“No Data Available Gray Area”
For analysts everywhere, the challenge of considering each economy in its own right seems to be far too much trouble, and so they tend towards sweeping generalizations which lump all metrics under one label – “Africa”. Some find even that far too exhausting and aggregate Africa along with Europe and the Middle East.
These regional groupings might be fine for executive Vice Presidents responsible for regional sales in a globe spanning multinational but for anyone seeking to assess and evaluate the emerging opportunities sparking interest in the continent, these aggregate metrics only serve to obfuscate and confuse the issue.
Static vs Dynamic
What distinguishes the majority of the emerging African economies from the more established ones is the prevalence of informal business activities, in addition to agriculture.
As I wrote previously, from my research on the underlying rhythms of the informal, there are two forms of income – one that is static, and thus predictable, like a regular monthly salary, and one that is dynamic i.e. volatile, such as the irregular cash flows that those in the informal sector tend to rely on for their household expenses. For many households, their cash flows have a combination of both forms – a predictable static paycheck from formal employment as well as bits and bobs from informal livelihood activities.
One can extrapolate the presence of this dynamism into the larger context of the entire operating environment – when there is a significant component that is irregular and unpredictable i.e the cash flows from the informal sector, and consider this as a key attribute that distinguishes these economies.
That is, instead of seeking metrics which maybe static, could we perhaps instead seek those that convey a measure of the dynamism that’s best characterized by the hustle of the informal marketplace?
Acceleration and Growth Trends
A great example is the rate of mobile phone penetration. Here is a snippet of data extracted from the GSMA’s statistics showing just a couple of years of change in phone penetration. Can we see how fast Ethiopia’s subscriber numbers grew, almost doubling in just 2 years?
Here’s another chart that truly visualizes this dynamic activity
And if this doesn’t suffice to convey the rapid pace of change happening on teh ground, then lets take a more detailed look at trends related to this mobile phone penetration activity.
The point is that measurements that are static, or slow to change over time, aren’t conveying dynamism of the African markets nor their opportunities. With such a low base of development, static measurements lead to African nations being ranked low on indices. But when we consider the rate of change or the acceleration of growth, we see entirely different trends than if we were looking at absolute numbers alone.
I chose these measures because mobile phones are rapidly evolving into powerful and portable computing devices, while the proliferation of mobile money solutions reek of business activity, transactions, payments and the flow of cash circulating in an economy.
In this table, for example, both Egypt and South Africa lead the pack in terms of size but are they the leaders in terms of opportunity for growth or ROI?
Nigeria’s e-commerce sales grew 400% in the same time period as it took for South Africa to double and for Egypt to grow by 80%. Ghana and Ethiopia grew 300% while Kenya came in close enough. Where would you place your bets for e-commerce investment?
Connectivity and Communications
The final attribute that emerges from the patterns I’ve seen in the ‘prepaid economy’ and the informal and rural markets is that of flexibility and facetime. This isn’t the post to get into those details, which are available on demand, but the point here is to look at local and social activities, fuelled by the phone, that are hallmarks of the increasingly connected emerging consumers.
“You’ll find me on Facebook” is the de facto business card of the African informal sector and/or startup, SME, telco or bank. The ability to communicate, thus negotiate, is key to the flexibility of the informal, and the perceived intimacy of social media mimics the hyper-local, social trusted networks of transactional flow and culture. As I write these sentences, I realize that embedded within each is volumes of densely packed insights that I promise myself I’ll return to in subsequent posts and articles.
These are the trends that drive adoption of Uber in Lagos and Nairobi, and the emergence of local variations for informal services. These are also connected to increasing visibility of geek culture and tech savviness among that favourite metric of demographers – the African youth.
An African Index of Competitiveness
Biashara is teh Swahili word for business, and a better descriptor of the informal trade and business sectors, as it covers the smallest livelihood activity that every family must conduct. A Biashara Competitiveness Index that could reflect the true picture, incorporating as it would the dynamic aspect of the informal sector, one that has failed most other attempts to measure and define.
Are the metrics I’ve displayed necessarily the ones that would contribute to this index? I don’t know, at this point, but I do know that when we look at the opportunity space and overlook the changes taking place and the innovative solutions in industries like financial services, cross border transactions, e-commerce etc we’re missing out on the ground reality by relying on metrics more suited for formal and/or developed economies for comparison.
If we can find a way to convey the pace of change, the acceleration of innovation and the flux, to capture and communicate the dynamism of the operating environment, we’d be better able to assess which markets offer us the best opportunities or where future growth may lie than static indicators. I’ll continue working on this.
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