Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Goal Directed Research for Innovation Planning in Emerging Markets

What differentiates the research conducted to inform the design of an innovative product or service, in an untapped market? Michael Kimani asked me this question during a recent Skype conversation and I promised to write out the answer.

  • Goal directed research for innovation planning seeks to discover opportunities for new products and services for a particular market or population segment.
  • This means the scope must be broad enough to gather evidence of a market opportunity, customer needs and willingness to pay, as well as identify the constraints and barriers in both the environment (such as infrastructure) and the target population.
  • Looking for evidence of a viable value proposition and/or a business model is what distinguishes this type of early stage research from traditional product and service design research whose goals are to discover the optimal design solution for a particular task and target audience.
  • Unlike academic research, there may not always be a hypothesis to be validated at inception, nor the outcome pure knowledge.
  • Instead, there is a goal driving the design of the research, whether broad focused and exploratory, or narrow focused and specific.
  • This initiating goal can be set at three levels:
    • Sector specific
      • An example of sector specific goal setting would be to explore the potential for financial products and services for a bank. Alternately, this can be framed as identifying opportunities for innovation in financial services.
    • Demographic specific
      • A startup with a product or service under development may want to discover which segments of the target population should be prioritized for their product testing and launch. Alternately, a consumer products manufacturer might want to explore wholly new markets and the customization required for their product range.
    • Outcome specific
      • A popular outcome specific research framing that is sector and population agnostic is “What are the barriers to adoption for our intended innovation among this target audience?” We have conducted such research for a wide range of objectives, from the introduction of sustainable agricultural techniques among farmers in rural East Africa, to insights driving product development for a fintech startup.

The challenge in untapped markets is a dearth of legacy data and consumer insights, hence the need for more discovery driven exploration upfront prior to drilling down to specific research focus areas. In the forthcoming post, I will share our customization of Vijay Kumar’s innovation planning methodology developed over the past few years in situ during projects in East Africa. Note that subsequent research to inform the specific concept design of a product or service will have more of an indepth focus on the target demographic and their particular context.

How informal financial services can lower the barriers to formal financial inclusion

Around 2 and a half years ago, I was on a short visit to Abidjan, the capital of Cote D’Ivoire as a guest of the African Development Bank. They were holding an innovation weekend for young women and men in the Francophone West African region who were interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

David O. Capo Chichi, who used to work back then for MTN, a major telco very kindly took me around the informal markets on his day off and we got to talking to market women about their financial management habits. One interesting behaviour linking the informal with the formal came to light.

An established spice seller told us she had a savings account at the bank, but accessing the bank’s services were a huge barrier – the opening times ate into her business hours and the long wait times meant loss of income from potential customers. At the same time, because she was dependent on cash income from daily sales, it was more convenient for her to put a portion of money aside on a daily basis. So what she was doing was paying a tontine collector for the service of showing up at her shop everyday and collecting her small amount of cash set aside for savings. He would hold it safely for her for a month and then she would take the total saved up amount back from him, take the day off work and go deposit it in her bank account. That was the only way she could have the flexibility and negotiability that budgeting on her irregular cash flow required and still access the benefits of a secure safe interest earning savings account at the bank.

Now today I came across this article describing a pilot program in Benin where the private susu (small small) or tontinier, such as that used by the lady in Cote D’Ivoire, have been formalized into a more secure and insured service for the same demographic of informal market women and traders. There’s even a digital component that updates the accounts via the mobile phone.

“The reality is that we can’t be everywhere, and the Susu collectors are near the population. We have to work with them and find the best business model to get them into the formal system.”

Now, this exact same model being piloted by the MFI in Benin may not apply in exactly the same way elsewhere, depending on the conditions prevalent in the operating environment, but its clear that the structures and systems in place at the formal institution can be made more flexible and negotiable – given a “human face” – by working together with the pre-existing informal financial services already in operation.

This behaviour also resembles that seen among the informal cross border traders at the Uganda/Kenya borderland. Teresia who sells clothes under a tree has established a trusted relationship with her mobile money agent. He shows up at closing time to help her transfer her cash into mPesa, thus securing it for her and saving her both time and effort through this personalized service. Though she said she had an account at the bank, it lies dormant, for the same reasons given by the spice seller in Abidjan – “Who can afford to close shop during the day to spend hours at the bank?”

Innovations aimed at increasing inclusion for financial services need not always contain a digital component for them to make a difference for the customer, and lower the barriers to adoption and usage. All it takes is a deeper understanding of the challenges and constraints of the end user in the context of their day to day life.

Context Sensitive Law: What happens when African societal norms meet modern commercial practice?

