Archive for the ‘Indigenous & Traditional’ Category

Time to reach consensus on the #informaleconomy debate

As yesterday’s post showed, the unforeseen outcome of India’s demonetization initiative on the rural cash economy arose due to the lack of disaggregation of all that tends to get lumped together under the umbrella label “informal”. Segmentation would lead to more impactful design of policy and programmes.

WIEGO has an excellent review of the academic debates on the informal economy, covering the competing schools of thought. There is the Shadow Economy with its tax evasion and under reporting vs the livelihoods of the poor struggling to make a living in adverse conditions.

From WIEGO:

In 2009, Ravi Kanbur, Professor of Economics at Cornell University, posited a conceptual framework for distinguishing between four types of economic responses to regulation, as follows:

A. Stay within the ambit of the regulation and comply.
B. Stay within the ambit of the regulation but not comply.
C. Adjust activity to move out of the ambit of the regulation.
D. Outside the ambit of the regulation in the first place, so no need to adjust.

Under the Kanbur framework, category A is “formal.” The rest of the categories are “informal,” with B being the category that is most clearly “illegal.” (Kanbur 2009). […] Kanbur argues that using a single label “informal” for B, C, and D obscures more than it reveals – as these are distinct categories with specific economic features in relation to the regulation under consideration.

While acknowledging that it is useful to have aggregate broad numbers on the size and general characteristics of the informal economy, Kanbur concludes that disaggregation provides for better policy analysis.

So, why do we continue to wave our hands over the whole thing and conflate the legal with the illegal?

These distinctions are all well and good to debate in the cozy conditions of a seminar room without needing to come to any consensus, but as the human and economic cost of demonetization in rural India becomes clear, particularly the impact on the planting season, it puts a spotlight on the shortcomings of the way the rural and cash economies are currently dealt with. A pragmatic conclusion is urgently required.

My literature review on the past 20 years of research on the informal trade sector in Eastern Africa showed that this lack of distinction between what was shadow (B) and what was merely below the radar of the regulations (C &D per Kanbur’s distinctions above) gave rise to the criminalization of even the smallest livelihood activities of the local tomato seller who might cross a border to get a better price for her wares.

This in turn led to their harassment – particularly financial and sexual – by the authorities as there were no counteractive regulations in place that recognized fulltime crossborder trade as a licit occupation or profession.

What will it take for this to change?

India’s current experiences provide ample evidence of the dangers of leaving this untouched.

Unforeseen outcomes of India’s demonetization shine light on the value of our design philosophy

Informal Economy, Market Analysis and SegmentationLatest news on India’s demonetization informs us how the rural economy is bearing the brunt of this initiative.

The action was intended to target wealthy tax evaders and end India’s “shadow economy”, but it has also exposed the dependency of poor farmers and small businesses on informal credit systems in a country where half the population has no access to formal banking.

The details shed light on the consequences of implementing interventions without a holistic understanding of the landscape of the operating environment. In this case, it is the rural, informal cash intensive economy.

…the breakdown in the informal credit sector points to a government that has failed to grasp how the cash economy impacts ordinary Indians.

“It is this lack of understanding and not appreciating the importance of the cash economy in India on the part of the government that has landed the country in such an unwarranted situation today,” said Sunil Kumar Sinha, an economist and director of public finance at India Ratings.

This lack of understanding the dynamics of the cash economy (I don’t mind calling it the prepaid economy, in this context) and it’s role in the rural Indian value web has led to unforeseen challenges at a time when farmers are planting seeds for the next harvest, hampering the flow of farm inputs as traditional lines of credit face the obstacle of an artificial shortage of liquidity.

I want to use this clear example of systems design failure to explain my philosophy and approach to our work in the informal economies of the developing world. I’ve written often enough about what we do, now I have an opportunity to explain why we do it, and why it’s important.

Read On…

Insights on the psychology of cash money – Demonetization vs Financial Inclusion

moneyThe flurry of commentary on the Great Indian Demonetization of November 2016 has thrown up some nuggets of insight worth considering more deeply.

Santosh Desai explores the psychology of cash money in the Times of India blog, linking the need for tangible evidence of income to physical labour, as opposed to those of us with the contextual knowledge to understand the virtual concept i.e. digital currency.

“…there is another aspect of this situation that needs more reflection- the nature of the relationship we enjoy with cash. Cash is not merely a symbolic representation of value. Cash is the idea of value captured and owned. It is the product of labour that is an entity by itself and becomes much more than what it can buy. Sitting on a pile of cash gives pleasure both metaphorical and real.”

