Archive for the ‘Systems’ Category

The Quiet Digital Revolution: Indigenous Innovation in Intelligent Information Systems

Big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are the buzzwords of the day, along with the obligatory blockchain and bitcoin. Much is being written on their potential to solve Africa’s problems, or India’s challenges. In turn, each has been promoted as the next big thing to address poverty and its discontents. Yet, we note, that all of them, without exception, assume implicitly and some go as far as to articulate explicitly, that these future and potential solutions are the sole purview of the first world’s silicon centers. “We know best, and we are the experts in this, as in so many other things, when it comes to the context and conditions of developing countries.”

However there’s a quieter digital revolution taking place, using much the same cutting edge technologies and techniques. One which is emerging from the deep contextual knowledge of local needs and local challenges, tapping into opportunities in relevant and accessible ways. I found two exemplars of this ongoing trend worth highlighting here, one from Kenya and one from India.

From Kenya, technology enabled livestock insurance

Andrew Mude, a senior economist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), created a program that protects pastoralists against losses from drought, an increasing scourge for nomadic communities in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. The index-based insurance uses satellite imagery revealing how much foliage has been lost to calculate the projected impact on the herds. It eliminates the need for an actual census of dead animals. More than 3 million pastoralist households in northern Kenya depend on goats, cows, sheep, and camels, and the high rate of livestock losses during droughts is a major cause of childhood malnutrition. With their households constantly on the move, the payments give families enough money to survive economic downturns without having to sell off their herds. Foreign aid programs from several nations help subsidize the cost of the insurance.

Mude, 39, says his interest in finding new tools for economic development comes from his parents, who were the first boy and girl from the Marsabit district of northern Kenya to attend high school and who later helped other villagers acquire an education.

Dr Mude won the 2016 Norman Borlaug Award from the World Food Prize for his innovative program that provides pastoralists with livestock insurance.

From India, Data Intelligence Drives Microtargeted Development in 290 Villages

SocialCops partnered with the Tata Trusts and Government of Maharashtra to drive rapid development in Chandrapur. The story behind this pioneering initiative of the Maharashtra government required the data-mapping of three blocks of the district at an unprecedented level. In this remote, inhospitable setting, a mammoth task was conducted —a survey to gather data in villages on every single individual.

The objective: setting up a real-time data system that can help the authorities and communities plan at the local level according to their specific needs.

Computing power and data intelligence allows for a customizable, human centered approach to social and economic development at scale, and India, with her vast population and their myriads of unmet needs, is showing us how to do it right, for future scale.

As their blogpost says, a quiet digital revolution is underway.

All Hail the Business Model Behind the Global Gig Economy

Uber driver Mohammed, New Delhi, 26th November 2018

The first world’s ardent embrace of the gig economy is already over. Buyer’s remorse is setting in, even though it may have helped global unemployment hit its lowest point in forty years. What will remain, however, is its impact on the usually overlooked Rest of the World, where the ability of an app to drive demand and scale reach, affordably and instantly, is currently transforming informal economies across the African continent, opening up whole new opportunity spaces for the social, mobile, youthful generation. Easy to set up and deploy, this app driven business model offers a flexible and negotiable solution to the age old problem of demand and supply in a mobile first world. My only question is whether it’ll turn out to be as world changing as prepaid mobile airtime?

From the Caterpillar to the Butterfly: Africa’s Mobile Boom Years Are Over, Here’s What Next

For the past 15 years, Africa watchers have been waiting for her mobile phone industry to reach a critical landmark – almost full saturation of the market. This milestone may be close at hand, as recent news and data show. In June 2018, Kenyan mobile subscriptions reached 98% penetration, a 13% jump over the previous year, the highest ever recorded, even with all the caveats of youthful demographics and many users owning more than one line.

And, it isn’t just Kenya, long known to be early adopters of innovation and technology. The African mobile market, as a whole, maybe reaching saturation point as the latest IDC data shows. Phone sales continue to show signs of decline. Unlike previous slowdowns of smartphone sales1 which were economy related and feature phones continued selling, this time the decline can be seen in both categories, implying the great African mobile subscriptions growth boom may now be over.

Even Nigeria, recently found to have more people living below the poverty line than India, has achieved more than 80% mobile phone penetration, with hopes that the end of 2018 will see 100%.

The number of mobile subscribers grew astronomically in 2017 and its penetration increased to 84% in comparison with 53% in 2016. With an increase in the number of affordable phones entering the Nigerian market and looking at the trajectory of growth between 2016 & 2017 (31% growth year-on-year), there is a strong indication that by the end of 2018, there might be a 100% penetration of mobile subscriptions.2

Healthier West African economies such as Ghana and Ivory Coast have already crossed the magic 100% threshold, as has conflict riven Mali.

