Archive for the ‘Perspective’ Category

Permanently seasonal

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Photo: Niti Bhan, March 2017, New Delhi

Now Dinesh, the chick (bamboo or rattan blinds and awnings) maker offers a seasonal service in the warmer months, yet his signage and product display seems to imply a permanent storefront.

chick1More likely, it’s permanent during the spring and summer, when the chicks are replaced and installed to protect and cool against the heat of the sun – Delhi’s summer temperatures are known to cross 50 Celsius and tend to average in the mid to high 40s.

If memory serves, he returns each year, thus assuring himself of a permanent yet temporary workspace seasonally, and thus dependably and reliably.

Predictability is a business investment in the informal sector

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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

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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

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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.

On Seeing

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Microtrader’s market stall, Karatina market, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2013)

Michael Bierut writes a paean to the power of observation in his introduction to the new print run of George Nelson’s How to See. His concluding words resonated deeply:

The unifying theme behind all of Nelson’s lectures – and, indeed, behind his life’s work – was a simple, and optimistic one: by seeing more clearly, one could make better, more thoughtful, and ultimately more humane choices about our manmade environment, that world “God never made.”

Not only did it make me want to run right out, on a snowy Sunday night, and buy the book – I’ve made a note to myself – but it made me reflect on my own work and it’s underlying philosophy of Understanding and Sensemaking before attempting to design for complexity and diversity.

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How value flows in informal trade networks, Busia, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2016)

When I read Michael’s words describing Nelson’s methods for photography and documentation, I recognized my own. And more importantly, I recognized George Nelson’s contribution to the discipline of industrial design, even down to his undeniable influence on curriculum along with Charles Eames.

My first exposure (yes, you saw what I did here) was in 1989 at the Eames’ inspired National Institute of Design where the introduction to photography as a design tool included developing your own black and white snaps in the darkroom. It changed the way I thought about the function and utility of a camera – from vacation accessory to appendage and tool. Three decades later, my preferred choice is a small point and shoot that comfortably and inconspicuously fits into the palm of my hand.

Niti with her camera, Mamelodi Township, South Africa (Photo: Dave Tait 2008)

I learnt to look for patterns in the photographs, at night, after the end of each day out, when the daily routine of downloading, sorting, filing, and transferring a copy to the external drive took place.

The first two or three days are often just noise, the stimulation of the overburdened senses in the sights and sounds of the bazaars and the landscape and the people. But soon, if you know you’re looking for it, the chaos starts to coalesce into signals that begin to weakly emerge and this then helps refine the focus of the discoveries and the directions for further exploration.

Eastern Cape, South Africa (Photo: Niti Bhan 2008)

And, sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, that series of snaps taken from a speeding car, can turn up a thing of beauty. Or a mundane visit to the wet market provides a composition of harmonious hues and textures.

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Kibera Market, Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2011)

I’ve never been able to do it as deliberately and consistently as professional photographers, but it doesn’t stop me from taking my camera out whenever something catches my eye.

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.

A Precursor for Systems Design and Social Change from Finland

Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund, has released an excellent analysis and work plan for systemic change at scale – how to change the national mindset to become a society focused on sustainability and wellbeing.

I remember noting Finland’s leadership in systems design and strategic planning back in 2007 during our Cox Europe Mission to observe multidisciplinary creativity in business and higher education. One of the reasons, I still believe, why Helsinki became a World Design Capital.

This report considers the circular economy (or, REculture as I’ve often called it). While the whole document is entirely the work of Sitra, one cannot help but recognize the contributions made by Doblin, the pioneer of design planning back in Chicago. After all, all of us who were taught by Larry Keeley were introduced to the 10 types of innovation  page 44).

This gives me hope, as my team and I start exploring the method for triggering systemic change for an entirely different kind of complex, adaptive system – that common in the developing world context. This means that we can draw upon the lessons we learnt back in school and then seek to evolve them for the disparities in the operating environment.

Unlike Finland, where there is high trust in the system, and things run rather smoothly, even after the worst blizzard, the average rural market town in East Africa has unreliable and inadequate infrastructure, higher mistrust in systems, and almost no credible sources of historic data for any kind of trends analysis much less an easy and affordable way to monitor and evaluate anything less than highly visible (mobile phones) gross changes in the ecosystem.
sitraThus, while we can be inspired by this straightforward roadmap for the Finnish context, I already know that our progress will not be as simple or linear. Most likely we will have a lot more exploration and discovery, such as mapping the landscape, as well as needing to adapt our approach in conditions of greater uncertainty where planning is a challenge, and preparation means survival.

As a Finnish entrepreneur, I’m grateful for this contextual opportunity to be inspired by this living example even as I proceed further with my own work.