“…there is some value that is placed on the device of currency notes over and above the value that it signifies.”

This aspect has not been looked at deeply enough, imho, when financial inclusion is talked about, particularly in the context of digital solutions. I suspect that therein will lie behavioural insights that could conceivably drive design changes that lower the barriers to adoption in the strategies to introduce digital currencies and mobile monies to hitherto unbanked populations.

Earning money needs to be signified concretely. Those whose life’s earnings are in the form of a few high value currency notes, do not decode demonetization in quite the same way as those used to money in its conceptual form. The idea that it is possible to de-legitimise their life’s labour is to shake the foundations on which one’s life is constructed. What if some money is not exchanged? What if some paperwork, that bane of those living on the margins, is incomplete?

What if the mobile phone’s battery dies? Do my hard earned monies disappear like other unsaved data?

Trust in technology is a function of our contextual knowledge – our immersion in an environment saturated with electronic communication and screens of all types and purposes provides us with conceptual frameworks that are entirely different from someone whose daily labour is on the farm, or at a mechanic’s garage.

While those who are financially excluded might not face demonetization i.e. the de-legitimization of their labour, as Desai mentions above, the current attempts to convert their cash intensive habits into digital form via various “cashless” initiatives overlook the psychology of cash. Regardless of locale, those at the margins (the excluded) have high levels of mistrust in the system, through their experiences with institutions and the system, over time and history.

The talk of ‘cashless’ is easy, but it ignores that there is a cultural dimension to the physicality of cash. Digital wallets operate on a transfer of intention, where a promise to pay gets converted into an intention to buy. For this to work at scale, one needs to have become comfortable with the idea of surplus and develop the confidence that money will come without having to struggle or having to think about it all the time. One needs to develop trust in institutions, in a context where the evidence around is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

I suspect that if this subject was explored further, we would discover that where mobile money has succeeded, such as in East Africa, the institution that was trusted was the telco – the mobile service operator, and that the early stages of adoption have a different narrative from that being used currently in entirely new markets where mobile money still struggles to penetrate. India and South Africa are two such places where the unbanked and the financially excluded have reasons of history to develop high mistrust of the systems of the privileged.

To convert one’s worth into worthlessness, even if for a small period is to make everyone nervous. Psychologically, money works on a convention of mutual deception. We agree to call something money, and that is good enough. But to have the thinness of this convention exposed in such a way is to cause great anxiety.

The transition to a cashless future can be made gentler and more accommodating to their fears and concerns, generating a sense of security and commitment, with some empathy for an entirely different world-view and life experience.

An economy of trust

_92445052_02Cash on credit is the caption given to this cartoon by the BBC. Neighbourhood groceries are offering their regular customers cash advances in addition to bread and milk.

While the media is filled with a plethora of stories of heartbreak, my own suspicion is that we’ll discover the resilience of the cash intensive informal sector lies in the relationships between people, once the hubbub has died down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seasonality as an element of contextual planning for emerging consumer markets

livestock flows eac fewsnetGrowing up as a Hindu expat in multicultural ‘West Malaysia’ of the 1970s and 80s, it was a matter of course that every festival would be a big occasion. We had Christmas in December, and Chinese New Year soon after, to be followed by Hari Raya (Eid) and Deepawali – each of them deserving of TV specials and decorations on the streets.

Seasonality of cash flows and income streams in the informal and rural economy translated in the urban areas as festivals triggered a boom in consumer sales. India’s formal economy still keeps watch on the onset of the annual monsoons, as those rains will have documented impact on their 3rd quarter sales in the peak festival season of October and November, leading into the wedding season.

In Eastern Africa, this seasonality is seen, among other things, in the lives of pastoralists and livestock farmers. As Eid Al Adhar approaches in a few days, livestock sales for the annual sacrifice are reaching their peak. Trade in meat is one of the staple income sources in the arid lands and the Port of Mombasa is one of the keys to the distribution networks.

The livestock trade to the Middle East accounts for 60 percent of Somaliland’s gross domestic product and 70 percent of its jobs.

This, however, is changing, as the Port of Berbera will soon receive millions of dollars of investment in improved infrastructure. The element of seasonal cycles over the course of the natural year, however, will not change. And this is worth noting for those considering the emerging consumer markets in the developing world.

Beyond word of mouth, however, it is hard to get a proper idea about the economic impact of Ramadan. Perhaps because of sensitivities around dealing with a religious institution, international organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and United Nations Development Programme have not conducted research on the precise economic impact of the custom.

