Archive for the ‘Emerging Markets’ Category

Rural Household Financial Management on Irregular Incomes

While all farms are not alike, and scale and variety and geography differs, the pattern of household financial management holds its fundamental logic across continents.

click to expand image

As we saw previously, an experienced farmer tends to fall somewhere in between a salaried employee and an odd job labourer in their ability to predict with any reasonable degree of accuracy when they might expect cash income to arrive and approximately how much. They are able to estimate the quantum of the crop, and when it will be ready to harvest. They may already have buyers or a market.

However, in practice, farmers rarely rely solely on these infrequent lump sums for managing their household finances – a big harvest once or twice a year, maybe three times depending on the crops and the local geography. Instead, they manage on sophisticated portfolio of investments, each maturing over different periods of time, as a way to mitigate risk, as well as smoothen out cash flows over the course of the natural year, and minimize the impact of uncertainty or shock. The drivers for these goals are the foundation for the variety of business practices observed across sectors in the informal economies of the developing world.

You will find even the humblest farmer, as long as he owns the patch of land on which his homestead is built, even if his fields may be further away, doing some or all of a combination of these activities to manage his income stream over the course of the natural year. I will explain the basics, and then give examples from different regions.

Managing A Portfolio of Investments based on “Time and Money”

The illustration above captures our attempt to map the various cash flow patterns from the farmer’s portfolio of investments. Consider each cluster of elements as a “deposit” with varying times of maturity for cashing out, as the need may be. For example, cows give milk which can be sold for almost daily cash returns, as can the eggs from chickens. The fresh produce from the kitchen garden matures far more quickly than staples such as maize or beans. And, if there is a cash crop such as tea or coffee, this may taken an entire year for the harvest to be monetized. At the same time, various farmyard animals are invested into when young, maturing over time for sale, as an emergency cushion or for earmarked expenses such as annual school fees.

Thus, over the course of the year, cash arrives in hand with varying degrees of frequency, and periodicity, thus ensuring the farm’s ability to manage regular household expenditure on a more or less regular basis, even though there are no predictable wages. Nor, is the farmer burdened with credit and debt over the time whilst waiting for her 2 or 3 major harvest seasons.

Variance in regional seasonality influences coping mechanisms

While the foundational framework of the farmstead’s domestic financial managment remains the same, regional differences due to geography, and thus seasonality, influence crop choices, number of harvests, and the details of the coping mechanisms selected by the farmer to manage her financial portfolio.

For instance, in rural Philippines, in the rice growing Visayas islands, only well situated farms benefit from three rain fed rice harvests a year whilst the majority must manage on two. Thus, farmers invest in piglets, calves, or even cull chicks for nurturing into fighting cockerels which sell for more than 10 times the price of a regular chicken. They stock firewood, coconut husk, and supplement their cash money needs through petty retail during the low season.

In rural Malawi, outside of Blantyre, the farmwife who is a member of beekeeper’s cooperative, distills traditional wine for sales 2 to 3 times a week, boosting her cash flow frequency instead of waiting for the annual honey harvest.

Minimizing volatility to enable financial planning

Thus, we can see that even under conditions of uncertainty, farmers have established the means to manage their household expenses, including periodic ones such as school fees or loan repayments, on irregular and unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources. Their sophisticated portfolio of investments contain “deposits” that mature over varying times, for different amounts, and their planning, thus, goes into ensuring that the volatility between income and outgoing expenses is kept to a minimum.

Next, we will see how less agriculturally dependent sectors of the informal economy base their financial management patterns on the rural economy’s foundation of portfolio management.

 

Collected Works
Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment – Links to organized series of articles on the topic

Will the global trade war lead to more sustainable (and local) consumer products?

In a study titled “Competing In the Age of Multi-Localism”, ATKearney said mounting trade tariffs and other pressures have upended the global strategy – think mass-market production and achieving economies of scale – that has been a business hallmark since the early 1990s.

