Archive for the ‘Projects and Reports’ Category

Launching Our Digital Documentation Project: Ibadan’s Tailors, Traders, and Textiles by Nigerian/British artist Folake Shoga

finalcopyAfter months of hard work, I am very honoured and proud to announced our new digital documentation project by my friend Folake Shoga, a Nigerian/British multidisciplinary artist with more than three decades of experience.

She went on a journey of discovery through the twists and turns of the informal value web that holds together West Africa’s famed textiles and fashionably styled culture.

Her window to this world is centered around Ibadan, Nigeria, and she takes us through an illustrated, personally narrated documentary that spans the experience of getting a new dress, from choosing the right fabric, all the way through building a fashion brand.

Come and join us for this fascinating peek behind the scenes! You can also find this unique photo-documentary again on my portfolio page.

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.

reculture research bed

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.


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

An Introduction to Human Centered Design for Policy Makers in International Development

Part 4: The visual documentation of the original research on rural economic behaviour


I have uploaded a PDF synopsis of the fieldwork conducted during the original Prepaid Economy research including approach and methodology.  Also documented are the different ways those in the rural economy manage their ‘investments’. These images support the observations documented in Part 2 and my thoughts on rural Indian cow ownership have been fleshed out here.

Also of interest maybe this paper from Purdue’s Agricultural Economics department on The multifunctionality of livestock in rural Kenya whose abstract states:

While many contemporary development programs with regard to Sub-Saharan Africa’s pastoralists promote improved livestock marketing as a way out of poverty, they also fail to take into account the multi-functionality of livestock within these communities, and thus are doomed to failure. While livestock are a main source of income for the pastoralist household, they also serve a purpose as a store of wealth, food source, and status symbol. Furthermore, cattle and smallstock (sheep and goats) fulfill each function to a different degree. Since livestock are so multi-functional, marketing projects could better achieve their objectives if they had a more accurate picture of what motivates household livestock sale decisions.

Part 3: Synthesis and Insights from original research on rural economic behaviour

One can conclude from synthesizing the data collected across the geographies and the range of “BoP” income levels that rural households demonstrated similar patterns of behaviour in their management of household expenses on irregular income streams. These are:

  • the rapid conversion of cash into tangible assets such as goods or livestock,
  • the  subsequent storage of wealth in this form,
  • the ability to conduct cashless transactions by mechanisms both simple and sophisticated
  • shared or cooperative financial tools such as investments, loans, purchases and savings
  • the use of multiple resources allocated by cost and usage
  • knowledge and experience of seasonal ebb and flow influencing cash flow management

The irregularity of cash flow or income over time in the households studied can be said to be a combination of the known – such as the ebb and flow of income over the course of the year, either directly due to the natural seasons or due to other unnatural but predictable factors such as Christmas or vacations; and the unknown –  either the truly unpredictable such as a natural disaster or the simply random, such as not knowing how many customers will make a purchase on any given day.

The known component or the “reasonably predictable through experience”, is less a matter of the actual amount of income earned and more about knowing when to expect peaks and lows in cash flow. This element of seasonality would be a critical component of knowledge pertaining to a particular region or market for BoP ventures seeking to create value through successful introductions of products or services.

For example, in the rural region of The Philippines, January to approximately April or May (or until the rains begin) is considered the annual “summer” or “dry” season – unless a farm is very lucky to have access to sufficient water for rice growing regardless of rain, the farmers can only start planting when the rains arrive and are dependent on it for their second harvest as well. So overall, whether its tiny sari-sari1 stores supplying everyday essentials, snacks and cold drinks or some other business – even those selling necessities like food, all consider this a lean period.

Those who earn daily wages  helping farmers plant the rice have little work, farmers live on their stockpiled rice, everyone tends to spend less but along with the rains all of this changes and the pattern of spending increases until the annual Christmas peak. For some, wholly dependent on what they can earn locally (receiving no remittances from relatives abroad) this can mean a difference of 100% in their weekly earnings between the “wet” and the “dry” season.

The Indians and the Malawians were influenced in similar ways, only the actual timings varied due to geography. Whatever the reasons in any particular region, when evaluating the purchasing power of those who manage with irregular and unpredictable income, the first question to ask is if there are any known patterns of ebb and flow in their cash flow.

