Archive for the ‘Consumer Behaviour’ Category

India’s Hidden Middle Class and the MNC Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

Trading economics: a new theoretical system

From the Financial Times, a snippet from a guest post by Wang Zhenying, director-general of the research and statistics department at the PBoC’s Shanghai head office and vice chairman of the Shanghai Financial Studies Association, summarising the arguments in his new Chinese-language textbook on economics.

“Trading economics” is one new theory emerging against this backdrop. Mainstream economics deduces the macro whole by extrapolating from the behavior of individual “representative agents”. Trading economics replaces this with a systematic and comprehensive analysis approach. It stresses that in an interconnected world, the interaction between trading subjects is the fundamental driving force behind the operation, development, and evolution of economic systems.

Trading economics first analyses the actions of trading subjects, then builds a dynamic trading network among trading subjects through trading relations, and finally reveals the operational rules of the economic system. The rules could be examined from two perspectives: short-term and long-term. The business cycle and price changes are examined in the short-term perspective. The long-term perspective would focus on the rules of economic evolution as well as changes in technology, knowledge, system, and network.

Throughout the history of economics, trading economics is the first and foremost theory to incorporate all economic phenomena into an all-encompassing logical system. It changes the long-standing scenario in the economics field, that is, the macro was separated from the micro, and the short-term from the long-term. Trading economics is a revolution of mainstream economic theories and is bound to exert a great and profound impact on all areas, including economic theoretical research and practical application.


NB: I thoroughly enjoyed reading this summary and expect to contextualize future research with some of the theoretical frameworks as presented here.



Mobiles at the Border Post: Anti-Atlas of Borders Exhibition Slides (Jan 2016)

In January 2016, our submission for the Anti-Atlas of Borders Art Exhibition in Brussels was accepted for a commission of 500e. We were thrilled and surprised since we’d never imagined our work on mobile platforms, technology, and the borderland biashara could be considered from the arts and culture point of view.

Here is our story in the form of slideshow – each of these was printed in full size and hung on the walls.

Household energy consumption behaviour in East Africa: Lighting & Conclusion (3 of 3 Parts)


Jua Kali Kerosene Lamp, Kenya

The following is extracted from a six month study during 2012 on household energy consumption behaviour in rural Kenya and Rwanda among the lower income demographic, that led to an understanding of some of barriers hampering the sales of client’s solar products in this market. This 3rd and final part will focus on fuel usage and consumption behaviours for lighting. Users sampled for this study were selected based on varying fuel consumption patterns, ranging from a single homestead to a rural hotel open from dawn to 1am offering solar powered football on television.

Fuel Choice and Consumption Behaviour is Influenced by Duration and Timing of the Need

Kerosene is the primary source of fuel for lighting for those who live without access to electricity, regardless of whether its on their shamba, or in a building in town. Not only is the reach of grid access limited to a small percentage of rural Kenyans but the cost of the final connection to the dwelling is also a barrier for many. Due to the nature of this project’s focus, the majority of homes visited were without a solar home system.

Hurricane lanterns are the most popular lighting devices among kerosene users, as the glass covering the lamp protects the flame as well as contains the smell and smoke. With prices as low as 250Kes, everyone has at least one, if not more at home and the number maintained depends on size of the family, number of buildings on the homestead and the fluctuating ability to purchase fuel.

Pressure lamps can cost ten times as much and consume far more fuel although they offer a brighter light – they were not seen in Makueni households and the only regular user was the furniture maker who restricted its use to times of high productivity during the Christmas season. In Kisii, they are owned by members of the congregation who use them once a month for religious functions and the fuel is provided by the church. Gregory the schoolteacher called them “gas guzzlers” whose bright light was not worth either the high running cost or price of the device itself.

Everyone owns a few small tin lamps but they were referred to as something discarded during the upwardly mobile climb to a hurricane lantern – “Oh, we must have a few lying about somewhere in a dusty corner” said one wife while Mama Grace only used it in the confines of the kitchen building where the open flame, with its attendant smoke would make no difference. However, due to their small size, they require very small amounts of kerosene and tend to be kept as a backup for times of need when the fuel supply runs low or to be used by the aged, such as Kilonzi’s grandmother who finds the hurricane lantern difficult to maintain.