Achieving this landmark has not been consistent across the continent, and some countries like Malawi and Chad are still below the halfway mark. However, it is known that Africa may never achieve the same level of penetration as seen elsewhere, given that 40% of the continent’s population is under the age of 163. And so, the current decline in new phone sales can already be considered the signal of a mature market, showing signs of saturation.

From the caterpillar to the butterfly

In a very short generation, Africans have gone from being mostly isolated – from each other, and the rest of the world – to being plugged in, all because of this very powerful device in their hands. The decline of phone sales, or the slowing down of subscriber growth numbers, should be cause for jubilation. The continent is now connected to the rest of the world, and Africans are talking to African across the span of mountains and deserts. Traditional pastoralists receive satellite data informing them of the best locations for forage for their livestock, and they can access insurance in times of famine and drought. Urban youth are trading bitcoins, while their mothers gather in social media groups to trade in goods and information. The entire operating environment of the African economic ecosystem has been transformed.

Where just over ten years ago, Nokia’s greatest concern was how to design ever more affordable and robust mobile devices which could connect people across languages and literacy barriers, now we have a population that has a decade of experience in information technology, regardless of their education levels. Even the most remote or marginalized have seen the phone, and can access its use, through intermediaries and access points. Digital Africa has become a daily matter of fact rather than an unusual achievement for the development crowd. You can see it in the tenor of the research articles, and read the difference between the way the growth of the mobile ecosystem was covered in 20054 and the way its taken for granted now.

The end of an era – double digit growth of the African mobile market – signals the beginning of a whole new phase of development and opportunity – a connected continent, ready for commerce and communication with the world.

Ten years of transformation

Over the past decade, mobile phone ownership has gone from a novelty to commonplace. It has bridged the rural – urban divide, strengthening linkages, both social and commercial. In turn, innovation diffusion pathways have proliferated from the urban centers, and the adoption of new ideas and goods has accelerated, changing aspirations and expectations, particularly among the younger generation. The global African does not need to leave her childhood village in order to speak to the rest of the world or be recognized for her achievements. Social media is there to give him a voice, and a platform.

It is this new reality that has not yet be recognized by the long established experts on Africa and its many varied challenges and unmet needs. The mindset, worldviews, and the consumer culture have changed far more rapidly than the now obsolete snapshot of the poverty stricken, marginalized African that media and researchers base their assumptions and their writing on. Policymakers and programme designers are even less in the know, and the gap between generations has never been wider.

On the upside is a whole new playing ground – my friend and colleague Michael Kimani calls it the informal economy’s digital generation. Young people like himself, graduating with university degrees into a business landscape without the jobs to hire them, are turning to the platform made available by their smartphones to establish themselves and earn a living. In the four short years I’ve known Michael, I’ve seen him grown and evolve into the voice of African blockchain and cryptocurrency, soon to be an educator on the subject, and already organized as the Chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya.

“What a great time to be alive,” Michael’s joyful voice still rings in my ear after our call last week. The digital future is all around him, a playground for him to build and make whatever his mind’s eye can envision.

The end of the world for a caterpillar (the decline of sales & subscriptions) is the birth of a whole new one for a butterfly (the global digital African with a powerful computer in his hands).

We need to throw a party and celebrate!

 

1 Smartphone sales, driven by more affordable Chinese brands, may continue to see growth, but as the IDC states, this growth may come from those transitioning from featurephones.
2 Jumia Mobile Report 2018 in Nigeria
3 The Mobile Economy: Sub-Saharan Africa 2018, GSMA Intelligence
4 Cellphones Catapult Rural Africa to 21st Century, August 2005, New York Times

What happens when the informal economy is not criminalized? : Case of Hargeisa, Somaliland

In Hargeisa, the role of the informal economy during and after conflict has been vital to conflict prevention and peace-building.

A recently released report by Cardiff University and Somaliland research partners on their work related to the role of urban informal economies in conflict zones offers us perspective from another angle.

A little thin on insights and interpretation of their carefully gathered data, it nonetheless provides ample evidence of the value creation and economic contribution by informal sector actors in developing country contexts. In fact, I would say, it strengthens the argument for considering the informal economy as a commercial operating environment, to be taken seriously by policy makers and programme designers.

The report finds that “the IE (informal economy) became vital in replacing services and utilities destroyed by the war within Hargeisa city which both provided livelihood opportunities for the conflict-affected urban population and replaced key goods and services which had been disrupted by the conflict.”

