Archive for the ‘China’ Category

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As global firms (MNC) pull back from emerging markets, what does this mean for Africa?

tumblr_nwsbz0ytDw1qghc1jo1_500Last week’s issue of The Economist drilled down deeper to cover the retreat of globalization – at least in the most visible form, that of the multinational brands dotting cityscapes around the world. The retreat of the global company, they trumpet, the end of Theodore Levitt’s vision.

Credit Suisse takes a concise yet comprehensive look at these weak signals in their well-written report that frames the situation as a transitional tug of war between globalization and multipolarity – an inflection point, rather than a retreat. They make it sound like missing the turn at an intersection and having to come back to the traffic lights to figure out which way to go.

Duncan Green of Oxfam captured the essence well:

But the deeper explanation is that both the advantages of scale and those of arbitrage have worn away. Global firms have big overheads; complex supply chains tie up inventory; sprawling organisations are hard to run. Some arbitrage opportunities have been exhausted; wages have risen in China; and most firms have massaged their tax bills as low as they can go. The free flow of information means that competitors can catch up with leads in technology and know-how more easily than they used to. As a result firms with a domestic focus are winning market share.

In the “headquarters countries”, the mood changed after the financial crisis. Multinational firms started to be seen as agents of inequality. They created jobs abroad, but not at home. The profits from their hoards of intellectual property were pocketed by a wealthy shareholder elite. Political willingness to help multinationals duly lapsed.

Of all those involved in the spread of global businesses, the “host countries” that receive investment by multinationals remain the most enthusiastic.

The first thing to note is that the global MNCs being considered by The Economist are primarily the legacy ones  – fast food chains like McDonalds and KFC (Yum Brands) – whose shiny logos used to represent the liberalization of the closed markets of India and China.

Even at powerhouses such as Unilever, General Electric (GE), PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble, foreign profits are down by a quarter or more from their peak.

or the few examples of emerging market brands that have gone global such as China’s Lenovo which purchased IBM’s Thinkpad and India’s Airtel which bought into the African market.

What’s being touted as their competition are regional brands, who aren’t as stretch out globally in terms of their supply chains, and less vulnerable to currency volatility. Further, the majority of these global brands are heavily dependent on their B2C marketing and sales – the question of whether they ever managed to understand their new markets is a topic for another post.

And so, we ask, what will this mean for the emerging economies of Africa, who are only now seeing the first fruits of FDI? Who will come and develop their consumer markets?

India and China apparently. And strategically – through unbranded affordable commodities and the acquisition of successful regional consumer brands – rather than the legacy MNC approach influenced by Levitt. Even Japan recognizes this, as they seek to piggyback on the Indian experience.The economics of scale that propelled the first rounds of growth for the manufacturers of washing machines and the automobiles never did make sense infrastructurally for the majority of the African consumer markets.

Instead, the patterns pointed out by The Economist and Credit Suisse imply that opportunities will lie among regional stars – Equity Bank of Kenya, for instance, whose regional footprint is surely but steadily creeping outwards across the East African Community and trading partners – or, the telcom brands such as Tigo (Millicom) who innovate for each of their local markets.

The jobs and exports that can be attributed to multinationals are already a diminishing part of the story. In 2000 every billion dollars of the stock of worldwide foreign investment represented 7,000 jobs and $600m of annual exports. Today $1bn supports 3,000 jobs and $300m of exports.

Godrej, for instance would be considered a regional Indian giant rather than a multinational in the conventional sense of a Unilever or P&G.

Where [MNCs] get constrained is, they are driven by lot of processes that are global. For a smaller organisation like us, we are completely empowered; decision-making is quick and we can initiate changes very fast. We are more agile and have an advantage over them.

Yet their expansion outside India shows a “pick and choose” strategy of markets they’re comfortable entering.

The group’s acquisition strategy hinges on identifying unlisted companies built by entrepreneurs looking for capital, picking up stakes and working with them to scale up their businesses.

At least two homegrown Kenyan FMCG brands – skincare by a global giant and cosmetics by private equity – have been acquired. As have snack foods, spices, dairy products, and other products that cater to local tastes. The best known being Fan Milk of West Africa. Private equity such as Abraaj make no bones about going after consumer driven opportunities.

Given these choices, sustainable African businesses who understand their consumer markets have an opportunity to establish their brands and grow – with the financial help that’s strategically becoming available.While Chinese imports make the market highly competitive and price conscious, fish and tyres are substitutable goods in a way skincare and cosmetics are not.

African consumer companies – formal, informal, or semi-almost there-formal – need to hustle right now.

