Archive for the ‘Flexibility’ Category

Lessons from African Fintech for the Gig Economy

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to share my research on the past decade of mobile ecosystem development across the African continent with Dr. Antti Saarnio, founder of Zippie; co-founder of Jolla (developers of the Sailfish OS, among other things).

“We want to test our product first and foremost in Africa because there is an extensive and established informal economy,” he said.

That captured my attention immediately, since few think of the Africa’s vast “informal” commercial operating environment as a strength to be leveraged for competitive advantage, preferring to hope against hope that it will disappear into thin air to be replaced by the more familiar structures of the formal and organized sectors.

And, it got me thinking about the African fintech space, and the lessons it may hold for the rapidly proliferating gig economy in the ‘developed’ world. And, since at this point of time, all I know of Zippie, Dr. Saarnio’s latest venture, is that it’s a blockchain based mobile OS – not the kind of thing that you’d expect to be piloting in Africa – I asked him to elaborate on his thinking a little further.

Easy, he said. Not only does the informal economy dominate, with established norms and coping mechanisms, but its a mobile first and mobile only environment where people are already comfortable with the exchange of value in digital form, be it airtime or currency. People are already incentivized to think about boosting their productivity through newfangled digital tools on their smartphones. More often than not, the younger urban population is educated and tech-savvy, and in places like Kenya, ready to try something new.

I couldn’t argue with his assessment. In fact, I’d take it a step further, based on my own decade’s worth of research into the informal sector’s financial behaviour and cash flow management practices. The developed world economy is beginning to show signs of convergence, in pattern and in the types of challenges faced when attempting to manage in highly uncertain situations, on irregular and unpredictable income streams, often with the very same elements of seasonality – time of abundance and scarcity – as seen in rural Phillipines or India or Malawi.

For instance, Finnish farmers are being driven to use high interest payday loans to tide over the lean times because few other coping mechanisms exist in Finland’s highly formal commercial operating environment. Wedded to the land, they face the same challenges as a farmer in India, Kenya, or The Philippines. Yet no microfinance institutions catering to farmer needs would dream of showing up in rural Finland. Similarly, in the UK, lower income workers, dependant heavily on gig economy apps to generate revenue, can face significant differences in their cash flows from month to month, but again have no recourse but to use their credit cards or high interest payday loans to tide them over. The systems in their operating environment are designed for the past generations’ periodic and regular wages and paychecks, and cannot cope with the irregular cash flow patterns, as prevalent in the informal economy.

That is, the characteristics of the gig economy and the informal economy, when seen from the perspective of the end-user, are more or less the same. Ironically, however, those in the developing world have numerous solutions available to them – albeit informal, social, local – available to them to cope with shocks and volatility. These coping mechanisms have developed over decades (and centuries, in the case of India), hence the well known resilience of the local rural or informal economy.

As uncertainty increases globally, there are numerous lessons to be learnt from the mostly ignored informal economies of the developing countries which have provided incomes and employment for the vast majority of their populations, in times of conflict or peace, making sure that food reaches the urban table from the farms out in the countryside, regardless of the adequacy and availability of either systems or infrastructure. This is one situation where the formal economy’s inbuilt rigidity and dependence on predictability and periodicity are its embedded weak spot at a time when flexibility and negotiability are required to ride the shocks and volatility.

All Hail the Business Model Behind the Global Gig Economy

Uber driver Mohammed, New Delhi, 26th November 2018

The first world’s ardent embrace of the gig economy is already over. Buyer’s remorse is setting in, even though it may have helped global unemployment hit its lowest point in forty years. What will remain, however, is its impact on the usually overlooked Rest of the World, where the ability of an app to drive demand and scale reach, affordably and instantly, is currently transforming informal economies across the African continent, opening up whole new opportunity spaces for the social, mobile, youthful generation. Easy to set up and deploy, this app driven business model offers a flexible and negotiable solution to the age old problem of demand and supply in a mobile first world. My only question is whether it’ll turn out to be as world changing as prepaid mobile airtime?

Africa’s Delivery On Demand Apps are Transforming the Informal Economy

When women in rural Rwanda can buy sanitary napkins and contraceptives, on demand, simply by pushing a few buttons on their phones, you know the digital informal economy is here to stay. And, its not just imported apps and social enterprises pushing this digital commercial activity. The “uberization” of the African informal economy is well underway across the entire continent, inspired in part by the visible success of the now ubiquitous ride hailing apps.