And discovers that it was the informal economy’s acceptance by the local populace and government, characterized by extremely low levels of harassment or criminalization that was key to its ability to contribute as a trusted resource and asset during the rebuilding of society after the civil war.

In most cities in sub-Saharan Africa, urban policy marginalises the urban informal economy (IE) and IE workers are often victimised and harassed (Lyons et al., 2012). This is not the case in Hargeisa, where informal economy workers interviewed reported very low levels of police harassment, with less than 7% of the 168 current informal economy workers interviewed stating they had experienced problems with local authority. Furthermore, there are high levels of trust  and reciprocation amongst informal economy workers and in society generally, and a lack of effective municipal regulation which enables and encourages the growth of the informal economy.

The report goes on to conclude with the recommendation that recognition of the informal economy (IE) had the potential to transform the developmental trajectory of both Hargeisa, as well as greater Somaliland:

Recommendation 1: Increase national legitimacy and recognition
Recognition: It is essential that Hargeisa’s IE workers are recognised as legitimate economic actors making significant contributions to the national and city economy.
National Informal Economy Policy: A cross-government National Informal Economy Policy should be developed, so that the key social and economic contribution of the IE is reflected in the five-year national economic development planning and other relevant government strategies.
National Informal Economy Standing Committee: A high-level National Informal Economy Standing Committee should be set up, with a membership of about 10 people to include high-level representatives from: the Ministries Planning and Development (chair); Commerce and Trade; Labour, Employment and
Social Affairs, Hargeisa Municipality, and SONSAF, including 3-4 representatives of umbrella IE workers’ organisations. The Standing Committee should:
o Advise on development of the National Informal Economy Policy;
o Advise on inclusion of the IE in the Five Year National Economic Development Plan;
o Recommend inclusion of the IE in other relevant government strategies;
o Undertake sector-specific analyses of different IE sectors (needs and support);
o Identify ways to extend social protection to IE workers;
o Address negative impacts of the IE (e.g. from the qat or charcoal trade);
o Assess data needs for improving understanding of the IE (e.g. through labour force surveys).
o Address lack of IE access to credit and finance

According to the Somaliland Sun, these recommendations are being wholeheartedly adopted by the local government. One not only looks forward to the developments of this groundbreaking initiative but hopes that this shift in perspective and recognition of value creation diffuses outwards with impacts on informal economies everywhere.

 

NB: Here’s my brief TEDTalk video on this theme from TEDGlobal 2017

Lessons from the Informal Economy: Managing on Irregular Payments in the Gig Economy

Last week, an unusual report was released in Great Britain. Lloyds Banking Group (LBG), together with the Resolution Foundation, addressed the question of earnings volatility in the UK, a first for a developed country with a formal economy. Their research and analysis made use of anonymised transaction data from over seven million LBG accounts. That is, technically speaking, the financially included in the erstwhile first world.

To their surprise, accustomed as they were to only considering income changes on an annual basis, three-quarters of all workers did not receive the same paycheck from month to month – the problem being most acute for low-paid workers in the gig economy or on zero-hours contracts.

As the Guardian, when reporting on the household financial management behaviour of gig economy workers discovers:

The Resolution Foundation found that for those on the lowest annual incomes, the average monthly fluctuation in pay was £180 – which can make the difference between paying the rent or feeding the family.

As my research over the past decade, on the financial management behaviour of the lower income demographic (also known in older publications as the Bottom or Base of the Pyramid) in the informal and rural economies of developing countries has found, irregular and unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources is the norm.

What is different here, however, are the coping mechanisms.

Many are forced to turn to crippling payday loans or high-cost credit cards to make it through to the end of the month

In the developed country context such as the UK, gig economy and lower income workers have no recourse to customary and established coping mechanisms that can be seen across the developed world, from rural Philippines to upcountry Kenya.

Seasonality in rural regions, closely intertwined with the natural year and its direct impact on farming activities is a recognized and known fact of life. Incomes are seen to change by as much as 50% between the high and the low seasons. And, among urban traders and merchants, festivals and harvests mean peak consumer activity, and everyone prepares for the rush.

Knowing this, the informal economic ecosystem leverages social networks and trusted relationships to carry them through hard times and the low seasons; looking forward to the peak sales periods and the harvests to cover the difference. Numerous risk mitigation behaviours and coping mechanisms are established within households, customized to rural and urban contexts, as well as the context of the primary income source. These were the same coping mechanisms heard to be in use among India’s informal sector when hit by the liquidity crunch of the demonetization of 2016.

