Archive for the ‘India’ Category

One (last) word: Plastics

A UN report issued on World Environment day  showed dozens of nations acting to cut plastic, including a ban on plastic bags in Kenya, on styrofoam in Sri Lanka and the use of biodegradable bags in China. via

There’s a backlash against plastics that is ongoing in many not so noticed parts of the world today. So called ‘weak’ signals from three major economies stand out for the impact in the near and emerging future of their policy shifts towards the material use of plastics.

The first is India, where a recent waste audit in Bengaluru showed that over 60% of the waste littering the streets was from non recyclable consumer product packaging by both international and domestic brands. By 2020, India will abolish all single-use plastics, and introduce a campaign against marine litter, among other things.

The EU has also moved to ban the same, and the proposal also requires EU countries to collect 90 percent of single-use plastic drink bottles by 2025 and producers to help cover costs of waste management and clean-up.

China, on the other hand, has caused consternation among nations who relied on shipping their plastics off for recycling. They’ve banned imports of contaminated waste plastic, leaving questions hanging such as “And how do you get manufacturers to design a product that is more easily recyclable.” Though I find this conversation interesting for its consistent and tone deaf externalization of the problem – waste management is certainly a developing country problem, but materials technology and consumer packaging innovation is a developed country design challenge.

With more than 50 countries waking up to the plastics problem, there’s a deeper shift occurring in the air, beyond our critical need to protect wildlife and the oceans. That of dependency on oil – in case you didn’t know, the bulk of plastic is made from oil.

Here’s a quick round up of something of things happening in these major economies with significant chunks of the world’s population.

India has just approved a massive new 5000 megawatt solar farm, and as the map shows, there’s many more out there in the desert wastes. The Chinese and Indian solar farms are 10x the size of those in North America.

The number of electric cars on the road has more than doubled over the last three years, and of the global sales of electric vehicles (EVs) last year, China contributed more than half. And there’s a shift now from blind growth towards more strategic product development, with greater impact. Numerous European marques are opening factories and R&D centers in China. And India’s doing its best to keep up.

What is going to be the impact of these moves, combined, from these three major economies on the planet? The head of Shell’s Scenarios* team has already developed a scenario called Sky “which shows that changing the ways we transport people and goods is one of the crucial steps toward the world meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement — keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels.”

On a planetary scale, these trends are the future, and products and business models that do not adapt to them are going to be increasingly obsolete, or suitable only for walled gardens. The use of Fahrenheit is but one example. Conserving humanity’s collective home is far more important for all our emerging futures.


*Shell originally developed the concept and tools for scenario planning

IKEA in India: Culture Centered Design Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

Moving from Unbranded to Branded

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

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

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

India’s Hidden Middle Class and the MNC Conundrum

The Economist writes a rather breathless take on a theme very popular just over a decade ago – the Great Indian Middle Class so longingly hoped and wished for still hadn’t emerged to satisfy the consumption habits preferred by the global multinational brands. Where were they, the article shrilly asked, unquestioningly promoting China’s middle class as an MNC success and overlooking all the challenges documented theretofore.

There’s an undeniable consumer boom visible across India, I’ve seen it and documented it myself. The difference this time around is that its a “hidden middle” – hidden from the lenses that MNCs use to identify their preferred customer for iPhones and IKEA, pizza and burgers. Having worked for both an MNC – All India advertising for Hewlett-Packard India in 1996, and an advertising agency – McCann Erickson 1994-1996 during the first decade of market liberalization, I discover I’ve so much to say to this Economist nonsense that I’ll bullet point my thoughts below to grasp some order from the ramble.

  • One of the first things I’d noticed in the March 2017 trip was that the style and flavour of the markets we’d used to frequent had changed. There was indeed a consumer majority now but it wasn’t the global elite preferred by MNCs. Where once malls were full of western style wear, and one could identify a woman’s economic and social strata by her fashion choices, these lines had blurred and democratized so much so that the market itself had changed.
  • Aspirational purchasing meant that pricing had to suit the pocket of the ambitious though the clothes were local versions of global styles. Everyone in the city wore western wear, though obviously of Indian cut and make. What I saw happening was what India has always done for centuries – absorb the foreign influence and make it uniquely her own. Its been two decades and the time is about right for the unique Indian middle class to emerge.
  • This hidden middle harks back to the original concept of middle classes – perhaps a factory worker who is now paid enough to maintain a motorcycle, an ATM card, and all the mod cons in his one room home. Or, the now grown up children, educated in English, taking over the discarded jobs of the former English educated elite in the call centers and the banking halls, the plethora of hospitality outlets and airlines, to bring a sheen of polish that hitherto never existed for their parents’ generation.
  • This middle class prefers their spicy Indian food, dolled up in a fast food outlet, looking like a Big Mac but tasting like home. This middle class will add paneer to their pizza and cumin to their soda water. You won’t see them at all if you’re hawking your pineapple on your ham.
  • This middle is 300 million strong I’d agree with the Indian executives mentioned in the Economist article. They can sense it but they can’t deliver it up in the manner that the research reports and multinationals require. That’s why there’s a huge missing middle, the same reason why Africa’s consumers are invisible for the most part, they don’t look like the Consumer nor fit the segmentation attributes.
  • One quick example that ports across cultures and countries is the taxi hailing app divide – there’s a local variant, Ola, that’s 1/3 to 1/5 the price of the global giant, Uber. The Ola driver accepts a variety of payment mechanisms including cash. He said to us that Uber was more popular in the better parts of town and considered an upper class product, while Ola was for everyone, even his own wife. This kind of brand segmentation exists up and down the spectrum of goods and services, rooted as it is in elements of India’s heritage and culture. And the mass majority brands will always take the lion’s share of consumers away from any imported brand. Unilever is quoted in the Economist article but the company had been known as Hindustan Lever for decades before hand and has faced its own struggles with indigenous upstarts like Nirma.