In addition to kerosene fuelled lamps and lanterns, every home owned at least one flashlight of some sort, whether powered by dry cell batteries, grid rechargeable or disposable for what they referred to as “emergencies or needing to go outside at night”. By emergency, they meant that this form of light was faster and easier to turn for sudden need than the more complicated task of lighting a kerosene lamp, plus it could be used in wind or rain. For many, this item received first priority if resources such as batteries or cash for charging were limited.

What stood out across the board was that everyone knew, almost to the minute in some cases, exactly when they used their light source. This behaviour was evident regardless of the household’s energy source including if it was solar power and thus “free”. Answers would range in specificity from estimates “around 7pm to maybe 10pm, sometimes later” to on the dot timings “from 5.45am to 6.30am in the morning”.

“I only use it for children to study” Mama John who scrimped and saved for solar

This gives rise to the conjecture that the fundamental observation in household financial behaviour of being able to control time (duration, frequency, periodicity) and money(whether prepaid source of fuel like kerosene or postpaid like electricity), is an ingrained habit even after upward mobility has removed the need for such stringent conservation. SHS do not require the same frugality daily use and cost and this can be seen in increased use of entertainment appliances like televisions and radios but lights still follow this pattern. However, it can also be said that rural life is slow to change in response to the introduction of modern conveniences and this may also be a significant factor.

The dry cell battery

Similar patterns of duration and accuracy of timing were also observed in choice and purchase of dry cell batteries, particularly for the radio. People knew which specific programs they wanted to listen to thus the
time and duration of their use of the radio. Everyone wanted to be able to listen to the radio more often but conserved battery life for as long as possible. Many even acknowledged that expensive brands like Eveready which cost 65Kes a pair lasted three times as long as the cheaper Chinese Lion brand costing only 30kes the pair but their irregular cash flows acted as a barrier to purchase dependant as they were on what cash was available on hand (or in pocket) at time of need.

Concluding Remarks

Consumers with limited incomes prioritize household energy and fuel spending according to importance for survival. Food and thus cooking come first followed by light. Everything else depends on the criticality of need against funds available. For example, Muthoka, who was unemployed and living on his small subsistence farm deep in the interior away from a market town, said that if he had to choose between 20Kes worth of kerosene or charging his mobile phone, he would choose kerosene first for lighting was more important to him than his mobile.

Similarly, Gregory the schoolteacher, put batteries for the emergency flashlight as more important than for playing the radio. The question becomes “What can we do without?” and only one of the many respondents of the more general household survey prioritized her mobile phone over light but she was a business woman whose income depended on her being available for calls.

The caveat here is that these answers are not absolutes and while most people will say that the phone is less important, there will be times of need when charging the phone or topping up airtime will be critical.

However, unlike kerosene or dry cell batteries for light, one can always borrow a friend or neighbour’s phone for an emergency phone call. These are the kinds of trade-offs people make when living on the edge on limited and irregular cash flows.

Pricing is rarely the problem

These insights on people’s household energy management and purchasing patterns, based as they are on the limitations and timing of their income sources are what led to the conclusion that the actual price itself was not the barrier to sales but instead it was a combination of factors starting with the choice of packaging and the subsequent pricing and sales strategy.


Part One: Introduction to Household Energy Consumption Behaviour Study in East Africa (2012)
Part Two: Cooking

Household energy consumption behavioural study in East Africa: Cooking (Part 2 of 3)

Scrap wood fueled three stone fire in sheltered corner

The following is extracted from a six month study during 2012 on household energy consumption behaviour in rural Kenya and Rwanda among the lower income demographic, that led to an understanding of some of barriers hampering the sales of client’s solar products in this market. This 2nd part will focus on fuel usage and consumption behaviours for cooking. Users sampled for this study were selected based on varying fuel consumption patterns, ranging from a single homestead to a rural hotel catering for more than 12 hours a day.

Fuel Usage Behaviour is Influenced Greatly by Location

Choice of fuel and decisions on quantity kept in stock for cooking is dependent on the location of the primary residence rather than income. Rural homesteads in Kenya have a separate outhouse for cooking and firewood is the preferred choice of fuel even in those regions where shambas are too small to support their own grove of trees.