It is the unknown component that creates the unpredictable volatility that those on irregular income streams must deal with in order to manage their household expenses with any degree of control. The behaviours observed listed above, taken together, can be summarized to state that each household managed what could be called a “portfolio of investments” that acted as deposits maturing over time.

They either maintained multiple sources of income simultaneously since available cash was often converted into these investments, spreading the risk of any one source failing when needed or stored their wealth accordingly.  Maximizing available resources based on their cost and intended usage along with the tendency towards minimizing the need for cash based transactions all worked together  to smoothen the volatility of the household‘s income.

For example, one family in Malawi reared pigs for sales (or food in emergencies), grew vegetables and maize for their own needs, distilled wine from sugar cane for cash sales and also kept bees with a cooperative for annual harvest of honey. Cash was thus available in varying amounts from a variety of sources at different points of time.

In the Philippines, an extended household living together in one compound pooled their resources from a kitchen garden, stored fuel in the form of bamboo and dried coconut husk, kept chickens and occasionally a pig, as well managed on the small amounts of cash earned daily through running at small sari-sari store on the premises.

While in the Indian village, even the silversmith who made ornaments only during the harvest peak, used his metalworking skills and workshop the rest of the year to make doors, windows and grillwork.

This portfolio management approach to household expenses* implies the manipulation of their span of control over elements of time such as periodicity and frequency as well as currency, i.e. cash or goods, in order to decrease the volatility of their cash flow, improve their ability to plan and while decreasing the variance between expenses and income.

Across the board, the particular characteristic that most stood out during conversations with the rural populace in India and The Philippines, echoing  prior experience in the field elsewhere, was their undeniable pride in their degree of self reliance, and thus, their level of independence from the formal or cash based economy.

Over and over, people would proudly point to assets like firewood, livestock, kitchen gardens etc and emphasize that these resources were ‘free’ and didn’t need to be purchased for cash, often in the same breath pointing out how everything needed to be bought if you lived in the city. Whether it was a nanny goat kept just to provide the daily cup of milk for morning tea or an extra sack of rice held back from the harvest sales, there was a distinct sense of achievement for every penny that didn’t have to be spent.

This trait of minimizing the need for actual cash money also cropped up in other patterns of behaviour including the storage of wealth in the form of ‘kind’ or ‘goods’ (that could be liquidated when and if required); cashless transactions within the community, from the simple to the sophisticated; and the rapid conversion of surplus cash into goods or ‘kind’ (livestock, for example, as investment or planned savings in the form of silver or bricks for a future house).

Expensive resources that required cash outlays such as fuel – diesel for irrigation pumps; liquid petroleum gas cylinders for cooking; or airtime minutes purchased on prepaid plans for the ubiquitous mobile phone, would be stretched out for as long as possible before the need for replenishment. For example, a common behaviour was the choice of cheaper or ’free’ fuel such as firewood or dried cow dung for cooking food which took a long time to cook such as beans or stews, saving the use of the more expensive gas stove for fast cooking items.

All of these behaviours, taken together, imply a challenge for businesses seeking to serve rural populations effectively since their relative lack of liquidity places them in a challenging position as future customers. Conventional business development methods include the use of market research to evaluate the disposable income or purchasing power of the target audience. When considering rural BoP households, these tools may not supply any meaningful data, skewing the perceived income levels or earnings of those studied.

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

1. Seasonality – with the exception of the salaried, everyone else in the sample pool was able to identify times of abundance and scarcity over the course of natural year in their earnings. Identification of a particular region or market’s local pattern of seasonality would benefit the design of payment schedules, timing of entry or new product and service launch, for example.

2. Relative lack of liquidity – The majority of the rural households observed tended to ‘store wealth’ in the form of goods, livestock or natural resources, relying on a variety of cashless transactions within the community for a number of needs. Conventional business development strategies need to be reformulated to take this into account as these patterns of behaviour may reflect the household’s purchasing power or income level inaccurately.

3. Increasing the customer’s span of control over the timing, frequency and amount of cash required – Since the availability and amount of cash cannot be predicted on calendar time, this implication is best reflected by the success of the prepaid mobile phone subscriptions in these same markets. When some cash is available, it can be used to purchase airtime minutes for text or voice calls, when there is no money, the phone can still receive incoming calls. Models which impose an external schedule of  periodicity, frequency and amount of cash required may not always be successful in matching the volatile cash flow particular to each household’s sources of income.