FMCG majors already feeling the pinch of shrinking domestic markets are finally taking note of this entire opportunity space. In Indonesia, Unilever, Beiersdorf and L’Oreal are making halal face creams and shampoos to court Muslims as sales in Western markets taper off.

There are patterns of trade around major holidays in each region, be it Chinese New Year or Dussehra, and the informal sector prepares for, and relies upon, these expected bumper ‘harvests’ in their cash flow. It will be interesting to watch what happens in the context of the African consumer market as the Asian giants begin to eye it seriously as the last frontier for significant growth.

Research Question: Why is the informal retail sector so persistent and resilient?

retail2Retailing in India is currently estimated to be a USD 200 billion industry, of which organised retailing makes up 3% or USD 6.4 billion. By 2010, organized retail is projected to reach USD 23 billion and in terms of market share it is expected to rise by 20 to 25%. (Sinha et all, 2007)

These claims of projected growth were made based on a 2005 KPMG report on the Indian Consumer market, while the chart itself with it’s aspirational forecast is from the IBEF website. I have been watching and waiting for more than ten years for India’s retail revolution to take place.

The consistent message from the beginning of the retail boom has been that since the organized retail sector (what we would call the formal) has only been ~2% of the total retail trade in India (the balance is informal retail) there was ample opportunity for growth in modern retail.

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious (or, perhaps, aspirational, in the push for modernization driving India’s recently opened markets) – formal retail has only reached 8% penetration in the past 10 years. Nowhere close to the 25% expected by 2010. Mind you, these were all the management consultancy reports bandying the numbers around.

I bring this up because I’m seeing the same kinds of projections happening right now for the African consumer market by the very same firms. And with very few exceptions, the majority of the SSA markets tend towards the same kind of proportions of organized vs unorganized retail  (formal vs informal, modern vs traditional et al are all variations on this theme with minor differences in definition).

And, even as the retail real estate development investments are booming, we are already seeing the very first signs of the same challenge that India faced – over capacity, low footfalls, and empty malls. Just yesterday, the news from Ghana – a firm favourite of the investment forecasters –  has this to say:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongsidethe dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll – titled Ghana, Retail Barometer Q2, 2016 – overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.
[…]
“International players are also looking at the market and re-adjusting their product/pricing mix to cater for the real middle class, whereby we are talking more in terms of value products rather than high-end products.”

And, retail developers are turning their attention to secondary cities such as Kumasi and Takoradi, as Accra reaches saturation point. The exact same pattern as we have been seeing in India. You would think people might pause a moment to take a look at similar markets and operating environments to assess patterns of market creation development.

This pattern is what gave rise to the research question I would like to frame – why has the informal retail sector been so persistent and resilient? What does this mean for modern trade? And, what are the implications for urban development and planning?

The trajectories of the Indian and the Ghanaian economies have taken different turns, thus, while one might point to these factors as the reasons for the challenges facing the mall owners and the retail brands, the big picture over the past twenty years points to something more fundamental in these operating environments common to the developing world.

That is what I would like to find out.

People-centered systems design thinking out loud

feature_jaimeThis morning I was pondering the complexity involved in weaving together four separate threads of ‘innovation’ into one holistic system. They were not unrelated to each other, and the end users are more or less the same for each, but each is also a standalone solution to a pain point in an ecosystem. I was tinkering with the idea of trying to knit them into one – would it be far too complicated, both to implement, and to develop conceptually? Or, would the complexity be worth the additional headaches because the outcome would be well worth the effort of integration into a holistic and seamless concept?

From the product development point of view, the research question is whether an integrated, seamless solution is more viable and desirable than four standalone solutions developed by individual teams, in parallel, within the same ecosystem, and for the same target audience. Feasibility is the question being evaluated, from the value for money perspective. Of course it could be tried, that’s the beauty of design – one attempts to build prototypes to test one’s paper based theories to see if they break in the real world. But was it worth the time and resources to build the prototype in the first place?

It was while grappling with this minuscule yet wicked problem that I was reminded of a gentleman I once heard speak at the Better World by Design conference in Rhode Island about 8 years ago. Jaime Lerner is very well known to urban planners and city designers, I’m sure, but perhaps not as familiar a name to the rest of us. He conceived the idea of the city as a living, breathing, organic system – a turtle, as you can see in the diagram above. Life, work, movement, are all integrated together.

While the systems design challenge I’m pondering is more technology based, as is usually the case in today’s world, and not a cityscape, I believe that one can take away some powerful insights from Mr Lerner’s philosophy for design planning for a complex human ecosystems. In this context, its the informal and rural economic system prevalent in the developing world. Not unlike Brazil, where Mr Lerner perfected his vision.