In short, social forces shape contracts: the stronger the sense of community, the more effective these sanctions are likely to be. The result: A privately ordered system of business behaviour, which exists without reference to the governing law of the state. The underlying adhesive: community.

In the absence of conventional forms of collateral, my contract partner’s knowledge of my financial standing and habits will serve as a guarantor of payment.

While trust may not always be present, and altruistically putting another’s needs before one’s own may be difficult when money is tight and economic needs press, a moderate sense of community does indeed characterise contracting in this setting. This leaves room for private property and individual financial goals, but ensures that one prioritises communal relations when making economic decisions.

This snippet from a short article by Andrew Hutchison and Nkanyiso Sibanda validates our own discoveries from observing the informal trade ecosystem in East Africa. Hutchison and Sibanda’s aim is to  inform the policy question as to whether South Africa needs to develop a dedicated indigenous law of contract. Their research set about moving the study of contracting from the centralised law of the state into the context of what happens in the popular economy – the space where the informal and formal sectors meet.

This is a powerful space for policy and law. Few formal institutions have successfully bridged this space between the formal and informal – my usual go to example are the mobile service providers and their prepaid purchase model as one that fits the needs of the informal context.

Sibanda and Hutchison go on to share some thoughts on their future direction:

We have described these informal rules and regulations as adhering to the concept of ubuntu. Retired Constitutional Court judge, Yvonne Mokgoro, defines ubuntu using the African saying:

a human being is a human being through other human beings.

This means that a person’s individual existence and welfare are relative to that of her community.

Context sensitive law

How are we then to define ubuntu in a given contractual setting in South Africa? “With reference to context,” is our answer. The notion of community described above requires a certain type of social environment. We think that this environment is to be found in South Africa’s popular economy and the relevant empirical literature supports this view. But what about high value contracts between South Africa’s blue chip companies?

We believe that contract law should be context sensitive. This should include which business community’s norms are used in determining the outcome of a given commercial dispute. This is not to say that corporates aren’t African, but rather that the value of community may be different. And even in the informal sector, contracts must be honoured. Under the South African Constitution, common and customary law are presently separate parallel branches. Our research will inform future arguments about how these two branches may influence each other.

I hope they will inspire lawyers and researchers in other African countries to begin looking at the same challenges in their own operating environment. Inspiring policy thinking about customary law in the context of community and business would go a long way to paving the path for an African version of the formal institutions required for a developed economy.

Why does the prepaid model work so well and what are the lessons for business model innovation?

Increasingly, employment is becoming ad hoc and flexible. The gig economy and the informal sector share a common characteristic of incomes which are irregular and unpredictable, unlike the timely wages characteristic of formal employment. Both budgeting and planning thus become a challenge when there’s no predictable paycheck to rely on. Expenses are managed against cash flows to minimize volatility, and payments with calender deadlines become a challenge in planning.

It is in this scenario that the prepaid or pay as you go model works so well for the customer, one of the reasons why its ubiquity across the developing world drives the growth of mobile phones. It puts control over timing and amount of money spent in the hands of the user, allowing them juggle voice and data purchases against available cash in hand.

Here are the lessons for business model innovation applicable for a plethora of products and services, drawn from our decade of research into the financial frameworks underlying the operating environment characterized by unpredictability and volatility, and the success of the prepaid model.


The prepaid model is flexible. There is no rigid requirement on the amount that can be spent, beyond the voucher values of each telcom operator, nor are there periodic calender based deadlines such as those in a monthly bill. In Nigeria, traders have been found to top up their phones multiple times a week or even the same day, yet purchasing the smallest denomination of vouchers. High frequency of small amounts is a purchasing pattern that resembles their own cash flow while trading in the informal market. They don’t want to tie up their liquidity in airtime in case cash on hand is required for business, yet their trade is clearly dependent on mobile communication hence the frequent recharges.

This flexibility built into the business model clearly puts control over timing and amounts spent in the hands of the end-user who must manage a volatile cash flow situation.


In addition to the daily or weekly fluctuations in cash flow experienced by gig economy workers or those active in the developing country informal sectors, there are larger variations in income level over the course of the natural year. Unlike the regularity of a monthly salary, irregular incomes rise during peak seasons, such as festivals and holidays, and plunge during low seasons. Developing country economies are more closely linked to the seasonality of agriculture, given the greater proportion of the population’s dependence on farming. Incomes can vary as much as 300% for instance, for tea farmers in western Kenya’s Kisii region. Climatic effects also have greater impact on cash flows, and the current drought in East Africa is expected to depress livestock prices in the coming half year. On the upside, seasonal peaks in consumer durable sales are predictable as the regional harvest timings are a known factor. North India’s post harvest season in late October/November kickstarts an orgy of consumer spending during the festivals and the weddings which take place during this period.