The retreat of the MNCs offers a chance to exhale, and expand, and grow, but the advent of the East implies waking up to the need for serious strategic thinking about domestic comparative and competitive advantage – one of which is incomparable knowledge of local consumers, culture, and needs, and critically, experience of their vast informal sectors and cash intensive economies.

Le commerce direct des produits fabriqués en Chine est-il susceptible de perturber le marché des consommateurs africains?

This article has been translated into the French by Yacine Bio-Tchané

La première plateforme d’e-commerce spécialisée dans la vente directe des produits fabriqués en Chine vient d’être lancée au Togo, un pays de l’Afrique de l’Ouest. Coincé tout comme la République du Bénin entre deux grands pays davantage connus, le Nigeria et le Ghana,le Togo est un petit pays francophone d’environ 7 millions d’habitants.

frenchComme l’énonce l’article :
« Nous voulons être les pionniers du commerce électronique au Togo et tirer parti de la forte coopération multiforme entre la Chine et le Togo, le premier pays carrefour commercial en Afrique de l’Ouest “, a déclaré Yuan Li, fondateur de JMSA-MALL, à Xinhua vendredi dernier à Lomé.
«Nous faisons la promotion d’échanges commerciaux directs, entre les clients africains et les commerçants chinois, de produits authentiques chinois à des prix intéressants “, a-t-il expliqué.

Des appareils électroniques jusqu’aux machines agricoles, la plate-forme offre une large gamme de produits chinois, qui sont vendus au Togo, ainsi que dans plusieurs autres pays de la sous-région tels que le Bénin, le Niger, le Ghana et le Burkina Faso.

Toutes les principales cartes de crédit sont acceptées comme mode de paiement ainsi que le système de paiement local via mobile money – Flooz (Moov). Il y a une politique de garantie avantageuse, et les articles sont entreposés à leur arrivée dans un bâtiment local pour les livraisons, au cas où l’article commandé n’est pas déjà disponible en stock dans leur entrepôt local. En outre, JMSA-MALL offre aux PME locales l’occasion de vendre leurs marchandises à travers leur plateforme. En apparence, cela semble bien – en supprimant les intermédiaires, ils peuvent offrir des meilleurs prix.

Yacine Bio-Tchané, notre collègue béninoise a aussi ses marques à Lomé. Ensemble, nous avons discuté de l’impact potentiel de ce lancement dans le contexte local, ainsi que des implications plus larges. Voici quelques réflexions:

Est-ce que cette plate-forme de vente « directe au consommateur» a un impact sur les commerçants locaux qui se rendent en Chine pour se procurer leurs produits?

Yacine a fait observer qu’à partir du moment où la plate-forme vend tout, des appareils électroniques aux machines agricoles, si certains éléments coûteux et lourds ne sont pas facilement disponibles au Togo, mais pour lesquels il existe une demande,ils peuvent être achetés en ligne et les utilisateurs pourront profiter de cette occasion. Aller à la Chine, identifier le bon produit au bon prix et l’expédier au Togo est long et coûteux (1). La plate-forme e-commerce réduit considérablement les coûts de transaction, ce qui la rend très attractive pour les acheteurs locaux.

Les produits chinois sont connus pour être moins cher (en prix et parfois en qualité) que les autres produits de sorte qu’ils sont très compétitifs et accessibles à de nombreux Togolais, surtout compte tenu du faible pouvoir d’achat. Si, au lieu d’aller au marché et de se promener à la recherche de ces produits, tout le monde pouvait acheter en ligne, les gens préfèreraient le faire. Cependant, alors que le Togo a 67% de pénétration des téléphones mobiles, moins de 10% de la population a accès à l’internet. Cela implique que la solution de commerce électronique est accessible à peu de personnes, mais cela pourrait déclencher une utilisation accrue de l’Internet par les commerçants.

Bien que l’article ne dise pas quels sont les principaux acheteurs (nationalité), il dit qu’ils couvrent plusieurs pays. Il ne serait pas surprenant de voir que la demande soit plus orientéevers le Ghana par exemple.

Le commerce direct de la Chine crée des marchandises

D’autre part, étant donné les coûts, le temps et les tracas pour aller en Chine à la source et expédier des produits à vendre au pays, cette plate-forme pourrait être attrayante pour les commerçants locaux eux-mêmes, à la fois au Togo, et au niveau régional. Comme le fait remarquer Yacine, la demande pourrait ne pas émaner du Togo même mais plutôt des pays voisins. Selon le fondateur de la plate-forme, le Togo est une plaque tournante du commerce en Afrique de l’Ouest pour la Chine.