And, I suspect, that global multinationals, barring a few who’ve been around forever and a day, may never really crack the Indian market, just like they haven’t really done what they’d set out to do in China either. An ideal moment, on the other hand, to rethink the consumption driven growth frenzy required of these brands.

NB: The shopkeeper’s sign claims to sell both wholesale and retail.

Savings Groups : Observations on Economic Cooperation and Collaboration in Rural and Informal Conditions

Recently, I was interviewed on communal rural economic behaviour, particularly socially cooperative ones  such as informal savings and lending groups. The questions posed were:

  • How has your opinion of savings group changed over time?
  • Why in your opinion, are people in Africa and Latin America countries (developing countries) predisposed to forming savings groups?
  • What is the importance of appreciating the indigenous financial services of the people of Africa (or anywhere else)?

I enjoyed the conversation reflecting on the lessons learnt over the past decade of primary research on household financial management within context of informal rural economies across continents and countries so much so that I decided to capture my reflections here as an integrated answer to both questions.

On the documentary level, nothing much has changed in the years since I first observed instances of cooperative economic behaviour in rural informal operating environments. Here’s a snippet from the Prepaid Economy Project’s report written in November 2009:

These complex webs of the rural community’s social networks of trust were obvious in the patterns of sharing and cooperation seen in every country. Groups would invest and save together, for example, the extremely sophisticated cooperative ladies lending circle which had expanded over time to include the services of a local bank in India; or the beekeepers cooperative in Malawi where half the annual profits were saved in a common account while the other half was equally shared.

Years later, we’re still documenting the complex webs of social networking and trust in informal economic ecosystems, and the wide variety of organizational structures for financial and economic management.

Its our recognition of the role of such groups, and their contribution to the resilience and the ability of informal economic actors to manage in volatile and uncertain conditions that has evolved, and changed. The layers of knowledge laid down over the years, across the geographies and cultures, now allow me to take a step back from the details of any particular context, and understand the patterns of cooperation, broadly, across continents and cultures.

Furthermore, our own increasing depth and breadth of understanding the highly interdependent networks of commerce and trade within the informal economic ecosystem – from farm gate to cross border trade – have led to us rethinking the concept of the end user, and questioning the assumptions implicit in the way user research is designed for fintech, financial inclusion, and other such related areas.

That is to say, the way my opinion changed regarding savings (etc) groups, over the years, has been to recognize their importance as the basic building block of the rural and/or informal economy in the developing country operating environment, rather than simply observing their behaviour as a means for individual household financial management, as we’d done in the very beginning.

Source Alice’s entire value web can be thought of as an informal economic microsystem

From the human centered design perspective (HCD, or UCD = user centered design), which is the basis for our work here at emerging futures lab, we have begun to consider that the “end user” of our design solutions might as often turn out to be the group, instead of the individual member of that group. This has been the biggest change in my opinion, over time, in answer to the first question

For the remaining two questions, I rapidly sketched this continuum of different types of “informal” groups engaged in financial behaviour as seen in cash intensive, rural, and informal conditions, seen below.

As we have recognized, regardless of continent or community, the group is a basic economic building block. What changes from group to group, depending on its function and its need in the community, is the sophistication of the organizational and money management structure.

On one hand is the simplest form of cooperation – people pool money that one member then receives as a lumpsum to use, only the mechanism of choosing whose turn it is may require some coordination. At the other end are sophisticated economic management structures often with formal registration and recognition.  This includes integration of formal financial institutions and their products – such as leveraging capital in the form of a fixed deposit in a bank for drawing loans, or their services, such as a designated officer from the bank attending chama meetings.

