Archive for the ‘Perspective’ Category

Elements of Handpainted Graphic Design and Signage

The first time I went to Africa, my research companion, a South African designer, very apologetically mentioned the use of handwritten signage in his country. We were there on behalf of Samsung, and our global design research team included members from Seoul, Singapore, and Pretoria.

“Its all rather primitive over here” he said, but I fear my heart was captured.

Look at this signage and graphic design for a radio station in western Kenya. It has its own balance and harmony. It’s primitive only if you believe that fonts must generated by computers, and laser cut in acrylic before it can be used. Mass production is as modern as automation and takes away the unique beauty of the best of the signage that I’ve seen.

There will, of course, always be the aspirational ones, and the ambitious will do their best to satisfy. Some succeed very well indeed.

Look at this set of shops – each has its name written in a unique font, or handwriting style, while the whole still manages to convey the brand being advertised with a semblance of coherence. A true artist at work.

My favourite, however, is this one from the wall of an agro-vet dealer’s store. In a context where language and literacy tends to vary across a spectrum of facility, clearly communicating that you can get your cows artificially inseminated here is a bonus. The use of colour and the ombre backgrounds show the work of an artist.

And finally, this combination of a stencil – used for the desktop computer, and calligraphy – though the letter spacing may or may not have been deliberate, holds a position in its own right. That might not even be a stencil but the whole piece is crafted with care.

Why the African Consumer Market is NOT the same as the African Middle Class

Consumer goods store, Kilgoris, Kenya (March 2012)

The biggest challenge faced by consumer facing companies looking at the African Consumer Market is the age old positioning of the “middle class” as the ideal target audience. This middle class is segmented by the same attributes as the original middle classes who formed the consumer markets of the developed world.

This is the outside of the same store. Its located in a town called Kilgoris, situated at the edge of densely populated Kisii in western Kenya, and the sparse land of the nomadic Maasai pastoralists.

When you consider the range, the variety, and the price of the products displayed for sale, and compare it to the small dusty town with just one modern building, you wouldn’t imagine that solar panels worth USD 200 or Sony Bravia flatscreen TVs would be selling like hotcakes. But they do.

No dealer in a heavily cash based consumer market such as upcountry Kenya would tie up his working capital in expensive consumer electronics if there wasn’t a demand for it that meant the products sold quickly enough to keep the cash flowing in. My assumptions were completely upturned by this shopkeeper’s insights – it was the Maasai making purchases after attending the weekly livestock market.

A maasai manyatta Source:

They’d pack 6 foot long solar panels, flat screen TVs, and satellite dishes onto the tops of hired trucks and take them off to their thornbush and mud manyattas. Yet neither you nor I would classify them by any of the traditional marketing department’s attributes as being part of the “middle class” consumer segment.

On the other hand, they were undeniably part of the African consumer market, and as the shopkeeper informed us, they were not only willing to spend on their homes, regardless of what they looked like from the outside, they could afford the best that he had to offer. He showed us his entire stock of kitchen appliances, water filters, jugs, mugs, and even children’s toys and fake flowers from Dubai! It is dealers like this who know best what their customers want and they range as far away as Nairobi to obtain the products in demand.

But I wonder if the marketers and the analysts still seeking the middle class have a clue about this huge market invisible to their eyes? And, whether, they’re looking in the right places?

The Strategic Entry of China’s Transsion into the Vacuum Left by Nokia in Africa

Branded storefront in Karatina, Kenya (April 2013)

If you’re outside Africa, you’ve never heard of them before, but a mobile phone brand called Tecno has been painting Kenya blue ever since I started fulltime fieldwork there in late 2011. It was in Mombasa that I first noticed the name and wondered what it was about. Over the years, I saw the line up of phones even in the smallest market towns and began wondering if this brand would be the new Nokia of Africa.

Transsion, Tecno’s manufacturer, has two other brands on the market – Itel, and Infinix catering to different price points and consumer segments. What sets the company apart is that they are solely focused on the African continent and do not even sell in their domestic market of China. This was a strategic decision, as a recent article says, and their rapid success very likely due to the vacuum left by Nokia. They’ve customized completely for the African market, going as far as to develop cameras suited for local conditions, something no other phone manufacturer has done anywhere on the planet.

“For African consumers, a main medium of entertainment is photos – they love to take selfies and share them with friends. The traditional camera was not optimised for the African consumer because often, for those with darker skin, the photos don’t come out well especially in low light. We did research using over 10,000 photos of African consumers to create a special algorithm to optimise the camera to attract 30% more light on the darker face. We call this ‘Africa Focus’. It’s been heavily popular. It improved our cameras and won the hearts of Africans who like to take selfies.

In fact, Itel is so popular among traders in the Uganda Kenya borderland due to its low price and long battery life, that our research associate went as far as to capture the mound of Itel packaging seen on the rubbish heap.

They’ve brought in local languages and messenger apps. They’ve established a factory in Ethiopia to show their commitment to Africa, and they’ve set a full customer care facility – something glaringly missing from any other imported brand’s portfolio.