“It’s no longer a viable strategy for many companies,” the study said. “The age of multi-localism has arrived.”

The above snippet is from a recent Forbes article and caught my attention immediately. The implications for global value chains, not to mention product development, manufacturing, and the logistics of distribution are enormous.

“A one-size-fits-all business strategy across markets appears to be more unworkable now than ever,” the study said.

Its taken a wee bit more than a decade, but this is possibly the best news I’ve heard in a long time. The report from AT Kearney is available here and my previous musings on emerging markets, globalization, and product development can be found here.

This conversation with continue.

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

Source: CHI2007 “Reach Beyond” http://www.chi2007.org/attend/plenaries.php

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.

IKEA in India: Culture Centered Design Strategy

Its taken more than 10 years for single brand retail stores to enter the Indian market, and this year sees India’s first IKEA opening in Hyderabad. TS Ninan introduced their retail challenge succinctly, though he left me wanting more. And this snippet from an interview with the market opening CEO of IKEA in India (who, having laid the groundwork for 6 years, has now left – an interesting and thoughtful strategy right there imo) caught my attention.

In Europe, businesses look at the past, their systems and processes to plan ahead. India does not have a legacy. People don’t look backwards. Here you create the future as you go

Was IKEA’s product, design, and brand strategy going to be as human centered as reports of their 1000 home visits made it seem, or, as the groundbreaker Juvencio Maeztu implies, committing to India means a “culture centered strategy” – that too, one that is customized for each different culture, centered around a metropolitan area. For those who think India is a country, I like to remind them that its closer in concept to the EU, its a single market and currency, but each city has its own languages, culture, cuisine, and clothing, not to mention each state.

Ikea’s global designers meet artisans in co-creation workshops to handhold local artisans design products that meet global quality and design standards.via

I see familiar names in the design article. And I do like the photographs though I recognize my eye is taken aback because the years in Finland have influenced my aesthetic sensibilities closer to the Nordic norm. What I can say is that if this what the Swedes came up with after distilling down their hundreds of home visits, its an excellent integration of two extremes of design language. IKEA will have fun in India, and I suspect they intend to. The takeaway for culture centered design isn’t that “India” will receive one singular design aesthetic or product line but that each one of India’s cultures, both traditional and modern, will be catered to. That is powerful.

Moving from Unbranded to Branded

There’s a larger story here as well. The changes occurring in the Indian consumer market, for instance, and the increase in aspiration, purchasing power, and most importantly, design sensibilities. Back in 1990, during my first job after leaving the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, I faced barriers to marketing industrial design services that I suspect don’t even exist now. Product design was imitable and not something one paid good money for oneself. There were corporates who understood our value as a design studio but they were few and far between. Now, IKEA’s entry isn’t into a completely untapped market – there’s competition that’s been born in the last decade, both online and off. And, finally, there’s the handmade artisanal informal sector, who have long copied IKEA products from hand me down catalogs. On the other hand, unlike most consumer brands entering the Indian (or the African market) IKEA recognizes the competition offered by the informal (unorganized, as its known in India) economy, and seems to have addressed it.

What’s interesting about the Wharton analysis from October 2017, is that all the issues it raises seem to have been covered now that IKEA is finally revealing its India strategy as the first store prepares to open this month.

Unlike my concerns back in 2006/7, this time I’m a lot more confident that IKEA will achieve something wholly unexpected in India. I look forward to visiting.

The comparative global impact of Alibaba vs. Amazon

Alibaba Business School and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) brought 29 young entrepreneurs from 11 countries across Africa to the Alibaba campus in Hangzhou, China for the third eFounders Fellowship cohort.

Chinese corporate soft power influence is production driven, not consumption focused. Alibaba, the e-commerce giant with digital payment tentacles, has been graduating cohorts of young entrepreneurs from Asia and Africa this past year. This initiative is the outcome from Jack Ma’s seminal visit to Nairobi last year, when thousands of young Kenyans waited for him in the sun.

