Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

India: Dragging the reluctant elephant into a digital, cashless future

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Final processing for India’s digital identity platform Aadhaar, New Delhi on 3 March 2017 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

My recent immersion in Delhi a mere four months after demonetization (or, notebandi as it’s locally known) was a bit of a letdown. Oh sure, there were numerous, visible changes in the 2 years since my last trip – mostly very clear indicators of India’s socio-economic development – but none of the sense of chaos that I was expecting, having relied primarily on third party news sources, that too, in English, in the weeks leading up to my departure.

The headlines would have it that people were dropping like flies on the streets. A grand total of 187* people died visibly due to notebandi, or so I heard. The two most common responses were either sympathy – people should not have had to die for something like this and it was a sad thing to happen; or pragmatism – “people die everyday, who knows why, maybe his time had come and he was standing in line.”

The overall atmosphere was one of energy – there’s less of a sense of lackadaisical chaos that used to characterise the neighbourhood market and it’s sleepy vendors waiting for the evening strollers. There’s a sense of purpose in the hustle, as though there was money to be made. Digital money.

IMG_6950The combination of a digital identity platform and the disruption of demonetization could indeed be said to describe ideal conditions for triggering cashless India. Cards are accepted far more easily than before. “Paytm” – a local payments app – is visible everywhere, from on demand cars (Ola, Uber, Meru, etc), small kiosks, through to shiny upmarket shops. As a taxi driver told me with a smirk, everyone’s using Paytm now, even the beggars.

Rural India is said to have suffered far more, according to the reports I’d read prior to my trip. This might be unevenly distributed according to geography and growing season – a factoryworker returning from his home village in Bihar said he’d attended a wedding with hundreds of people and surely someone would have had a sob story to share.

Instead, he’d heard it was the intermediaries in the farm to fork supply chain who purchase from myriads of small farms in order to aggregate in bulk prior to selling onwards towards the cities who’d been hit harder by the sudden lack of liquidity. They were caught in the middle of the cash based chain of transactions and had to carry the burden of wastage if they weren’t able to move produce fast enough. Anecdotes included them distributing potatoes freely to farmers to use as seed for the next harvest, and tomato prices crashing.

Articles in the news state that the economy was hit harder than people would admit to but none, as yet, have complimented the common man for his endurance under conditions of scarcity and hardship, nor praised the hardworking women who kept their families fed through their social networks of give and take.

All the papers – domestic and foreign – only go on about India’s GDP, the economy, the vast business sectors, and the politics. If at all the average Indian is mentioned it is through the lens of pity – “oh, the poor farmer is suffering” or some such heartrending sob story from the “informal sector” – there’s never any mention of their ingenuity in keeping things going without cash; or the way it was all held together under conditions of adversity and scarcity.

IMG_7319That, perhaps was my biggest takeaway from my open ended conversations with a wide range of people from different socio-economic strata, professions, backgrounds, and age groups.

Their palpable pride in themselves in having come through upheaval relatively unscathed, or having the wherewithal to manage.  All the rest of it, the Aadhaar digital ID, the use of technology for transparency and accountability, the mobile platform and its ubiquity, all of these and more, I believe, will sort themselves out in time.

I’m minded to end this with a quote from Rositta J. Valiyamattam writing, ironically, on the topic of Indian fiction (page xii):

“Their novels testify to the amazing resilience of the masses in a nation wherein the commoner is rendered helpless by an often corrupt mighty polity. What stands out is the assertion of the individual will over uncontrolled powers and unfavourable circumstances. They salute the heroic struggles of ordinary Indians in times of extraordinary transformation.”

 

 

*Word of mouth number, every report has a different total, so whatever. All photographs not captioned were taken in Delhi by Niti Bhan during March 2017.

Innovation, Ingenuity and Opportunity under Conditions of Scarcity (Download PDF)

coverIn July 2009, I was inspired by working in the Research wing of the Aalto University’s Design Factory in Espoo, Finland, to launch a group blog called REculture: Exploring the post-consumption economy of repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle by informal businesses at the Base of the Pyramid*.

