Archive for the ‘Emerging Markets’ Category

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.

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.

Is Your Product Ready for Africa? Why Kigali’s “Smart” Project Faces an Unforeseen Challenge

However, KTRN boss agreed that they share responsibility since they never conducted a profound market research to determine whether the gadgets are compatible with African weather.

“We sincerely didn’t realize that the weather would affect the gadgets”~ Public Buses Wi-fi: Harsh Weather, Incompatible Gadgets Interrupt Kigali’s ‘Smart’ Project, KT Press, 16th October 2017

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across a Korean device manufacturer completely unprepared for the exigencies of the African operating environment. Do we simply hear less about the robustness of Chinese electronic devices, for instance, or do we hold them to a lower standard? That’s a conversation for another day as its an entire screed in itself.

Here, I’ll just introduce our simple framework for ensuring you’ve covered all the bases when developing a new product for a market with very different conditions from your existing ones. Perhaps, it may provide food for thought for both the procurement side of the equation, when thinking about technical specifications and requirements, as well as the potential supplier side, when thinking about entering the African market.

Place: Feasibility

…inadequate infrastructure is a fact of life. Whether is variability in electricity supply in the urban context or lack of it in the rural. Things we take for granted in the operating environment in which these lenses were first framed – pipes full of running water, stable and reliable power, affordable, clean fuel for cooking, credit cards and bank accounts – are either scarce, inadequate or unreliable for the most part.

Feasibility, thus, takes on an entirely different meaning in this context. Each location or region (place) may have different facilities.

This rather obvious oversight has tripped up much larger manufacturers than this. Consider Whirlpool.

Emerging new markets, such as Rwanda’s, are rapidly adopting the latest technology. Is your product up for the challenge?

Absolute Numbers 2007-2017: The “Developing” World Now Dominates the Internet


Traditionally, the data on ICT usage across the world tends to be presented proportionally – per capita usage, or penetration in the form of percentage of population. This made sense 10 years ago, when the world had just begun to notice the rapid growth of mobile phone adoption in developing regions. The typical example shown above was extremely popular – many of you will recognize it – Africa was outstripping the world in phone sales, and the prepaid business model had opened the floodgates.

At this time, however, devices were still at the feature phone stage, and Nokia owned the market. Voice and SMS were the real time communication disruptors, and smartphones only just entered the public consciousness. Internet penetration was still in the future.

Recently, however, I came across current data on internet usage presented in absolute numbers – shown above – of people online. The difference is rather stark, when compared to the proportional representation – see below.

Not only are the next two billion online, but the absolute numbers re-order the regions in a very different way. Asia leads the world online, and even Africa ranks higher than North America. Here’s the same data presented, by region, as a pie chart.

The distortion created by proportional or per capita presented skews the true landscape of the actual human beings who are using the internet. Ten years ago, this might have made sense given the passive content consumption nature of much of the early world wide web.

Today, given the dominance of social media, and the frictionless ability for anyone to share their thoughts, their photos, or their music video, its the absolute numbers that actually make a difference. There is more content available in Mandarin than in English, though we may not know it, and there are more Africans talking to each other every morning than there are North Americans.

I’ll be following up with more writing on the implications of this historic decade in human history – between 2007 and 2017, the long awaited next billion not only came online, but began showing us how to disrupt everything from cross border payments, to cryptocurrency adoption. They are my hope for a more peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable future for our grandchildren.

Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity

There are two key elements which underpin the dynamics of any business or commercial enterprise in the informal sector. These are Time and Money.

A generalized framework can be diagrammed, as shown above, where the dotted line denotes the degree of uncertainty and volatility of an individual’s cash flow patterns – whether from a variety of informal economic activities – such as for the farmer or trader; or from the salary received for a white collar job. The X axis – Time – denotes the increasing accuracy of estimating the Arrival date of a cash payment (from some revenue source), and the Y axis – Amount – denotes the increasing accuracy of estimating the Amount that will arrive. Their relative ability to estimate Arrival and Amount with any degree of accuracy is indicative of their ability to forecast and plan for expenditure.

Thus, at one end of the continuum, one can position an odd jobs labourer who may or may not get paid work on any given day, and is unable to predict with any degree of certainty what type of job he’ll get selected for, nor for how many days it will last. It could be as basic as loading a truck for half a day’s pay, which in turn might even be in kind, and not cash. And, at the other end of this continuum, one can position a the typical white collar salaried professional or civil servant who knows with certainty exactly on which day they will receive the salary and exactly how much will arrive.