The fact that both simple and sophisticated groups exist within the rural and informal economy imply that the factors that predispose people to turn to cooperative and collaborative solutions for managing their finances in conditions of uncertainty and unpredictability are thus related to factors external to the local culture or society, and have more to do with the similarity of the conditions inherent in the operating environment of the informal and rural economies of the developing world. These include irregular cash flows from a variety of sources, multiple income streams over the course of the natural year, seasonality inherent in agricultural crop cycles, and lack of a social safety net.

Here’s another snippet from the original report of 2009:

Insights derived from the fieldwork lead us to believe that the key factor that makes the ‘prepaid’ transaction model so successful among the BoP is the fact that the decision making is in the hands of the individual. This model gives the end user significant control over time – frequency and periodicity and money – varying amounts, in the hands of the customer and thus fits in with their need to manage their varying cash flow from multiple income sources with a great degree of flexibility.

Furthermore, among rural communities, it was observed that social capital – that is, the community ties and extended networks – plays a significant role in the success of existing informal yet traditional means of borrowing, lending and sharing wealth and expenses.

That is, the negotiability, flexibility, and reciprocity, that trust enables within one’s social ties, is reflected in the prepaid business model that enabled mobile phones to spread rapidly around the world. And it’s this factor that provides the evidence for our assertion that an external business model or payment plan to be introduced into such an informal economic ecosystem succeeds when it resonates with existing forms and structures of financial and economic behaviour.

This is not only why its critical to first observe, document, and understand the existing solutions and behaviours in what may seem to be a financially excluded population, but it provides the keys to the design of sustainable solutions that are successfully adopted and utilized. The bottomline is that the “informal” or the rural isn’t adhoc or chaotic as initial observations might imply, but there are rhythms and structures inherent in the system that may, in fact, be invisible.

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.

Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy in Asia

This is the original working paper of the research conducted on rural household financial management, in developing country conditions, pioneering the use of methods from human centered design for discovery, during Nov 2008 to March 2009, aka the Prepaid Economy Project. It was peer reviewed by Brett Hudson Matthews, and I have incorporated his comments into the PDF.

This research study was carried out with the aid of a grant from the iBoP Asia Project (, a partnership between the Ateneo School of Government and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (

The abstract:

The challenge faced by Bottom of the Pyramid (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.

The Conclusion:

In sum, it can be concluded that the challenges for value creation can be quite different for BoP ventures interested in addressing the rural markets. From the observations made in the field, we can highlight three key implications for business development. These are:

  • Seasonality – with the exception of the salaried, everyone else in the sample pool was able to identify times of abundance and scarcity over the course of natural year in their earnings. Identification of a particular region or market’s local pattern of seasonality would benefit the design of payment schedules, timing of entry or new product and service launch, for example.
  • Relative lack of liquidity – The majority of the rural households observed tended to ‘store wealth’ in the form of goods, livestock or natural resources, relying on a variety of cashless transactions within the community for a number of needs. Conventional business development strategies need to be reformulated to take this into account as these patterns of behaviour may reflect the household’s purchasing power or income level inaccurately.
  • Increasing the customer’s span of control over the timing, frequency and amount of cash required – Since the availability and amount of cash cannot be predicted on calendar time, this implication is best reflected by the success of the prepaid mobile phone subscriptions in these same markets. When some cash is available, it can be used to purchase airtime minutes for text or voice calls, when there is no money, the phone can still receive incoming calls. Models which impose an external schedule of periodicity, frequency and amount of cash required may not always be successful in matching the volatile cash flow particular to each household’s sources of income.

Prepaid Mobile: The Business Model that Empowers

It feels like a long time since I last pondered the nuances of the prepaid business model, until I came across some words written by Indian social media researcher Swati Janu. She documented her observations on the infrastructure of insecurity from the tenements of New Delhi.  There’s value in reflecting on how our understanding only increases over time, and we can never say that we’ve stopped learning

This sentence caught my attention:

From a rural population that is fast going online to the resourceful teens in urban slums, the lower income demographics are choosing to buy internet, through small but recurrent amounts, which enable them to straddle the line between affordability and aspiration.

The small but recurrent amounts – the Rs 10 mobile recharge Janu writes about – are the lifeblood of the prepaid payment plan for voice, text, and data (airtime) for the now ubiquitous cellphone that has changed the landscape of the developing world.

To enable the lower income demographic’s ability to straddle the divide between their aspirations and their ability to afford them is empowering. One could say that:

Prepaid is a business model that empowers aspiration, through affordability, incrementally.

Instant gratification has never been within their purview.

Predictability is a business investment in the informal sector


New Delhi, India (Photo taken March 2017 by Niti Bhan)

Street vendors are often assumed to be livelihood actors, eking out a precarious living while darting in and out of traffic at the lights hawking their wares out of a basket or bucket. Not so in the south side of New Delhi where this trader in household linen and fine textiles has staked out his pavement storefront.