Within a year, this research interest evolved into a multidisciplinary look at the culture of innovation and invention under conditions of scarcity and it’s lessons for sustainable manufacturing and industry for us in the context of more industrialized nations.

reculture research bed

Emerging Futures Lab, July 2010 (Aalto Design Factory)

As a preliminary exploration, my research associate Mikko Koskinen and I timed our visit to Kenya to coincide with the Maker Faire Africa to be held on the grounds of the University of Nairobi in August 2010.

This photographic record of our discoveries (PDF 6MB) among the jua kali artisans and workshops of Nairobi, Nakuru, Thika, and Kithengela, guided by biogas inventor and innovator Dominic Wanjihia captures the essence of the creativity and ingenuity it takes to create without ample resources and adequate infrastructure.

A synopsis of our analysis is available here.

 

* The publishing platform, Posterous, died a short while later and we lost years of work. I’m looking into reincarnating REculture on Tumblr soon.

 

Insights on the psychology of cash money – Demonetization vs Financial Inclusion

moneyThe flurry of commentary on the Great Indian Demonetization of November 2016 has thrown up some nuggets of insight worth considering more deeply.

Santosh Desai explores the psychology of cash money in the Times of India blog, linking the need for tangible evidence of income to physical labour, as opposed to those of us with the contextual knowledge to understand the virtual concept i.e. digital currency.

“…there is another aspect of this situation that needs more reflection- the nature of the relationship we enjoy with cash. Cash is not merely a symbolic representation of value. Cash is the idea of value captured and owned. It is the product of labour that is an entity by itself and becomes much more than what it can buy. Sitting on a pile of cash gives pleasure both metaphorical and real.”

“…there is some value that is placed on the device of currency notes over and above the value that it signifies.”

This aspect has not been looked at deeply enough, imho, when financial inclusion is talked about, particularly in the context of digital solutions. I suspect that therein will lie behavioural insights that could conceivably drive design changes that lower the barriers to adoption in the strategies to introduce digital currencies and mobile monies to hitherto unbanked populations.

Earning money needs to be signified concretely. Those whose life’s earnings are in the form of a few high value currency notes, do not decode demonetization in quite the same way as those used to money in its conceptual form. The idea that it is possible to de-legitimise their life’s labour is to shake the foundations on which one’s life is constructed. What if some money is not exchanged? What if some paperwork, that bane of those living on the margins, is incomplete?

What if the mobile phone’s battery dies? Do my hard earned monies disappear like other unsaved data?

Trust in technology is a function of our contextual knowledge – our immersion in an environment saturated with electronic communication and screens of all types and purposes provides us with conceptual frameworks that are entirely different from someone whose daily labour is on the farm, or at a mechanic’s garage.

While those who are financially excluded might not face demonetization i.e. the de-legitimization of their labour, as Desai mentions above, the current attempts to convert their cash intensive habits into digital form via various “cashless” initiatives overlook the psychology of cash. Regardless of locale, those at the margins (the excluded) have high levels of mistrust in the system, through their experiences with institutions and the system, over time and history.

The talk of ‘cashless’ is easy, but it ignores that there is a cultural dimension to the physicality of cash. Digital wallets operate on a transfer of intention, where a promise to pay gets converted into an intention to buy. For this to work at scale, one needs to have become comfortable with the idea of surplus and develop the confidence that money will come without having to struggle or having to think about it all the time. One needs to develop trust in institutions, in a context where the evidence around is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

I suspect that if this subject was explored further, we would discover that where mobile money has succeeded, such as in East Africa, the institution that was trusted was the telco – the mobile service operator, and that the early stages of adoption have a different narrative from that being used currently in entirely new markets where mobile money still struggles to penetrate. India and South Africa are two such places where the unbanked and the financially excluded have reasons of history to develop high mistrust of the systems of the privileged.

To convert one’s worth into worthlessness, even if for a small period is to make everyone nervous. Psychologically, money works on a convention of mutual deception. We agree to call something money, and that is good enough. But to have the thinness of this convention exposed in such a way is to cause great anxiety.

The transition to a cashless future can be made gentler and more accommodating to their fears and concerns, generating a sense of security and commitment, with some empathy for an entirely different world-view and life experience.

Detailed breakdown of Uber’s business model in Kenya puts spotlight on weaknesses

Latiff Cherono has just published an indepth analysis of what exactly it takes for an Uber driver in Nairobi to cover the cost of doing business. Here’s a snippet,

In this post, I try to understand the root cause of the disconnect between how the customer (who defines the value), Uber (the service that controls the experience) and the driver (the one who provides the service).