The concept of using your phone to access a product or service, on demand, has taken root as a viable and feasible business model for startups from Angola to Ghana to Nigeria, and Rwanda, of course. And, its spreading beyond the usual suspects to yet-to-be recognized nations like Somaliland as well as it’s far less stable neighbour, Somalia. The impact of this will be felt long after Uber itself has lived or died, as the case may be.

For the vast majority of the workforce in the informal sector, this approach to business development increases their reach and customer base, with net positive impact on their income streams and cash flows. You don’t have to sit and wait passively for a customer to show up if she or he can ping you for an order on your phone. Your discoverability has been exponentially boosted by technology.

Its far to early to gauge the impact on the entire informal economy’s productivity, but certain sectors are already evidencing the effects:

  1. Transportation – of people, of vegetables, of cargo – you name it, you can now find an app to transport it. Startups are responding to the wide variety of local needs in addition to launching Uber clones in their local metros and regions.
  2. Services – grocery shopping, laundry, housecleaning, plumbers, electricians, artisans et al – all of these are coming online, albeit unevenly across segments and geographies depending on the individual startups and their capabilities.
  3. Goods – From consumer products to fresh produce, live goats to tractors for rent; the low costs and barriers to entry of an app that collates and coordinates demand and supply is an easy win for entrepreneurs who can work out the kinks in their operations.

In addition to what the apps can deliver to your doorstep, this “uberization” of the informal economy is also transforming mindsets and behaviour, of both the buyer and the supplier. There are two approaches to leveraging technology to boost your business – doing it yourself via social media platforms, thus building your brand; and downloading an app that takes care of promotion and discoverability for you.

Each has its pros and cons, but from our earliest discoveries whilst conducting user research among social commerce merchants and customers in Kenya, we can see the differences emerge between traditional traders in the informal marketplace, and the tech savvy traders straddling the virtual and the real. Long established business development strategies that worked in the cash intensive informal economic ecosystem are being forced to transform in response to these tech enabled ‘interventions’- whether to the benefit of all is also too early to tell. But if the patterns of mobile phone adoption are any indication, there’s a tsunami of change underway.

Pondering India’s Cashless Future

Chhotu here accepts digital currency payments via the mobile platform on a daily basis.

His QR code is prominently displayed upfront next to the bottles of sauce, and a sticker displays the icons of all the payment apps acceptable to his Bhim app.

The Bhim system, launched by the Government of India, is a godsend to micro businesses like Chhotu’s – it allows him to accept payments from a wide ranging variety of apps and systems with the use of just one QR code.

Mr. AutoRickshaWallah on the other hand, preferred to negotiate with me in cash, agreeing to an amount upfront, based on my destination than to go through the hassle of using his digital meter.

By law, he must accept digital payments, if asked by a customer. But, he says, this is very rare; he might accept a Paytm fare once a week. The balance is all in cash.

One size does not fit all

The need for cash in hand during the course of each of these service providers drives their payment acceptance behaviour. Chhotu may not need as much cash on hand once he has set up his inventory and supplies for the day, barring the need for change whereupon he can suggest the customer move to a digital option if required. Plus, at the end of his shift at 10pm he’s happier if the bulk of his sales is in digital form for safety and security.

Mr Autorickshawallah, on the other hand, feels the need for cash available to purchase fuel, food, and pay out wherever required for parking or other purposes (like the police!).  He’s on the move and the signal may or may not work when the time comes for him to accept payment.

Digital adoption is unevenly distributed

Their customers are also from different demographics. Where Chhotu is set up, the market is full of young people with disposable income, out for the evening with their friends. Hearsay has it that mobile apps are selected and used based on their marketing incentives – most offer cashback on digital payments as a driver for user acquisition, but users have gotten clever and download them all so that they can take advantage of different promotions and offers to maximize their benefits.

Mr Autorickshawallah’s customers come from a wider range of demographics, and not as likely to be as comfortable juggling digital payments as Chhotu’s youthful crowd. He’s in his vehicle and on the move, and must ensure the payment gets made, unlike Chhotu who can take the risk of waiting since he and his stall aren’t going anywhere.

Is Cashless in India’s Future?

While digital payments, cards, and mobile apps were certainly far more visible than ever before, and definitely since the demonetization of two years ago, there is a very long way to go before cashless becomes as broadly accepted and mainstream as mPesa in Kenya. Unlike mPesa, the Indian digital currency ecosystem is linked intimately to bank accounts, and thus, there’s an entire ecosystem of services and goods providers that needs to shift over to the formal economy and its financial institutions before cashless becomes seamless at the borderlands of economic strata and demographics.