La Chine a accru le commerce et les relations diplomatiques avec le Togo au cours de la dernière décennie. Il est même dit que la Chine est devenue le premier partenaire financier du pays. Les entreprises chinoises opèrent dans les industries, l’agriculture, le commerce et la construction. Ils créent de l’emploi et sont en concurrence avec des entreprises locales dans la vente de certains produits tels que les tissus.

Le fait que cette plateforme d’e-commerce soit tournée vers les consommateurs et qu’elle soit soutenue par un entrepôt local rempli de marchandises produits par la Chine est symbolique. Pour Yacine, le message le plus fort que la plateforme envoie est que les Chinois sont entièrement installés au Togo. Ce genre d’investissement à long terme, associé à leurs investissements accrus dans les industries, est déterminant. La Chine n’est plus un simple partenaire qui vient pour des projets périodiques, maintenant c’est un acteur important qui influe sur le comportement des consommateurs. Elle est sa propre image de marque, avec le lancement de ce consommateur face à la boutique en ligne.

Géographiquement, le Togo est bien placé pour toucher facilement l’Afrique de l’Ouest anglophone et francophone. L’e-commerce est déjà en train de décoller de façon exponentielle sur le marché géant du Nigeria, mais il en est encore à gagner du terrain dans les autres pays voisins. La Côte-d’Ivoire a quelques acquis, mais elle est encore à ces premiers jours. Traditionnellement, les Chinois ont attendu que les marchés soient à maturité avant de les inonder avec leurs prix plus bas – le marché du téléphone mobile illustre cela.
Ce lancement de la plateforme semble précoce pour les perspectives de l’e-commerce (de même que les paiements mobiles), mais pas du point de vue des tendances du marché et du commerce mondial.

Les industries manufacturières de la Chine ressentent les effets rétrécissement du marché mondial, et les problèmes de surcapacité. Le marché intérieur a toujours l’axe majeur de leur développement, ceci semble êtreleur première tentative sur un autre marché. Le commerce informel entre l’Afrique et la Chine n’a pas entièrement été sous le radar –les compagnies aériennes africaines et chinoises ont été les premières à répondre à la demande. En outre, il y a d’autres changements en cours de réalisation qui impacteront directementl’Afrique de l’Ouest, comme cerécentarticle de CNN le montre:

Au cours des 18 derniers mois, bien que des chiffres concrets soient difficiles à trouver, des centaines – peut-être même des milliers – d’Africains sont soupçonnés par les habitants et les chercheurs d’avoir quitté Guangzhou.

La dépréciation du dollar dans les pays d’Afrique occidentale dépendante du pétrole, associée à la politique d’immigration hostile de la Chine, le racisme généralisé, ainsi que le ralentissement et l’échéance économie, indique que Guangzhou perd son avantage concurrentiel. […] Alors que la Chine devient moins rentable, de nombreux Africains ressentent avec plus d’acuité les aspects négatifs de la vie la bas.

Si la montagne ne peut pas soutenir Mahomet, pourrait-elle au moins réduire les coûts en construisant des entrepôts appuyés par des marchés en ligne? Les centres d’entreposage de marchandises chinoises ne sont pas inédits sur le continent africain, l’Afrique australe dispose déjà d’un certain nombre, tandis qu’il a été dévoilé que la Chine finance la plate-forme logistique de la Tanzanie. Comme l’a déclaré le fondateur de JMALL, cette “plaque tournante du commerce qu’est le Togo semble être un nouveau pays partenaire. Est-ce que la plateforme d’e-commerce est un projet pilote pour tester efficacementle coût régional du marketing B2C?

Les géants du e-commerce Chinois comme Alibaba ont montré la voie avec les efforts de leur agent pour ouvrir les marchés ruraux difficiles de l’arrière-continent. C’est seulement une question de temps avant qu’un autre type d’intermédiaires n’apparaisse au Togo (et ailleurs) et offre des services similaires pour faciliter le commerce. Cette fois, cependant, ce sera depuis le confort de leur pays d’origine, car ils assistent les commerçants et les consommateurs avec les achats en ligne. Pris ensemble avec des investissements continus dans les systèmes de paiement via mobile money, les initiatives d’inclusion financière et l’utilisation du modèle d’agence – la Chine semble avoir saisi un excellent espace d’opportunité à explorer.


(1) Voici un documentaire qui suit un commerçant congolais pendant son shopping à Guangzhou, en Chine, cherche à remplir son conteneur avec des marchandises exportables. Il donne une assez bonne idée de l’expérience client.

Will Cross Border Mobile Money Boost intra African Trade and Regional Integration?

cross border MMTOver the past 18 months, since I started tracking the spread of cross border mobile money payments across the African continent, there has been visible progress in leaps and bounds, as documented by the GSMA. In fact, back then, I’d written:

Top down reportage on banking and interoperability seems to focus only on the customer’s individual needs, and overlooks their agency as entrepreneurs, traders and business people.

