Archive for the ‘Distribution’ Category

Designed in China, Made in Africa.

In Ethiopia, Transsion Holdings, a Chinese company, is manufacturing handsets costing as little as $10 in an industrial park outside Addis Ababa. Mobile phone models from Tecno, Infinix, and Itel brands, which all belong to Transsion, to be Made in Africa.

Almost 13 years ago, in December of 2005, I wrote my first column for BusinessWeek which began with the sentence “Designed in California, Built in China.” That referred to Apple’s iconic iPod, the MP3 player that industrial design made into a household name, one that led to a whole new medium: podcasting.

Imagine the scale, depth, and level of change that must take place in production planning and control, not to mention supply chains and global value chains, for this continental shift in design and manufacturing to have taken place in less than half a generation.

Mobile First Africa: Opportunity for Accessories that Boost Productivity on Smartphones

Long ago, when smart phones were still on their way to changing the world, I remember the product development of a host of accessories that would boost business productivity in a variety of areas for phone owners.

The projector phone was one such innovation, flopping back when it was launched due to the tech not having caught up yet. I bring this up because I read an article this morning that highlights a major challenge for the ‘mobile first’ African market.

“We hear about mobile-first Africa, it sounds sexy,” said Nanjira Sambuli, digital equality advocacy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation. “But how much meaningful work can you get done through your mobile. Are we creating a divide? We are not going to be equal if mobile is the only way. Because mobile is for consuming.”

Today, technology is far more advanced, and as China has shown us, far more affordable. Can a range of productivity solutions be launched as accessories for smartphones to disrupt the African SME market?

The Japanese are already ahead with their answers, such as this keyboard by Elecom. The products are all out there, I think its just a matter of identifying the opportunity and the price point for the African markets.

The continent tends not to be taken as seriously for enterprise solutions as it could be. Informal sectors do not mean lack of purchasing power or opportunity space. Perhaps this is the sector that is now ripe for disruption by an enterprising entrepreneur.

Lessons for development from the demand driven investment strategies of the informal sector

This shopkeeper in Laare, Kenya provided me with deep insight on how investments in expensive inventory are managed in a heavily cash based economy. He runs a consumer electronics store stocking everything from solar panels, music systems, spare parts and batteries, through to mobile phones and accessories.

His purchasing decisions are based on visible consumer demand, he said, preferring to stock what he calls “fast moving items” that sell and keep the cash flowing than to risk tying up capital in something that might not sell. For instance, he pointed to a dusty 5W solar panel, this has been sitting here for a year since most customers in the area prefer buying 20W or larger.

In this context, “fast moving items” are not the same as the marketing term “Fast Moving Consumer Goods” or FMCG which refers to over the counter perishables and consumables like tea, shampoo, biscuits or soap. Instead, they refer to the product range that sells in the local market, and as my visits to electronics stores in different parts of Kenya back in 2012 quickly showed, each market had different price points and products which tended to be “fast moving”.

In a more economically challenged region, it was black and white 14″ TV sets, smaller solar panels and no name Chinese mobile phones, while in the wealthier region around Kilgoris as we see in the previous post, its flat screen Sony Bravias and very large solar panels that sell.

Local demand drives decisions, and thus business growth strategies and investments. Can this insight not also inform development strategies?

The Economist has just published this article on how fish farms are experiencing a boom in response to the growing demand for food from the big city:

The task of feeding that huge population has not been accomplished by the government, by charities or by foreign agricultural investors. It is the work of an army of ordinary Bangladeshis with an eye for making money. Mr Belton’s research shows that the number of fish-feed dealers in the main aquaculture areas more than doubled between 2004 and 2014. So did the number of feed mills and fish hatcheries. Mr Belton has found similar trends in Myanmar, where the fish farms are often larger than in Bangladesh, and in India.