Photo Credit: Abdishakur Mohammed, July 2017, University of Nairobi grounds, Kenya

He talks about entrepreneurship in a digital world, and personally shows up to meet visiting cohorts to talk about taking the lessons learnt from e-commerce in the most challenging environments in China (rural, mobile, social) back home to their own not dissimilar operating environments.

Contrast this with the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Amazon these days – a desperate workforce unable to take a leak, afraid to lose their low waged jobs as worker bees in a humongous warehouse. It keeps prices down and the consumption that runs the billions flowing, but whom does it benefit beyond the shareholders?

It struck me when I saw the news about “Alibaba Global Leadership Academy” that Chinese soft power was increasingly about driving production and growth aka development along their entire value chain, even among putative new consumer markets, whilst the American model was still stuck in a consumption driven mindset of the 1980s first wave of globalization. Buy more cola, wear our jeans, use our credit card, say the American brands in Jakarta or Accra or Nairobi.

The difference in mindset is stark when you think about the tech giants of Silicon Valley looking to uplift with low cost connectivity and internet basics for free, and compare to the Chinese giants thinking about raising the purchasing power first. The english language media would have you believe its all about neo-colonialism for natural resources, but the recent shifts in tactics and strategy seem to imply a less demoralizing mindset than anything evidenced by charitable good works handing out goodies to the downtrodden. Because whatever the agenda, the bottomline will be that at end of the exercise there will be a group left inspired to build their own markets on their mobiles, versus a group left holding a palliative goodie.

“My experience here has shifted my thinking. Before, we were focused on pleasing the investors, but now I see the importance of putting our customers first, then my employees, then the investors,” said Andreas Koumato, 26, from Chad , the founder of Mossosouk, an e-commerce platform. “Let others [benefit], then later, we will gain.”

Production driven social impact is far more powerful than consumption driven. Human centered productivity even more so.

Primer on African Fintech: Myths, Misconceptions, Opportunities, Hotspots and Roadblocks

As we prepare to start work for our third African fintech client, I thought it was time to quickly and briefly introduce the opportunity space and clear up some misunderstandings around fintech in Africa.

  • The first point is the common confusion between Fintech and financial inclusion. Investopedia’s definition of Fintech says financial inclusion, that is, affordable and accessible financial services to the underserved and unbanked is only one of the many areas fintech is actively addressing. While technology helps provide cheaper solutions for emerging markets such as those on the African continent, all fintech cannot be said to be equivalent to financial inclusion.
  • This leads us to a clarification on what exactly is Fintech. I prefer to quote Investopedia since the entry in Wikipedia defines it as the industry itself. “Fintech is a portmanteau of financial technology that describes an emerging financial services sector in the 21st century. Originally, the term applied to technology applied to the back-end of established consumer and trade financial institutions. Since the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the term has expanded to include any technological innovation in the financial sector, including innovations in financial literacy and education, retail banking, investment and even crypto-currencies.
  • Thus, while financial inclusion is a key untapped opportunity space for fintech innovation of all kinds, there are numerous other opportunities along the entire value chain of financial service provision both B2B and B2C, including intermediary services, which are ripe for disruption in the African context.
  • Beyond the conventional preference for disruption of the existing context, there are as many if not more opportunities for meeting the unmet needs of African businesses and consumers. History, geography, economics and conventional wisdom have together combined to create a vacuum of solutions and services that address the unique circumstances of the African operating environment which still tends to be heavily cash dependent and is described commonly as “informal”. And this commercial environment has lagged in custom designed tools and services for small business productivity or household enterprise management.
  • Hotspots: Kenya overwhelming leads in mindshare as the leading fintech innovation market on the continent, and grabs the lion’s share of investments in East Africa. However, the GSMA’s latest report implies West Africa is rapidly catching up, and may outspend East Africa. The WAEMU region is a hidden hotspot, and Ghana leads the anglophone countries.
  • The largest market opportunity, by population, remains a challenge however, for a variety of reasons including policy and regulation. Nigeria’s payments innovators have made a name for themselves but their domestic market has not felt the impact of their efforts. Even mobile money, introduced more than 5 years ago, has only achieved 1% penetration. On the other hand, it took India years and years before digital payments reached visibly transformational critical mass. There’s hope.
  • Lastly, Chinese investment has just entered the African fintech space, talking up financial inclusion – a clear sign of its economic importance for the future development of trade and industry.