Just the way you can purchase one single cigarette or a 100 grams of shredded cabbage, depending on what you have in your pocket, you can find ways to adapt your daily lifestyle to your income in the flexible, negotiable, and reciprocal people’s economy of the Global South. The informal economy’s commercial operating environment is designed to maintain the dignity of their customer base.

These options are not available in the UK, or other developed and advanced nations of the Global North. Thus, gig economy workers forced to manage on unpredictable and irregular income streams from a variety of sources in the formal economy struggle to afford their groceries and expenses. In fact, I’d be curious to know if prepaid mobile subscribers (pay as you go) are increasing in proportion to the precariousness of employment and volatility of income discovered by the analysts at Lloyds.

If, as the researchers at the Centre for Global Development have found, the gig economy and the informal economy are the present, and the future of work in Africa, then there are lessons from the established customs and coping mechanisms which can inform beneficial solutions and tools for the developed world, for the UK, and for the Global North.

It’s time we recognized the truth about the future of work in Africa: it isn’t in the growth of full-time formal sector jobs. The future of work will be people working multiple gigs with “somewhat formal” entities. This is already true, and it will be for the foreseeable future.

This is true for the whole world now, not just Africa. And, it will change the way we think of platform design, payment plans, as well as policy frameworks, for our near and emerging future.

Chinese investments in African tech will transform the fintech landscape

A recent article brought to my attention this report on the pattern of funding experienced by fintech startups in East Africa and India with rather damning results. 90 percent of the capital invested by “Silicon Valley-style” investors went to startups, technically in East Africa, with one or more North American or European founders.

These results put an entirely different spin on more recent articles on the rise of African fintech and the millions of dollars raised by startups in Africa. Village Capital, too, has been making an effort to promote their recommendations for structural change in the ecosystem in order to enable the emergence of hundreds more fintech and DFS (digital financial services) startups deemed necessary to transform the economic landscape in Africa.

But the challenge, as framed by this snippet from the report, will remain, as it “reflects deep cultural trends in American life”, of bias, stereotyping, and inbred prejudice. So called “first world” technology such as artificial intelligence is already dealing with the problem.

China’s interest in African tech, particularly trade related such as in commerce and payments, is being noticed

Simultaneously, and recently, I came across this op-ed for the WEF making the case for why the tech sector is China’s next big investment target in Africa.

Given China’s position as a leading and rapidly accelerating technological superpower in the world, making strides especially in the fields of logistics (smart cars, drones, e-commerce) and energy (solar panels, smart metering, etc), it makes sense that the most logical industry for the next stage of Sino-Africa collaboration is technology.

But that’s not fintechs and DFS startups, you say, comparing these apples to the Village Capital’s report on oranges?

Perhaps this is why Alibaba Group, the unparalleled pioneer of e-commerce and payments in China, has started to show an interest in Africa. Not only did they collaborate with UNCTAD on the eFounders programme to train over 100 African entrepreneurs in the next couple of years, they recently announced a fund of $10 million to invest on the continent over the next 10 years. Furthermore, Alibaba’s subsidiary Ant Financial has signed a partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the IFC to promote digital financial inclusion. While these are preliminary steps, we are hopeful for more serious commercial involvement in Africa from a company with a $500 billion market cap.

DFS, DFI, what’s the difference between digital financial services for financial inclusion and digital financial inclusion? The target is clear. And been noticed from the other side, as this rival opinion piece in the Financial Times shows, albeit with a greater sense of urgency and panic in the tone and style. It may also explain why Village Capital woke up this week to trumpet the results of their analysis on funding patterns from over a year ago. From the FT:

The Trump administration has made a perceived global rivalry with China the centre of US foreign policy. This competitive stance has coloured the view of African countries in Washington and a tale of Chinese mercantilism in the region has come to dominate the narrative, under which China greedily demands privileged access to Africa’s natural resources in exchange for no-strings-attached infrastructure financing.

But that story is outdated and fails to capture an emergent area of true competition — that among US and Chinese tech giants.

Given what we’ve seen in the Village Capital report linked in the first paragraph, will Chinese funding patterns be any different? Two key factors are being highlighted by both sides:

Read On…

Financial Patterns at the Last Mile of the Farm to Fork Value Chain

Source: http://library.wur.nl/WebQuery/wurpubs/454661

This value web illustrates the last mile of the farm to fork agricultural value chain in the state of Maharashtra, India. We’d mapped it during our project/s for the Dutch government back in mid 2013, where we’d introduced human centered design thinking for sustainable agricultural value chain development. Subsequently, I led a multidisciplinary team conducting fieldwork in rural Kenya, in order to compare and contrast the last mile in the African context.

