Archive for the ‘Process’ Category

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…

Systems design and the Monster who squats between the formal and the informal


This framing of the real challenge to development and poverty alleviation comes from Ken Wong writing on his experience in Malawi:

We can only win the war on poverty and hunger in Malawi by targeting the real enemy – and that enemy is the system of how the world tries to help. Specifically:

The system that demands foreign aid be funneled through the government or large NGOs

The system that creates a hierarchy of aid and government workers whose job security and quality of life depends not on their wanting what is good on the ground, but pleasing whoever is above them in rank

The system that discriminates against on-the-ground, local initiatives because of a lack academic credentials, English-speaking skills, and the ability to complete unwieldy applications and fulfill misguided metric targets

If we are to win the war against poverty, we need to face the truth and admit that the system has not only not worked in Malawi, it has made the situation worse.

The system itself is the barrier to progress. The System Monster, as I dubbed it, is quite a nice fellow really, rather well meaning and all that, but he doesn’t see how he’s just stuck there inbetween, unable to adapt to the context on the ground.

Here’s is a 5 minute video where I introduce the concept, from the BankInter Foundation’s Future Trends Forum on Inequality and Technology held in Madrid in early June 2016.

Part 2: Enabling development’s paradigm shift from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’

Workshop I_end user in sight during evaluation

Programming in International Development jumps directly into the Design phase of the projects. This is the root of the challenge they face now as they seek to change the paradigm away from ‘best practice’ to putting the end users at the center of their strategies, with ‘best fit’. I identified this problem in the Autumn of 2012 whilst delving into the internal project development processes with civil servants at the Netherlands Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economy during a customized internal workshop.

It should be mentioned at this point that while Robert Chambers has extensively promoted the participatory approach, there were issues in the process that were explored during our work, and can be covered in a separate article. Participatory design is not synonymous with user centered design, and neither approach includes a robust methodology for assessing the landscape of the operating environment in conjuction with solution development for ‘best fit’, particularly in the developing world context.

Before we can jump into the design of a project or programme – whether with or without the participation of the end users/beneficiaries, we need a structured approach to grasping the context of the challenge. Without a map of the landscape of the ‘wicked problem’, one cannot navigate the complexity (1). This so called landscape map of the ecosystem in which the development project will be introduced, should not only include understanding the people and their operating environment, but identify and frame the touchpoints for the design of ‘best fit’ interventions.

That is, there’s a need for framing the problem in a manner such that the outcome narrows down the solution space i.e. delineating the boundaries for ‘best fit’ prior to the inception of the design process. In the field of design, these boundary conditions can be known as design criteria and constraints, along with filters for assessing optimal solutions at the conceptual stage from the plurality available.


These first three steps in the process BEFORE jumping into design are collectively known as Design Planning, and their outcome minimizes the wasteful experimentation of ‘suits to try’ for ‘best fit’ as the design phase begins with the ‘measurements’ necessary for a ‘bespoke suit’ tailored to fit, to stretch the analogy. Bespoke tailors do not expect their carefully measured suit to fit their client on the first try, and usually one returns two or three times for the final fitting. Similarly, customized programming may require tweaks and can be considered a working prototype (a pilot program, for instance, prior to scaling) where the kinks are worked out together with the participants.

This will require work upfront at the start of the multi-year programmes. There are no silver bullets to addressing complexity.


(1) Part 1: An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools

Borderland Biashara: Mapping the Cross Border, National and Regional Trade in the East African Informal Economy

efl research team

Rinku Gajera & Michael Kimani, Malaba Border, Kenya, January 2016. Photo: Niti Bhan

And, we’re back! With apologies for the long delay in posting on the blog, we’d been busy wrapping up our groundbreaking design research for development programming project for Trade Mark East Africa this past month or so. As you can imagine, the last few weeks of any project suck all the bandwidth out and leave little for blogging or writing.