As well as transforming landscapes in a large radius around Dhaka, the fish boom has changed many people’s lives. Aquaculture requires about twice as much labour per acre as rice farming, and the demand is year-round. Many labourers who used to be paid by the day are now hired for months at a time. Seasonal hunger, which is a feature of life in some rice-farming regions of Bangladesh, is rarer in the watery districts. People are eating more protein. Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, a feed dealer, points to another advantage. Because food is now so cheap in the cities, migrant workers are able to send more money back to their families in the villages.

I believe this element of assessing local or regionally accessible demand for a product or commodity before investment is often missing even from the private sector influenced “making markets work” philosophy now prevalent in development strategies. Too often, the “market” is framed as an international one, and an e-commerce platform devised as the bridging solution. Local intermediaries are demonized as “brokers out to squeeze profits at the farm gate” without once considering their role as infomediaries of supply and demand. The very information networks that provide the shopkeeper with guidance on what would sell and what to order are often erased and replaced with an app. Little or no attention is paid to existing consumer demand nor any attempt to link to the existing ecosystem. The informal becomes invisible.

How many of these pilots fail to sustain themselves once the project’s funding cycle ends?

Leveraging Disability as Competitive Advantage: The Wheelchair Cargo Movers of Uganda

Only in Busia do wheelchair owners from all over Uganda congregate as it is to their economic advantage to do so. Documented, and observed were the handicapped professionals who crossed the border numerous times a day ferrying goods.

In the past 25 years, the Busia tricyclists have created a strong community with initiative and resourcefulness in exploiting economic and political opportunities. Dialogue and negotiations have allowed them to conduct business without having to pay customs duties under the watchful eye of the authorities.

They point out with satisfaction that there are no disabled people begging on the streets of Busia, not even on Fridays when Muslims give out alms to the poor. On the other hand, each new officer must be sensitized.

These children from destitute families earn shillings helping with moving the freight. Neither participant is dependent on handouts.

 

Photographs: Michael Kimani, for Emerging Futures Lab, in Busia, Uganda, December 2015.

Mirror-Mirror, Who am I? The rise of African doll brands that empower Black girls

During the past few years, people of color all over the world have started challenging their absence in a positive light in the media, entertainment, books and toys. Black people, and Africans more specifically, feel invisible or highly under represented. The lack of visibility has severe effects on image, self esteem and success.

Experts say that self confidence starts at an early age. The images, words and overall culture we expose young minds to have a long term influence on the trajectory of their lives.  Who best than people of color themselves to produce and create articles that celebrate them and put them in the best light?

Several Africans, men and women, are active in the business of creating dolls or barbies that African girls can identify with through different skin tones, body shapes, hair texture or different outfits representative of various cultures. These dolls are mostly assembled in China, produced in low quantities and generally sold locally.

So far, five brands are emerging in both francophone and anglophone Africa:

Queens of Africa Dolls (Nigeria): The dolls and materials are designed, through fun and engaging materials, to subconsciously promote African heritage. Queens of Africa celebrates being an African girl in the 21st century by drawing on the strengths and achievements of ancestors and bring them up to date to empower and inspire today’s generation of African girls.

queens-of-africa-dolls

 

Momppy Mpoppy Dolls (South Africa): Fashion forward with an afro, the doll seeks to be a trendy and attractive alternative to Barbie for girls of African descent.

momppy-mpoppy-doll

 

Sarama Dolls (Côte d’Ivoire): Dolls dressed in traditional Ivorian gear, they celebrate various cultures in Côte d’Ivoire.

sarama-dolls

 

Naima Dolls (Côte d’Ivoire): A mix of dolls and barbies, with different shades of brown, hairstyles and outfits (modern and traditional) that exist in baby, male and female versions.
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Nubia Kemiat (Cameroun): The doll with natural hair is a cultural story teller that narrates tales in Africa and throughout the world.
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Local entrepreneurs are partnering with (department) stores or e-commerce sites to ensure greater distribution across the country and increasingly all through the world. Although, the middle class is  enthusiastic about such empowering cultural products, prices and availability remain barriers that brands need to address to develop mainstream products.