He’s not there everyday, unlike the fresh veg lady across the street, who has been there for the past thirty years, but he does show up every Saturday late in the afternoon, along with the housewares guys and stays until late in the evening. These vendors have been so predictable that they’re now known as the “Saturday market” although there are only three “shops” that one can see.

nightlightsHowever, each storefront is a joint effort by a number of vendors cooperating with each other to offer a larger, more attractive display and lights.

This predictability insures his reputation in the neighbourhood.

A matter of timing: seasonal opportunities


Temporary stall for festive goods (Photo: Niti Bhan, March 2017)

These stalls full of water pistols and balloons sprouted overnight a couple of days before the spring festival of Holi (March 13th 2017) – these vendors are neither local nor regulars in the market complex. They’re here to offer seasonal products and might even have been invited by the local shopkeepers to provide attractive temporary displays not unlike festival shopping at the mall.

IMG_7356Seasonal opportunities for special offers and custom products are not to be missed chances for a boost in sales. India’s FMCG majors can’t afford to ignore the seasons that guide the cash flow for the majority in the informal and rural economies over the course of the natural year.

India: Dragging the reluctant elephant into a digital, cashless future


Final processing for India’s digital identity platform Aadhaar, New Delhi on 3 March 2017 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

My recent immersion in Delhi a mere four months after demonetization (or, notebandi as it’s locally known) was a bit of a letdown. Oh sure, there were numerous, visible changes in the 2 years since my last trip – mostly very clear indicators of India’s socio-economic development – but none of the sense of chaos that I was expecting, having relied primarily on third party news sources, that too, in English, in the weeks leading up to my departure.

The headlines would have it that people were dropping like flies on the streets. A grand total of 187* people died visibly due to notebandi, or so I heard. The two most common responses were either sympathy – people should not have had to die for something like this and it was a sad thing to happen; or pragmatism – “people die everyday, who knows why, maybe his time had come and he was standing in line.”

The overall atmosphere was one of energy – there’s less of a sense of lackadaisical chaos that used to characterise the neighbourhood market and it’s sleepy vendors waiting for the evening strollers. There’s a sense of purpose in the hustle, as though there was money to be made. Digital money.

IMG_6950The combination of a digital identity platform and the disruption of demonetization could indeed be said to describe ideal conditions for triggering cashless India. Cards are accepted far more easily than before. “Paytm” – a local payments app – is visible everywhere, from on demand cars (Ola, Uber, Meru, etc), small kiosks, through to shiny upmarket shops. As a taxi driver told me with a smirk, everyone’s using Paytm now, even the beggars.

Rural India is said to have suffered far more, according to the reports I’d read prior to my trip. This might be unevenly distributed according to geography and growing season – a factoryworker returning from his home village in Bihar said he’d attended a wedding with hundreds of people and surely someone would have had a sob story to share.

Instead, he’d heard it was the intermediaries in the farm to fork supply chain who purchase from myriads of small farms in order to aggregate in bulk prior to selling onwards towards the cities who’d been hit harder by the sudden lack of liquidity. They were caught in the middle of the cash based chain of transactions and had to carry the burden of wastage if they weren’t able to move produce fast enough. Anecdotes included them distributing potatoes freely to farmers to use as seed for the next harvest, and tomato prices crashing.

Articles in the news state that the economy was hit harder than people would admit to but none, as yet, have complimented the common man for his endurance under conditions of scarcity and hardship, nor praised the hardworking women who kept their families fed through their social networks of give and take.

All the papers – domestic and foreign – only go on about India’s GDP, the economy, the vast business sectors, and the politics. If at all the average Indian is mentioned it is through the lens of pity – “oh, the poor farmer is suffering” or some such heartrending sob story from the “informal sector” – there’s never any mention of their ingenuity in keeping things going without cash; or the way it was all held together under conditions of adversity and scarcity.

IMG_7319That, perhaps was my biggest takeaway from my open ended conversations with a wide range of people from different socio-economic strata, professions, backgrounds, and age groups.

Their palpable pride in themselves in having come through upheaval relatively unscathed, or having the wherewithal to manage.  All the rest of it, the Aadhaar digital ID, the use of technology for transparency and accountability, the mobile platform and its ubiquity, all of these and more, I believe, will sort themselves out in time.

I’m minded to end this with a quote from Rositta J. Valiyamattam writing, ironically, on the topic of Indian fiction (page xii):

“Their novels testify to the amazing resilience of the masses in a nation wherein the commoner is rendered helpless by an often corrupt mighty polity. What stands out is the assertion of the individual will over uncontrolled powers and unfavourable circumstances. They salute the heroic struggles of ordinary Indians in times of extraordinary transformation.”



*Word of mouth number, every report has a different total, so whatever. All photographs not captioned were taken in Delhi by Niti Bhan during March 2017.