Broadly speaking, there was evidence of far more sophisticated cash flow management than has either been expected or assumed among the rural BoP households in the sample pool. In fact, one future task would be to parse out whether the terms ‘irregular’ or ‘unpredictable’ can be be applied. Certainly, income was not as predictable and regular as a salary, but on the other hand, neither were they totally random and unknown. At this point, it seems far more accurate to say that the rural BoP households do not manage their expenses on a “fixed amount arriving on a known day or date”.

Also to be reconsidered is whether those in the rural communities in developing countries should simply be lumped together with their urban brethren as an undifferentiated mass called “the BoP” or “the poor” – for one, living on $2 a day has an entirely different meaning where much of the hyper local economy may not even be based on cash transactions, or else, few daily requirements need to be purchased.

If we’re to seriously evaluate business development for BoP ventures, then a far more nuanced understanding of local culture, buyer behaviour and segmentation of these emerging consumer markets is required.

* Given the similiarities in findings, it should be noted that these insights emerged from a workshop conducted in Helsinki, Finland in April 2009, prior to the release of the now famous book, Portfolios of the Poor.

Part 2: The Observations made during original research on rural economic behaviour

One can roughly consider the relative income (or wealth) across three regions where observations were conducted on a continuum where the Indian village was the ‘wealthiest’ while the Malawians were living closest to the edge. However, on synthesizing the combined data collected across geographies, patterns of financial behaviour emerged that showed similarities of intention and goals.

For example, non-perishable food grains such as wheat in India or rice in the Philippines were considered a form of wealth that could be stored, acting as savings or insurance. A portion of the harvest would be held back, to be either sold on demand for cash, over the course of the year or as a source of food. Wealth was also stored, as security, for the longer term, in the form of silver ornaments (in India) or as an investment, in the short term, as livestock – pigs, chickens or a milch cow.

Also, people rarely held on to money in the form of cash for any length of time, for the most part due to lack of access to banks and/or the high cost of maintaining an account proportionate to their incomes.  Available cash was usually converted to “kind” – either goods or livestock- the choice of which reflected careful prioritization. These tangible purchases then acted as financial tools depending on their “convertibility”-

  • long-term security (silver);
  • planned savings (buying building materials on a piecemeal basis over time until a house could be built);
  • insurance or a “cushion” against shocks (a pig that could be sold to raise cash or eaten as food) and finally,
  • investments (milk bearing cow, young piglets to rear to maturity, culling high margin ‘fighting cocks’ from chicks).

Cashless transactions, thus, were frequently observed. These behaviours were most complex in India; where a sophisticated mechanism allowed a group of farmers to negotiate the annual retainer for the services of a carpenter in the form of a number of sacks of wheat to be paid during the harvest and the local shops would set a ‘currency’ conversion rate of a kilo of wheat to the rupee to be used for buying sundry provisions. The shop that insisted on cash only transactions priced its goods about 10% cheaper than the rest. Barter was far simpler in Malawi, where a mobile phone could fetch its equivalent price in goats.

Here, it must be noted that very often each household’s resources such as a store of fuel (cow dung in India; firewood elsewhere), chickens or a kitchen garden and assets like milch goats or cows, would be pointed out with pride.  For their possession implied an independence from cash money – in almost every interview, people would emphasize how little they needed to purchase in the store or nearest town for their daily needs as they were self sufficient in these demonstrated requirements. Often it would be added that in a city, you had no choice but to purchase everything you needed.

Thus the use of purchased resources were optimized for maximum cost/benefit and  their use extended as much as possible before replenishment. For example, if a household had access to cooking gas, they would still use firewood or charcoal for foods that took longer to cook while the more expensive fuel was used for foods that cooked quickly.

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

In addition to the behaviour patterns mentioned above, an external factor was observed to be of great significance in the management of rural household expenses.  While it naturally differed in timing and reason from region to region, every household and profession could predict, within reason, the ebb and flow of income based on the seasons of a natural year. In fact, many other observed behaviours were often directly linked to these expected peaks, such as the harvest season, and lows, for example the dry season when fields lay fallow.  This pattern of expected ups and downs or seasonality in income flow was seen to affect even those who were not directly involved in agriculture, as the local economies were closely knit and interdependent.

Note: This blog was begun as a way to publicly share my thoughts during fieldwork, so much of the raw data and immediate observations are available under the category “user research” as well as blog posts written during January 2009 to April 2009 as seen in the archives available on the right hand sidebar.