Kilonzi’s wife dreams of upgrading to an LPG cookstove some day in the future

That is, while Kilonzi’s wife on a large shamba in Makueni might stack enough firewood for just two or three days, collected for free from her own backyard, Mama Grace the tea farmer with land constraints in Kisii will purchase an entire tree to last her for a month. Meanwhile, the more economically challenged on small shambas devote a week foraging far and wide for enough brushwood to last for two or three months before needing to take time away again from more pressing household duties.

Charcoal is also used on the homestead but only for certain tasks like making chapatis or for quickly brewing tea for visitors or in the morning rush before school or work. Even if the charcoal is made right on the shamba from a tree that needed felling, most of it is kept aside for sale and considered a source of cash money rather than consumed as fuel.

Residents who live away from their shambas, taking up rooms in town due to their work where cooking must be done in the same space as living and other activities, cannot use firewood. In fact, if renting, landlords clearly state that the use of firewood is banned, as a safety precaution. Thus, urban residents are forced to choose fuels that can be used in small, portable cooking stoves and charcoal ends up being the most common due to its relative cost as compared to kerosene. Those who do own a kerosene stove are in the minority and again, its use is only for very specific tasks that require speed such as making tea for visitors or in the morning.

Heavy Duty Charcoal Usage by Hotel

For those whose primary fuel for cooking is charcoal, the quantity purchased is dependant on cash in hand if their income is not from a salaried position and this ranges from a ‘deben’ which lasts for about 5 or 6 days and costs around 100 – 130 Kes to an entire sack which ranges from 500 to 750 Kes and can last as long as a month. Pricing for fuel is closely related to its proximity to the source, since transportation can be expensive and convenience is a service that comes with a premium. Kerosene which sells for 83 Kes a litre at the petrol station in town was found to be selling at a rate of 140Kes/litre at a small duka deep in the interior.

Part One: Introduction to Household Energy Consumption Behaviour Study in East Africa (2012)
Part Three: Lighting & Concluding Remarks

Introduction to rural household energy consumption behaviour in East Africa (1 of 3 parts)

The following is extracted from a six month study during 2012 on household energy consumption behaviour in rural Kenya and Rwanda among the lower income demographic, that led to an understanding of some of barriers hampering the sales of client’s solar products in this market. This first part is an overview of household financial management in conditions irregular and unpredictable income streams from a variety of sources. The 2nd and 3rd part will focus on fuel usage and consumption behaviours for cooking and for lighting separately. Users sampled for this study were selected based on varying fuel consumption patterns, ranging from a single homestead to a rural hotel catering for more than 12 hours a day.

Aspirational ownership and tangible evidence of savings in prepaid purchase model of solar panel, as seen in Chuka, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan, February 2012)

Rural Kenyans are not very different from rural Filipinos or Malawians or Indians when it comes to the way they manage their daily household expenses. Similarities in decision making, in purchasing patterns and in observed consumer behaviour, all stem from the same underlying need to plan and manage on irregular incomes from a variety of multiple sources in harsh environments of scarcity and uncertainty. The underlying driver is always to stretch the limited shilling, rupee or peso to the maximum while keeping one’s head above water.

With the exception of the salaried schoolteacher, who managed on fixed amounts of cash paid predictably on a calender schedule, the rest juggled an irregular cash flow against required expenses, attempting to minimize the differences over calender time and as a planning mechanism across the natural year’s seasons of abundance and scarcity. Even cash croppers like Mama Grace, who received end month payments from the tea factory, coped with the significant difference in the quality and quantity of tea harvested during the wet and the dry seasons with a variance of as much as 300% between high and low payments.

Rural homesteads manage their household finances rather like a “portfolio of investments” that mature over varying times such as cow’s milk which can be sold daily for cash, while a chicken takes less time than a field of maize to be ready for harvest and sale. Thus decisions are made based on timing of the expense and the choice of ‘investment’ to liquidate on what was ‘ready’ as well as the amount of cash required. For example, in Kilala livestock market it is a known fact that livestock prices always drop in January as its time for first term school fees and everybody needs to sell to raise the necessary cash. Similarly, major purchases or cash outlays are planned for known times of abundance such as right after the seasonal harvest.