He accompanies his analysis with a detailed breakdown of costs and revenues, such as the table below, and others in his post.

new-picture-2And concludes:

The incentive for any person who starts a business is to maximize their profits. As such, we should expect that Uber drivers will approach their business in the same vein. However, the data provide by Uber to the driver is limited and prevents them from making informed decisions about generating revenue. For example, drivers do not know the estimate distance of a new trip when they accept it via the app. They are also penalized for not accepting rides (even if that trip may not make financial sense to the driver). All this is by design as Uber wants to maintain a steady supply of “online” vehicles on their network. One may argue that Uber is not being transparent enough with its independent contractors.

My thoughts:

Nairobi, Kenya isn’t the only ‘developing’ country context where Uber is creating unhappy drivers (and customers, one assumes) due to the design of their system. While most of the first world challenges to the company have come from the perspective of the formal economy and its regulations and laws regarding revenue, tax, employment status et al, the same cannot hold for the entirely different operating environment where the informal sector holds sway. And taxi driving is one such service.

Kampala, Uganda has it’s own challenges for Uber, including:

  • Uber drivers are reportedly leaving the service, switching off the Uber apps or not picking calls from corporate clients and those paying with a credit card. For the first four months after its launch, Uber was offering drivers incentives that saw them earn between Ush200,000 ($57.1) and Ush350,000 ($100) a week.
  • With increasing competition, drivers say that Uber’s incentive structure has been changing. In the first four months, Uber drivers were getting Ush15,000 (about $4) per hour, but this has since been scaled down to Ush10,000 ($2.9) and to Ush4,000 ($1.1) in incentives.

There is so much to be unpacked here, including the entire section on Uber’s own perception of how the market works, upto and including how to introduce time limited incentives, that I’ll follow up on it subsequently.

In this post, I wanted to highlight Latiff’s analysis and hard work pulling together the operating costs data, even as I leave you with this snippet from the article:

Uber’s commission in Nariobi was reduced from 25 to 20 per cent following protests by drivers in August, accusing the taxi hailing service of working them like slaves.

As I wrote earlier in the year, Uber could have done so much more in these markets, particularly on the path to formalization. Instead, they’re continuing on their journey as yet another smartphone app making life even easier while squandering the potential for real world change for the less privileged members of our societies.

 

 

Mobile Money in South Africa: The nature of the beast by Flo Mosoane

pexels-photo-3The 2015 State Of The Industry Report (SOTIR) for Mobile Money published by GSMA, reveals a picture of a service that continues to change the landscape of financial inclusion in developing and poor countries across the globe. In December of 2015, the industry processed transactions in excess of a billion, most of which were in Sub Sahara Africa.

It seems however, that the continued success of Mobile Money eludes South Africa. What with the untimely death of Vodacom Mpesa after millions of Rands of reinvestment. Only 4 months after which MTN South Africa also announced that they are ceasing new registrations, marking the end of (Mobile Network Operator) MNO-lead Mobile Money deployments here.

Despite the large bang that MTN Mobile Money launched with, managing to sign over 2 million subscribers; at the end, Vodacom Mpesa only had just over 75 000 users, and MTN Mobile Money only about 140 000 or so users. A performance that neither of these well-established, successful, multinational MNO’s can be proud of.

We lament the apparent failure of Mobile Money in South Africa. It is well established that it has made a significant contribution to financial inclusion for underserved populations, and still presents significant opportunity to serve unbanked and underbanked communities.

This is a very special contribution by Flo Mosoane, writing from first hand experience on the ground on this subject. Do read the whole article.

Read On…

People-centered systems design thinking out loud

feature_jaimeThis morning I was pondering the complexity involved in weaving together four separate threads of ‘innovation’ into one holistic system. They were not unrelated to each other, and the end users are more or less the same for each, but each is also a standalone solution to a pain point in an ecosystem. I was tinkering with the idea of trying to knit them into one – would it be far too complicated, both to implement, and to develop conceptually? Or, would the complexity be worth the additional headaches because the outcome would be well worth the effort of integration into a holistic and seamless concept?