The dangerous assumption that there’s no competition from the informal sector

In addition, the informal economy of open street markets still dominates 90% of retail in large countries like Nigeria and Kenya, meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room to grow. ~ Quartz Africa, Jan 2017

Failure is a risk, and an inescapable function of the amount of resources invested, not just money. Time, effort, and managerial ambitions are also losses that destroy value for companies. Danger, then, lies in leaping to assumptions that turn out to be wrong. This is one of them.

First, a bit of history. Just over a decade ago, the Indian market was opening up to world’s investment flows in the retail sector, and estimates of the potential were as rosy and glowing as Africa’s today. From The Economist in April 2006:

Most Indian shops belong to what is known, quite accurately, as the “unorganised” sector—small, family-owned shops surviving on unpaid labour and, often, free land for a small stall. “Organised” retailing accounts for only 2-3% of the total, and of that, 96% is in the ten biggest cities, and 86% in the biggest six. However, organised retailing is growing at 18-20% a year and inspiring a rush of property development. Shopping malls are springing up in every big town: some 450 are at various stages of development.

By 2015, it was clear that these ambitious potentials were never going to materialize, though many malls did spring up in cities across the country. Last year, I covered this topic looking back at the growth projections and the subsequent real numbers achieved from the perspective of the resilience shown by the informal retail sector. I noted, in August 2016:

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious – 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.

Second, this time it’s not just a management consultancy report with all the research and analysis efforts they pour into making their case. It’s not been distilled into one single yet dangerous sentence:

meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room

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“Plenty of room” (Photo Credit: Yepeka Yeebo in Accra, Ghana)

There’s an inherent assumption within the assumption that the myriads of little stands, market ladies and their longstanding relationships with customers and suppliers, and the entire ecosystem which exists, such as in the photograph above, can simply be bulldozed over with a granite and marble mall development covered in shiny unreflective glass.
It didn’t happen in India, and it’s not happening in Africa. From Ghana, this news article on mall development says:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongside the dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.

cth8lgkwcaauetyFurther, and more dangerously, this blithe assumption of a cakewalk where an informal sector so tangibly exists, overlooks the innate ingenuity of those who seek a dignified life even while hustling for a living. And that there’s no competition or customer service.

Snapshot of the Dynamics of the Urban Informal Retail Trade in Nairobi, Kenya

Informal Economy Dynamics - Updated

Made by Latiff Cherono – click for larger image

Latiff Cherono quickly made up this diagram during a brainstorming session with Francis Hook and myself on the ways and means to further disaggregate the general category of “Informal wholesale and retail trade” that the Kenya National Statistics Board uses to lump together the second largest sector providing employment in Kenya after agriculture.

jobs2 In urban conditions, vending and hawking of this sort is the largest source of income for the formally unemployed.

As you can see in the map visualizing Latiff’s analysis of a well known location for street vendors and hawkers to operate breaks down traffic flows not only by speed but also takes in account both static and dynamic forms of informal trade.

It may look chaotic but there are principles underlying the decisions made by both pavement vendors and mobile vendors (streethawkers in traffic) for their location of choice. These relate to the speed of passersby and potential customers – both wheeled and heeled, as Francis is wont to say – and closer analysis will most likely provide evidence of attempt to drive more footfalls to the shopfront, so to speak.

An example is the way pavement vendors locate themselves on either side of the busy bus stops, while mobile vendors who vend their way through traffic focus on the bottlenecks created by the roundabout and the traffic police.

We’re still in early days yet but time and money seem to be two of the factors that describe the attributes to segment and categorize the informal retail sector in urban Africa.

Innovation, Ingenuity and Opportunity under Conditions of Scarcity (Download PDF)

coverIn July 2009, I was inspired by working in the Research wing of the Aalto University’s Design Factory in Espoo, Finland, to launch a group blog called REculture: Exploring the post-consumption economy of repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle by informal businesses at the Base of the Pyramid*.

Within a year, this research interest evolved into a multidisciplinary look at the culture of innovation and invention under conditions of scarcity and it’s lessons for sustainable manufacturing and industry for us in the context of more industrialized nations.

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Emerging Futures Lab, July 2010 (Aalto Design Factory)

As a preliminary exploration, my research associate Mikko Koskinen and I timed our visit to Kenya to coincide with the Maker Faire Africa to be held on the grounds of the University of Nairobi in August 2010.

This photographic record of our discoveries (PDF 6MB) among the jua kali artisans and workshops of Nairobi, Nakuru, Thika, and Kithengela, guided by biogas inventor and innovator Dominic Wanjihia captures the essence of the creativity and ingenuity it takes to create without ample resources and adequate infrastructure.

A synopsis of our analysis is available here.

 

* The publishing platform, Posterous, died a short while later and we lost years of work. I’m looking into reincarnating REculture on Tumblr soon.