Business models designed to take expected seasonal changes into account can minimize the dropout rate of customers when their income changes.


One of the biggest challenges we have wrapping our heads around when considering more rural or cash intensive economies is that liquidity is not equivalent to wealth, or even purchasing power. While this factor can apply to anyone relying on multiple income streams from a variety of sources, I’ll use the example of a small farmer to explain its importance to the design of business models.

The homestead is managed like an investment portfolio, with different sources of income maturing over different durations of time over the course of the natural year. This is also why control over Timing – frequency, periodicity – of payments, such as possible in the prepaid model, is so critical for the success of payment plans. A smartphone might be purchased after the major harvest of the annual cash crop, but its the daily cash from the sale of milk that would be used for recharges (and other basic necessities). Similarly, a calf may be purchased to fatten against the following year’s school fees.


This leads directly to a factor more relevant to heavily informal economies where variance in systems and structures means transactions are more human centered, depending on face to face communication, trusted references, and mutual compacts rather than legal contracts to enforce agreements. Negotiability of your business model, and its close relation, reciprocity – “the give and take” – is an element missing from faceless institutions that seek to serve this demographic.

This is one reason many prefer to seek solutions outside of formal banking institutions, for example, as their opening hours might not suit the trader’s business hours. In Busia, Uganda, most women traders had established trusted relationships with a mobile money agent, many of whom would show up at the end of the work day to assist the trader in transferring the cash earning safely onto the digital wallet. And, unlike the bank, the telco’s prepaid model allows customers to “negotiate” when and how much they’ll pay within the constraints of far more flexible terms and conditions than most other models.

A farmer has “purchased” this solar panel after coming to an agreement with the shopkeeper. He will pay off the total, over time, as and when he has spare cash, and collect the panel when payment is complete. There is no interest charge. The shopkeeper has put the farmer’s name on the panel but will keep hold of the item.

The greater the span of control over timing and amounts, the greater the success of the payment plan

The prepaid model bridges the critical gap between the predictable formal structures of the large institution and the dynamic challenges of the informal. The bottomline is that the flexibility, negotiability, and reciprocity of the model are more important factors for its success than the conventional understanding of permitting micropayments in advance. Numerous consumer product marketers entering emerging markets experienced this challenge when their micropayment hire purchase models failed customers who might have to miss one or two week’s payments due to illness or other emergencies – their products were repossessed without any recourse to adjustment. Its the rigid calender schedule embedded in a payment plan that is often the barrier to a high ticket purchase than the actual price itself.

None of these factors are insurmountable with today’s technology, and the field for business model innovation for irregular income streams such as those in the gig economy or the informal sector is still wide open for disruption.

Trading economics: a new theoretical system

From the Financial Times, a snippet from a guest post by Wang Zhenying, director-general of the research and statistics department at the PBoC’s Shanghai head office and vice chairman of the Shanghai Financial Studies Association, summarising the arguments in his new Chinese-language textbook on economics.

“Trading economics” is one new theory emerging against this backdrop. Mainstream economics deduces the macro whole by extrapolating from the behavior of individual “representative agents”. Trading economics replaces this with a systematic and comprehensive analysis approach. It stresses that in an interconnected world, the interaction between trading subjects is the fundamental driving force behind the operation, development, and evolution of economic systems.

Trading economics first analyses the actions of trading subjects, then builds a dynamic trading network among trading subjects through trading relations, and finally reveals the operational rules of the economic system. The rules could be examined from two perspectives: short-term and long-term. The business cycle and price changes are examined in the short-term perspective. The long-term perspective would focus on the rules of economic evolution as well as changes in technology, knowledge, system, and network.

Throughout the history of economics, trading economics is the first and foremost theory to incorporate all economic phenomena into an all-encompassing logical system. It changes the long-standing scenario in the economics field, that is, the macro was separated from the micro, and the short-term from the long-term. Trading economics is a revolution of mainstream economic theories and is bound to exert a great and profound impact on all areas, including economic theoretical research and practical application.


NB: I thoroughly enjoyed reading this summary and expect to contextualize future research with some of the theoretical frameworks as presented here.



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.

Mobiles at the Border Post: Anti-Atlas of Borders Exhibition Slides (Jan 2016)

In January 2016, our submission for the Anti-Atlas of Borders Art Exhibition in Brussels was accepted for a commission of 500e. We were thrilled and surprised since we’d never imagined our work on mobile platforms, technology, and the borderland biashara could be considered from the arts and culture point of view.