Let me be the first to say that this project could not have been executed or completed without a rockstar research team – Rinku Gajera, Research Lead, and Michael Kimani, Research Associate, together put in gruelling hours in the sun, and on Skype, to help increase our understanding of the informal economy in East Africa, particularly the informal trade sector – cross border, national, and regional. Emerging Futures Lab has been immersed in design and development of pioneering methodology for mapping the informal trade ecosystem – henceforward known as biashara, at the borderlands of the East African Community, since November 2015.

tmeaFor this opportunity, I must thank the CEO of Trade Mark East Africa, Frank Matsaert, who saw our passion and our belief in the worth and value of the informal sector, and recognized the need to understand the traders, their business practices, and their aspirations, as the first step necessary for the design of interventions that are not only people-centered, but cost effective and impactful.  We were granted creative license to colour outside the box of the terms of reference with our designer’s empathy and exploratory mindset, and frame this project as an exercise in developing the understanding necessary for the design of human centered methods, tools and frameworks for development programming. You can be sure that there will be more on this topic published soon on this blog, so grab the RSS feed now, or sign up for inboxed posts.

Download the Borderland Biashara Ecosystem Mapping project at the Kenya/Uganda border at Busia and Malaba.

Nov 2015Inception report Informal Economy, Kenya/East Africa/Uganda
Jan 2016Literature Review on Informal Cross Border Trade in the East African Community (EAC), the DRC and South Sudan
May 2016Final Report, General Public – Borderland Biashara, by Emerging Futures Lab

The formal sector and economic development: A lesson from marketing

Pursuing the thoughts introduced in the previous post further, I looked up the original reference on “formalization of the informal sector”1.

Alan Gelb, et al. 2009. “To Formalize or Not to Formalize? Comparisons of Microenterprise Data from Southern and East Africa.” CGD Working Paper 175

“…in East Africa, weak enforcement of tax payment and no significant difference in access to services between formal and  informal firms means that these variables do not explain the allocation of firms across the informal-formal divide.

We conclude that in countries with weak business environments, informal firms are just as likely as formal firms to increase their productivity as they grow.

Thus,  interventions to increase productivity and lower the cost of formality may be helpful.”

The question comes back to what is the benefit of formalizing when the costs associated with it do not offer any additional services, such as reliable electricity, for instance, that offset the investment.

Formality only becomes a barrier when new market opportunities require paperwork – a formal sector customer, or a chance to export.

“…improvements in the business environment in East Africa are potentially more valuable in changing the balance of benefits and costs from formalization, and so encouraging small firms to formalize and grow.”

Really, what seems to be the case is that instead of pushing individual entrepreneurs to formalize, it is their operating environment that must be tweaked in order to attract them towards formalization. As long as there’s little difference between the formal and informal sectors of the economy, there is no incentive to invest in the relatively expensive and cumbersome process.

The key insight here is that the current day efforts to push towards formalization, must instead transform into a pull towards formality.

If indeed we’re now seeing the end-users as customers of our services, then we must market the benefits in order to attract them. This has implications for the durability, and thus, sustainability of programs and initiatives, beyond the life of the project.

With the nuanced shift in perspective offered by Gelb et al, we can also see the role that human centered design can play in this journey. Who better to identify what customers’ need and want?


Design research as a method for discovering & understanding the world around us

Variously known as User Centered Design (UCD) or Human Centered Design (HCD), the fundamental philosophy underlying the designer’s approach to problem solving is that of discovery – “figuring out how to make something that will work in this context”.

Innovation, invention and novelty rarely have pre-scripted processes due to the as yet unknown, and often, uncertain nature of the outcome. The design process acknowledges this by embedding various techniques for discovery of the problem space as well as the possible solutions.

These include:

  1. Exploration –  1. the action of exploring an unfamiliar area. 2. the thorough examination of a subject.;
  2. Prototyping –  an early sample, model, or release built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from;
  3. Iteration –  the act of repeating a process with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result (2);
  4. Experimentation – a procedure carried out to verify, refute, or establish the validity of a hypothesis. May vary greatly in goal and scale, but always rely on repeatable procedure and logical analysis of the results.