The current formal financial ecosystem is not designed to address the needs of the informal and unorganized sectors. And this is the iron that post demonetization analysis shows was not struck while it was hot enough to enable the broader change in culture and behaviour to stick once currency was back in circulation.

Chinese investments in African tech will transform the fintech landscape

A recent article brought to my attention this report on the pattern of funding experienced by fintech startups in East Africa and India with rather damning results. 90 percent of the capital invested by “Silicon Valley-style” investors went to startups, technically in East Africa, with one or more North American or European founders.

These results put an entirely different spin on more recent articles on the rise of African fintech and the millions of dollars raised by startups in Africa. Village Capital, too, has been making an effort to promote their recommendations for structural change in the ecosystem in order to enable the emergence of hundreds more fintech and DFS (digital financial services) startups deemed necessary to transform the economic landscape in Africa.

But the challenge, as framed by this snippet from the report, will remain, as it “reflects deep cultural trends in American life”, of bias, stereotyping, and inbred prejudice. So called “first world” technology such as artificial intelligence is already dealing with the problem.

China’s interest in African tech, particularly trade related such as in commerce and payments, is being noticed

Simultaneously, and recently, I came across this op-ed for the WEF making the case for why the tech sector is China’s next big investment target in Africa.

Given China’s position as a leading and rapidly accelerating technological superpower in the world, making strides especially in the fields of logistics (smart cars, drones, e-commerce) and energy (solar panels, smart metering, etc), it makes sense that the most logical industry for the next stage of Sino-Africa collaboration is technology.

But that’s not fintechs and DFS startups, you say, comparing these apples to the Village Capital’s report on oranges?

Perhaps this is why Alibaba Group, the unparalleled pioneer of e-commerce and payments in China, has started to show an interest in Africa. Not only did they collaborate with UNCTAD on the eFounders programme to train over 100 African entrepreneurs in the next couple of years, they recently announced a fund of $10 million to invest on the continent over the next 10 years. Furthermore, Alibaba’s subsidiary Ant Financial has signed a partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the IFC to promote digital financial inclusion. While these are preliminary steps, we are hopeful for more serious commercial involvement in Africa from a company with a $500 billion market cap.

DFS, DFI, what’s the difference between digital financial services for financial inclusion and digital financial inclusion? The target is clear. And been noticed from the other side, as this rival opinion piece in the Financial Times shows, albeit with a greater sense of urgency and panic in the tone and style. It may also explain why Village Capital woke up this week to trumpet the results of their analysis on funding patterns from over a year ago. From the FT:

The Trump administration has made a perceived global rivalry with China the centre of US foreign policy. This competitive stance has coloured the view of African countries in Washington and a tale of Chinese mercantilism in the region has come to dominate the narrative, under which China greedily demands privileged access to Africa’s natural resources in exchange for no-strings-attached infrastructure financing.

But that story is outdated and fails to capture an emergent area of true competition — that among US and Chinese tech giants.

Given what we’ve seen in the Village Capital report linked in the first paragraph, will Chinese funding patterns be any different? Two key factors are being highlighted by both sides:

Read On…

How informal financial services can lower the barriers to formal financial inclusion

Around 2 and a half years ago, I was on a short visit to Abidjan, the capital of Cote D’Ivoire as a guest of the African Development Bank. They were holding an innovation weekend for young women and men in the Francophone West African region who were interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

David O. Capo Chichi, who used to work back then for MTN, a major telco very kindly took me around the informal markets on his day off and we got to talking to market women about their financial management habits. One interesting behaviour linking the informal with the formal came to light.

An established spice seller told us she had a savings account at the bank, but accessing the bank’s services were a huge barrier – the opening times ate into her business hours and the long wait times meant loss of income from potential customers. At the same time, because she was dependent on cash income from daily sales, it was more convenient for her to put a portion of money aside on a daily basis. So what she was doing was paying a tontine collector for the service of showing up at her shop everyday and collecting her small amount of cash set aside for savings. He would hold it safely for her for a month and then she would take the total saved up amount back from him, take the day off work and go deposit it in her bank account. That was the only way she could have the flexibility and negotiability that budgeting on her irregular cash flow required and still access the benefits of a secure safe interest earning savings account at the bank.

Now today I came across this article describing a pilot program in Benin where the private susu (small small) or tontinier, such as that used by the lady in Cote D’Ivoire, have been formalized into a more secure and insured service for the same demographic of informal market women and traders. There’s even a digital component that updates the accounts via the mobile phone.