In my opinion, they’ve done what Nokia could have and should have done, cater to the emerging markets across the developing world where they’d originally begun connecting people.

And, they’ve shown us that it is indeed possible for a consumer product manufacturer to not only focus solely on the African consumer market but to make an outstanding success of it.


Quartz echoed the story to share the factoid that in Africa, not only have featurephones sold more than smartphones but Transsion’s brands lead the way.

An Open Letter to Social Enterprise Startups Looking at Africa

Dear Young Entrepreneur,

I receive emails from you, on average, once a week, sharing excited news about your plans to enter the African market, or pilot an innovation, or disrupt some existing solution. I’m thrilled and pleased for you, and wish you the best for your future plans.

However, I must write this today, after receiving yet another email last night. Most of you write me asking for insights on your planned approach, or to request a call to “tap my deep expertise” of the African informal economy and consumers. I truly appreciate your thinking of me as the go to person for these matters.

Yet, there’s a gap here between our thinking that’s rather obvious to me but doesn’t seem to be as obvious to you. Professionals like doctors and lawyers have studied and worked hard to build their deep expertise in their areas of speciality over decades. I have done the same. I am now in my 50s, and have accrued over 25 years of experience with new markets on 4 continents.

Would a doctor or lawyer agree to offering their insights and deep expertise to you based on an email request for a phone call or conversation? Or would they prefer a business appointment be made or consulting fees for the call be discussed first?

If the latter, then why is there an expectation that I, with my business operating expenses, and overheads, would be willing to give away the same effort and time invested in developing expertise to you?

I understand that startups are cash crunched, I’ve consulted with many of them, but they’ve always found a way to respect my learning and my experience even if we discover that our fee structure may be nominal or there’s an extension of time for payment. Offering something in return is not simply a matter of a business transaction, its a matter of respect. Respect for my time, my effort, and that very experience and expertise that led you to reach out to me in the first place.

I welcome inquiries and enjoy working with young people. I look forward to hearing from you. I just hope that this letter will offer you some food for thought on how to frame your approach to me.

Zambia’s inclusive approach to various sectors in the informal economy is worth noting

The Zambian government most recently announced that they would provide certificates to illegal (artisanal) miners in order to recognize and formalize their activities. In addition, they were being encouraged to form cooperatives – a legally recognized organizational structure – that would permit further benefits to this informal sector.

Compared to the challenges Ghana is facing with galamsey – the local word for illegal or rather, artisanal mining – one must sit up and take note of Zambia’s decision to lower the barriers to inclusion rather than build the walls higher to protect large scale formal extractive industries.

And mining isn’t the only sector to be so considered by the Zambian government. There was an announcement last year of their intent to legalize street vending – the bane of all developing country cities – and bring vendors – mostly women with families to support – within the formal employment and revenue net.

I looked for updates on this legislation and have yet to find something, though there’s lots of news on managing the street vending and hawking rather than the usual method of chasing them off the streets or confiscating their goods. That in itself gives me hope that we’ll see some pioneering advances from Lusaka.

In fact, there’s an article in the Zambia Daily Mail from a week ago that says “Its the perfect time for vendor training“:

Most of the traders on the streets are women who carry their children along due to lack of caregivers at home. For many women, this vending is considered an extension of their reproductive and domestic role. And so they are willing to risk it all and toil all day so that they could earn enough to cater for the following day’s orders and meals for the family.

However, many of these have dreams, big dreams to grow, provide and educate their children to a level where their offspring will never have to earn from the streets. And with the right training, many, with aspirations to grow their businesses and create a brand for their products, could benefit from financial and business knowledge that they could otherwise not be able to afford.

Some vendors have decided to change from trading in goods that are high-risk (these include foodstuffs such as vegetables and fruits) to those that have less risk such as clothing and other products. However, without any improvement in the level of knowledge of the new trade they are about to engage in, many are likely to fail, and they may return to what they know best, no matter how risky it is. It would therefore be prudent for organisations with the perfect know-how to take this opportunity to offer knowledge that will enable them to make the swap with better planning and more confidence.

Street vending is viewed by many as an economic activity for those with a low level of education. But what the cholera outbreak has taught us is that, if it is left without interventions, the negative effects will spread out and affect the whole nation.

The training I am suggesting could include assistance with regard to business registration, opening companies, tax remittances and branding of businesses, among other things.

I can’t help but underline all that is being said, and express my hope that other cities – Lagos, Nairobi, I’m looking at you – will take a leaf from Lusaka’s book.

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.

Formalization is no panacea for micro-entrepreneurs, a liminal space is necessary for growth

Yesterday, my bank sent back a client’s payment though I’d presented the invoice and other paperwork. I’m a registered micro-business in the highly formal economy of Finland, and the bank I’ve been with since 2009 has upped their internal regulations after a spate of bad publicity surrounding the Panama papers. I’ve been caught in the middle of changing rules though the kind young man sitting with me at the bank did tell me I was neither alone in this nor was it rare among their customers. They’re going through changes.