The map above has been taken from the GSMA’s Mobile Economy 2015 report, and the 2016 report reproduces it as well. Now, the role of mobile money transfers in facilitating cross border and intra African trade is finally being recognized for its potential and cost savings. Author Ashly Hope lays out clearly the high cost of remitting money in the SADC region:

cost of remittance sadcSouth Africa and Tanzania are the largest sources of remittance, yet their transaction costs are significantly higher than the Sub Saharan average of 9.7% (which in turn is the most expensive region in the world where the average cost is now ~7.4%). And this is only one regional grouping.

It is when we look at the penetration of mobile money, that we see something that hints at the digital economy emerging in East Africa (birthplace of Mpesa in case you weren’t aware).

Given teh pace of change, we can safely assume that the figures given above have only increased since 2014. Tanzania’s mobile money market has been frequently cited for its growth and opportunity – it is also outstanding for the level of interoperability within the telco ecosystem.

In the previous article, we noted that Tanzania had just flagged off a Chinese funded regional logistics and trade hub which would include a local footprint for the distribution and sales of China made goods in the form of a warehouse.

“The trade hub will also help Tanzanians especially women to buy products here instead of travelling all the way to China, hence cutting costs down,” said Ms Janet Mbene, Deputy Minister of Industries & Trade.

Savings on travel and shipping is bound to translate into increased inventory purchases, and thus value and/or volume of goods traded. Taking the context of the entire East African Community’s “informal” cross border trade, and the visualization of the interconnections now provided by various mobile money transfer systems in the map above, one can safely start to forecast the potential gains to both traders, and the telcos, as the landscape of the local operating environment begins to change in response to infrastructure investments.

Whether this potential opportunity is exploited by the region’s traders, or overlooked and missed due to the existing digital divide, is the question that remains to be answered. The EAC’s mobile economy (~96% prepaid) needs to start thinking of itself as more than just telco led and impact hub driven, and get down to the ground at the fringes for the future.

Will Direct Access to China-made Goods Disrupt Trade in West Africa’s Consumer Market?

jmsamallThe first e-commerce platform for direct trade of China made products has just been launched in the West African country of Togo. Squeezed together with the Benin Republic between the larger, and better known countries of Nigeria and Ghana, Togo is a small francophone country of around 7 million people. Per the article:

“We want to be the pioneer of e-commerce in Togo and to capitalize on the strong multifaceted cooperation between China and Togo, a premier trade hub country in West Africa”, Yuan Li, founder of JMSA-MALL, told Xinhua Friday in Lomé.

“We are promoting a direct trade of genuine Chinese products with fair price between the African customers and the sellers in China,” he explained.

From electronic devices to farm machines, the platform offers a wide range of Chinese products, which are sold in Togo as well as other countries like Benin, Niger, Ghana and Burkina Faso in the region.

All major credit cards are accepted for payment as well as the local mobile money payment system – Flooz. There’s a generous return policy, and shipments arrive at a local brick and mortar shopfront for pickup and returns. That is, if the item ordered isn’t already available in stock at their local warehouse. Furthermore, JMSA-MALL offers local SMEs an opportunity to sell their wares through their platform. On the surface, this looks good – by cutting out the middleman, they can offer lower prices.

Yacine Bio-Tchane, our Beninois colleague also has a footprint in Lome, Togo. She and I discussed the potential impact of this launch in the local context, as well the broader implications in general. Here are some thoughts:

Will this ‘Direct to Consumer’ (DTC) platform have impact on local traders who travel to China for goods?

Yacine made the observation that since the platform sells everything from electronic devices to farm machines, if some pricey and heavy items are not readily available in Togo but for which there is a demand can be bought online, users will take advantage of that opportunity. Going to China, identifying the right product at a good price and shipping it back to Togo is timely and costly (1). The e-commerce platform significantly reduces transaction costs, which makes it very interesting for local buyers.

Chinese products are known to be cheaper (in price and sometimes quality) than other products so they are highly competitive and accessible to many Togolese, especially given the low purchasing power. If, instead of going to the market and walking around in search of those products, anyone can buy it online, people will prefer doing so. However, while Togo has 67% penetration of mobile phones, less than 10% of the population has access to internet. This implies that few consumers have access to the ecommerce solution but it could trigger an increased use of internet from traders interested in China made goods. Although the article doesn’t say who the top buyers are (nationality), it would not be surprising to see that increase in demand is being pulled by Ghana.