West Africa’s incipient mobile platform boom will transform the ECOWAS economy

While East Africa has tended to grab the headlines as the mover and shaker in mobile platform innovation, there’s an imminent boom due to emerge in West Africa. The GSMA’s most recent report on the West African mobile ecosystem contains all the signals of this happening within the next 3 or so years.

Even in mobile money solutions, where East Africa has had a headstart (and worldwide fame for M-Pesa), numerous new solutions have been launched in West Africa and subscriber numbers show double digit growth.

In addition, both smartphone penetration (~30% of all subscribers) and internet use are growing as well.

All of this, taken together with the growth of incubators, accelerators and variations of tech hubs to support the startup ecosystem provide evidence of a transformation underway.

Does West Africa have the potential to surpass the success of East Africa? I believe so, given its larger population, greater numbers of dynamic economies from both Francophone and Anglophone regions, and the side effect of years of watching East Africa grab the headlines.

How do we make a business case for an innovative concept given the data scarcity for the African mass market?

Anzetse Were writes some thoughtful points on the challenges facing private sector innovation in Kenya, and Africa. Two of her points caught my attention, in particular:

With regards to the private sector, an interesting point raised is that innovation targeting it must have a business case for adoption otherwise the innovation won’t be absorbed. Innovation must demonstrate that the short-term inconvenience of adoption will pay off in the long term.
[…]
We have a real problem with information asymmetry and data bias. [… ] strategies for market penetration and sharing cannot be rolled out since the lack of data means the private sector doesn’t know where the market sits.

While Anzetse has specifically focused on the interface between the private and the public sector with regards to innovation, the points she brings up are nevertheless a challenge for either or both parties.

Size and value of the market opportunity for an innovation when data is scarce

Investors in innovation for new and untapped markets need the numbers to make sense of the opportunity. A dollar value and estimated size of the market are among the conventional metrics used to provide evidence of a return on their investment. How substantial is it?

In the African context, the mass market where the volumes can be found tends to be heavily biased towards the informal sectors, and still for the most part based on cash transactions. Textbook approaches to sizing and valuing the market space fall short without accessible and relevant data.

A few years ago, we were faced with a similar challenge for Village Telco, a social enterprise launching an innovative ICT device for low cost voice and data communication. They had developed the Mesh Potato,  a device for providing low-cost telephony and Internet in areas where alternative access either doesn’t exist or is too expensive. It is a marriage of a low-cost wireless access point capable of running a mesh networking protocol with an Analog Telephony Adapter.

They were looking to enter the Kenyan market, with the notion that the cyber cafe industry would make the best target audience for their device. Their investors wanted to know the size and value of the market opportunity prior to launching the product in Kenya. Although this happened just over 6 years ago, Kenya had already made a name for itself as a forward looking mobile phone market unafraid of experimentation.

Our challenge was two-fold: We were to look at 2nd and 3rd tier towns, not just Nairobi and Mombasa. Village Telco was looking to connect the unconnected. And we had to estimate the size and value of the market opportunity for a sector – internet cafes – that was primarily cash based and informal, particularly given the rural and small town geography we were considering. There was little or no data available to even get a handle on the number of cyber cafes operating in Kenya.

