Archive for the ‘Rural Economy’ Category

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.

Mobile First Africa: Social Media’s Boost to Rural Productivity in Kenya

Now in business for just six months, he also uses social media pages to sell his products, improving his customer reach.

“Through Facebook posts I receive enquiries and orders from Kenyans in the diaspora living in the US, South Korea, South Sudan, UK, Switzerland and Botswana who want the splits to be delivered to their families in Kenya,” he said.

“I also use the page to educate farmers and friends more about brachiaria grass.” ~ How farmers look for new markets every season

Continuing with yesterday’s theme of business productivity in mobile first Africa, this story caught my attention for the way this farmer leveraged the reach and discoverability of social media to grow his business.

Social biashara such as this is diffusing outwards from the urban centers where it first began. Expect to see many more such stories emerge from the unexpected places.

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

Consumer goods store, Kilgoris, Kenya (March 2012)

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

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

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

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

A maasai manyatta Source:

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

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

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

East African Imports in rural Rwanda?

This highway ‘storefront’ in rural Rwanda made me wonder if the trader had imported his goods rather than purchased them locally. And, further, if they were imports from Kenya.

First, unlike the majority of such roadside shops, he is dealing with multiple products – while all are related to home decor, they are made of vastly different materials – wood, ceramic, plastic flowers. This is so rare that one can say he’s one of the handful such displays I’ve seen. This gives rise to the conjecture that he’s spread his inventory investment across a price range – from a full double bed to a bunch of flowers – to cater to the range of customer expectations on the road. And, that in itself is a sign that he’s purchased them from different dealers as people tend to specialize in product lines they trade in.

Second, it resembles the product lines along Ngong Road in Nairobi far more than the what I saw being locally produced. That made me wonder if these had been imported across the borders – which also underlines the careful display and the choice of the highway to capture the attention of wider variety of customers with differing wallet sizes than just his hometown market.

Today, 5 years after that trip through Rwanda, I’ll never know, but I can wonder out loud, can’t I?

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

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

Scrap wood fueled three stone fire in sheltered corner

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

Fuel Usage Behaviour is Influenced Greatly by Location

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy Duty Charcoal Usage by Hotel

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

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

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

TEDTalk video: Recognizing the value creation and economic contribution of the informal economy

My talk given at the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, this August, went live on at some point during the night a couple of days ago. At that very moment, I was on a Finnair flight from SIN to HEL, so with a wee bit of delay, here’s the link to the video of the talk. Also available is a recommended reading list I curated, along with footnotes.

I just want to add that its high time we considered the informal sector as a commercial operating environment in its own right. This change of perspective will transform the way we think about poverty, it’s alleviation, and, importantly, open the doors to innovating products and services that can help boost productivity and revenues for micro, small, and medium sized businesses across the developing world, but particularly in Africa and India.

By doing so, we can recognize the economic contribution and value creation by women who make up the majority of such entrepreneurs, and put dollar values to their investment capacity and growth opportunities. As long as they’re lumped together under the umbrella term “informal sector”, with its unquestioned assumptions of low skill and low productivity, they’ll remain invisible, and solutions meant to support their development will never reach them.

2017 is the Year Mobile Service Operators Became Banks

South African business headlines read MTN takes on Vodacom for title of Africa’s biggest digital bank and usher in a whole new era for banking and finance on the mobile platform. Having watched this space impatiently for more than a decade, seeing this was a landmark worth noting.

The number of mobile-money customers in the region (Africa) is growing rapidly, having surpassed the number of traditional bank accounts in 2015 to reach 277 million by the end of last year, according to GSMA. ~ Moneyweb, 3rd November 2017

Here’s a curated selection of my journey watching the phone become a bank:

Photograph of Nairobi billboard taken January 2016 by Niti Bhan

Blowin’ in the Wind – perspective, May 2007

A User Centered Approach to Banking the Unbanked in Rural India (PDF, entire process) – January 2007

Pondering the Mobile Innovation Divide – perspective, December 2007

African Potential meets Indian Experience – perspective, May 2008

The Telco and the Bottom of the Pyramid – perspective, January 2009

Systems Thinking Applied To Why M-Pesa’s Economic Impact and Wealth Creation Lessons Affects the Entire Ecosystem – Afrinnovator, March 2012

What is The Prepaid Economy anyway? – 14.7.14, in response to Michael Kimani

Banking Opportunities in Africa – The Banker’s Association of South Africa, 2014

A bank meets a telco – how mobile banking is changing the landscape of financial services in Africa – The Prepaid Economy: African Edition, January 2016