Direct trade of China made goods

On the other hand, given the costs, time, and hassles of going to China to source and ship products back home for sale, this platform might be attractive to local traders themselves, both in Togo, and regionally. As Yacine observes, demand might not be from Togo itself but rather the neighbouring countries. As the founder of the platform says himself, Togo is a critical trade hub in West Africa for China.

China has increased trade and diplomatic relations with Togo in the past decade. It is even said that China has become the first financial partner to the country. Chinese companies operate in industries, agriculture, commerce and construction. They create employment and compete with local companies in selling certain products such as fabrics.

The fact that this e-commerce platform is a B2C marketplace backed by a local warehouse full of China made goods is a signal of this investment. For Yacine, the strongest message the launch of this platform has sent is that the Chinese are fully settled in Togo. That kind of long term investment, coupled with their increased investments in industries is a game changer. China is no more a simple partner coming in for projects but has now become an important actor with influence on consumer behaviour. This is a big pivot in its brand.

west_africa_2_storyGeographically, Togo is well positioned to easily access both anglophone and francophone West Africa. E-commerce has been taking off exponentially in the giant market of Nigeria, but has yet to gain traction in other neighbouring countries. Ivory Coast has seen some gains, but it’s in an early stage. Traditionally, the Chinese have waited for markets to mature before flooding it with their lower priced variations – the mobile phone market is one such example. The launch of this platfrom seems rather early from the e-commerce (and mobile payments) perspective but not from the point of view of global trade and market forces.

China’s manufacturing industries are feeling the pinch of shrinking global trade, and the problems of over capacity. The domestic market has been one major focus for development; this initiative seems like an attempt at creating another. Consumer goods trade between Africa and China has not entirely been under the radar – both African and Chinese airlines were the first to respond to demand. Further, there are other changes afoot that directly impact West Africa, as this recent article from CNN shows:

Over the past 18 months, although concrete numbers are hard to come by, hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of Africans are believed by locals and researchers to have exited Guangzhou.

A dollar drought in oil-dependent West African nations, coupled with China’s hostile immigration policies, widespread racism, and at-once slowing and maturing economy, means Guangzhou is losing its competitive edge. […] As China becomes less profitable, many Africans feel the downsides of living there more acutely.

If the mountain cannot support Mahomet, could it cut costs by building warehouses fronted by online marketplaces? Warehouse centres for China made goods are not new to the African continent, southern Africa has quite a few, while Tanzania’s China funded logistics hub has just been flagged off. The JMALL founder’s opening statement positions Togo as another such ‘trade hub’ in West Africa. Is this e-commerce platform a pilot to test regional B2C marketing cost effectively?

Chinese e-commerce giants like Alibaba have shown the way with their agent led efforts to open up the challenging rural markets of the mainland’s hinterlands. It’s only a matter of time before a different kind of intermediary springs up in Togo (and elsewhere) offering similar agent services to facilitate trade. This time, however, it’ll be from the comfort of their home countries, as they assist traders and consumers with online purchases. Taken together with ongoing investments in mobile money payment systems, financial inclusion initiatives, and the utilization of the agency model – China seems to have grasped an excellent opportunity space to begin exploring.


(1) Here’s a documentary following a Congolese trader during her shopping spree in Guangzhou, China, looking to fill her container with tradeable goods. It offers us insight on her customer experience.

This article has been translated into the French by Yacine Bio-Tchané

Africa’s world trade: Informal economies and globalization from below by Margaret C. Lee

Margaret-C-Lee-Africas-World-Trade1The entire text of Professor Margeret C. Lee’s work is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) Licence. Clicking on the cover will take you directly to the PDF.

Chapter 3 takes the reader through a journey to different countries of Africa, including Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Cameroon. The reader is introduced to African traders in the markets in several African countries that trade in Chinese goods. Some of the traders actually go to China to buy goods for their shops, some import them from surrounding countries, and others buy them wholesale directly from the Chinese in their respective countries. What is perhaps most fascinating about many of these traders is the networks they have for the distribution of their goods – these traders serve as suppliers of Chinese goods to traders who come from surrounding countries to buy in bulk to sell in their respective shops.

We learn a great deal in this chapter about Africa’s world trade regimes and how globalization from below operates in this part of the world. Again, African traders, through their stories, humanize these regimes for us

Trade in East Africa – A very short introduction to a very long history

800px-Indo-Roman_tradeWho were the pioneers who opened up the trade routes that criss cross the seas and deep into the interior from the ancient ports of Zanzibar and Mombasa? We don’t know who these intrepid sailors must have been, making their profit from rich Roman’s wives seeking Indian silks and spices, but the African continent’s eastern shores were known to traders at the very beginning of the Common Era (CE).