As mentioned previously, while the details of seasonality and crops may change due to geography, the essential foundation and framework of the farm’s financial management behaviour remained the same. And, while the actors and roles in the value web may shift and change between rural India and rural Kenya, the essence, here, too, remains the same. There are intermediaries and brokers, transporters and aggregators, and wholesalers and retailers, along with agrovets and extension agents. Everyone has a part to play in the interdependent web of value exchange, based on trusted relationships for the most part.

Therefore, their cash flows and income streams too, are closely linked to the harvest seasons and the crops, just like the farmers‘. In fact, Indian business magazines go as far as to assess the health of each year’s monsoon season in order to attempt forecasts on the annual peak of consumer activity – the post harvest festival season in the October-November period. They recognize the linkages and networks that connect the rural and urban markets, and the ripple effects of the quality of the year’s harvest. It would not be inaccurate to say that the degree of impact and influence is proportional to two related factors – the proportion of GDP from agriculture and related activities; and, the percentage of the country’s population dependent on agriculture and related activities.

Market town finances

In addition to the linkage, we have observed financial management behaviours among traders, and not just those dealing in agricultural commodities or fresh produce, that resemble those on the farm.

The factors that impact the management of working capital and income streams – uncertainty of amount and the timing of its arrival – remain the same, as do the majority of the characteristics of the operating environment, such as infrastructure and systems. A trader dealing in new clothes also sees seasonal differences in her sales, and, unlike a trader in foodstuffs, is also more likely to see greater impact of a low season as people go without the discretionary purchase of a new shirt. Thus, traders must also manage the volatility, uncertainty, and seasonality of their addressable market, and their customer base, and their cash flows and income streams accordingly. We see the impact of this in their business development strategies, and that will be the subject of the next post.

Furthermore, in market towns and border markets, unlike urban metros with a myriad of occupations, the health of the agricultural season will impact everyone in the ecosystem not just the traders themselves. The internetworked last mile of the farm to fork value web closely links the health of the harvests with that of the rural and peri-urban economies.

 

Collected Works
Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment – Links to organized series of articles on the topic

The Informal Industrial Ecosystem: An Introduction to REculture

The Art of Seeing Beauty in Garbage, Kenya, September 2010

This article introduces and explains some things I’ve been seeing in the informal industrial ecosystem in the developing world context for almost a decade now. First noticed in 2009, I then named it REculture, a neologism to capture the vast and complex ecosystem I saw in the revenue generating facility of recycle, replace, repurpose, reuse and resale. Given contemporary interest in developed country concepts such as the circular economy, and other sustainable and ecological initiatives, I thought it timely to sit down and attempt to synthesize the past work before proceeding to write more on current events.

What is REculture?

I thought I’d start from the beginning – is there, for example, a difference between “the entrepreneur” and “the producer”, “the creator” and “the innovator”, if at all? And if none, then perhaps start to fill in some few blanks based on our earlier thinking on the BoP “consumer” and their mindset, worldview or value system.~ June 2009

In July 2009, I was inspired by my observation of a man sitting under a tree in the administrative district of New Delhi with a visibly large bag of buttons by his side. His service, to the civil servants rushing to and fro from important governmental meetings, was to quickly repair a missing button from their suit jacket or shirt. Not unlike a shoeshine boy, this gentleman’s service was on demand, while you waited, his fingers flying rapidly with the needle as he sewed a reasonable facsimile of your missing button back on for you.

Look at the unusual yet welcome niche he had found for himself! A repair service that could only work in this part of the city where the common uniform was a suit and tie and important visitors the norm.

Once he opened my eyes to what it was I was seeing on the streets – the entrepreneurial opportunities squeezed out of the margins of daily life – I began noticing such services more and more. Repair, re-use, re-purposing, resale, and, in their own inimitable way, recycling of used up or abandoned products of industrialization were turning out to provide a significant chunk of the revenue streams of many of the informal sector’s service providers who now became visible to me.

In June 2009, I wrote:

…many other such observations got me thinking about the whole RE culture among the BoP. Stepping back, if you take the broad space of REuse, REpurpose, REpair and REcycle – its the low hanging fruit for the BoP entrepreneur’s opportunities for income generation. In fact, REpair is an entire professional service area in its own right, perhaps a subset of the opportunity space in the informal economy with varying degrees of skill and ability required.