Here is our story in the form of slideshow – each of these was printed in full size and hung on the walls.

A Unique Path to Development Seen for the Informal Economy

Just recently I stumbled over this slim book < 60 pages that analyzed existing data sources in order to frame an answer to the research question they posed:

How did the informal economy―markets and the private sector―develop in the absence of legal and administrative frameworks to support it?

Some of the most intriguing insights extracted here:

And they echo my own statements regarding the East African Community that its the informal sector that’s growing faster and responsible for employing the majority of the population. This makes integration and bridging efforts between the formal and global together with the local and informal even more critical.

The path to integration as described in the book may not apply to the African economies but holds some unusual insights for those in eastern Europe which may struggle with some of the same issues of top down planning and grassroots income generation.

All in all, the step by step approach over the past decade to recognize, and thus integrate the informal sector was much appreciated and if you’re interested, you can download the book here.

Household energy consumption behaviour in East Africa: Lighting & Conclusion (3 of 3 Parts)


Jua Kali Kerosene Lamp, Kenya

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 3rd and final part will focus on fuel usage and consumption behaviours for lighting. Users sampled for this study were selected based on varying fuel consumption patterns, ranging from a single homestead to a rural hotel open from dawn to 1am offering solar powered football on television.

Fuel Choice and Consumption Behaviour is Influenced by Duration and Timing of the Need

Kerosene is the primary source of fuel for lighting for those who live without access to electricity, regardless of whether its on their shamba, or in a building in town. Not only is the reach of grid access limited to a small percentage of rural Kenyans but the cost of the final connection to the dwelling is also a barrier for many. Due to the nature of this project’s focus, the majority of homes visited were without a solar home system.

Hurricane lanterns are the most popular lighting devices among kerosene users, as the glass covering the lamp protects the flame as well as contains the smell and smoke. With prices as low as 250Kes, everyone has at least one, if not more at home and the number maintained depends on size of the family, number of buildings on the homestead and the fluctuating ability to purchase fuel.

Pressure lamps can cost ten times as much and consume far more fuel although they offer a brighter light – they were not seen in Makueni households and the only regular user was the furniture maker who restricted its use to times of high productivity during the Christmas season. In Kisii, they are owned by members of the congregation who use them once a month for religious functions and the fuel is provided by the church. Gregory the schoolteacher called them “gas guzzlers” whose bright light was not worth either the high running cost or price of the device itself.

Everyone owns a few small tin lamps but they were referred to as something discarded during the upwardly mobile climb to a hurricane lantern – “Oh, we must have a few lying about somewhere in a dusty corner” said one wife while Mama Grace only used it in the confines of the kitchen building where the open flame, with its attendant smoke would make no difference. However, due to their small size, they require very small amounts of kerosene and tend to be kept as a backup for times of need when the fuel supply runs low or to be used by the aged, such as Kilonzi’s grandmother who finds the hurricane lantern difficult to maintain.

In addition to kerosene fuelled lamps and lanterns, every home owned at least one flashlight of some sort, whether powered by dry cell batteries, grid rechargeable or disposable for what they referred to as “emergencies or needing to go outside at night”. By emergency, they meant that this form of light was faster and easier to turn for sudden need than the more complicated task of lighting a kerosene lamp, plus it could be used in wind or rain. For many, this item received first priority if resources such as batteries or cash for charging were limited.

What stood out across the board was that everyone knew, almost to the minute in some cases, exactly when they used their light source. This behaviour was evident regardless of the household’s energy source including if it was solar power and thus “free”. Answers would range in specificity from estimates “around 7pm to maybe 10pm, sometimes later” to on the dot timings “from 5.45am to 6.30am in the morning”.

“I only use it for children to study” Mama John who scrimped and saved for solar

This gives rise to the conjecture that the fundamental observation in household financial behaviour of being able to control time (duration, frequency, periodicity) and money(whether prepaid source of fuel like kerosene or postpaid like electricity), is an ingrained habit even after upward mobility has removed the need for such stringent conservation. SHS do not require the same frugality daily use and cost and this can be seen in increased use of entertainment appliances like televisions and radios but lights still follow this pattern. However, it can also be said that rural life is slow to change in response to the introduction of modern conveniences and this may also be a significant factor.

