Archive for the ‘Expenses’ Category

Analysis of the mobile phone’s impact on cash flows and transactions in the informal sector

As we saw, Mrs Chimphamba needs to juggle time and money as part of her household financial management in order to ensure that expenses can be met by income. We also saw that the mobile phone was made viable and feasible by the availability of the prepaid business model that gave her full control over timing and the amount required to maintain it — how much airtime to purchase? when? how often? — all of these decisions were in her hands, within the limits of the operator’s business model. Now, we’ll take a closer look at the impact of the mobile on her domestic economy.

Readily available real time communication has helped Mrs C by speeding up the time taken for a decision on a purchase or a sale. That is, the transaction cycle has been shortened. As the speed of information exchange increases, it increases the speed of transactions — it shortens the duration of time taken to execute them from inception to completion. This, in turn, implies that more transactions can now take place in the same amount of time thereby increasing the frequency and the periodicity. When mobile money is present, one can see that as both quantity and frequency of transactions speed up, so does the cash flow. We’ll come back to this factor.

To explain using a real life example, Mrs Chimphamba does not need to sit at her homestead wondering if today someone will pass by to purchase a bottle of wine. Similarly, Mrs C’s customers do not need to go out of their way to pass by her homestead to see if the wine is distilled and ready for sale, or whether it will still take another day or two for the next batch to be ready. Further, the uncertainty of whether they’ll have cash on hand on that future day, or if they’ll return as promised are all elements that real time communication have minimized.

Now, Mrs C is able to let her regular customers know that she’s making a new batch for sale and do they want to reserve a bottle for purchase? It allows her customers to put aside cash for this purchase. She is even able to accept and execute larger orders for some future date, and even accept some cash advances if her operating environment includes the presence of a mobile money transfer system such as those more prevalent in East Africa. This in turn changes her purchasing patterns and decision making as the pattern of cash flows — timing and amount — changes. She isn’t making do anymore on an unknown and predictable sale based on sitting and waiting for someone to show up to buy her wine.

Real time communication has improved the decision making cycle for both buyer and seller in a transaction as it counteracts uncertainty and information asymmetry even while speeding up the time take for a decision.

As the quantity and frequency of transactions increase— first, in cash conducted face to face, and then later, remotely by mobile money, regardless of the size of each transaction — the change in cash flow patterns begins to smooth out the volatility (the uncertainty factor has changed completely) between incoming and outgoing, as well as the decisionmaking involved. That is, the gap between income and expense starts becoming less in terms of both timing and amount — there is the possibility of a steady stream in the pipeline. Calculus offers hints of how the curve can begin to smoothen out as frequency and periodicity of transactions begins to accelerate.

Size of transactions thus begin to matter less in that the incoming amount now does not need to be so large as to cover expenses for an unknown duration of time before the next incoming payment; nor do expenses have to be tightly controlled constantly due to the uncertainty of the duration of time before the next payment, and the types of expenses incurred during this unknown period of time.

So the boost in decision making — how long it takes to complete a transaction, how often can transactions be completed — enabled by the real time communication facilitated by the mobile phone; plus the attendant immediacy of receiving payment via the same platform is the root of the improvement in the hyperlocal economy and consumption patterns among the informal sector actors. This is why large established traders (with sufficient financial cushion) were heard to observe that both purchasing power and consumption patterns had changed in their market town (Busia, Kenya Jan 2016) in the past 10 years since first the mobile phone, and later, mPesa, were introduced into their operating environment.

Uncertainty and information asymmetry that have long characterized the fragile and volatile nature of the informal sector operating in inadequately provided environments with unreliable systems and scarce data. In the next chapter we’ll step back and take a broader look at communication, connectivity, and commerce in the informal economy starting with the description of the operating environment’s characteristics regardless of continent.

This is part of a newly launched Medium where I will write in detail on economic behaviour and its drivers in the informal economy. Much of it draws upon the original research in the field from 2008-2009 which was shared on the prepaid economy blog. I found that time had passed and increased my understanding and I wanted to explore those discoveries in writing. Much of this is the foundation for recent works on ‘Mama Biashara‘.

The hidden cost of doing business #informaleconomy

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Kenya, 2nd Feb 2016. Photo Credit: Emerging Futures Lab

This looks like its a low cost business operation with low barriers to entry. All you need to do is find a decent tree under which to display your wares.