“The reality is that we can’t be everywhere, and the Susu collectors are near the population. We have to work with them and find the best business model to get them into the formal system.”

Now, this exact same model being piloted by the MFI in Benin may not apply in exactly the same way elsewhere, depending on the conditions prevalent in the operating environment, but its clear that the structures and systems in place at the formal institution can be made more flexible and negotiable – given a “human face” – by working together with the pre-existing informal financial services already in operation.

This behaviour also resembles that seen among the informal cross border traders at the Uganda/Kenya borderland. Teresia who sells clothes under a tree has established a trusted relationship with her mobile money agent. He shows up at closing time to help her transfer her cash into mPesa, thus securing it for her and saving her both time and effort through this personalized service. Though she said she had an account at the bank, it lies dormant, for the same reasons given by the spice seller in Abidjan – “Who can afford to close shop during the day to spend hours at the bank?”

Innovations aimed at increasing inclusion for financial services need not always contain a digital component for them to make a difference for the customer, and lower the barriers to adoption and usage. All it takes is a deeper understanding of the challenges and constraints of the end user in the context of their day to day life.

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.

Zambia’s inclusive approach to various sectors in the informal economy is worth noting

The Zambian government most recently announced that they would provide certificates to illegal (artisanal) miners in order to recognize and formalize their activities. In addition, they were being encouraged to form cooperatives – a legally recognized organizational structure – that would permit further benefits to this informal sector.

Compared to the challenges Ghana is facing with galamsey – the local word for illegal or rather, artisanal mining – one must sit up and take note of Zambia’s decision to lower the barriers to inclusion rather than build the walls higher to protect large scale formal extractive industries.

And mining isn’t the only sector to be so considered by the Zambian government. There was an announcement last year of their intent to legalize street vending – the bane of all developing country cities – and bring vendors – mostly women with families to support – within the formal employment and revenue net.

I looked for updates on this legislation and have yet to find something, though there’s lots of news on managing the street vending and hawking rather than the usual method of chasing them off the streets or confiscating their goods. That in itself gives me hope that we’ll see some pioneering advances from Lusaka.

In fact, there’s an article in the Zambia Daily Mail from a week ago that says “Its the perfect time for vendor training“:

Most of the traders on the streets are women who carry their children along due to lack of caregivers at home. For many women, this vending is considered an extension of their reproductive and domestic role. And so they are willing to risk it all and toil all day so that they could earn enough to cater for the following day’s orders and meals for the family.

However, many of these have dreams, big dreams to grow, provide and educate their children to a level where their offspring will never have to earn from the streets. And with the right training, many, with aspirations to grow their businesses and create a brand for their products, could benefit from financial and business knowledge that they could otherwise not be able to afford.

Some vendors have decided to change from trading in goods that are high-risk (these include foodstuffs such as vegetables and fruits) to those that have less risk such as clothing and other products. However, without any improvement in the level of knowledge of the new trade they are about to engage in, many are likely to fail, and they may return to what they know best, no matter how risky it is. It would therefore be prudent for organisations with the perfect know-how to take this opportunity to offer knowledge that will enable them to make the swap with better planning and more confidence.

Street vending is viewed by many as an economic activity for those with a low level of education. But what the cholera outbreak has taught us is that, if it is left without interventions, the negative effects will spread out and affect the whole nation.

The training I am suggesting could include assistance with regard to business registration, opening companies, tax remittances and branding of businesses, among other things.

I can’t help but underline all that is being said, and express my hope that other cities – Lagos, Nairobi, I’m looking at you – will take a leaf from Lusaka’s book.

East African Imports in rural Rwanda?

This highway ‘storefront’ in rural Rwanda made me wonder if the trader had imported his goods rather than purchased them locally. And, further, if they were imports from Kenya.

First, unlike the majority of such roadside shops, he is dealing with multiple products – while all are related to home decor, they are made of vastly different materials – wood, ceramic, plastic flowers. This is so rare that one can say he’s one of the handful such displays I’ve seen. This gives rise to the conjecture that he’s spread his inventory investment across a price range – from a full double bed to a bunch of flowers – to cater to the range of customer expectations on the road. And, that in itself is a sign that he’s purchased them from different dealers as people tend to specialize in product lines they trade in.

Second, it resembles the product lines along Ngong Road in Nairobi far more than the what I saw being locally produced. That made me wonder if these had been imported across the borders – which also underlines the careful display and the choice of the highway to capture the attention of wider variety of customers with differing wallet sizes than just his hometown market.

Today, 5 years after that trip through Rwanda, I’ll never know, but I can wonder out loud, can’t I?