From the product development point of view, the research question is whether an integrated, seamless solution is more viable and desirable than four standalone solutions developed by individual teams, in parallel, within the same ecosystem, and for the same target audience. Feasibility is the question being evaluated, from the value for money perspective. Of course it could be tried, that’s the beauty of design – one attempts to build prototypes to test one’s paper based theories to see if they break in the real world. But was it worth the time and resources to build the prototype in the first place?

It was while grappling with this minuscule yet wicked problem that I was reminded of a gentleman I once heard speak at the Better World by Design conference in Rhode Island about 8 years ago. Jaime Lerner is very well known to urban planners and city designers, I’m sure, but perhaps not as familiar a name to the rest of us. He conceived the idea of the city as a living, breathing, organic system – a turtle, as you can see in the diagram above. Life, work, movement, are all integrated together.

While the systems design challenge I’m pondering is more technology based, as is usually the case in today’s world, and not a cityscape, I believe that one can take away some powerful insights from Mr Lerner’s philosophy for design planning for a complex human ecosystems. In this context, its the informal and rural economic system prevalent in the developing world. Not unlike Brazil, where Mr Lerner perfected his vision.

Commerce in the informal sector is a living, breathing, organic ecosystem made up of human beings in flexible, negotiable, and thus, reciprocal relationships with each other. Much of the groundwork for this conclusion can be discovered in the reports linked to here. If we set aside the cityscape, and consider the essence of Mr Lerner’s philosophy, we see that his three key concepts are life, work, and movement.

In the context of the informal valueweb, movement could be considered with far more layers of nuance than simply transportation or mobility as one would in the context of urban planning. And, in the context of an ecosystem, it could be stretched to cover the flows of value in between the nodes in a value web – these we’d earlier identified as information, goods, services, and currency. That is, movement is the lifeblood of the organic network, the transactions that take place, and most importantly, the element of give and take which distinguishes human to human interactions.

Thus, if we were to step back from the design of the details of such a complex human interaction system, we too could conceivably think of it as living organism – perhaps not a turtle, which is a better metaphor for a city; perhaps there’s some other metaphor waiting for us to stumble over. In the meantime, I do wonder if we have the underlying philosophy for the design of complex, interdependent human interaction systems?

 

Previously.

Lowering the barriers to effective communication is the key to sustainable development

KnowledgeOne of the challenges that we discovered during our multistakeholder workshop in The Hague a few years ago was that people tended to fall back on their expertise when faced with the discomfort of empathizing with farmer’s needs. Particularly so when the farmers in question were from Africa, and not from their own regions.

Our design visualization team – Jam visualdenken – captured one element of how this barrier manifested. Experts talked a lot about “Knowledge” being the key to effective agriculture value chain development, and how it was critical to transfer as much of it as possible. It became this big thing shoved at the ‘global South’, with little thought given to how it would be transferred, much less how relevant and appropriate the “knowledge” would be. A silver bullet, or a panacea.

Today I came across this article from Zimbabwe – “Limitations of using documents & reports to share knowledge in Africa” and I could immediately perceive the author’s deep understanding and empathy of their own local context and needs. Here’s a snippet:

While African communities have learnt from each other for generations, the conventional way of trying to spread knowledge through case studies is not yielding sustainable results.

There is an assumption that technical people can get into a community, work with local people, document their successes and share success stories with other communities, leading to adoption of best practices.

This notion misses a thorough understanding of how communities learn from each other. Almost all rural African communities rely on collective sense-making through very patient conversations, observations and learning by doing.

This led me down the rabbit hole of the authoring organization‘s website, where I came across a blog worth following for their deep understanding of the African agricultural landscape and the information needs of the farmers. Here are two selected blogposts from their site:

From farmers and traders to knowledge artisans

[… ]motor mechanics and metal fabrication are now part of the informal sector.  Previously locked in formal systems, these skills are now being unpacked and applied in informal markets.  This is leading to the integration of indigenous knowledge systems into formal knowledge sharing pathways. 

Since indigenous knowledge is more customer-oriented, it results in the production of needs-based products, tailor-made to meet the needs of diverse customers.  For example, ploughs and hoes are made as per customer requirements unlike the previous mass production ethos in the formal sector which had little consideration for existing draught power dynamics in different farming communities.
[…]
Technology and digital tools do not know empathy and why it is important.