The reality is that these entrepreneurs have numerous fees and costs that they must pay in order to do business, regardless of how informal it all looks. They pay rent for that space on market day, they pay the council in order to transport their wares, they need to pay for transportation, and any assistance they might need for loading and unloading, they even need to pay the various formal and informal “tax” collectors on the road to this market town.

There is a cost to doing business, and there’s uncertainty of income and cash flow. Some of these fees might be fixed or known, but some, like the amounts asked for, along the way, might be dependent on the mood of the officer, or even, the weather.

On the other hand, these fees and taxes and payments ensure that the retailer has a decent location in the market, that they won’t be harassed or chased away during working hours, and that the “system” – chaotic though it might seem to our eyes – will serve their needs.

If you were ask them what they think of this, they would shrug their shoulders and tell you its just the cost of doing business.

First world trends: Financial inclusion, the unbanked, and the prepaid business model

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The Economist explains just how expensive banking can be for the lower income population, even in the United States. Financial inclusion for the unbanked and underbanked must include cost/benefit analysis based on the limitations of income streams of those whom they hope to serve. The cost of ownership is often overlooked in current day literature, which tends to focus on access to formal financial services, whether digital or otherwise. As the data clearly shows, value for money is a critical part of access, and a deciding factor in the choice to remain unbanked.

Life is expensive for America’s poor, with financial services the primary culprit, something that also afflicts migrants sending money home (see article). Mr Martin at least has a bank account. Some 8% of American households—and nearly one in three whose income is less than $15,000 a year—do not (see chart). More than half of this group say banking is too expensive for them. Many cannot maintain the minimum balance necessary to avoid monthly fees; for others, the risk of being walloped with unexpected fees looms too large.

Increasing popularity of prepaid business models

The GSMA expects the North American prepaid market to grow to 31% by 2020 and its hovering around 29% at this time. This is just over double the proportion of prepaid vs postpaid subscribers in the past 5 years.

In fact, US telcos like Sprint have recently announced their intent to drop the 2 year contract business model, offering smartphones on lease just like competitors Verizon and T-Mobile. And phone maker Apple has gone as far as to offer their own rent to own program, one which resembles SUV leasing arrangments with a new model every year.

Screenshot-2015-09-10-10.02.44-600x283This is an interesting trend as it points to the reluctance of consumers to commit to 2 years of unexpected bills at the end of the month, preferring the certainty that prepaid offers over your spending. Concurrently, there’s been a noticeable rise in prepaid credit cards and other similar facilities.

As of 2012, roughly 12 million Americans used a prepaid card at least once a month and we collectively loaded $65 billion to them – double the amount loaded just three years prior. That figure is expected to rise to $337.8 billion by 2017, according to Mercator Advisory Group – an increase of 420%.

The prepaid business model empowers customers by putting control over timing – frequency & periodicity, as well as amounts spent, in their hands. Flexibility to manage one’s expenses, against incomes, is another aspect that’s attractive about this business model. Companies love it too as cash flows accrue in advance, minimizing the risks of defaults.

Consumer income streams are changing in America

Do these trends reflect the changing patterns of cash flow among consumers, as indicated by the rise of such revenue generators as Uber, AirBnB and others of their ilk?

Irregular and unpredictable income streams are part and parcel of the independent worker, regardless of label, as they are not guaranteed a known amount in the form of a salary arriving on a predictable calender schedule.

This app offering to help you manage uncertainty seems to imply so.

Welcome to the new home of The Prepaid Economy blog

 

Instead of two separate locations, all my research, fieldwork, analysis and synthesis as well as news snippets covering all aspects of The Prepaid Economy project, systeme D, the informal and rural cash based markets of the developing world will now be available here together with the original Perspective blog.

The Research category will pull up all The Prepaid Economy posts going back to January 2009 while the Perspective category will cover my other interest areas in business, design and the emerging future.

Welcome.

Analysing shifts in consumer household purchasing patterns – Milk ATMs in Kenya

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Uchumi Supermarket, Ngong Rd, Nairobi Photo Credit: @bankelele

“We are selling one litre at Sh65, but a consumer can get as little as 77ml at a cost of Sh5. All one needs to do is key in the amount they require, and the product is dispensed,” Gitonga, who procures his machines from Italy, said.

