Archive for the ‘emerging futures’ Category

Lessons from the Informal Economy: Managing on Irregular Payments in the Gig Economy

Last week, an unusual report was released in Great Britain. Lloyds Banking Group (LBG), together with the Resolution Foundation, addressed the question of earnings volatility in the UK, a first for a developed country with a formal economy. Their research and analysis made use of anonymised transaction data from over seven million LBG accounts. That is, technically speaking, the financially included in the erstwhile first world.

To their surprise, accustomed as they were to only considering income changes on an annual basis, three-quarters of all workers did not receive the same paycheck from month to month – the problem being most acute for low-paid workers in the gig economy or on zero-hours contracts.

As the Guardian, when reporting on the household financial management behaviour of gig economy workers discovers:

The Resolution Foundation found that for those on the lowest annual incomes, the average monthly fluctuation in pay was £180 – which can make the difference between paying the rent or feeding the family.

As my research over the past decade, on the financial management behaviour of the lower income demographic (also known in older publications as the Bottom or Base of the Pyramid) in the informal and rural economies of developing countries has found, irregular and unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources is the norm.

What is different here, however, are the coping mechanisms.

Many are forced to turn to crippling payday loans or high-cost credit cards to make it through to the end of the month

In the developed country context such as the UK, gig economy and lower income workers have no recourse to customary and established coping mechanisms that can be seen across the developed world, from rural Philippines to upcountry Kenya.

Seasonality in rural regions, closely intertwined with the natural year and its direct impact on farming activities is a recognized and known fact of life. Incomes are seen to change by as much as 50% between the high and the low seasons. And, among urban traders and merchants, festivals and harvests mean peak consumer activity, and everyone prepares for the rush.

Knowing this, the informal economic ecosystem leverages social networks and trusted relationships to carry them through hard times and the low seasons; looking forward to the peak sales periods and the harvests to cover the difference. Numerous risk mitigation behaviours and coping mechanisms are established within households, customized to rural and urban contexts, as well as the context of the primary income source. These were the same coping mechanisms heard to be in use among India’s informal sector when hit by the liquidity crunch of the demonetization of 2016.

Just the way you can purchase one single cigarette or a 100 grams of shredded cabbage, depending on what you have in your pocket, you can find ways to adapt your daily lifestyle to your income in the flexible, negotiable, and reciprocal people’s economy of the Global South. The informal economy’s commercial operating environment is designed to maintain the dignity of their customer base.

These options are not available in the UK, or other developed and advanced nations of the Global North. Thus, gig economy workers forced to manage on unpredictable and irregular income streams from a variety of sources in the formal economy struggle to afford their groceries and expenses. In fact, I’d be curious to know if prepaid mobile subscribers (pay as you go) are increasing in proportion to the precariousness of employment and volatility of income discovered by the analysts at Lloyds.

If, as the researchers at the Centre for Global Development have found, the gig economy and the informal economy are the present, and the future of work in Africa, then there are lessons from the established customs and coping mechanisms which can inform beneficial solutions and tools for the developed world, for the UK, and for the Global North.

It’s time we recognized the truth about the future of work in Africa: it isn’t in the growth of full-time formal sector jobs. The future of work will be people working multiple gigs with “somewhat formal” entities. This is already true, and it will be for the foreseeable future.

This is true for the whole world now, not just Africa. And, it will change the way we think of platform design, payment plans, as well as policy frameworks, for our near and emerging future.

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

Source: CHI2007 “Reach Beyond”

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.

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.

Berlin’s sustainable lifestyle is our emerging future

Workshop on making your kitchen sustainable, Berlin, 4th August 2018

Berlin is to an environmentally conscious, renewable energy, sustainable ecologically friendly lifestyle what Tokyo’s Harajuku Girls used to be to fast fashion. The pioneer, the path breaker, the evidence of quality of life balanced with conservation. I envy Berliners their city. It is a world city and its still affordable.

Bio is mainstream, not an organic premium, and at the airport the plastic bottle of water was priced 4 times as much as water in a recyclable cardboard container.

There’s no mountains to climb in order to live with a smaller footprint, more leisure time, the calm re-ordering of priorities, the half day off in the sun taking the toddlers to the public fountain to splash and play. This was my introduction to Berlin.

City dwellers would recognize the simplified hyperbole of a short term visitor attempting to grasp the entire sense of the city in a few short days, but forward looking companies, startups, spaces, and people abound. If a “Silicon Valley” of Germany emerges, it will be Berlin.

Rocket Internet is already headquartered there as are any number of startups. The ecosystem is so mature that its hiving off into narrower and narrower specialities. All of which is a good thing to happen as the range and diversity of sustainable solutions that meet the bar of a bunch of EU certifications and regulations is now wide enough and broad enough to show clear patterns of consumer behaviour transformation.

Its almost like Berlin is the living example of the Post Climate Hoax Adapt Immediately era, and its clearly an economically viable and feasible one. And nobody’s apologizing for eating less meat and more vegetables.

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