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?
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.