We talked a little about the work I do among women entrepreneurs in the informal economies of East Africa, and he pointed out that Finland was a very difficult operating environment for startups and entrepreneurs. They recognize this. He observed that my experiences at this formal end of the spectrum could only help me with my work on the other end. I had to agree, though I left the bank empty handed, having been turned down by their corporate banking side as well.

Still, I haven’t come here to moan about my banking troubles so much as to point out that the young man was right. Neither end of the spectrum of formal and informal is healthy for a rapidly evolving newly born business or micro venture. Too little support and growth is slow and painful; too much regulations and you fall off the wagon everytime your business changes or their rules evolve.

What is needed and rarely articulated is a grey area between formal and informal – a liminal space if you will. One that allows for change and acknowledges the experimentation and iteration that is the natural part of the development process. A common cliche is to liken a young or small business (my small business is 12 years old) to a growing child who might sometimes have to burn a finger on a match to learn about fire.

What perhaps is needed is to codify this ambiguous moment or period and discover ways to fit that within the formal structures of a highly developed society, as well as adapt it as a stepping stone in the unstructured informal underdeveloped locale. These bridges need not be identical in details so much as concept – that an entrepreneurial venture’s nature is such that it needs room to move and grow unhampered whilst still receiving the support and facilities that it requires.

There’s hope yet for me, allegedly. The bank has set up a startup unit and I’ll call them today to see if there’s anything that can be done. Else I’ll have to look around for another bank. In the meantime, the taxes still have to be paid and the remittance problem solved. Wish me luck!

Leveraging Disability as Competitive Advantage: The Wheelchair Cargo Movers of Uganda

Only in Busia do wheelchair owners from all over Uganda congregate as it is to their economic advantage to do so. Documented, and observed were the handicapped professionals who crossed the border numerous times a day ferrying goods.

In the past 25 years, the Busia tricyclists have created a strong community with initiative and resourcefulness in exploiting economic and political opportunities. Dialogue and negotiations have allowed them to conduct business without having to pay customs duties under the watchful eye of the authorities.

They point out with satisfaction that there are no disabled people begging on the streets of Busia, not even on Fridays when Muslims give out alms to the poor. On the other hand, each new officer must be sensitized.

These children from destitute families earn shillings helping with moving the freight. Neither participant is dependent on handouts.


Photographs: Michael Kimani, for Emerging Futures Lab, in Busia, Uganda, December 2015.

Household energy consumption behavioural study in East Africa: Cooking (Part 2 of 3)

Scrap wood fueled three stone fire in sheltered corner

The following is extracted from a six month study during 2012 on household energy consumption behaviour in rural Kenya and Rwanda among the lower income demographic, that led to an understanding of some of barriers hampering the sales of client’s solar products in this market. This 2nd part will focus on fuel usage and consumption behaviours for cooking. Users sampled for this study were selected based on varying fuel consumption patterns, ranging from a single homestead to a rural hotel catering for more than 12 hours a day.

Fuel Usage Behaviour is Influenced Greatly by Location

Choice of fuel and decisions on quantity kept in stock for cooking is dependent on the location of the primary residence rather than income. Rural homesteads in Kenya have a separate outhouse for cooking and firewood is the preferred choice of fuel even in those regions where shambas are too small to support their own grove of trees.

Kilonzi’s wife dreams of upgrading to an LPG cookstove some day in the future

That is, while Kilonzi’s wife on a large shamba in Makueni might stack enough firewood for just two or three days, collected for free from her own backyard, Mama Grace the tea farmer with land constraints in Kisii will purchase an entire tree to last her for a month. Meanwhile, the more economically challenged on small shambas devote a week foraging far and wide for enough brushwood to last for two or three months before needing to take time away again from more pressing household duties.

Charcoal is also used on the homestead but only for certain tasks like making chapatis or for quickly brewing tea for visitors or in the morning rush before school or work. Even if the charcoal is made right on the shamba from a tree that needed felling, most of it is kept aside for sale and considered a source of cash money rather than consumed as fuel.

Residents who live away from their shambas, taking up rooms in town due to their work where cooking must be done in the same space as living and other activities, cannot use firewood. In fact, if renting, landlords clearly state that the use of firewood is banned, as a safety precaution. Thus, urban residents are forced to choose fuels that can be used in small, portable cooking stoves and charcoal ends up being the most common due to its relative cost as compared to kerosene. Those who do own a kerosene stove are in the minority and again, its use is only for very specific tasks that require speed such as making tea for visitors or in the morning.

Heavy Duty Charcoal Usage by Hotel

For those whose primary fuel for cooking is charcoal, the quantity purchased is dependant on cash in hand if their income is not from a salaried position and this ranges from a ‘deben’ which lasts for about 5 or 6 days and costs around 100 – 130 Kes to an entire sack which ranges from 500 to 750 Kes and can last as long as a month. Pricing for fuel is closely related to its proximity to the source, since transportation can be expensive and convenience is a service that comes with a premium. Kerosene which sells for 83 Kes a litre at the petrol station in town was found to be selling at a rate of 140Kes/litre at a small duka deep in the interior.

Part One: Introduction to Household Energy Consumption Behaviour Study in East Africa (2012)
Part Three: Lighting & Concluding Remarks