Japan’s Indian Strategy for the African Consumer Market

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One of the most high-profile events Kenya has hosted since independence begins this week when heads of state from across Africa and the Prime Minister of Japan Mr Shinzo Abe jet in for the Tokyo International Conference on Africa Development (TICAD). It will be the first time that Ticad has been held outside Japan and it is an honour to Kenya to have been picked to host this event. ~ Daily Nation editorial

The Nikkei Asian Review has been preparing for days with longform articles on the African consumer market, and other opportunities for Asian businesses. While Indian B2C investments have been closely analysed (and embraced), it is clear that the East Asians are eyeing each other as their closest competitors.

Africa was once dominated by Western investors, due to ties forged in colonial times. But Chinese companies have muscled their way in, and Indian, Japanese and South Korean players are arriving and thriving. This intense competition is no longer just about extracting minerals and materials. It is about tapping the next big consumer market.

Their articles are well researched and provide ample insights for businesses contemplating these new markets. Here are some highlights that caught my eye:

Vivek Karve has a clear picture of the ideal African market. The chief financial officer of India’s Marico, a maker of hair and body care products and other fast-moving consumer goods, said his company targets countries with “per capita GDP under $5,000, many mom-and-pop shops, low penetration of multinationals and political stability.”

There’s little handwringing over lack of data or missing middle class metrics. Inadequate infrastructure and informal retail in Africa is no different for your average Indian FMCG brand than their domestic market, thus the concept of the ideal market being one full of little mom and pop shops.

Marico’s strategy for achieving that includes promoting local brands familiar to African consumers, rather than pushing products that are popular in India. It uses multiple distributors to cushion itself against credit risks.

The Japanese, having already faced off with the Koreans in India’s large, diverse, and fragmented markets, are ready to take a leaf from the Indian playbook for their foray into the African market.

The gap between Asian and Western rivals is expected to narrow over time, with China making up much of the ground. About 3,000 companies from China — Africa’s largest trade partner since 2009 — are doing business in sectors such as infrastructure, resource development and telecommunications.

And even this focus on infrastructure development and large scale investments is changing. The Chinese idea is to boost purchasing power across Africa and turn the continent into a massive consumer market.

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Nissin Foods launched locally sourced sorghum noodles in Nyama Choma flavour in Kenya

The Japanese are preparing the ground to apply their own strengths in Africa. Japanese companies see Africa as a lucrative but daunting challenge — one they would rather tackle with a partner or subsidiary that is familiar with emerging markets.

This, again, is where India comes in. Toyota Motor, Honda Motor, Nissin Foods Holdings and Hitachi all export from their factories in India to Africa. The Japanese government is actively working to help companies make inroads in India as a springboard to Africa.

A couple of years ago, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry compiled a list of potential Indian partner companies with strong African operations in 16 fields, including beverages, consumer goods, retail, electronic parts and auto components. Godrej Group and Marico were among them.

The lessons of the last quarter century are driving a new collaborative strategy. My rupees and yen are on Asia.

Will Direct Access to China-made Goods Disrupt Trade in West Africa’s Consumer Market?

jmsamallThe first e-commerce platform for direct trade of China made products has just been launched in the West African country of Togo. Squeezed together with the Benin Republic between the larger, and better known countries of Nigeria and Ghana, Togo is a small francophone country of around 7 million people. Per the article:

“We want to be the pioneer of e-commerce in Togo and to capitalize on the strong multifaceted cooperation between China and Togo, a premier trade hub country in West Africa”, Yuan Li, founder of JMSA-MALL, told Xinhua Friday in Lomé.

“We are promoting a direct trade of genuine Chinese products with fair price between the African customers and the sellers in China,” he explained.

From electronic devices to farm machines, the platform offers a wide range of Chinese products, which are sold in Togo as well as other countries like Benin, Niger, Ghana and Burkina Faso in the region.