Why some approaches and technologies are not moving beyond early adopters

A lot can be learnt from remarkable ways through which African socio-cultural systems generated and shared knowledge. There were reliable conduits for sharing knowledge from one age group to another, one gender to another and one society to another.  Besides respected knowledge brokers, each community had sense making tools linking different communities of practice. Some of these methods and tools included rituals, idioms, metaphors, stories and various forms of apprenticeship.
[…]
This is exactly what our modern knowledge systems lack. We have not cultivated proper ways of sharing the rich information/knowledge from schools, colleges and university curricular into diverse African communities.  There is an expectation that this knowledge can be shared by students after graduating. However, a lot of what can be useful in communities is either forgotten or misapplied.  More than 70% of ordinary Africans who function through their own languages, values and norms have no way of meshing what they know with the formal education system.  In most cases, their cultural values are still considered barriers to academic knowledge which is being confused with modernization.

Unless we develop verifiable ways through which knowledge is questioned, shared, rejected and value-added, it remains stuck within various communities of practice.  Such knowledge will have less developmental impact than anticipated. Academics continue to be locked in their systems, speaking to each other while farmers and rural communities continue holding onto what they know works. As if that is not enough, the language used for crafting policies in most African countries is not suitable for use by the majority but for lawyers and judiciary systems who can interpret it.

Design of Digital Financial Services for Inclusion Needs More Respect and Humility to Succeed

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Source: https://twitter.com/SharonKith

In the past week alone, I’ve seen three glaring cases of unquestioned assumptions around the design and implementation of Digital Financial Service (DFS) particularly for financial inclusion, but also otherwise. This gives rise to the question whether the industry is prepared to undertake the mission they have set for themselves.

The first is that their technology, in whatever form – the app, the device, the USSD service – will and should (unquestioned, remember) disrupt people’s behaviour completely. While it is true that using a mobile phone to make a payment instead of cash is a change in behaviour, or rather, habit, it is not the same as type of change as transforming the entire culture to become more individualistic as opposed to communal; or less relationship oriented and more contractually transactional. I am finding the words clumsy to use and hope that one of you reading this has the expert knowledge at their fingertips to better articulate what I am attempting to describe. Hofstede had a clue.

There is a fundamental arrogance in framing the need for human intermediaries in the digital financial service transaction model as a “necessary evil” – sounds like a toddler’s bad habit that they need to be weaned off in order to become adults. The bulk of those who are financially excluded live in cultures where human contact and social relationships within the community are more important than faceless, meaningless transactions by the individual isolated with their techno-utopian device. To expect this to change to conform to your pretty little use case diagram is rather presumptuous, if not downright offensive.

The second is more generalized. Its a blithe disregard for any differences in context and operating environment between the more formal economies and those where the informal sector is the majority. Nobody pauses to question whether there are differences that need to be considered. Its like landing on Mars expecting the same atmosphere. This report on the global emergence of a cashless economy ends with offering 3 implications of 4 megatrends.

If indeed two of these implications are the outcome of the single factor of increasing financial inclusion, then how can they be lumped together with the third implication which is clearly one meant for more advanced consumer markets? The interpretation on transaction volume and pricing behaviour is thus rendered inaccurate as it does not distinguish between the digital payment ecosystem currently prevalent in emerging markets from that existing in advanced markets.

When your fundamental premise has no foundation, your extrapolations and projections will not only be in error, but the unquestioned starting assumptions will snowball along the strategy and product development chain leading to a vast gaping void between your original intent and the actions taken, much less the outcomes aimed at.

Lastly, when it comes to fintech in the African context, there’s a pattern of analysis that is either too basic in its assumptions – mobile phones are good for digital financial services and nobody has actually noticed this fact because we never did; or, too ready to read the worst in a chart or the data. This leads to policy recommendations in 2016, ten years after Mpesa was introduced in Kenya, that offer up such insightful suggestions as “Africa must promote the use of mobiles to include the excluded financially.”

mobilebrkgs

This is rather disheartening for the rest of us who have been watching the African digital financial economy move forward in leaps and bounds, in many ways far ahead of the rest of the world. It also takes the current conversation back to kindergarten level rather than the post graduate courses we could be discussing. Given the advancements already actively engaged with across the continent, isn’t it time that policy researchers took the trouble to come up to speed?