This post was inspired by a twitter conversation with Dr Dan Lockton. It is the first of a series of explorations on our adaptation and evolution of the methods available for design research as tools for discovery and understanding where data may be inadequate or non-existent such as the informal economy in emerging African economies.

Please use the category UCSD to discover more on this subject.

Customer-Centric Business Model Design for Financial Inclusion


The Challenge

Digital financial services (DFS) seek to bridge the chasm between the structures, policies and institutions of the formal economy, and the cash intensive informal and rural economy. Current day approaches tend to take the perspective of the service providers when assessing the market opportunity and the needs of the intended customers. And so the research to inform the design of products and services focuses on the behaviour of the end users apart from their context, and isolates their unmet needs within the narrow bounds of a specific project or purpose.

Given that the user researchers, the concept developers and the service providers, are mostly from the formal operating environment and/or first world contexts, they tend to consider consumer behaviour without the explicit acknowledgement that these user responses to the introduction of digital financial services (DFS) are emerging from the context of very different conditions than they themselves are immersed in. That is, there are implicit assumptions tacitly being made regarding the market and its opportunities, which, if left unquestioned, may obscure the underlying causes of the problem. And, thus, may inadvertently act as intangible barriers themselves.


A Framework for Approaching this Challenge – Pasteur’s Quadrant

The cash intensive informal and rural economies of the African continent are a very different operating environment from the formal, structured economy of banks, service providers and institutions. This chasm in context, and thus customer worldview, is particularly wide for the vast majority who tend to be defined as financially excluded. They manage their household expenses on irregular income streams from a variety of sources, not regular and predictable paychecks.

This means that many of the market assessment frameworks and tools anchored in the characteristics of the formal, calender based economy may not apply directly to a wholly different context with entirely different conditions and criteria, and their use without adaptation or acknowledgement may skew the resulting insights and concepts. Most of the available research tends to fall into either pure social science or design driven user research. As we have seen, when it comes to making markets work for the poor, neither approach alone is enough to make sense of the opportunity.


We are inspired by what is known as Pasteur’s Quadrant – a hybrid approach that integrates the need to understand the context with the pragmatic goal of immediately useful and relevant information.  Our objective is identify strategies that lower the barriers to adoption, whilst minimizing the dropout rate. That is, our goal is to craft sustainable concepts that work for the target audience within the contexts and conditions of their own operating environment and daily life. This approach increases the success rate of a business model. We have been inspired by the way the prepaid airtime model bridges this same chasm for telecommunication giants around the world.


Grounding Insights in the context of Informal and Rural Ecosystems

Taking a systemic view of the untapped market for digital financial services, thus, would ground the market observations and the customer insights within the frame of reference of the target audience’s own operating environment. Among the financially excluded, particularly on the African continent, this can safely be said to be the informal sector which contributes a significant proportion of each nation’s GDP and employment, regardless of industry.

Framing the essence of the challenge in the form of these critical questions,

  • What are the barriers to adoption of DFS ?
  • What can be done to lower these barriers to adoption?

permits us to take a systemic approach to identifying barriers to DFS adoption, balancing the need for understanding the unknown with the insights required for conceptual design.

The following questions demonstrate the way we can drill down for comprehensive understanding for a particular customer segment or region in a viable manner:

1. What are the common characteristics of the cash intensive informal economy in which this population resides?
2. What are their current means to manage their household expenses – urban vs rural
2a. What are their current options for financial services – which all do they have access to and which all do they actually use – informal AND formal
2b. Why do they use what they use? And why don’t they use what they’re not using but have access to?
3. What are the market forces acting upon the existing DFS market in their region – regulatory, policy, prices, interoperability, tech of the solution, type of phone etc
4.  What are the assumptions these DFS are making wrt their target audience needs, behaviour, usage patterns and capabilities? How do these assumptions fall short of the real world context and usage behaviour in the context of their cash intensive operating environment?