Unlike those on a fixed salary who are able to plan ahead, those on irregular incomes need greater control and flexibility over the timing – that is the frequency and the periodicity; and well the amount – in cash or kind; of their cash flow, as a planning mechanism for financial management. In fact, the greater the span of control the customer has over their time and money, as articulated above, the greater the success of a business model or payment plan. This is why prepaid airtime is the preferred model for 96% of the African continent’s 700 million mobile phone users and also why kerosene has been so hard to dislodge. It can be purchased by cash amount (say 40 Kes worth) or quantity (half a litre or 5 litres) on demand or in bulk, and then frugally used for as long as possible, allowing consumers control over their “time” and “money” with great flexibility.

Observations on household fuel and energy use reflect these purchasing patterns and consumer behaviour. Cooking and then lighting are the most important needs, and the two elements of time and money as discussed above, show up in the form of duration and location. While duration of use has a direct relationship to the amount of time and money required, location has a critical bearing on behaviour in rural Kenya as will be seen in forthcoming posts.


Part One: Introduction to Household Energy Consumption Behaviour Study in East Africa (2012)
Part Two: Cooking
Part Three: Lighting & Concluding Remarks

Some Highlights from Reviewing the African Consumer Market 2014-2017

Photo by Niti Bhan in Busia market, Kenya in January 2016

Recently I was reminded of the cover story in the Africapitalist magazine published back in 2014 on the theme of the true size of the African Consumer market, that is, the hidden and untapped purchasing power embedded in the continent’s vast informal and unrecorded sector. Today I’ll start by reviewing some of the consumer trends, particularly in FMCG, that have become rather obvious over the past three years.

    1. Airtime is now a Fast Moving Consumer Good (FMCG) With the advent of a wide variety of different voice and data bundles, as well as affordable smartphones, airtime in Africa, while still prepaid, can be considered along side tea or sugar its distribution and sales patterns. In fact, smartphones and in-app purchasing have made it so that airtime voucher sellers are rapidly going out of business in key markets like Nigeria. In early adopter markets like Kenya’s this digitization has led to barriers lowering for the adoption of crypto-currencies like bitcoin and ethereum.
    2. Hair is a huge business across the continent. This goes beyond cosmetic products like shampoos and creams, to include hair extensions, weaves, services, and add-ons. Hair care related services are mostly in the informal sector while products themselves might be both formal (Unilever, Godrej, Marico) or informal (recycled weaves, imports from Indian temples, etc). Services are also traded and Maasai experts often travel around working and sending money home from providing weaving services. There is a gap in the market for local players and branded chains of retail outlets for the Maasai moran to leverage.
    3. Women’s hygiene and well-being products. This market has been valued at USD 800 million annually and is virtually untapped by formalized solutions. There is literally a gap of products priced for women who are neither beneficiaries of NGO donations, nor can afford urban supermarket prices of imported brands. Otoh, this FMCG product has finally become visible as a market opportunity.
    4. Social Biashara. Smartphones and free-to-use social media networks such as YouTube and WhatsApp have transformed the entrepreneurial opportunity space for unemployed youth struggling to earn in challenging economies across the African continent. In subsequent posts I will consider the impact of e-commerce and changing consumer behaviour on existing markets, both formal and informal. For now, assume that these apps have lowered the barrier to finding and providing trade goods and services and giving rise to an entire demographic of freelancers in cutting edge services including Ethereum/Bitcoin to Euro brokerage.

Women’s Entrepreneurship Driving Emerging Future in Africa

We’ve been silent of late on this blog due to work deadlines and end of the year paperwork, however this will change. I’ve promised to write one blog post every day – even if its a few lines – for the next 30 days. I realized it was habit and discipline that was missing, not content related to this blog.


Meanwhile, here are some data points to ponder:

African entrepreneurs are missing out on the untapped potential market – said to be worth around $ 800 million – for women’s hygiene products such as sanitary napkins. The opportunity exists at every price level, from branded consumer oriented premium goods distributed through local supermarket chains, to rural handmade and re-used napkins that enable girls to go to school. What are you waiting for, if you’re looking for new ideas to invest in?


African women are also driving the small home solar revolution. I’m planning on sharing key extracts from the household energy consumption behavioural study I’d conducted in rural Kenya and Rwanda soon on this blog. In the meantime, the article linked above offers some food for thought on this trend.


Elsewhere, women whose herds of goat were ravaged by drought are picking up the pieces with cash grants which they are ploughing back into their businesses.