And given the importance of financial inclusion, isn’t it time that the stakeholders actively working on digital financial services took their target audience seriously, with some respect, and wee bit more humility? They might discover their efforts move forward much faster.

 

 

Will Cross Border Mobile Money Boost intra African Trade and Regional Integration?

cross border MMTOver the past 18 months, since I started tracking the spread of cross border mobile money payments across the African continent, there has been visible progress in leaps and bounds, as documented by the GSMA. In fact, back then, I’d written:

Top down reportage on banking and interoperability seems to focus only on the customer’s individual needs, and overlooks their agency as entrepreneurs, traders and business people.

The map above has been taken from the GSMA’s Mobile Economy 2015 report, and the 2016 report reproduces it as well. Now, the role of mobile money transfers in facilitating cross border and intra African trade is finally being recognized for its potential and cost savings. Author Ashly Hope lays out clearly the high cost of remitting money in the SADC region:

cost of remittance sadcSouth Africa and Tanzania are the largest sources of remittance, yet their transaction costs are significantly higher than the Sub Saharan average of 9.7% (which in turn is the most expensive region in the world where the average cost is now ~7.4%). And this is only one regional grouping.

It is when we look at the penetration of mobile money, that we see something that hints at the digital economy emerging in East Africa (birthplace of Mpesa in case you weren’t aware).

Given teh pace of change, we can safely assume that the figures given above have only increased since 2014. Tanzania’s mobile money market has been frequently cited for its growth and opportunity – it is also outstanding for the level of interoperability within the telco ecosystem.

In the previous article, we noted that Tanzania had just flagged off a Chinese funded regional logistics and trade hub which would include a local footprint for the distribution and sales of China made goods in the form of a warehouse.

“The trade hub will also help Tanzanians especially women to buy products here instead of travelling all the way to China, hence cutting costs down,” said Ms Janet Mbene, Deputy Minister of Industries & Trade.

Savings on travel and shipping is bound to translate into increased inventory purchases, and thus value and/or volume of goods traded. Taking the context of the entire East African Community’s “informal” cross border trade, and the visualization of the interconnections now provided by various mobile money transfer systems in the map above, one can safely start to forecast the potential gains to both traders, and the telcos, as the landscape of the local operating environment begins to change in response to infrastructure investments.

Whether this potential opportunity is exploited by the region’s traders, or overlooked and missed due to the existing digital divide, is the question that remains to be answered. The EAC’s mobile economy (~96% prepaid) needs to start thinking of itself as more than just telco led and impact hub driven, and get down to the ground at the fringes for the future.

Will Direct Access to China-made Goods Disrupt Trade in West Africa’s Consumer Market?

jmsamallThe first e-commerce platform for direct trade of China made products has just been launched in the West African country of Togo. Squeezed together with the Benin Republic between the larger, and better known countries of Nigeria and Ghana, Togo is a small francophone country of around 7 million people. Per the article:

“We want to be the pioneer of e-commerce in Togo and to capitalize on the strong multifaceted cooperation between China and Togo, a premier trade hub country in West Africa”, Yuan Li, founder of JMSA-MALL, told Xinhua Friday in Lomé.

“We are promoting a direct trade of genuine Chinese products with fair price between the African customers and the sellers in China,” he explained.

From electronic devices to farm machines, the platform offers a wide range of Chinese products, which are sold in Togo as well as other countries like Benin, Niger, Ghana and Burkina Faso in the region.

All major credit cards are accepted for payment as well as the local mobile money payment system – Flooz. There’s a generous return policy, and shipments arrive at a local brick and mortar shopfront for pickup and returns. That is, if the item ordered isn’t already available in stock at their local warehouse. Furthermore, JMSA-MALL offers local SMEs an opportunity to sell their wares through their platform. On the surface, this looks good – by cutting out the middleman, they can offer lower prices.

Yacine Bio-Tchane, our Beninois colleague also has a footprint in Lome, Togo. She and I discussed the potential impact of this launch in the local context, as well the broader implications in general. Here are some thoughts:

Will this ‘Direct to Consumer’ (DTC) platform have impact on local traders who travel to China for goods?