But coming back to the other three, it seems at first glance that they look to be more or less the same thing i.e. how different is it to reuse a plastic bottle to contain some liquid from recyling it? particularly if the manufacturer had intended for it to be a disposable container? Yet, from the big picture perspective, one can say (and it has been said before) the whole concept of recycling is a cost in the OECD world whereas its actually a source of income, in a myriad ways, among the BoP.

The second thing that struck me, when I pondered these signs of a post-consumption economic ecosystem, was that the actors in the informal sector – whom we now discuss as traders, fabricators, service providers – were still then thought of as the “Bottom of the Pyramid” or the BoP – the economically vulnerable, the marginalized, the low income barely making ends meet on a dollar or two a day. There was no attempt at segmentation, this was the lumpen mass of the next 4 billion. Even though the late CK Prahalad had called them out as micro-producers, creators, and innovators, in his seminal book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, those who had grabbed the label with both hands and run with it were still thinking in terms of consumption. “How do we make products profitably for the poor?”

What about the creators, the makers, the innovators, and the producers in the informal economic ecosystem?

Again, back in June 2009, I wrote:

I am attempting to evaluate whether all our previous observations and learnings viz., “Life is hard” (the mindset and values of a customer at the BoP particularly one living on an irregular income) can help us begin to understand the other side of the coin, that is, the “innovator” or “creator/maker” or simply, the “informal business owner or service provider” at the BoP.

At this point at least, it seems to me, that rather than quibble about each individual word choice to describe “who” or “what” they are, perhaps we’re better off looking at the “why” and “how” – by this I mean, that the driver of motivation is to generate an income stream (the why) and the gaps observed, as mentioned above, are the opportunity spaces (the how). That is, the BoP seem to display more of a tendency towards ‘opportunity spotting’ (not quite the same as the word opportunists, though that may also apply in many cases or situations), filling the niche quickly with a service or product. Some of these services have arisen spontaneously around the developing world, mobile phone repair comes to top of mind.

It feels as though its a far more active than passive quality – poverty and hardship can be a powerful motivational driver in itself, though we tend to overlook the ingenuity and creativity involved.

That is, back then, just over 9 years ago, I connected the dots I was seeing in this space – the mindset and values of the low income customers and their post consumption behaviours, taken together with the “RE” space where visibly they were earning income – and framed it so:

That is, the lower income market tends towards maintenance and extending the lifespan of the products (through repair or repurposing it) they purchase rather than disposing it for convenience or replacing it for a trendier style. All very obvious, you say, but its this very same quality that leads to the wide variety of opportunities for the entreprenuerial or the innovative to make some money (or even a living). From the very basic, in terms of skills and ability such as the button repair guy to the complex, such as the mobile phone hacker, all of these services meet an ‘unmet need’ in the market, an opportunity gap which they can fill.

However, what’s interesting about this is the fact that these opportunities would very rarely be either a) spotted as one in mainstream consumer culture; b) not be a gap per se due to a difference in mindset/worldview OR even c) not be profitable enough, given the comparative cost of labour vs the price of the product involved. These conditions for making money, and more so, making money that is deemed a valid ROI seem only to be available among the lower income demographic and in the developing world.

For the precondition to their success is also a sufficient customer base seeking such a service and their willingness to pay for it,  and that, imho, emerges from their mindset as BoP consumers, one quality of which is their need to Maximise the return on their investment (purchase). This shows up in this context as a wish to REpair, REuse, REsell (for REpurpose or REcycling or whatever along those lines) – I doubt if they’ve stopped coming by from door to door among the ‘consuming classes’ in India to buy old bottles, newspapers and other sundry junk. (A sign of development if it stops?)

Once I could “see” the entire post consumption entrepreneurial activity in the informal sector, I went back to my research documentation conducted in rural Philippines and India for the original ‘prepaid’ economy work, and pulled out the patterns seen in the photographs that, when fitted together, showed all the evidence of an entire industrial ecosystem. As a working title for this seemingly vast economic space within the informal economy across Asia and Africa, I had called it REculture – the group blog went on spawn a magazine.

An entire industrial ecosystem within the informal economy based on the discards of the consumer lifestyle

A discarded Kraft cream cheese bottle would be picked out of the garbage by a waste picker and sold to an intermediary who would clean and sort these by colour and size and sell them on to a fabricator, who in turn, would convert these into affordable – and handmade mass produced – kerosene lamps, completed with spot welded wick tube.

An entire industrial life cycle from “raw material” through to “mass production” supported by distribution and retail. The only difference? The informal nature of the entire value chain and the post consumption adaptation of the materials and discards.

