Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

The African Informal Sector: GDP Contribution vs Scale of Human Impact

The informal economy in sub Saharan Africa (SSA) tends to be measured as a share of GDP, counting its contribution to the national economy. By this metric, Nigeria has the most economically empowered informal sector, contributing over 60% to the GDP. On the other extreme, South Africa, has one of the smallest contributions to the GDP from the informal sector, but the highest unemployment rate.

Yet both Nigeria and South Africa are neck to neck when it comes to the title of “largest economy on the African continent”, or place in the top 3. So what does this tell us about these IMF metrics being used to measure the informal sector?

The human impact story is missing from the equations

South Africa might have one of the smallest informal sectors in terms of contribution to their GDP, but the number of people generating their income from the informal sector is almost as large as Tanzania, whose informal sector contribution is more than double, second only to Nigeria.

WIEGO’s research, from which the above employment figures are drawn, highlights the social impact and scale of the informal sector in human terms. Already, the informal sector’s employment opportunities are growing faster than the much smaller formal sectors in most major African economies. New graduates and working age adults still need to find a way to put food on the table.

Its not enough to simply look at GDP contribution when it comes to the complex value embedded (and untapped) in the informal economies of these nations. Where social safety nets are scarce, and systems variable in their functioning, the human and social impact of the informal cannot be ignored in development planning and policy design.

Why the African Consumer Market is NOT the same as the African Middle Class

Consumer goods store, Kilgoris, Kenya (March 2012)

The biggest challenge faced by consumer facing companies looking at the African Consumer Market is the age old positioning of the “middle class” as the ideal target audience. This middle class is segmented by the same attributes as the original middle classes who formed the consumer markets of the developed world.

This is the outside of the same store. Its located in a town called Kilgoris, situated at the edge of densely populated Kisii in western Kenya, and the sparse land of the nomadic Maasai pastoralists.

When you consider the range, the variety, and the price of the products displayed for sale, and compare it to the small dusty town with just one modern building, you wouldn’t imagine that solar panels worth USD 200 or Sony Bravia flatscreen TVs would be selling like hotcakes. But they do.

No dealer in a heavily cash based consumer market such as upcountry Kenya would tie up his working capital in expensive consumer electronics if there wasn’t a demand for it that meant the products sold quickly enough to keep the cash flowing in. My assumptions were completely upturned by this shopkeeper’s insights – it was the Maasai making purchases after attending the weekly livestock market.

A maasai manyatta Source:

They’d pack 6 foot long solar panels, flat screen TVs, and satellite dishes onto the tops of hired trucks and take them off to their thornbush and mud manyattas. Yet neither you nor I would classify them by any of the traditional marketing department’s attributes as being part of the “middle class” consumer segment.

On the other hand, they were undeniably part of the African consumer market, and as the shopkeeper informed us, they were not only willing to spend on their homes, regardless of what they looked like from the outside, they could afford the best that he had to offer. He showed us his entire stock of kitchen appliances, water filters, jugs, mugs, and even children’s toys and fake flowers from Dubai! It is dealers like this who know best what their customers want and they range as far away as Nairobi to obtain the products in demand.

But I wonder if the marketers and the analysts still seeking the middle class have a clue about this huge market invisible to their eyes? And, whether, they’re looking in the right places?

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.



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.

A Unique Path to Development Seen for the Informal Economy

Just recently I stumbled over this slim book < 60 pages that analyzed existing data sources in order to frame an answer to the research question they posed:

How did the informal economy―markets and the private sector―develop in the absence of legal and administrative frameworks to support it?

Some of the most intriguing insights extracted here:

And they echo my own statements regarding the East African Community that its the informal sector that’s growing faster and responsible for employing the majority of the population. This makes integration and bridging efforts between the formal and global together with the local and informal even more critical.

The path to integration as described in the book may not apply to the African economies but holds some unusual insights for those in eastern Europe which may struggle with some of the same issues of top down planning and grassroots income generation.

All in all, the step by step approach over the past decade to recognize, and thus integrate the informal sector was much appreciated and if you’re interested, you can download the book here.

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

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.

2017 is the Year Mobile Service Operators Became Banks

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

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

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

Photograph of Nairobi billboard taken January 2016 by Niti Bhan

Blowin’ in the Wind – perspective, May 2007

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

Pondering the Mobile Innovation Divide – perspective, December 2007

African Potential meets Indian Experience – perspective, May 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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