Ahatho Turuga arranges goods in her shop set up with support from The BOMA Project in Loglogo village, near Marsabit town, Kenya, on November 29, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Benson Rioba


This theme is best wrapped up by an article showcasing Maggy Lawson of Lomé, Togo, a woman whose trading ability has made her famous throughout the African continent and abroad.

Maggy Lawson is a Mama Benz. That’s what people in West Africa call women who have become rich in the textile trade – so rich that they can afford a Mercedes-Benz. Maggy Lawson owns homes in Dallas, Washington, Paris, and Monaco, as well as a villa on the outskirts of Lomé with marble floors and teak paneling. She is both wealthy and influential, representing the coastal regions in the Togolese Parliament and advising the Minister of Labor on important economic questions.


Here is our report on Nigeria‘s informal and formal textile trade, tracing the value web from end user customer through brokers to wholesalers and retailers of appliques.


TEDTalk video: Recognizing the value creation and economic contribution of the informal economy

My talk given at the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, this August, went live on at some point during the night a couple of days ago. At that very moment, I was on a Finnair flight from SIN to HEL, so with a wee bit of delay, here’s the link to the video of the talk. Also available is a recommended reading list I curated, along with footnotes.

I just want to add that its high time we considered the informal sector as a commercial operating environment in its own right. This change of perspective will transform the way we think about poverty, it’s alleviation, and, importantly, open the doors to innovating products and services that can help boost productivity and revenues for micro, small, and medium sized businesses across the developing world, but particularly in Africa and India.

By doing so, we can recognize the economic contribution and value creation by women who make up the majority of such entrepreneurs, and put dollar values to their investment capacity and growth opportunities. As long as they’re lumped together under the umbrella term “informal sector”, with its unquestioned assumptions of low skill and low productivity, they’ll remain invisible, and solutions meant to support their development will never reach them.

Time to acknowledge the social cost of mobile and apps driven disruption

Abandoned makeshift recharge cards stand (Source: Punch Newspaper, Nigeria)

From Lagos, Nigeria comes this moving human interest story that looks at the downside of modern technology and it’s impact on livelihoods. For those who must hustle to make a living, send the kids to school, or put food on the table, smartphone driven digitization of the services they used to provide are disrupting their incomes.

“On the negative side, it has seriously affected our business with about 40% drop in passenger traffic. There is nobody among us (cab drivers) that would say he’s not feeling the pain.”

Whether its Uber and Taxify grabbing customers from traditional taxis, or the ease of an online purchase of airtime eating into Mama’s recharge card sales, the long awaited and much hyped transformation of African economies by ICT is arriving at a much higher cost than noted anywhere in media, or in research reports on mobiles for “social good.”

Literate youth quick to pick up new skills have no choice but to adapt and adopt. Its the older traders, the taxi drivers, the less literate, the long established service providers in the urban informal economy who are shouldering the brunt of this disruption.

“Even the prices charged by ‘those phone things’ are not realistic. I just pity the people who are rushing to them. A time is coming that they would increase their fares. And by that time, people wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, because they would have killed the competition. They just want to destroy the taxi business, which many of us are using to take care of our families,” Baba Ayo added.

Whose responsibility is this anyway?

Disruption is what every techno bling startup seeks, blaring it in their press releases, as they launch an app for this and that. What falls by the wayside is consideration of the social cost of this disruption – much more expensive in developing countries like Nigeria where there is no social safety net, no welfare department, and certainly no old-age pension for those whose livelihoods are lost to look forward to.

“I have been selling recharge vouchers for about 10 years and I can tell you that the situation has never been this bad. It’s as if someone commanded people to stop buying airtime. I accused some of my customers of patronising other people, and some of them said they usually top-up their phones online whenever they run out of airtime,” she explained.

The entrepreneurial will adapt, or move on to other services that apps have not yet replaced. The article is illustrated with photographs of abandoned recharge seller’s makeshift stalls as the line of business fades away in the big city.

But who will think of all the rest who may not have the energy or youth to start over, and whose responsibility is it to ensure that technological progress is not exclusive?

This post is a reminder to us all of the tradeoff we make when we choose to innovate or disrupt in societies where the margin between hunger and full belly is as slim as this year’s latest smartphone model.