Commerce in the informal sector is a living, breathing, organic ecosystem made up of human beings in flexible, negotiable, and thus, reciprocal relationships with each other. Much of the groundwork for this conclusion can be discovered in the reports linked to here. If we set aside the cityscape, and consider the essence of Mr Lerner’s philosophy, we see that his three key concepts are life, work, and movement.

In the context of the informal valueweb, movement could be considered with far more layers of nuance than simply transportation or mobility as one would in the context of urban planning. And, in the context of an ecosystem, it could be stretched to cover the flows of value in between the nodes in a value web – these we’d earlier identified as information, goods, services, and currency. That is, movement is the lifeblood of the organic network, the transactions that take place, and most importantly, the element of give and take which distinguishes human to human interactions.

Thus, if we were to step back from the design of the details of such a complex human interaction system, we too could conceivably think of it as living organism – perhaps not a turtle, which is a better metaphor for a city; perhaps there’s some other metaphor waiting for us to stumble over. In the meantime, I do wonder if we have the underlying philosophy for the design of complex, interdependent human interaction systems?

 

Previously.

Lowering the barriers to effective communication is the key to sustainable development

KnowledgeOne of the challenges that we discovered during our multistakeholder workshop in The Hague a few years ago was that people tended to fall back on their expertise when faced with the discomfort of empathizing with farmer’s needs. Particularly so when the farmers in question were from Africa, and not from their own regions.

Our design visualization team – Jam visualdenken – captured one element of how this barrier manifested. Experts talked a lot about “Knowledge” being the key to effective agriculture value chain development, and how it was critical to transfer as much of it as possible. It became this big thing shoved at the ‘global South’, with little thought given to how it would be transferred, much less how relevant and appropriate the “knowledge” would be. A silver bullet, or a panacea.

Today I came across this article from Zimbabwe – “Limitations of using documents & reports to share knowledge in Africa” and I could immediately perceive the author’s deep understanding and empathy of their own local context and needs. Here’s a snippet:

While African communities have learnt from each other for generations, the conventional way of trying to spread knowledge through case studies is not yielding sustainable results.

There is an assumption that technical people can get into a community, work with local people, document their successes and share success stories with other communities, leading to adoption of best practices.

This notion misses a thorough understanding of how communities learn from each other. Almost all rural African communities rely on collective sense-making through very patient conversations, observations and learning by doing.

This led me down the rabbit hole of the authoring organization‘s website, where I came across a blog worth following for their deep understanding of the African agricultural landscape and the information needs of the farmers. Here are two selected blogposts from their site:

From farmers and traders to knowledge artisans

[… ]motor mechanics and metal fabrication are now part of the informal sector.  Previously locked in formal systems, these skills are now being unpacked and applied in informal markets.  This is leading to the integration of indigenous knowledge systems into formal knowledge sharing pathways. 

Since indigenous knowledge is more customer-oriented, it results in the production of needs-based products, tailor-made to meet the needs of diverse customers.  For example, ploughs and hoes are made as per customer requirements unlike the previous mass production ethos in the formal sector which had little consideration for existing draught power dynamics in different farming communities.
[…]
Technology and digital tools do not know empathy and why it is important.

Why some approaches and technologies are not moving beyond early adopters

A lot can be learnt from remarkable ways through which African socio-cultural systems generated and shared knowledge. There were reliable conduits for sharing knowledge from one age group to another, one gender to another and one society to another.  Besides respected knowledge brokers, each community had sense making tools linking different communities of practice. Some of these methods and tools included rituals, idioms, metaphors, stories and various forms of apprenticeship.
[…]
This is exactly what our modern knowledge systems lack. We have not cultivated proper ways of sharing the rich information/knowledge from schools, colleges and university curricular into diverse African communities.  There is an expectation that this knowledge can be shared by students after graduating. However, a lot of what can be useful in communities is either forgotten or misapplied.  More than 70% of ordinary Africans who function through their own languages, values and norms have no way of meshing what they know with the formal education system.  In most cases, their cultural values are still considered barriers to academic knowledge which is being confused with modernization.

Unless we develop verifiable ways through which knowledge is questioned, shared, rejected and value-added, it remains stuck within various communities of practice.  Such knowledge will have less developmental impact than anticipated. Academics continue to be locked in their systems, speaking to each other while farmers and rural communities continue holding onto what they know works. As if that is not enough, the language used for crafting policies in most African countries is not suitable for use by the majority but for lawyers and judiciary systems who can interpret it.