Azania is the name that has been applied to various parts of southeastern tropical Africa. In the Roman period and perhaps earlier, the toponym referred to a portion of the Southeast African coast extending from Kenya, to perhaps as far south as Tanzania. Azania was known to the Chinese as Zésàn (澤散) by the 3rd century. Even China’s most famous explorer, Zheng He only reached Malindi a few decades before Da Gama’s voyage in 1497.

IndianOceanMaritimeRoutesEast African coastal cities participated in a larger Afro-Asian trade network a thousand years before Vasco Da Gama peeked around the Cape of Good Hope to find the way to sail to India. Gujarati traders were already criss-crossing the ocean for biashara with the Swahili Coast of Eastern Africa. As far back as the 3rd c. CE, the banana, domesticated in India, came to Madagascar (and thence to the African continent) as part of the broad Afro-Asian/Indian Ocean trading community.(1) By the 13th Century, Africa was well integrated in the global trading pattern.

indianoceanroutesTrade flourished in the Indian Ocean as East Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China, the Spice Islands participated in a thriving commercial network that encompassed both overland and maritime routes. Asian and Arab sailors mastered the monsoon wind patterns of the Indian Ocean to capitalize on commercial opportunities.

History has finally found a name for one them, present at the dawn of the age of colonization – Kanji Malam – the merchant sailor from the ancient port of Mandvi on the coast of the Indian state of Gujarat who showed Da Gama how to cross the ocean to India from Malindi on the Kenyan coast. These hazy but deep links of trading history are captured here by the Friends of Mombasa.

00a7d3c793fbbd2e9f45e28b18dffb02East Africa was part and parcel of the trade and served as “cross cultural agents” in the global commercial networks of that era. The Swahili Coast is the best known of these multicultural trading societies.

The Coast of East Africa has had a long history of trade, involving constant exchanges of ideas, style and commodities for well over two thousand years. Marriage between women of Africa and men of the East created and cemented a rich Swahili culture, fusing urban and agricultural communities, rich in architecture, textiles, and food, as well as purchasing power.(2)

zanzibar map coast

Further inland, the Kamba, of what is now Kenya, and the Nyamwezi of erstwhile Tangayika, formed the trader’s networks that linked the ports of the Swahili Coast to the wealth of the heart of Africa.(Roberts, 1970; Cummings, 1975)  Copper from Katanga vied with ivory and gold to pay for the textiles and metals. Caravan routes laid down in centuries past are reflected in the roads and rails of today.

The pioneers of all the major routes were African traders. Nyamwezi caravans from central Tanzania, reaching the coast about 1800, developed the most important route from their homeland to Bagamoyo on the mainland directly opposite Zanzibar. Kamba ivory traders from central Kenya opened a route that ended at Mombasa. Eventually, this route crossed Kamba and Maasai country, branching east towards Uganda and north to Lake Turkana. The oldest route stretched from Yao country to Kilwa. (3)

With the Global North’s industrialization of the slave trade and colonization came the top down administration of the formal economy, as the need for manual labour spelt the beginning of the end of these ancient caravans of trade.

You may also enjoy The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World.

Roadmap for reverse innovation – how to leverage context for disruption

Vijay Govindarajan and Amos Winter have an interesting article in the July/August issue of Harvard Business Review. They identify the barriers to successfully integrating reverse innovation from emerging markets into the product pipeline for mainstream consumer culture. Their key paragraph echoes the issues of people, pesa and place I’d written about earlier:

Our research suggests that the problem stems from a failure to grasp the unique economic, social, and technical contexts of emerging markets. At most Western companies, product developers, who spend a lifetime creating offerings for people similar to themselves, lack a visceral understanding of emerging market consumers, whose spending habits, use of technologies, and perceptions of status are very different.

And they go on to identify the common mental traps that act as barriers to innovation.

As we will show in the following pages, the reverse innovation process succeeds when engineering creatively intersects with strategy. Companies can capture business opportunities only when they design appropriate products or services and understand the business case for them.

I’ve annotated the design principles developed by an engineer and a strategist with a soupçon of human centred design *cough* thinking below:

Trap 1: Trying to match market segments to existing products.

Design Principle 1: Define the problem independent of solutions.

Tech driven innovationCompanies tend naturally to look at opportunities from the perspective of their the product lines, placing their technology front and center of their opportunity assessment. Govindarajan and Winter suggest stepping back to evaluate the landscape of the operating environment for which they wish to innovate.

Trap 2: Trying to reduce the price by eliminating features.