And thus, the starting point for business model design are the answers we are able to synthesize from the insights gathered above, in order to answer the following question:

What is necessary in order to bridge the gap between the DFS and the intended target audience?


Our approach offers a pragmatic diagnosis of the situation, from the perspective of the informal economy and the poor, within the conditions and constraints of the current day regulatory and policy environment. It clearly identifies the gaps in the existing system and describes the opportunity space for new business models that would offer value and resonate with the target audience’s needs and context.

We recommend giving technology a backseat and approaching the solution development process from a more holistic perspective of people, their operating environment and their existing financial behaviour.

Read more on these interdisciplinary lenses for innovating for the informal economies of the developing world’s emerging consumer markets.

The values gap in banking the unbanked

Back in 2008, after my first deep dive into the African consumer market, on behalf of Samsung, I’d identified something I called the “values gap” as an intangible barrier between the first world’s consumer brands, and the mindset and worldview of the majority market, then referred to (erroneously) as the “Bottom of the Pyramid.”

The value propositions of the producers immersed in mainstream consumer culture – “buy now; pay later”, “new and improved” or “throwaway and replace”- fell far short of the mark when it came to reaching the emerging consumer markets of frontier economies.

Overlooked by marketing communications and the messaging of the advertising industry for generations, these new consumers were not conditioned to respond to these familiar messages. In fact, their buyer behaviour – their “consumption values” if you will – resonated more with almost the exact opposite responses – “minimize risk; maximise returns”, “tried and trusted”, or “repair and reuse”.

These choices were the outcome of their environment of uncertainty, and often, adversity; of inadequate infrastructure and, incomes which tended to be irregular and unpredictable. Without access to consumer credit, their purchasing patterns were driven by their cash flow, and an environment of resource scarcity influenced their consumer behaviour.

This gap in mindset and in values meant that the value proposition of a product or service or even a business model was ignored for the most part, as noise. “Not for the likes of us” as some had said, in India, in South Africa, or in The Philippines. The irony, in some cases, was that even when the product or service was meant specifically for the lower income segment or for those in the cash based informal sector, the way it was advertised overshot the target it was intended to reach.

An example of this is Wizzit, a South African mobile bank designed for the erstwhile Base of the Pyramid (BoP) customer. Unlike traditional banks with their reams of required paperwork, most of which were unavailable to the BoP customer, all you needed to open a Wizzit account was your mobile phone number and your ID. You didn’t even need any money, nor were you penalized if the account was empty or left unused for 6 months.

You would think that everyone would open an account as soon as they’d heard about it? Well, it didn’t happen that way.

Wizzit’s marketing messaging focused on the value proposition of “mobile” as interpreted for the first world or privileged customer – “Now you can bank on the go”

Imagine someone who had never thought that they could qualify for a bank account hearing or reading that value proposition? “Its not for the like of us” and tune it out.

If the messaging had touched upon the value proposition embedded in the product’s design – ALL you need is a phone number and your ID and YOU TOO can have a bank account – their audience would have immediately recognized its relevance to their own context. “Hey, I can qualify for this bank account, let me go find out more”

As simple as that.

When the value proposition of the producers immersed in mainstream consumer culture don’t resonate with the world view and mindset of the customer, there’s a gap that cannot be crossed no matter how hard you try. This values gap manifests itself in the product’s design, its marketing communication, distribution strategy, and sales promotions.

And its not just consumer products or services that fail to bridge the chasm. Wherever you seek to lower barriers to adoption and minimize the dropout rate – promoting a new irrigation technique, for instance, or adoption of formal financial services – bridging this gap is key to success.

