnight for the ‘wicked problem’ of financial inclusion of the rural poor, inspiring innovative human centered solutions to citizen service delivery where its most sorely needed – the resource constrained and inadequate infrastructural operating environments of rural Africa.

 

Note:Mooting” is a favourite word of East African newsmedia, meaning the specialised application of the art of persuasive advocacy.

The comparative global impact of Alibaba vs. Amazon

Alibaba Business School and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) brought 29 young entrepreneurs from 11 countries across Africa to the Alibaba campus in Hangzhou, China for the third eFounders Fellowship cohort.

Chinese corporate soft power influence is production driven, not consumption focused. Alibaba, the e-commerce giant with digital payment tentacles, has been graduating cohorts of young entrepreneurs from Asia and Africa this past year. This initiative is the outcome from Jack Ma’s seminal visit to Nairobi last year, when thousands of young Kenyans waited for him in the sun.

Photo Credit: Abdishakur Mohammed, July 2017, University of Nairobi grounds, Kenya

He talks about entrepreneurship in a digital world, and personally shows up to meet visiting cohorts to talk about taking the lessons learnt from e-commerce in the most challenging environments in China (rural, mobile, social) back home to their own not dissimilar operating environments.

Contrast this with the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Amazon these days – a desperate workforce unable to take a leak, afraid to lose their low waged jobs as worker bees in a humongous warehouse. It keeps prices down and the consumption that runs the billions flowing, but whom does it benefit beyond the shareholders?

It struck me when I saw the news about “Alibaba Global Leadership Academy” that Chinese soft power was increasingly about driving production and growth aka development along their entire value chain, even among putative new consumer markets, whilst the American model was still stuck in a consumption driven mindset of the 1980s first wave of globalization. Buy more cola, wear our jeans, use our credit card, say the American brands in Jakarta or Accra or Nairobi.

The difference in mindset is stark when you think about the tech giants of Silicon Valley looking to uplift with low cost connectivity and internet basics for free, and compare to the Chinese giants thinking about raising the purchasing power first. The english language media would have you believe its all about neo-colonialism for natural resources, but the recent shifts in tactics and strategy seem to imply a less demoralizing mindset than anything evidenced by charitable good works handing out goodies to the downtrodden. Because whatever the agenda, the bottomline will be that at end of the exercise there will be a group left inspired to build their own markets on their mobiles, versus a group left holding a palliative goodie.

“My experience here has shifted my thinking. Before, we were focused on pleasing the investors, but now I see the importance of putting our customers first, then my employees, then the investors,” said Andreas Koumato, 26, from Chad , the founder of Mossosouk, an e-commerce platform. “Let others [benefit], then later, we will gain.”

Production driven social impact is far more powerful than consumption driven. Human centered productivity even more so.

Ecodesign, Ecolabels and the Environment: How Europe is redesigning our footprint on earth

What do chopped fresh green beans have in common with high definition flat screen TV’s? And how does this relate to design? In Europe, they’re both considered consumer products whose journey from raw material to shopwindow requires energy to process—emitting greenhouse gases that can have an adverse impact on the environment—and are considered to possess a ‘carbon footprint.’ In other words, they are products of a larger global industrial ecosystem.

When the postal service is setting down guidelines on the creativity and production of direct mailers so that their customers can better recycle them, it signals that graphic design needs to evolve the way its practiced entirely.

 

Acronyms and Initiatives
The European Union’s chosen approach to address the issue of environmental degradation and climate change is a combination of regulations, directives and voluntary activities. Industrial designers and engineers around the world are familiar with many of many of these already in effect—the EU Directive on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and the EU Directive on the Waste from Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) are top of mind in the field of consumer electronics and other energy consuming products (EUPs)—the first sector to be addressed by these rules.

Just ratified is the new European law on chemicals, REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), which covers the toxicity and hazards of chemical substances, touching the nascent field of green chemistry. Also to be enforced is the EU Directive on the Ecodesign of EUPs – this will directly regulate the negative contribution to the environment across the entire lifecycle of the product, not just the use phase.

Supporting activities include the Ecolabel—a voluntary certification for a wider range of products beyond those that merely consume energy during their use—helping consumers identify products that have considered all aspects of environmental impact toward minimum ecological footprint, compared to other products in the same category. This includes the chopped green beans, as their total carbon footprint assessed across the supply chain would take into account the energy expended to grow them, process them, package them and deliver them to the neighbourhood supermarket.

All of these and more come under the holistic approach of the Integrated Product Policy (IPP), which can be considered the foundation for such decision-making and the design of the various directives, programs and certifications. The IPP is a systemic look at the environmental impact of the entire supply chain and life cycle of any given product, taking all aspects of the global industrial ecosystem into account: raw materials, manufacture, transportation, distribution, marketing, sales, delivery and waste treatment at the end of life.

 

The Power of Design
While design has been picking up speed in addressing issues of sustainable development, a quick purview of the larger ecosystem helps in understanding the long-term consequences of the decisions made in the studio. It is recognized that a significant proportion (ranging from 70% to 90%) of any given product’s ecological footprint can be addressed at the design stage. But the considerations mentioned above take into account factors all along the product chain that can directly or indirectly contribute to environmental degradation; decisions made at the design stage now become crucial in ensuring the best outcome throughout the entire system.

Carbon Trust UK‘s simplified diagram of the lifecycle of a typical can of cola, for example, enables us to visualize and correlate the relationship between product design choices and energy consumption at every stage of the supply chain.

Read On…

Why is the Kenyan mobile loan industry facing just a digital version of India’s MFI problems?

When you make fast, easy, short term loans available on the phone to anyone with a need for quick money, why is it a surprise when high levels of consumer debt are the result?

A recent survey by financial inclusion giants like FSD and CGAP discovers that low income Kenyans have not been helped by the plethora of easy access mobile loans introduced in the market in the name of financial inclusion and ‘access to finance’.

“The rise of the digital credit market has raised concerns about the risk of excessive borrowing and over-indebtedness among lower-income households. Digital loans are easy to obtain, short-term, carry a high interest rate and are available from numerous bank and non-banking institutions,” states the report

The same pattern of behaviour is emerging as did in India during the peak of the MFI small loan boom almost a decade or so ago. People are borrowing from one loan to pay off the other, and livelihoods are hurting while some face challenges putting food on the table. The year 2017 might have been economically challenging for Kenya, but the design of repayment plans are also a factor.

“Digital credit is not reaching everyone and remains ill-suited for most of the population, such as farmers and casual workers, whose livelihoods are characterized by irregular cash flows,” says the phone survey.

The attractiveness of the market opportunity however is such that new loans served through the mobile phone are still being launched every other month in Kenya. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that programmes meant to benefit the lower income population don’t end simply perpetuating the same problems seen before, albeit as profitably?

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.