My concluding thoughts at the stage in which I’d left my explorations almost a decade ago can be summed up thus:

So, at this point, early stages of exploration though it is, one could say that the whole area of “post consumption” consumer practices – most of which have withered away like the appendix in the ‘rich’ world – forms one major  basis for both products and services, with value addition to varying degrees, in the ‘informal economies’ of the developing world.

There are insights to be teased out here on flexible, adaptable, ‘on demand’ business models ~ but applied outside the virtual world. Scarcity of resources and circumstance force lean overheads and inventory. Constraints of demand and customer purchasing power create their own flows in the chaos. Is there a pattern to the flow of the informal after all?

What next?

I summed up this history so as to provide me with the foundation and backdrop to pick up the threads of this conversation, now with the added insights of the past decade, and the increasingly sophisticated frameworks of framing the informal economy as a commercial environment in its own right, populated with entrepreneurs and niches that the mainstream overlooks.

As the topics of sustainability, resource conservation, and the circular economy become top of mind and critical, the early lessons from the developing world will only become more important going forward. I’ll be writing more under the category and tag “REculture” for old times’ sake.

Can the structure for innovation planning be used to disrupt itself?

This diagram is from Vijay Kumar’s 101 Design Methods. It is the basis for his structured approach for innovation planning, and the essence of what is taught at the methods driven human centered design program at the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago. Today I want to question some of the fundamental assumptions that underlie it – and from the very beginning of the process, not simply at Phase 5 (Explore Concepts) as given in the book. Some notes on this phase are shared below:

Explore Concepts: In this mode, we do structured brainstorming to explore new concepts. The insights and principles framed earlier provide the starting points for ideation, as well as guides to ensure we’re on track with matching concepts to needs. This helps make our concepts defensible and grounded in reality. In addition to the product and service, ideas for branding, communication, and even business models, are explored. This is the first stage we begin to construct rough (low-fidelity) prototypes – they help focus the team discussions, and provide probes for early user feedback or help the client clarify and refine their product development strategy whilst giving us feedback on the technical aspects.

And the mindsets recommended for this mode include:

  1. Challenging assumptions
  2. Standing in the future
  3. Exploring concepts at the fringes
  4. Seeking clearly added value
  5. Narrating stories about the future

Yet, what I question today is whether these mindsets that encourage experimentation and exploration should come up so late in the process, at the concept development stage, long after research and analysis have been completed? It is true that Vijay says the process is non linear and that a conceptual brainstorm (mode 5) may lead the way into research designed to validate its viability, feasibility and desirability, but this is at the tactical level of business innovation rather than at the strategic level. I question whether its possible to use this powerful and methodical approach to begin with a structured and rigorous questioning of our initial assumptions at the very inception itself in order to over turn the often implicit and tacit drivers of consumption driven growth seeking only to maximize profitability.

Let me share an earlier variation of this diagram first, where the real and the abstract are also mapped on to the process.

It is here, at the real stage, where we seek to understand what is what – through research, before we can analyse it and synthesize our narratives and concepts, where we have the opportunity to question our assumptions regarding the ‘system’. The lower left quadrant where we seek to “understand the real” is where we have the power to make the change that can genuinely disrupt business as usual. Not in the sense of a business model that disrupts but still holds the premise that all profits should flow to the shareholders, or a shift in the corporate’s focus to services from manufacturing but without the explicit articulation of environmental impact or resource conservation. To disrupt business as usual in today’s world would mean starting to question Whom are we serving? Why? For whose benefit? from scratch rather than leaving them unasked, resulting in default assumptions that a business only seeks to innovate to increase its own profits rather than seeking to serve a greater good such as the planet and the wildlife.

The triple bottomline approach captures the end results for those corporations who are already oriented in this way but is there a structured and rigorous planning approach to ensure their near future innovation and strategies align with these corporate goals and visions? And, is there such a flexible tool that the smallest startup can use it to think of how they will choose to do business – after all, it is a choice, and framing it up front in the product and service development process means that it now becomes an explicit choice, a considered decision to be taken, rather than one after the fact or halfway down the process when some inadvertent outcome leads to challenges that were not foreseen.

Sustainable product development already has numerous robust and validated systems and processes, from green buildings to recyclable packaging, what is missing however is the holistic integration of design and manufacturing (which hold the maximum power for good for the planet and the people) with the business thinking and the sustainable revenue generation strategies that can ensure that probability of the innovation’s success is maximized.