Positioning and Location

Now, we can frame these two elements of the commercial operating environment in the form of a position map, as shown above, that maps the ability to plan expenditures against the stability of the cash flow. The red arrow is the continuum of certainty and stability of Timing and Amount of an income stream, anchored by the most vulnerable odd jobs labourer at one end and the relatively most secure salaried professional at the other.

Where it gets interesting is the relatively liminal space in the middle where the various economic actors in the informal economy constantly shift position as they seek to mitigate the volatility of their income streams, through a variety of mechanisms. Much of their decision making is related to their own perception of uncertainty and ability to forecast.

For the purpose of this explanatory diagram, I have selected 4 typical examples drawn from different sectors of the informal economy common in the developing country context. Each are at the more vulnerable end of their own segments i.e. a subsistence farmer, rather than one with an established cash crop; or a small roadside kiosk rather than an established general merchandise store in a market town; since they have not yet achieved the goal of their business development strategies to move their own entrepreneural ventures towards relative stability, and thus provide more insight on the relationship between cash flow patterns and investment and expenditure planning.

The hawker of goods at a traffic light or junction is in a comparatively more fragile situation than the kiosk owner with a fixed location who works to develop relationships with passing customers in order to convert them to regulars at her store. Unlike the kiosk, which might be located near a busy bus stop, or outside a densely populated gated community; the hawker cannot predict which cars will pause at the red light as he darts through traffic shouting his wares. However, compared to the odd jobs labourer, the hawker has comparatively more control over his income generation since his is not a passive function of waiting to be picked from the labour pool in a truckyard or construction site.

The smallholder farmer might actually be better off economically in many ways than his urban brethren involved in informal retail, being able to live off the land more cheaply than in the city. Experienced farmers, for the most part, are able to predict with reasonable accuracy, more or less the quantity of their crop, and the estimated timing of the harvest. However, his sense of uncertainty is often perceptually greater due to the unmitigatable impact of adverse weather conditions, or the sudden infestation of a pest or blight, any of which could at any time completely destroy his harvest, and thus, his expectations. This sense of insecurity in turn influences his decisions on expense commitments to far ahead in time, or too large a lumpsum at some point outside of his regional harvest season. The farmer’s income streams are relatively more out of his control than the disposable income in the pockets of the kiosk’s customer base.

The market woman with her display of fresh produce, at the entry level of inventory investment capacity, might only have one or two different varieties of vegetables or fruit to sell, and may not yet have established a permanent structure – a table, a kiosk – in the market. She might start off with only a tarpaulin on the ground with some tomatoes and onions for sale. Unlike the traffic intersection hawker, however, she is more likely to begin by assuming a regular placement and location as this establishes the foundation for her future business development, through the factors of discoverability and predictability among the customers in that locale.

That is, in addition to Timing and Amount of Income – the cash flow patterns and sources – we begin to see the role played by location – Place1, as a supporting element of the commercial activity in the informal economy. While farmers are least likely to have much control over the location of the land they may inherit, their risk mitigation strategies to minimize volatility of their income streams and maximize their ability to plan for the future and manage emergencies will be discussed in depth in the section2 on rural household financial management. These practices are the foundation of business development strategies commonly observed in the informal economy in developing countries which tend to be less urbanized, and as is often the case, more dependent on agriculture as a component of national GDP.


1 People, Pesa, Place: A Multidisciplinary Lens on Innovating in Emerging Markets
2 Rural Household Financial Behaviour on Irregular Income Streams at the Base of the Pyramid

Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment

This topic is being shared in the form of a collection of essays on the following themes, each becoming hyperlinked on completion. Do bookmark this page for regular updates.

Introduction to Background and Context, some caveats apply
Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity
Rural household financial management as a foundation
Linkages and Networks span Urban and Rural Markets
Underlying Principles for Financial and Social Contracts in the Informal Economy
Informal Sector Business Development Strategies and Objectives
Why A Blanket Approach to Formalization is not a Panacea
Disaggregating and Segmenting the Informal Sectors
The Journey to Formalization Cannot be Leapfrogged


Creating Economic Value by Design (John Heskett, IJD 2009)
Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy (IDRC, 2009)
More or Less: The Fundamental Principle of Flexibility” Slides (Informal Economy Symposium, 2012)
A Comprehensive Analysis of the Literature on Informal Cross Border Trade in East Africa (TMEA, 2016)

Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy in Asia

This is the original working paper of the research conducted on rural household financial management, in developing country conditions, pioneering the use of methods from human centered design for discovery, during Nov 2008 to March 2009, aka the Prepaid Economy Project. It was peer reviewed by Brett Hudson Matthews, and I have incorporated his comments into the PDF.