Flexibility is the key to survival, indeed. This quote is from a Kenyan newspaper article titled “Dip in purchasing power drives demand for milk dispensers” which covers the increasing visibility of these milk vending machines in Nairobi and touches upon some of the demand drivers.

Mr Gitonga told Business Beat he shares the profits equally with supermarkets and retailers as he is protected from other expenses such as rent, water and electricity.

He said the demand for milk from the machines is being dictated by changing dynamics in the local market, including the need for quality milk, depressed purchasing power and a surging population.

The prices for processed milk have increased since the introduction of VAT last September, which has prompted consumers to turn to raw milk. Currently, a litre of raw milk in most estates costs between Sh50 and Sh55, while a litre of processed milk averages Sh85.

“We are giving consumers who frequent outlets in estates that sell raw milk that may not be inspected a safer choice.”

What strikes me is the fact that this shift back to one of the fundamental purchasing patterns observed among the lower income demographic is not only an obvious sign stretched household budgets due to rising price of food, but a classic example of the flexibility required by those managing on irregular income streams.

That is, this daily habit to purchase only what is needed and that too by cash amount (5 shillings) or quantity, is the same purchasing model for kerosene, another household staple.

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Could this shift in buyer behaviour also be considered a signal of the fluctuating fortunes of the “floating class” identified by the African Development Bank as those who are part of the emerging middle class but their cash flow might not be as steady as for someone on a regular paycheck?

If so, then we’re seeing here an example of an innovative solution to providing a daily need – milk – to urban households without a cow in the backyard – by ATM entrepreneurs as a whole new market creation opportunity.

Not for milk per se, but for products and services which can offer the flexibility that volatile income streams require, and are still upwardly mobile or progressive consumables that the emergent middle class household needs for their shopping basket, in this case, pasteurized milk.

And the increase in demand might actually also be an increase in the population of those who are now part of “middle class with floating”… this could be one of the dividing lines. I’d keep an eye on the fortunes of these milk machines in supermarkets if I were interested in the African middle class market.

 

Part 1: Why are we publishing our original research on rural economic behaviour in 5 parts online?

A recent article in The Economist on the economic value of owning cattle in rural India made me to realize just how little is understood about the rural economy.  Here’s a snippet:

That is because most people find spending easier than saving. Immediate pleasures are easier to grasp than future joys—and so people make spending decisions that they later regret. Economists refer to this as “myopia”. Cows force people not to be myopic. Compared with money held in savings accounts, cattle are illiquid assets. Taking cash from a cow is harder than taking money from an account. As a result, temptation spending is trickier.

The paper has implications for poverty-alleviation strategies and for financial services in developing countries. Aid programmes that try to reduce poverty by distributing livestock may be ineffective at raising incomes, if the returns from owning them are so poor. If cows are used as a means of saving, the spread of mobile banking in places like India will provide another, better option. Even then the problem of temptation spending arises.

This discussion makes quite clear that the underlying assumptions being made by the learned authors of this study are not only implicitly wrong but based on their own perspective of life in the concrete jungle with access to easy credit enabling impulse purchases and conspicuous consumption. Milk, for their morning cereal, tends to come from a tetrapak in the extra large refrigerator and electricity provides the means to warm it.

Since the Prepaid Economy project has been immersed in rural household economic behaviour for some 5 years now, perhaps its time to share the basis for better understanding the why behind the what that is being so fervently discussed. The final report as submitted to the funders of the original fieldwork will be shared in 3 parts:

1. The Abstract – scroll down after the cow for this extract.
2. The Observations
3. The Synthesis and Insights
4. The visual documentary of the above with annotations.
and finally
5. My thoughts on the role of the cow in the rural economy, supported by references to research previously linked to on this blog as well as additional fieldwork in Kenya.

Buffalo, Village Rewal, Rajasthan, January 2009 (Photo: Goverdhan Meena)

Buffalo, Village Rewal, Rajasthan, January 2009 (Photo: Goverdhan* Meena)

The challenge faced by 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.

*It just struck me that even the name of my local guide in Rajasthan was Goverdhan, which means “to increase the wealth (value creation) of a cow”.

Exploratory User Research in the Rural Economy

When I first began developing the attributes by which to select representative user profiles for the original fieldwork to begin understanding the “prepaid economy”, that is, household financial management in rural India, The Philippines and Malawi, it was based on people’s ability to plan and budget.