Secondly, we had to get an idea of the price point at which the product would be acceptable to this target audience. Keep in mind that the device was wholly unknown – an innovation – and there was nothing comparable on the market.

A qualitative approach to quantitative estimation

Given that this was not a conventional research project, and time and resources were constrained to a market analysis, we designed a minimal viable market discovery phase that would permit us to gather enough insights directly from the cyber cafe operators in order to estimate the size and value, as well as recommendations for pricing and market entry.

In late 2011, Kenya’s administrative divisions were still the original provinces.

Based on population density and relative income demographics, as well as an ICT gap analysis of voice and data services – reports available through Kenyan government institutions – we planned an optimal route that maximized exposure to the types of locations Village Telco had specified whilst sampling cyber cafes across a range of infrastructure access and regional income. This coverage was completed in less than 3 weeks.

Surfacing trends through indepth open ended interviews

Where we invested our time and effort was in identifying entrepreneurial and innovative cyber cafe operators in the smaller towns and villages we visited. The vast majority of internet cafes are run as side businesses by the owners who might be white collar employees or civil servants, and often managed by employees. It was the cyber cafe owner operator who saw their business as a growth opportunity that we were seeking.They not only knew their market but had seen the opportunities to grow and expand their services.

They were able to give us an idea of the future of the cyber cafe business in their region, a rough estimate (few businesspeople are willing to openly share revenue data) of the scale of their business, and the trends in decline or growth of the types of services they offered.

Through the data gathered, we were able to estimate the high growth regions for internet cafe services – Nakuru town for instance had seen the number of cybers grow from 10 or 15 in 2007 to upwards of 50, primarily due the increase in tertiary education institutions. Kilifi, on the Coast, had seen a doubling when a local university campus opened.

At the same time, we were able to gauge the value of the opportunity space by using the proxy of the proportion of owner/operators to manager/employees – the former were more likely to be interested in the Mesh Potato than the latter.

Our route planning also provided evidence of the pathways for innovation diffusion, outwards in a hub and spoke model from the central hub of Nairobi’s business district where new electronic products landed from the manufacturing centers of Asia.

Sitting down face to face with the cafe owners and showing them the product and what it could do gave us the insight on pricing and market entry strategy. By the end of 5 weeks from start to finish, we were able to make a business case for innovation meant for a data scarce environment.

Innovation means breaking new ground

While the effort on the ground was very different from a conventional market analysis exercise due to the need to elicit information directly on the market and the product, the time and resources invested by the client were no different from an analysis based on secondary sources and accessible data flows.

The nature of the African mass market is such that pioneers entering the market will have to break new ground, not only with their products and services, but also their approach to analyzing and evaluating the business case for investment. It is not an impossible task and should not be considered a barrier to entry.

Why does the prepaid model work so well and what are the lessons for business model innovation?

Increasingly, employment is becoming ad hoc and flexible. The gig economy and the informal sector share a common characteristic of incomes which are irregular and unpredictable, unlike the timely wages characteristic of formal employment. Both budgeting and planning thus become a challenge when there’s no predictable paycheck to rely on. Expenses are managed against cash flows to minimize volatility, and payments with calender deadlines become a challenge in planning.

It is in this scenario that the prepaid or pay as you go model works so well for the customer, one of the reasons why its ubiquity across the developing world drives the growth of mobile phones. It puts control over timing and amount of money spent in the hands of the user, allowing them juggle voice and data purchases against available cash in hand.

Here are the lessons for business model innovation applicable for a plethora of products and services, drawn from our decade of research into the financial frameworks underlying the operating environment characterized by unpredictability and volatility, and the success of the prepaid model.

Flexibility

The prepaid model is flexible. There is no rigid requirement on the amount that can be spent, beyond the voucher values of each telcom operator, nor are there periodic calender based deadlines such as those in a monthly bill. In Nigeria, traders have been found to top up their phones multiple times a week or even the same day, yet purchasing the smallest denomination of vouchers. High frequency of small amounts is a purchasing pattern that resembles their own cash flow while trading in the informal market. They don’t want to tie up their liquidity in airtime in case cash on hand is required for business, yet their trade is clearly dependent on mobile communication hence the frequent recharges.