All major credit cards are accepted for payment as well as the local mobile money payment system – Flooz. There’s a generous return policy, and shipments arrive at a local brick and mortar shopfront for pickup and returns. That is, if the item ordered isn’t already available in stock at their local warehouse. Furthermore, JMSA-MALL offers local SMEs an opportunity to sell their wares through their platform. On the surface, this looks good – by cutting out the middleman, they can offer lower prices.

Yacine Bio-Tchane, our Beninois colleague also has a footprint in Lome, Togo. She and I discussed the potential impact of this launch in the local context, as well the broader implications in general. Here are some thoughts:

Will this ‘Direct to Consumer’ (DTC) platform have impact on local traders who travel to China for goods?

Yacine made the observation that since the platform sells everything from electronic devices to farm machines, if some pricey and heavy items are not readily available in Togo but for which there is a demand can be bought online, users will take advantage of that opportunity. Going to China, identifying the right product at a good price and shipping it back to Togo is timely and costly (1). The e-commerce platform significantly reduces transaction costs, which makes it very interesting for local buyers.

Chinese products are known to be cheaper (in price and sometimes quality) than other products so they are highly competitive and accessible to many Togolese, especially given the low purchasing power. If, instead of going to the market and walking around in search of those products, anyone can buy it online, people will prefer doing so. However, while Togo has 67% penetration of mobile phones, less than 10% of the population has access to internet. This implies that few consumers have access to the ecommerce solution but it could trigger an increased use of internet from traders interested in China made goods. Although the article doesn’t say who the top buyers are (nationality), it would not be surprising to see that increase in demand is being pulled by Ghana.

Direct trade of China made goods

On the other hand, given the costs, time, and hassles of going to China to source and ship products back home for sale, this platform might be attractive to local traders themselves, both in Togo, and regionally. As Yacine observes, demand might not be from Togo itself but rather the neighbouring countries. As the founder of the platform says himself, Togo is a critical trade hub in West Africa for China.

China has increased trade and diplomatic relations with Togo in the past decade. It is even said that China has become the first financial partner to the country. Chinese companies operate in industries, agriculture, commerce and construction. They create employment and compete with local companies in selling certain products such as fabrics.

The fact that this e-commerce platform is a B2C marketplace backed by a local warehouse full of China made goods is a signal of this investment. For Yacine, the strongest message the launch of this platform has sent is that the Chinese are fully settled in Togo. That kind of long term investment, coupled with their increased investments in industries is a game changer. China is no more a simple partner coming in for projects but has now become an important actor with influence on consumer behaviour. This is a big pivot in its brand.

west_africa_2_storyGeographically, Togo is well positioned to easily access both anglophone and francophone West Africa. E-commerce has been taking off exponentially in the giant market of Nigeria, but has yet to gain traction in other neighbouring countries. Ivory Coast has seen some gains, but it’s in an early stage. Traditionally, the Chinese have waited for markets to mature before flooding it with their lower priced variations – the mobile phone market is one such example. The launch of this platfrom seems rather early from the e-commerce (and mobile payments) perspective but not from the point of view of global trade and market forces.

China’s manufacturing industries are feeling the pinch of shrinking global trade, and the problems of over capacity. The domestic market has been one major focus for development; this initiative seems like an attempt at creating another. Consumer goods trade between Africa and China has not entirely been under the radar – both African and Chinese airlines were the first to respond to demand. Further, there are other changes afoot that directly impact West Africa, as this recent article from CNN shows:

Over the past 18 months, although concrete numbers are hard to come by, hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of Africans are believed by locals and researchers to have exited Guangzhou.

A dollar drought in oil-dependent West African nations, coupled with China’s hostile immigration policies, widespread racism, and at-once slowing and maturing economy, means Guangzhou is losing its competitive edge. […] As China becomes less profitable, many Africans feel the downsides of living there more acutely.