People, Pesa & Place:New lenses for design’s perspective on social & economic development

ideo model

This original Venn diagram visualizing the sweet spot of innovation success is a familiar one, with as many variations as there are practitioners. One of the most common is the one below, where business, people (or, as often, design) and technology replace the human centered qualities of viable, desirable and feasible.


I’ve used them both for years, particularly the latter, evolving it incrementally in the project for the Dutch govt where we looked at barriers to adoption of new agricultural techniques (technology) introduced in international development programmes.


Yet, I still struggled with this framing when actually considering solutions for programme design and development, or rather, any  products and services meant for the poor in the developing world.

Innovation, this Venn Diagram said, happens at the intersection of the attributes of viable, desirable and feasible. A solution that met these criteria would have greater chances of success. This made sense and it still does.

However, when it came to solutions meant for the lower income demographic, particularly where the majority were managing on irregular, often unpredictable, income streams, from such activities as informal trade and subsistence farming, there were additional issues to be considered. These were often critical to the success or failure of the newly introduced innovation.

For instance, inadequate infrastructure is a fact of life. Whether is variability in electricity supply in the urban context or lack of it in the rural. Things we take for granted in the operating environment in which these lenses were first framed – pipes full of running water, stable and reliable power, affordable, clean fuel for cooking, credit cards and bank accounts – are either scarce, inadequate or unreliable for the most part.

Feasibility, thus, takes on an entirely different meaning in this context. Each location or region (place) may have different facilities. Launching a service in Kenya or Tanzania, even for the most rural and economically challenged, means we can think of using mobile money solutions in the business model, while a similar service in India would have to be designed to adapt to the local context. On the other hand, India has an extensive postal system as well home addresses, while this is still a barrier to delivery in many African locations.

Similarly, the viability of a concept, in this context, must look beyond just the conventional definitions of business, business model or marketing. The embedded assumption here is that a marketplace already exists, with all the support services, information flows and distribution networks.

Further, the current version of this framework, does not offer cues to the research and design team to look for, and take into consideration, elements such as cash transactions, cash flow, lack of formal financial instruments, seasonality, and a myriad other underlying reasons that drive preference for payment plans such as pay-as-you-go or credit based on future harvests.

And as we all tend to promote these diagrams as a means to anchor our explorations and discovery process towards identifying the design drivers for innovative solutions, it seemed to me that we needed more obvious cues to signal that these issues not only exist, disparate from what we may be accustomed to, but also need to be clearly and realistically described. There is far too much tacit knowledge and too many critical assumptions embedded in the current process.


This diagram is my prototype of the next generation of the original Venn Diagram, where the attributes of the lenses have been interpreted in the context of the difference in operating environment. While it has emerged from a focus on the erstwhile Bottom or Base of the Pyramid or the poor – both of these terms are anathema to me when referring to people – I believe that it might very well make sense to use it for a wider range of incomes and consumer segments, particularly in the African marketplace.

People, of course, does not change from the original, and desirability – that is, creating something that will resonate with them – permits us to lower as many barriers to adoption and minimize the dropout rate. This element came to fore in the Dutch project where the question posed was related to the sustainability of donor funded programmes to effect positive change after the funding ends.

Place replaces Technology, as a lens through which to consider the feasibility of a solution. Furthermore, the benefit of this is that it opens up the framing of the solution space, away from technology per se, and lets us consider a broader range of interventions. Technological solutions may be only one factor, and not a given, as the current framing assumes from the outset.

Pesa is the word I’ve chosen to designate viability. It means money in more than one language across the developing world and thus implies more than just the marketplace which may or may not exist in the formal sense assumed in the first generation diagram. In the context of new products and services, it can cover all aspect of the business model including revenue generation, payment plans, pricing and timing of introduction. And in the context of programmes, it brings to the fore the need to look at means for economic impact, and, uncover a way to measure this impact. Irregular income streams tend to make it difficult for people to know what their monthly income may be or whether, this week, they’ll have that mythical $1.25 or $2 or $5 to spend today.