Yacine made the observation that since the platform sells everything from electronic devices to farm machines, if some pricey and heavy items are not readily available in Togo but for which there is a demand can be bought online, users will take advantage of that opportunity. Going to China, identifying the right product at a good price and shipping it back to Togo is timely and costly (1). The e-commerce platform significantly reduces transaction costs, which makes it very interesting for local buyers.

Chinese products are known to be cheaper (in price and sometimes quality) than other products so they are highly competitive and accessible to many Togolese, especially given the low purchasing power. If, instead of going to the market and walking around in search of those products, anyone can buy it online, people will prefer doing so. However, while Togo has 67% penetration of mobile phones, less than 10% of the population has access to internet. This implies that few consumers have access to the ecommerce solution but it could trigger an increased use of internet from traders interested in China made goods. Although the article doesn’t say who the top buyers are (nationality), it would not be surprising to see that increase in demand is being pulled by Ghana.

Direct trade of China made goods

On the other hand, given the costs, time, and hassles of going to China to source and ship products back home for sale, this platform might be attractive to local traders themselves, both in Togo, and regionally. As Yacine observes, demand might not be from Togo itself but rather the neighbouring countries. As the founder of the platform says himself, Togo is a critical trade hub in West Africa for China.

China has increased trade and diplomatic relations with Togo in the past decade. It is even said that China has become the first financial partner to the country. Chinese companies operate in industries, agriculture, commerce and construction. They create employment and compete with local companies in selling certain products such as fabrics.

The fact that this e-commerce platform is a B2C marketplace backed by a local warehouse full of China made goods is a signal of this investment. For Yacine, the strongest message the launch of this platform has sent is that the Chinese are fully settled in Togo. That kind of long term investment, coupled with their increased investments in industries is a game changer. China is no more a simple partner coming in for projects but has now become an important actor with influence on consumer behaviour. This is a big pivot in its brand.

west_africa_2_storyGeographically, Togo is well positioned to easily access both anglophone and francophone West Africa. E-commerce has been taking off exponentially in the giant market of Nigeria, but has yet to gain traction in other neighbouring countries. Ivory Coast has seen some gains, but it’s in an early stage. Traditionally, the Chinese have waited for markets to mature before flooding it with their lower priced variations – the mobile phone market is one such example. The launch of this platfrom seems rather early from the e-commerce (and mobile payments) perspective but not from the point of view of global trade and market forces.

China’s manufacturing industries are feeling the pinch of shrinking global trade, and the problems of over capacity. The domestic market has been one major focus for development; this initiative seems like an attempt at creating another. Consumer goods trade between Africa and China has not entirely been under the radar – both African and Chinese airlines were the first to respond to demand. Further, there are other changes afoot that directly impact West Africa, as this recent article from CNN shows:

Over the past 18 months, although concrete numbers are hard to come by, hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of Africans are believed by locals and researchers to have exited Guangzhou.

A dollar drought in oil-dependent West African nations, coupled with China’s hostile immigration policies, widespread racism, and at-once slowing and maturing economy, means Guangzhou is losing its competitive edge. […] As China becomes less profitable, many Africans feel the downsides of living there more acutely.

If the mountain cannot support Mahomet, could it cut costs by building warehouses fronted by online marketplaces? Warehouse centres for China made goods are not new to the African continent, southern Africa has quite a few, while Tanzania’s China funded logistics hub has just been flagged off. The JMALL founder’s opening statement positions Togo as another such ‘trade hub’ in West Africa. Is this e-commerce platform a pilot to test regional B2C marketing cost effectively?

Chinese e-commerce giants like Alibaba have shown the way with their agent led efforts to open up the challenging rural markets of the mainland’s hinterlands. It’s only a matter of time before a different kind of intermediary springs up in Togo (and elsewhere) offering similar agent services to facilitate trade. This time, however, it’ll be from the comfort of their home countries, as they assist traders and consumers with online purchases. Taken together with ongoing investments in mobile money payment systems, financial inclusion initiatives, and the utilization of the agency model – China seems to have grasped an excellent opportunity space to begin exploring.

 

(1) Here’s a documentary following a Congolese trader during her shopping spree in Guangzhou, China, looking to fill her container with tradeable goods. It offers us insight on her customer experience.

This article has been translated into the French by Yacine Bio-Tchané