This research study was carried out with the aid of a grant from the iBoP Asia Project (, a partnership between the Ateneo School of Government and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (

The abstract:

The challenge faced by Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) ventures has been the lack of knowledge about their intended target audience from the point of view of business development whereas decades of consumer research and insights are available for conventional markets. What little is known about the BoP’s consumer behaviour, purchasing patterns and decision making tends to assume that there are no primary differences between mainstream consumers and the BoP except for the amount of their income – pegged most often between $2 to $5 a day.

In practice, the great majority at the BoP manage on incomes earned from a variety of sources rather than a predictable salary from a regular job and have little or no access to conventional financial tools such as credit cards, bank accounts, loans, mortgages. This is one of the biggest differentiators in the challenge of value creation faced by BoP ventures, particularly among rural populations (over 60% of the global BoP population lives in rural areas).

Exploratory research was conducted in the field among rural Indian and rural Filipino populations in order to understand how those on irregular incomes managed their household expenses. Empirical data collected by observations, interviews and extended immersion led us to identify patterns of behaviour among the rural BoP in their management of income and expenditure, ‘cash flow’ and ‘working capital’ and the significance of social capital and community networks as financial tools. Practices documented include ‘conversion to goods’, ‘stored wealth’, ‘cashless transactions’, and reliance on multiple sources of income that mature over different times.

This paper will share our observations from the field; identify some challenges these behaviours create for business and also explore some opportunities for value creation by seeking to articulate the elements that BoP ventures must address if they are to do business profitably with the rural ‘poor’ based on their own existing patterns of financial habits and norms.

The Conclusion:

In sum, it can be concluded that the challenges for value creation can be quite different for BoP ventures interested in addressing the rural markets. From the observations made in the field, we can highlight three key implications for business development. These are:

  • Seasonality – with the exception of the salaried, everyone else in the sample pool was able to identify times of abundance and scarcity over the course of natural year in their earnings. Identification of a particular region or market’s local pattern of seasonality would benefit the design of payment schedules, timing of entry or new product and service launch, for example.
  • Relative lack of liquidity – The majority of the rural households observed tended to ‘store wealth’ in the form of goods, livestock or natural resources, relying on a variety of cashless transactions within the community for a number of needs. Conventional business development strategies need to be reformulated to take this into account as these patterns of behaviour may reflect the household’s purchasing power or income level inaccurately.
  • Increasing the customer’s span of control over the timing, frequency and amount of cash required – Since the availability and amount of cash cannot be predicted on calendar time, this implication is best reflected by the success of the prepaid mobile phone subscriptions in these same markets. When some cash is available, it can be used to purchase airtime minutes for text or voice calls, when there is no money, the phone can still receive incoming calls. Models which impose an external schedule of periodicity, frequency and amount of cash required may not always be successful in matching the volatile cash flow particular to each household’s sources of income.

On the relationship between economics and design

This is an extract from the Introduction to John Heskett’s seminal paper, “Creating Economic Value by Design

The work of Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate in Economics in 1978, is a rare exception of design being considered as a factor in economic theory. His starting point was acknowledging that the world we inhabit is increasingly artificial, created by human beings. For Simon (1981), design was not restricted to making material artefacts, but was a fundamental professional competence extending to policy-making and practices of many kinds and on many levels:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences. (p.129)

Implicit in Simon’s reasoning is an emphasis on design as a thought-process underpinning all kinds of professional activities; yet the varied skills through which design is manifested are not discussed. He did indicate, however, why design is so rarely considered in economic theory. Economics, he stated, works on three levels, those of the individual; the market; and the entire economy (p. 31). The centre of interest in traditional economics, however, is markets and not individuals or businesses (p. 37). A serious problem is thereby raised at the outset: two important considerations relating to design—how goods and services are developed for the market place and how they are used—receive scant attention.

I was lucky enough to both work with him as a colleague as well as attend his classes in Design Policy and Design Planning & Market Forces as his student. I’ve been diving into my notes and his lectures of late as I wrestle with my theorizing on what I’ve been calling Biashara Economics, whose earliest avatar was the prepaid economy project of 2008/9.