I look forward to your feedback on this and will be writing more on the diagram separately pertaining to both innovative products and services for the emerging African consumer market as well as a framework for social design innovation for the economically challenged.

Assessing the size and value of investment opportunities with an informal economy footprint

There’s an interesting snippet from the Nigerian news yesterday that led to this framing of a necessary problem statement. KPMG’s head of private equity is quoted as saying:

Meeting current needs of the one billion plus population and, the future demands of the rapidly emerging middle class consumers will drive the next wave of Private Equity investment on the continent.

However, investors, according to KPMG, are keener to do business in sectors that have little to no direct relationship with government, or through structures that limit government control and undue influence.

This was the view of ‎Partner & Africa Head, Deal Advisory & Private Equity at KPMG, Dapo Okubadejo, who said that throughout the firm’s ongoing interactions with foreign investors, it was clear that concerns about ‘red tape’ and perceived corruption are still top of mind for investors who are looking to enter African markets.

Given that private equity investments are currently the hottest thing in key African markets, this shift in emphasis to more consumer facing sectors brings to light some unique challenges that investors will have to face beyond the oft mentioned challenges such as variability in quality of infrastructure and inadequate systems:

  • African consumers transact mostly (90-odd% in most markets) in cash.
  • Emerging consumer classes are more likely than not employed in informal sector activities, in small business and trade. This has impact on both their purchasing patterns as well as their cash flow regardless of income strata.
  • Services are mostly part of the informal sector.
  • Greater degree of retail formalization at the front end (B2C) is no guarantee of similar degree of formal structures at the back end (B2B). Distribution, delivery, payments – the entire supply chain – may have components from both the formal and informal sectors.
  • The role of personal relationships and social networks in the information ecosystem and impact on B2B and B2C decisions.

What does this actually mean, though, to the investment community?

A few years ago, Emerging Futures Lab had the unrivalled opportunity to work with Village Telco, a South African social enterprise whose corporate mantra emphasized open innovation. We can openly share our experience of qualifying, from the perspective of investment and potential for returns, an industry sector for which little or no market data is available due to its significant footprint in the cash based informal economy.

While the industry itself – cyber cafes or internet cafes – maybe in decline today due to the proliferation of affordable smartphones and data plans, back then it was a significant market opportunity for an innovative communications technology. Our task was to assess the size and dollar value of this industry and the market potential for Village Telco’s Mesh Potato device. This was complicated by the fact that not only had we to offer product pricing recommendations but we had to elicit purchase intent for an unknown product category.


Implications for Investment in B2C

This experience was an eye-opening exercise in shedding light on assumptions made in traditional market analyses and pricing exercises.

When such a significant proportion of the industry is operating in the informal sector then many of the heuristic methods and frameworks either did not apply or resulted in skewed outcomes.

The assumptions underlying pricing, for example, focus on utility value, whereas we discovered the majority of informal sector businesses looked at revenue generation potential, intent on maximizing the returns on their capital investment in new technology.

The implications for risk and returns, as assessed by consumer facing businesses, are also influenced by the cash flows and patterns of the informal sector. When the majority of transactions are in cash, how does this influence decision making?

The specific business or industry itself that PE funds are considering may not be as informal as the internet cafe industry but any consumer facing business in this operating environment will face the implications of the propensity for cash.

To summarize the challenge for market assessment:

  1. Heuristic frameworks for market analysis developed in the context of more developed operating environments may not always offer accurate insights on potential for sales and market share.
  2. Assumptions made on purchasing patterns, pricing and buyer behaviour should not be left unquestioned, particularly if the industry segment has a significant footprint in the informal sector.
  3. Risk assessments may be skewed by the impact of the above two factors in the qualification of a market’s potential or industry viability.


Many of the most visible investments till date have been in FMCG such as dairy or biscuits but The Economist offer their opinion albeit without mentioning the increasing emphasis in the B2C space.