If the mountain cannot support Mahomet, could it cut costs by building warehouses fronted by online marketplaces? Warehouse centres for China made goods are not new to the African continent, southern Africa has quite a few, while Tanzania’s China funded logistics hub has just been flagged off. The JMALL founder’s opening statement positions Togo as another such ‘trade hub’ in West Africa. Is this e-commerce platform a pilot to test regional B2C marketing cost effectively?

Chinese e-commerce giants like Alibaba have shown the way with their agent led efforts to open up the challenging rural markets of the mainland’s hinterlands. It’s only a matter of time before a different kind of intermediary springs up in Togo (and elsewhere) offering similar agent services to facilitate trade. This time, however, it’ll be from the comfort of their home countries, as they assist traders and consumers with online purchases. Taken together with ongoing investments in mobile money payment systems, financial inclusion initiatives, and the utilization of the agency model – China seems to have grasped an excellent opportunity space to begin exploring.

 

(1) Here’s a documentary following a Congolese trader during her shopping spree in Guangzhou, China, looking to fill her container with tradeable goods. It offers us insight on her customer experience.

This article has been translated into the French by Yacine Bio-Tchané

Platforms that aggregate small businesses can integrate the informal with the formal economy

Continuing my thoughts on Nilekani’s vision introduced in the previous post, I want to use this post to focus on the key element of what captured my imagination from his article “The New Road to Nirvana“:

So manufacturing is squeezed on one side by Chinese overcapacity and on the other side by extreme automation. So the service sector is where the action is.

The era of large companies as we knew them is also over. It will be a world of platforms that aggregate small companies.

Amazon and Flipkart will aggregate goods made by lakhs of vendors and provide a platform to sell them. Similarly, Ola or Uber will aggregate millions of drivers who will work on the platform, Practo will aggregate doctors and patients and so on. Aggregation by platforms is the way that jobs creation will happen.

This platform aggregation will also lead to formalisation of the economy. India’s economy is largely informal. But once, say, a taxi driver becomes part of Ola, then in fact he becomes part of the formal economy.

He is able to use data, get a loan, buy a car, start paying taxes. So the formalisation of a few hundred millions of Indians will spur growth and that is where our focus should be.

My larger point is that it is now all about domestic not export, services not manufacturing and platform aggregation not big companies.

I will be writing further on this concept and exploring its implications for the African context, particularly East Africa.

 

The Kenyan informal sector’s well-trodden paths of upward mobility

IMG_4417Studying the dynamics of the informal economy of a particular region in Western Kenya has been an eye opening exercise in questioning one’s own assumptions and frameworks. Other times, I noticed answers to questions I’d never even thought of asking (an outcome of holding implicit assumptions).

One of these was career paths and ambitions.

The most obvious paths are the ones with tangible indicators of upward mobility. You begin with the bicycle, adding a cushioned seat at the back, and dream of purchasing a motorcycle, which can also double as a micro distributor at the last mile of delivery. Then, you dream of a car and taxi.

I was wrong. The decision to select one’s choice of vehicle is a professional one, and each of these transportation mechanisms is a distinctly separate cluster of owner/entrepreneurs. There isn’t much cross vehicle mobility as you’d imagine. There are older gentlemen who preferred the simplicity and the low running costs of a bicycle, saying that anything one earned after a big solid breakfast in the morning was pure profit.

However, this is not to say that the fundamental paths to expansion and growth of opportunities were as closed. They are just different from what we imagine, looking on from the outside, and the drivers for decision making are fundamentally characterized by the patterns of flow of time and money in the informal/rural economy.

For instance, in Malaba and Busia on the western Kenya/eastern Uganda border, one does not begin in Malaba. For the penniless youth emerging from his father’s shamba deep interior where no tarmac goes, its Busia that provides the facility to earn seed capital. They call this kibarua, and there’s a yard near the truck loading docks where they can join the available pool of labour. Its the first step to earning an income in the economy the world calls informal. Women prefer to grow something to sell – be it chickens, eggs or a wide variety of fruits and veg. One lady sells partially treated roots and branches that’s the seed for locally brewed beer.