The dry cell battery

Similar patterns of duration and accuracy of timing were also observed in choice and purchase of dry cell batteries, particularly for the radio. People knew which specific programs they wanted to listen to thus the
time and duration of their use of the radio. Everyone wanted to be able to listen to the radio more often but conserved battery life for as long as possible. Many even acknowledged that expensive brands like Eveready which cost 65Kes a pair lasted three times as long as the cheaper Chinese Lion brand costing only 30kes the pair but their irregular cash flows acted as a barrier to purchase dependant as they were on what cash was available on hand (or in pocket) at time of need.

Concluding Remarks

Consumers with limited incomes prioritize household energy and fuel spending according to importance for survival. Food and thus cooking come first followed by light. Everything else depends on the criticality of need against funds available. For example, Muthoka, who was unemployed and living on his small subsistence farm deep in the interior away from a market town, said that if he had to choose between 20Kes worth of kerosene or charging his mobile phone, he would choose kerosene first for lighting was more important to him than his mobile.

Similarly, Gregory the schoolteacher, put batteries for the emergency flashlight as more important than for playing the radio. The question becomes “What can we do without?” and only one of the many respondents of the more general household survey prioritized her mobile phone over light but she was a business woman whose income depended on her being available for calls.

The caveat here is that these answers are not absolutes and while most people will say that the phone is less important, there will be times of need when charging the phone or topping up airtime will be critical.

However, unlike kerosene or dry cell batteries for light, one can always borrow a friend or neighbour’s phone for an emergency phone call. These are the kinds of trade-offs people make when living on the edge on limited and irregular cash flows.

Pricing is rarely the problem

These insights on people’s household energy management and purchasing patterns, based as they are on the limitations and timing of their income sources are what led to the conclusion that the actual price itself was not the barrier to sales but instead it was a combination of factors starting with the choice of packaging and the subsequent pricing and sales strategy.


Part One: Introduction to Household Energy Consumption Behaviour Study in East Africa (2012)
Part Two: Cooking

Introduction to rural household energy consumption behaviour in East Africa (1 of 3 parts)

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 first part is an overview of household financial management in conditions irregular and unpredictable income streams from a variety of sources. The 2nd and 3rd part will focus on fuel usage and consumption behaviours for cooking and for lighting separately. 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.

Aspirational ownership and tangible evidence of savings in prepaid purchase model of solar panel, as seen in Chuka, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan, February 2012)

Rural Kenyans are not very different from rural Filipinos or Malawians or Indians when it comes to the way they manage their daily household expenses. Similarities in decision making, in purchasing patterns and in observed consumer behaviour, all stem from the same underlying need to plan and manage on irregular incomes from a variety of multiple sources in harsh environments of scarcity and uncertainty. The underlying driver is always to stretch the limited shilling, rupee or peso to the maximum while keeping one’s head above water.

With the exception of the salaried schoolteacher, who managed on fixed amounts of cash paid predictably on a calender schedule, the rest juggled an irregular cash flow against required expenses, attempting to minimize the differences over calender time and as a planning mechanism across the natural year’s seasons of abundance and scarcity. Even cash croppers like Mama Grace, who received end month payments from the tea factory, coped with the significant difference in the quality and quantity of tea harvested during the wet and the dry seasons with a variance of as much as 300% between high and low payments.

Rural homesteads manage their household finances rather like a “portfolio of investments” that mature over varying times such as cow’s milk which can be sold daily for cash, while a chicken takes less time than a field of maize to be ready for harvest and sale. Thus decisions are made based on timing of the expense and the choice of ‘investment’ to liquidate on what was ‘ready’ as well as the amount of cash required. For example, in Kilala livestock market it is a known fact that livestock prices always drop in January as its time for first term school fees and everybody needs to sell to raise the necessary cash. Similarly, major purchases or cash outlays are planned for known times of abundance such as right after the seasonal harvest.

Unlike those on a fixed salary who are able to plan ahead, those on irregular incomes need greater control and flexibility over the timing – that is the frequency and the periodicity; and well the amount – in cash or kind; of their cash flow, as a planning mechanism for financial management. In fact, the greater the span of control the customer has over their time and money, as articulated above, the greater the success of a business model or payment plan. This is why prepaid airtime is the preferred model for 96% of the African continent’s 700 million mobile phone users and also why kerosene has been so hard to dislodge. It can be purchased by cash amount (say 40 Kes worth) or quantity (half a litre or 5 litres) on demand or in bulk, and then frugally used for as long as possible, allowing consumers control over their “time” and “money” with great flexibility.

Observations on household fuel and energy use reflect these purchasing patterns and consumer behaviour. Cooking and then lighting are the most important needs, and the two elements of time and money as discussed above, show up in the form of duration and location. While duration of use has a direct relationship to the amount of time and money required, location has a critical bearing on behaviour in rural Kenya as will be seen in forthcoming posts.


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