Design Principle 2: Create an optimal solution, not a watered-down one, using the design freedoms available in emerging markets.

torchlight-phonesWhich designer sitting in the comfort of the developed world’s stable and reliable infrastructure would have thought of adding a torch to a mobile phone if Nokia’s exploratory user researchers had not observed people’s behaviour? In developing countries with inadequate infrastructure, power cuts are a frequent occurrence and the bright screen of the device in your pocket was being used by people to find the keyhole in the door.

Trap 3: Forgetting to think through all the technical requirements of emerging markets.

Design Principle 3: Analyze the technical landscape behind the consumer problem.

This is really why a landscape map of the operating environment is critical (and yes, I’ll be following up with a post that explains a landscape map). No-one can remember all the constraints and criteria for product design in environments of scarcity and variance in infrastructure. Whirlpool was one of the first to discover this with their World Washer designed specifically for emerging markets 25 years ago. From Govindarajan and Winter:

When designing offerings for the developing world, engineers assume they’re dealing with the same technical landscape that they are in the developed world. But while the laws of science may be the same everywhere, the technical infrastructure is very different in emerging markets. Engineers must understand the technical factors behind problems there—the physics, the chemistry, the energetics, the ecology, and so on—and conduct rigorous analyses to determine the viability of possible solutions.

It boils down to listing assumptions and questioning them rigorously, something engineers are already accustomed to doing. And, now, my favourite of all these traps and principles.

Trap 4: Neglecting stakeholders.

Many multinationals seem to think that all they need to do to educate product designers about consumers’ needs and desires is to parachute them into an emerging market for a few days; drive them around a couple of cities, villages, and slums; and allow them to observe the locals. Those perceptions will be enough to develop products that people will purchase, they assume. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Design Principle 4: Test products with as many stakeholders as possible.

Companies would do well to map out the entire chain of stakeholders who will determine a product’s success, at the beginning of the design process. In addition to asking who the end user will be and what he or she needs, companies must consider who will make the product, distribute it, sell it, pay for it, repair it, and dispose of it. This will help in developing not just the product but also a scalable business model.


Complex Value Web of Transactions in Cash, Kind and Information. Sketch: Michael Kimani

There are two key assumptions embedded in Trap #4 and its supporting Design Principle. These are:

1. End users are individual actors.
2. That the ecosystem is a conventional value chain

This may be true in the highly individualized mainstream consumer culture of “the West” where the bulk of consumer facing organizations and their designers head quartered. In most of the developing world, users – people – are part of a closely networked community, more true the lower down the income stream you go. Not only must organizations consider the entire ecosystem in which their new product or service will be introduced but they need to consider the individual customer’s social and communal ecosystem as well.

Understanding Users

The Individual as an Ecosystem Sketch: Jeroen Meijer

In fact, as we discovered in the last mile, the value chain is actually a complex value web with overlapping nodes and roles – a community of trust, social capital, information flow and opportunity networks.

Overlooking these characteristics and constraints, that too in the context of the informal and/or rural economy, where transactions are mostly in cash or kind, with few formal financial instruments, has impact on the design of the business model and payment plans as well, not just that of a tangible artefact.

Which leads us to the final and most important point being made by Govindarajan and Winter:

Trap 5: Refusing to believe that products designed for emerging markets could have global appeal.

Design Principle 5: Use emerging market constraints to create global winners.

Though most Western companies know that the business world has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, they still don’t realize that its center of gravity has pretty much shifted to emerging markets. China, India, Brazil, Russia, and Mexico are all likely to be among the world’s 12 largest economies by 2030, and any company that wants to remain a market leader will have to focus on consumers there. Chief executives have no choice but to start investing in the infrastructure, processes, and people needed to develop products in emerging markets.

And, critically, India, China, Brazil and Russia, among others, are all eyeing the opportunities in the emerging economies of the African continent. Understanding these challenging conditions and satisfying the demands of these connected consumers will become all the more crucial going forward.

Why the Search for the Middle Class is a Waste of Time and Money

CJamzx5WsAANOgfOnce we stop focusing only on the search for the mythical middle class, we see the very real changes that have taken place, globally, over the past 25 years. The Pew Report in the previous post focused primarily on the middle income/middle class, overlooking in their haste that even this segment of the world’s population had almost doubled from 7% to 13%. Their rationale is based on conventional thinking which frames the importance of this middle income demographic so:

Developing a vast middle class is key to sustaining growth in emerging economies, whose comparative advantage in offering advanced markets products at a fraction of the cost is waning with new technologies.

Just a couple of days before this Pew report, the United Nations released an important global development report. Here, we can see the real changes that have taken place in historically poverty stricken populations like India’s and China’s:

More than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1990 with China and India playing a central role in global poverty reduction, a major UN report has said

The latest estimates show that the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day globally fell from 36 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent in 2011. Projections indicate that the global extreme poverty rate has fallen further, to 12 per cent, as of 2015.