Once one has amassed some cash, one can buy stock to sell, or invest in a growth vehicle for cash flow. A dairy cow is a growth vehicle, with almost daily cash flow. The challenge for growth on the farm is lack of cash money. Women dominate the informal wholesale and retail trade, just as they’ve been documented to do in West Africa. They are newcomers to trade, having been noticed in this region only in the past 10 or 15 years. They’re smarter, shrewder, and know how to leverage their extensive social networks. They are a growing demographic, particularly in Kenya, Uganda, eastern DRC, South Sudan, and Rwanda. Burundians, it seems, are happy to live on their farms and let their Rwandan friends do the hard work of buying and selling them stuff.

Then, one can move from tabletop sales into retail and wholesale. Its an interesting example of leapfrogging the middle income trap – by the time the market woman with a cloth covered with merchandise can grow her stock to rent a permanent store, she has also become a micro-wholesaler who will break bulk down to the smallest denominations for her micro retail customers to sell on their tables and mats.

Their next ambition is to become that micro-region (a radii of 50km) re-distributor. That is, by the business practices of the global FMCG majors, they want to be registered and counted. The local Coca Cola distributor has probably a hundred such wholesalers scattered around a 100km radius. The scale of operations is limited by the cost of fuel and transport.

Now, many who don’t wish for the extensive groundwork that the former ambition requires, move on to trade from Malaba. Its where the larger regional trade flows take place, not just the multiple micro-crossings of Busia (which by the way annually cross 33 million US dollars). In just one border market, there’s annual biashara worth $5 to 10 million. There will be one or two outliers to this due to natural and geographic advantages.

The energy of biashara is obvious in the market. And every market day along the better roads, the scale of trade was far more than anywhere upcountry, even the roads to Nyeri and Nanyuki. These trading ties go back centuries to before the white man came and the kings of the Buganda loved teh stuff the Indian Ocean traders brought to the Swahili Coast.

The best paid profession is that of a long distance trucker. Yet, intriguingly, young men aspire to reach this position only to acquire the networks of a broker and to retire from the dangerous business of driving heavy inflammable loads for a living.

There many such paths to live a good enough life, educate the kids in town, take care of mums back home on the homestead. The informal economy does indeed offer the lowest barriers to entry into business.

 

Reframing the informal sector in the African consumer market: The real African middle class

malishopThis is Ruth’s shop, on the side of the highway, approximately 5km on the road to Kisumu, from Busia in western Kenya. Not quite directly part of the borderland’s economy, that trades incessantly with each other, these businesses still manage to feed off the energy of the hustle and bustle of biashara, as it flows through the complex webs, as seen by Walther in W/Africa.

Her home, abutting her husband’s wholesale business in soft drinks (they’re registered with Coca Cola) is next door to her shop, hidden in this photograph. She buys a minimum of 10,000 shillings of goods each Thursday, just from Bungoma, and that’s only one of her many source markets. The malimali shop is the village general store or variety store. The 5 and 10 mashed with a mini department store. We bought two of her sandals. I would have paid $7 in Singapore for them and it only cost $1.80. They were made in Kenya, I think.

This is the sign of the emerging middle class that the bean counters can’t find in their datasets. This class of business abounds in the small market towns dotting the countryside and the economically stronger parts in the interior. They are wholesalers and retailers, sometimes both, as nobody wants to turn away a customer, no matter how small their wallet might be. Its an inclusive market and one that we might learn something from. It sometimes has a feeling of a socially responsible capimercantilist society.

Bright Simons was the first to point this fact out, in HBR a few years ago. He was right, as I’ve just validated through a recently completed study on the rural/urban economic linkage in western Kenya.