And, if we can design the fuzzy front end to be customized to the priority needs of any particular operating environment then following through with this adapted approach to innovation planning for the informal economy or for sub Saharan Africa’s consumer markets will be a cakewalk. Half the current challenge of business planning and corporate strategy in disparate operating environments with very distinctly different conditions is that the methods, tools, and frameworks available to us are all the same, and primarily developed in the context of highly industrialized and information rich consumer markets. They leave assumptions on the conditions and constraints of the operating environment untouched and implicit*.

Thus, going back to the first diagram, where the first mode is Sense Intent:

Sense Intent: Before jumping straight into a project, we pause to consider the world in which our intended users reside. We scan the horizon, looking at technological & socio-economic trends, precursors, competing products, and a variety of other factors that can affect our topic area. All of these offer us a way to reframe our initial problem and help us think of our initial intent and the direction in which we should be moving. This is where our research questions are mapped out, and the problem space described.

This is where the power resides to remake our world. What if we began with the mindset that:

  1. Challenged assumptions
  2. Stood in the future
  3. Explored the fringes
  4. Sought added value and began with articulating for whom (all stakeholders)

And began with the story (5. Narrating stories about the future) about the changes we wished to see, and the impact we wished to have, on our own future, thus inspiring and informing the scope and shape of the research we conducted in order to know people (mode 2) and know context (mode 3) so as to gather the type of forward looking insights we would need in order shape and craft something wholly different from the ground up.

What if we thought about innovation very differently from the current context of a new product or a new service, of looking to disrupt the existing even while seeking to exist within the conventional frameworks of success – profits, scale, reach, impact, fundraising et al

We need new narratives and new goals but ad hoc design fictions and scenarios aren’t going achieve the kind of new we need for the way our planet has changed. Along with the limits of what can be, we have also reached the limits of where our existing methods and tools can take us. And without changing those, at the systemic level, we’ll still be trying to come up with changes within the constraints of what has already been established. We don’t need the existing tools that help us to think outside the box, what we now need are the tools to build new boxes.

 

*This is the tyranny of dominant logic CK Prahalad spoke about.

One (last) word: Plastics

A UN report issued on World Environment day  showed dozens of nations acting to cut plastic, including a ban on plastic bags in Kenya, on styrofoam in Sri Lanka and the use of biodegradable bags in China. via

There’s a backlash against plastics that is ongoing in many not so noticed parts of the world today. So called ‘weak’ signals from three major economies stand out for the impact in the near and emerging future of their policy shifts towards the material use of plastics.

The first is India, where a recent waste audit in Bengaluru showed that over 60% of the waste littering the streets was from non recyclable consumer product packaging by both international and domestic brands. By 2020, India will abolish all single-use plastics, and introduce a campaign against marine litter, among other things.

The EU has also moved to ban the same, and the proposal also requires EU countries to collect 90 percent of single-use plastic drink bottles by 2025 and producers to help cover costs of waste management and clean-up.

China, on the other hand, has caused consternation among nations who relied on shipping their plastics off for recycling. They’ve banned imports of contaminated waste plastic, leaving questions hanging such as “And how do you get manufacturers to design a product that is more easily recyclable.” Though I find this conversation interesting for its consistent and tone deaf externalization of the problem – waste management is certainly a developing country problem, but materials technology and consumer packaging innovation is a developed country design challenge.

With more than 50 countries waking up to the plastics problem, there’s a deeper shift occurring in the air, beyond our critical need to protect wildlife and the oceans. That of dependency on oil – in case you didn’t know, the bulk of plastic is made from oil.

Here’s a quick round up of something of things happening in these major economies with significant chunks of the world’s population.

India has just approved a massive new 5000 megawatt solar farm, and as the map shows, there’s many more out there in the desert wastes. The Chinese and Indian solar farms are 10x the size of those in North America.

The number of electric cars on the road has more than doubled over the last three years, and of the global sales of electric vehicles (EVs) last year, China contributed more than half. And there’s a shift now from blind growth towards more strategic product development, with greater impact. Numerous European marques are opening factories and R&D centers in China. And India’s doing its best to keep up.

What is going to be the impact of these moves, combined, from these three major economies on the planet? The head of Shell’s Scenarios* team has already developed a scenario called Sky “which shows that changing the ways we transport people and goods is one of the crucial steps toward the world meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement — keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels.”

On a planetary scale, these trends are the future, and products and business models that do not adapt to them are going to be increasingly obsolete, or suitable only for walled gardens. The use of Fahrenheit is but one example. Conserving humanity’s collective home is far more important for all our emerging futures.

 

*Shell originally developed the concept and tools for scenario planning