The poverty rate in the developing regions has plummeted, from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2015, a drop of more than two thirds.

“The world’s most populous countries, China and India, played a central role in the global reduction of poverty. As a result of progress in China, the extreme poverty rate in Eastern Asia has dropped from 61 per cent in 1990 to only 4 per cent in 2015,” the report said.

“Southern Asia’s progress is almost as impressive — a decline from 52 per cent to 17 per cent for the same period — and its rate of reduction has accelerated since 2008,” it said.

Who cares about the middle class and their mythical relationship to economic growth and progress when the data shows that poverty has been halved, and a billion people can dream of hope. If this middle class were genuinely related to economic growth then we wouldn’t be seeing these conflicting headlines. From the same article that touts the need for a middle middle as critical to growth, already linked above, and referencing the Pew Research report.

India’s middle class barely expanded during the decade, increasing from 1 per cent of the population in 2001 to 3 per cent in 2011, an increase the study called ”small by any measure.”

While the Indian economy is currently said to be so:

India is seeing “stable growth momentum” even as economic activities are expected to slow down in China, the US and many other major economies, says Paris-based think tank OECD.

Last month, OECD — a grouping of 34 countries — had pegged India’s growth to remain “strong and stable” at 7.3 per cent in 2015 on the back of revival in investments.

India has surpassed China to become the world’s fastest growing economy by clocking 7.5 per cent growth for the three months ended March. In 2014-15, the economy had expanded 7.3 per cent.

Earlier this month, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the country is no longer satisfied being in the 6 to 8 per cent growth.

“It wants to transcend to another level and aim for 8 to 10 per cent growth… We wish to grow faster because we have a huge challenge of eradicating poverty ahead of us,” he had said.

Given the imperative to push hundreds of millions above the poverty line – far more important to a developing country like India, a historically poverty stricken country – worrying about the mythical middle class is the least of the government’s problems. India’s NREGA is the world’s largest public works programme, benefiting 182 million human beings, only 15% of the country’s population.

This begs the question: “Is growing a vast middle class really key to sustainable growth?

India didn’t grow one (sounds rather like a beard, doesn’t it?) as large as or as fast as China, yet India’s economic indicators seem to be healthier and its population emerging out of abject poverty.

One wonders whether the continued emphasis and focus on chasing the middle class dream not only blinds us to the very real social and economic developments taking place but also whether its a corporate imperative rather than a societal one?

In the long run, will more noodles and biscuits matter, or the fact that more girls are going to school, studying computers and English?

This same single minded search for a middle class is creating its own set of repercussions on the African continent. One gets the feeling there’s a bunch of folks wandering around dazed and confused, groping and grasping blindly for something called “middle class”. Again, overlooked in this game of blind man’s buff are data points like Kenya’s recent emergence as a lower middle income country – the World Bank upgraded it from low income last month:

“Our latest data show that in terms of this indicator, the world’s economic geography has changed a lot. In 1994, 56.1% of the world’s population – 3.1 billion people – lived in the 64 low-income countries. In 2014, this was down to 8.5%, or 613 million people, living in 31 countries. It is heartening to see that over the last one year itself four nations crossed over that critical line from the low-income to the lower-middle income category.”

But, no, lets go chasing the mythical middle instead. On paper, and in the numerous reports churned out by management consultancies, they might be easiest demographic to sell consumer goods to, but as I’d asked 8 years ago, is the holy grail of economic development only the creation of a consumer society? And, is it something that can be realistically aimed for, given the rapidly dwindling natural resources of our planet?

Global tipping point in development

Two years ago, I’d written the following words:

Finally, enough people in enough places have managed to lift themselves free of the gravity well sucking them down into completely insecure and uncertain relationship with the poverty line (aka the next meal or three for the entire family) that they can plan ahead for the next purchase or investment in their future economic status and social standing. One is not independent of the other, especially not in the closely knit, hyper local social networks in rural regions of the developing world.

What we’re in fact seeing are the metrics that demonstrate that tipping point I’d sensed a couple of years ago, while wandering around rural Kenya.

People, not consumers, are bootstrapping themselves out of poverty and feeling steady enough to make a leap for the brass ring of prosperity. The shift is so huge – 700 million people or 10% of the planet’s population – that we’ll be seeing the impact and influence of this emerge over the near term emerging future.

They’ll be neither the Bottom of any Pyramid nor the Middle Class – both measures use metrics too obsolete to account for the leapfrogging taking place in the eternally developing world. What they won’t be is stagnant, or satisfied with their achievements. Pew might say they haven’t come far enough, but who is to say that’s their own metric of success?