Sustainable Value Chain 8

One can plan best when one is certain of the amount of money incoming and its date of arrival, thus one is best able to manage household expenses on a regular salary on a periodic calender based schedule.  If we cluster rural residents by their ability to accurately estimate the amount of money against its arrival, then the salaried employee is at one of the continuum of certainty. He or she knows exactly how much they will receive and on which date. The other end, however, is the most uncertain, such as the case of the daily wages labourer who may or may not be called for work on a particular day or week.

The farmer, if experienced, tends to fall in between these two points, as they are usually able to look at their crops and estimate approximately the yield and readiness of the harvest. This simple framework of time and money allowed for a reasonably representative sample of any particular region where geography is responsible for the climate and the seasons. The uncertainties faced by local farmers were broadly the same.

Now, we hope to take a closer look at this segmentation model to better refine our understanding of rural economies. At which point did a farm transition from mere subsistence towards aspirations? How? What distinguished a member of the global emerging middle class (GEMs) from one who was barely able to hold house and hearth together? Which other actors were critical to the rural economy, delineated in this case as the last mile of the agricultural value chain, and who were the supporting cast ? All farmers in a region are not alike – how would we begin to cluster sub-segments and which additional attributes would help us?

As a starting point, here are some of the key insights that have already been consistently identified:

  1. The greater the span of control the end user had over their time and money in a payment plan – the amount, whether it was in cash or kind; and its timing i.e. the frequency, periodicity and duration, the greater the likelihood of its success.
  2. Seasonality was a fact of life and cash flows over the course of the natural year reflected this aspect. High seasons and low; wet seasons and dry – the rural economy was closely tied to the land, the ebb and flows of income affecting everyone in the farming community, from shopkeepers to truck drivers.
  3. Liquidity does not reflect wealth, nor cash expenditures a signal of purchasing power.
  4. Affordability is less a matter of absolute price and more dependent on the flexibility of the payment pattern.
  5. In the majority of the developing world, the rural economy is flexible, informal, local, social and interdependent. Trusted social networks were the basis of looking upon the community as insurance in bad times and resilience in the face of uncertainty and adversity a recurring characteristic.

Affordability is not the same as a lower price point

Third party informal kerosene sales point deep interior of rural Eastern Kenya. Photo credit: Niti Bhan

Absolute price of a product has always been assumed to be the means to successfully reach the BoP customer and the concept of affordable is often a synonym for cheaper. While price bands do matter when targeting this market, price/performance ratios tend to be more important to those who seek the best value for their hard earned and limited cash and affordability is proportional to the flexibility of the payment plan than the lumpsum amount. This is evidenced by the findings from the household energy consumption behaviour research conducted among representatives of the claimed target audience (the Base of the Pyramid living without electricity) which captured fuel usage and purchasing patterns based on income and cash flow.

The vast majority of the rural BoP who tend to be subsistence farmers managing on irregular income streams from a variety of sources have seasonal peaks and lows in their cash flow. Only on occasion during the course of the natural year are lumpsums of cash available for direct purchase. Documented behaviour includes storing household ‘wealth’ in the form of livestock, to be sold on demand for emergencies or at predetermined times of need such as for school fees at the beginning of the year.

Harvests are a seasonal time of plenty and shopkeepers in each region are aware of the major buying season for consumer durables and other high ticket items. At other times, purchases are made by the way of a variety of ‘informal microfinance’ tools such as shopkeepers offering layaway plans within their local community, permitting customers to pay off the price of the desired product over time and offering flexibility of duration, periodicity, frequency and amount of each payment per the customer’s convenience.  The risks are only when the customer is a relative stranger to the area.

This purchasing pattern, based as it is on an irregular cash flow of varying but small amounts, is why kerosene as a choice of fuel for lighting is so embedded in rural BoP markets. One can purchase it on demand, by cash amount (as little as 5 eurocents) or quantity (250 ml or even less) thus its purchase and use can be determined by the cash available on hand to the customer. It is the requirement of a lumpsum amount of cash that more often acts as a barrier to purchase than the absolute price of the product.

Thus, affordability of a product or service, in the mind of the BoP customer, has more to do with the flexibility of the payment plans than the price range. An example of this is the widespread prevalence of prepaid or pay as you go payment plans for mobile phone airtime that has made mobile phone usage affordable in the informal economy where few have the regular paychecks or consumer credit facilities to consider post paid subscriptions that deliver a monthly bill for an unknown amount.