Part 1: Why are we publishing our original research on rural economic behaviour in 5 parts online?

A recent article in The Economist on the economic value of owning cattle in rural India made me to realize just how little is understood about the rural economy.  Here’s a snippet:

That is because most people find spending easier than saving. Immediate pleasures are easier to grasp than future joys—and so people make spending decisions that they later regret. Economists refer to this as “myopia”. Cows force people not to be myopic. Compared with money held in savings accounts, cattle are illiquid assets. Taking cash from a cow is harder than taking money from an account. As a result, temptation spending is trickier.

The paper has implications for poverty-alleviation strategies and for financial services in developing countries. Aid programmes that try to reduce poverty by distributing livestock may be ineffective at raising incomes, if the returns from owning them are so poor. If cows are used as a means of saving, the spread of mobile banking in places like India will provide another, better option. Even then the problem of temptation spending arises.

This discussion makes quite clear that the underlying assumptions being made by the learned authors of this study are not only implicitly wrong but based on their own perspective of life in the concrete jungle with access to easy credit enabling impulse purchases and conspicuous consumption. Milk, for their morning cereal, tends to come from a tetrapak in the extra large refrigerator and electricity provides the means to warm it.

Since the Prepaid Economy project has been immersed in rural household economic behaviour for some 5 years now, perhaps its time to share the basis for better understanding the why behind the what that is being so fervently discussed. The final report as submitted to the funders of the original fieldwork will be shared in 3 parts:

1. The Abstract – scroll down after the cow for this extract.
2. The Observations
3. The Synthesis and Insights
4. The visual documentary of the above with annotations.
and finally
5. My thoughts on the role of the cow in the rural economy, supported by references to research previously linked to on this blog as well as additional fieldwork in Kenya.

Buffalo, Village Rewal, Rajasthan, January 2009 (Photo: Goverdhan Meena)

Buffalo, Village Rewal, Rajasthan, January 2009 (Photo: Goverdhan* Meena)

The challenge faced by BoP ventures has been the lack of knowledge about their intended target audience from the point of view of business development whereas decades of consumer research and insights are available for conventional markets. What little is known about the BoP’s consumer behaviour, purchasing patterns and decision making tends to assume that there are no primary differences between mainstream consumers and the BoP except for the amount of their income – pegged most often between $2 to $5 a day.

In practice, the great majority at the BoP manage on incomes earned from a variety of sources rather than a predictable salary from a regular job and have little or no access to conventional financial tools such as credit cards, bank accounts, loans, mortgages. This is one of the biggest differentiators in the challenge of value creation faced by BoP ventures, particularly among rural populations (over 60% of the global BoP population lives in rural areas).

Exploratory research was conducted in the field among rural Indian and rural Filipino populations in order to understand how those on irregular incomes managed their household expenses. Empirical data collected by observations, interviews and extended immersion led us to identify patterns of behaviour among the rural BoP in their management of income and expenditure, ‘cash flow’ and ‘working capital’ and the significance of social capital and community networks as financial tools. Practices documented include ‘conversion to goods’, ‘stored wealth’, ‘cashless transactions’, and reliance on multiple sources of income that mature over different times.

This paper will share our observations from the field; identify some challenges these behaviours create for business and also explore some opportunities for value creation by seeking to articulate the elements that BoP ventures must address if they are to do business profitably with the rural ‘poor’ based on their own existing patterns of financial habits and norms.

*It just struck me that even the name of my local guide in Rajasthan was Goverdhan, which means “to increase the wealth (value creation) of a cow”.

Reflecting on this blog’s genesis after 5 years

I started this blog in late December 2008, in earnest and every day during the first prototype fieldwork for The Prepaid Economy project, one of the iBoP Asia Project’s first batch of Small Grant winners from the ASEAN region. For the first 5 months of 2009, this blog was on the mainpage of my website as I felt my entire enterprise – Emerging Futures Lab – was being entirely supported by this grant.

It was only in April 2009 that I began my next phase in advancing my experiential knowledge of preparing, planning and programming research using design ethnography tools from the field of user centered design (UCD) when I moved to Helsinki, Finland on a project with the then Helsinki School of Economics (HSE) and now a part of Aalto University. This university is the result of an academe-led innovative merger of the independent schools of business, design and engineering (science) which was manifest tangibly in the form of an experimental platform for interdisciplinary innovation research and pedagogy known to all as the Design Factory.