This flexibility built into the business model clearly puts control over timing and amounts spent in the hands of the end-user who must manage a volatile cash flow situation.

Seasonality

In addition to the daily or weekly fluctuations in cash flow experienced by gig economy workers or those active in the developing country informal sectors, there are larger variations in income level over the course of the natural year. Unlike the regularity of a monthly salary, irregular incomes rise during peak seasons, such as festivals and holidays, and plunge during low seasons. Developing country economies are more closely linked to the seasonality of agriculture, given the greater proportion of the population’s dependence on farming. Incomes can vary as much as 300% for instance, for tea farmers in western Kenya’s Kisii region. Climatic effects also have greater impact on cash flows, and the current drought in East Africa is expected to depress livestock prices in the coming half year. On the upside, seasonal peaks in consumer durable sales are predictable as the regional harvest timings are a known factor. North India’s post harvest season in late October/November kickstarts an orgy of consumer spending during the festivals and the weddings which take place during this period.

Business models designed to take expected seasonal changes into account can minimize the dropout rate of customers when their income changes.

Liquidity

One of the biggest challenges we have wrapping our heads around when considering more rural or cash intensive economies is that liquidity is not equivalent to wealth, or even purchasing power. While this factor can apply to anyone relying on multiple income streams from a variety of sources, I’ll use the example of a small farmer to explain its importance to the design of business models.

The homestead is managed like an investment portfolio, with different sources of income maturing over different durations of time over the course of the natural year. This is also why control over Timing – frequency, periodicity – of payments, such as possible in the prepaid model, is so critical for the success of payment plans. A smartphone might be purchased after the major harvest of the annual cash crop, but its the daily cash from the sale of milk that would be used for recharges (and other basic necessities). Similarly, a calf may be purchased to fatten against the following year’s school fees.

Negotiability

This leads directly to a factor more relevant to heavily informal economies where variance in systems and structures means transactions are more human centered, depending on face to face communication, trusted references, and mutual compacts rather than legal contracts to enforce agreements. Negotiability of your business model, and its close relation, reciprocity – “the give and take” – is an element missing from faceless institutions that seek to serve this demographic.

This is one reason many prefer to seek solutions outside of formal banking institutions, for example, as their opening hours might not suit the trader’s business hours. In Busia, Uganda, most women traders had established trusted relationships with a mobile money agent, many of whom would show up at the end of the work day to assist the trader in transferring the cash earning safely onto the digital wallet. And, unlike the bank, the telco’s prepaid model allows customers to “negotiate” when and how much they’ll pay within the constraints of far more flexible terms and conditions than most other models.

A farmer has “purchased” this solar panel after coming to an agreement with the shopkeeper. He will pay off the total, over time, as and when he has spare cash, and collect the panel when payment is complete. There is no interest charge. The shopkeeper has put the farmer’s name on the panel but will keep hold of the item.

The greater the span of control over timing and amounts, the greater the success of the payment plan

The prepaid model bridges the critical gap between the predictable formal structures of the large institution and the dynamic challenges of the informal. The bottomline is that the flexibility, negotiability, and reciprocity of the model are more important factors for its success than the conventional understanding of permitting micropayments in advance. Numerous consumer product marketers entering emerging markets experienced this challenge when their micropayment hire purchase models failed customers who might have to miss one or two week’s payments due to illness or other emergencies – their products were repossessed without any recourse to adjustment. Its the rigid calender schedule embedded in a payment plan that is often the barrier to a high ticket purchase than the actual price itself.

None of these factors are insurmountable with today’s technology, and the field for business model innovation for irregular income streams such as those in the gig economy or the informal sector is still wide open for disruption.