Why prepaid business models work so well for the rural and informal economy

We broke down the basic concept of the ‘pay as you go’ or prepaid mobile plan – in general, discounting the details of the various different strategies and pricing/time plans of different countries as a way to begin understanding what is it about this model that makes it work at the BoP.

Could we somehow find a general principle that could then be applied elsewhere, seeing as how successful this model has been amongst the lower income markets?

Fundamentally, all prepaid plans had one lumpsum upfront amount for the starter pack/activation and thereafter could be kept ‘alive’ by a minimum additional recharge or top up accordingly.

That is, this payment plan is flexible – it allows you to decide how much you wish to pay and when, though the absolute minimum frequency does depend on the provider’s rules and this decision making thus puts you in control of how much you spend and when; based on your incoming cash flow and current priorities for your discretionary spending.

Just for comparison’s sake, a mobile phone subscriber on a post paid model would have to pay the amount on the monthly bill by a certain date in order not to fall behind or incur penalties. That is, there is little flexibility (other than making actual changes to which plan you’re on) and the control of when to pay, how much to pay and the frequency of the billing is all in the hands  of the service provider. The user (customer) has little control over time and money.

Now, bringing it back to our findings from the workshop on the financial planning behaviour observed among those at the BoP where we see that it is their ability to control the elements of time – periodicity & frequency; money – cash or goods and also social capital or in this context “trust” that in fact allows them to increase their ability to plan their ‘cash flow’ and ‘working capital’ across their multiple sources of income and resource allocation, thus decreasing the variance between their income and expenditure.

We can already see the fundamental reason why, then, the pay as you go model has been successful for those at the BoP, it is one of the very few that essentially puts control over time and money in the hands of the user (customer) rather than the provider (business). One could, at this point, say that the element of trust or social capital is also involved – just as Ram Babu’s neighbour who loaned him Rs 1300 was willing to let him pay it back in small sums from the money he earned daily from his wheat mill until the total was paid off, the prepaid model does not impose fixed amounts and payment schedules on the user. The transactions occur at the customer’s discretion.

Cashpower: prepaid electricity in Rwanda

Maarja Motus, an Estonian designer and my recent intern spent 3 weeks in Rwanda recently conducting some research on my behalf. Here’s an extract from her report on Cashpower, the Rwandese term for prepaid electricity.

An electricity agent (Cashpower agent) next to Kigali market has 300 customers, only 10 of them buy for whole month (business clients). .Agent sales per day 50 000 – 90 000 RWFs, that is 62.5-112.5 €. Home tarif is 134 Rwf/Kwh

The amount a family spends varies at large scale. A household with TV, washing machine, iron etc may spend 80 000 RWF per a month, where as a family with no home electronics, ( a lamp and a phone to charge), spends 3000 RWFs per month.

What enables it?

Services with the same pre-paid model, airtime sellers provide the existing sales network as well as the consuming habit of buying often and according to the need.

Power shortages that happen in the evenings around 1800-1900 hours, a couple of times in a week and keep people used to and relaxed about blackouts, and the blackout caused by lack of Cashpower are not taken emotionally (as a muzungu like me did).

House girls. A single young man earning 200 000 RFWs ( 250 EUR) as a driver can have a housekeeper who cooks, cleans, shops, and is always there to run to buy electricity. In the families with fixed income, there is likely to be a house girl who is sent the corner shop to top-up the cashpower whenever it has ended. (fist s/he is sent to check the meter, then to the to top-up cashpower).

Mobile money. Both MTN and TIGO carriers enable to buy electricity through their mobile money service, thus one can top-up their meter without leaving the house.

Interesting Side effect

Better awareness of the consumption. Being an temporary member at local house, she knew in numbers (its more common to express the consumption in days and money, not in kWh) how much more is spent on heating up the water tank. Sometimes it takes 5 days to end the cashpower, sometimes it lasts for 8 days. This difference makes people wonder where all the rest got wasted, did they forgot the hot water tank on for the day, did they left the lights or iron on, have they watched more TV this week? It makes people more conscious about consumption.

(this is interesting as in Europe with the climbing prices there are many startups developing home monitoring systems to cut expenses ( actually to data mine). People in Europe are less aware of how much they use and on what they use than in Rwanda.)

Photos coming soon!