Everything that I came to understand about the patterns at play in the informal rural economies of the developing world was in one way due to conversations and whiteboarding exercises with the wide variety of people accessible to one in the factory. It was only later that it received the formal name of Aalto Design Factory, for most of its first year of existence it was simply “the df” or “df” to all of us early adopters and believers in removal of barriers and silos to effective communication, cooperation and collaboration.

In retrospect, I could have analysed a lot more with the rich deep dive of data I had gathered after my immersion in the field. I had spent 10 days off the www in a rice growing barangay in Iloilo, The Philippines and a similar amount of time but less direct inhome experience in rural Rajasthan, India. On the other hand, in the numerous projects since then, the layers of understanding the balance of flow – the give and take of transactions of value between trusted referrals, juggling the factors of “time” and “money” in order to smoothen the volatility between in the incoming cash and outgoing for daily needs and other expenses – have only deepened in nuance and understanding.

This research path was set upon in late 2008 – just around now, in fact since the deadline for applying for the iBoP/IDRC’s Small Grant was the first week of September. It has been 5 full years on wondering about the inherent conflict between periodic, calender based payment plans, monthly subscriptions and other regular inflows of cash, often paid as a bill of unknown amount due in the near future or as hire purchase payments AND the irregular and sometime unpredictable income streams from a variety of sources relied upon by the vast majority of the world’s households for managing their household finances.

Why the prepaid business model works so well for the informal economy, the base or bottom of the pyramid (BoP) and the seasonal ebbs and flows of the rural economy can all be explained by simply pointing out the fact that this pay as you go system hands over the control over amount to be paid and date it is due to the end user – something that Donald Norman, father of user centered design (UCD) has also pointed out as a factor in user satisfaction with a product and its design.

About 12 months ago I completed fieldwork that took my original primary research on the prepaid economy and its decision making behaviour in order to better inform business models and payment plans and went a few steps further into comparative analysis of experimental results. I was able to compare the sales results of a product line across 4 different variations of payment plans being pilot tested among rural offgrid residents in 2 East Africa Community countries.

This was almost as good as a direct test of the original hypothesis that the greater the span of control over time (duration, frequency, periodicity) and money (amount, cash or kind) a business model offered a member of the informal economy, the better the long term chances of sustaining the enterprise. In fact, I was able to add one more factor to the equational mix which was not considered when I first began this work.

This is what I call “Face time” or combination of social capital, daily proximity and interpersonal relational mix – that which allows you to negotiate on terms of payment such as time and amount with someone to whom you owe this cash or payment and the limits of this negotiation are bounded by the limits of trust between the two of you.

Face time  and Flexibility were the two main attributes of the 4 business models being pilot tested that seemed to capture the range of responses, performance and feedback, yet allow us to distinguish what was different in each model, thus what might have influenced a change.

None of this research was quantitative but completely qualitative groundclearing work to discover insights that would inform more relevant and appropriate business models and other market entry tactics to maximize, within constraints, the adoption rate of innovation (a new venture, a service or business model, an invention) among the population without regular paychecks and easy access to consumer credit. This work has also validated my hypothesis that the tools from user centered design could be used to advantage to grasp and make sense of more complex and wicked problems than could be understood by simple numbers alone.  The methodology being part of product development process also allows for company’s to reach a faster path to market with an innovative product or service or revenue stream in entirety.

The original fieldwork in agriculture dependent rural economies in ASEAN and South Asia and the early work in Africa, all looked at the bulk of such a population, the lower income segments at the BoP. But now with the rapidly emerging global middle classes i.e. those displaying regular patterns of consumption, this knowledge gained can also help assess the worldview and consumer mindset of the emerging consumer markets of sub Saharan Africa.

There is so much yet to be learnt and every single actor is breaking new ground, whether its Econet Wireless and MKopa with their airtime or mobile money pay as you go solar lights and charging or whether its every social enterprise trying to sell a cookstove, a lantern or a water pump to the subsistence farmer. We need to document every instance of success so that patterns of what worked might be of help to better refine and improve our models for market creation at the very end of the global value chain.

Photosets from Kenya feasibility trip

Small clusters of photographs from our recent travels in rural Kenya are up on the The Prepaid Economy: African edition tumblog.

Here’s a quick look at:

I’ll be adding more to the list …

All photographs are taken by Niti Bhan and all rights reserved.