Posts Tagged ‘assumptions’

Key Competitive Advantage for Frontier and Emerging Markets

There’s a nuance, I’ve discovered, in the application of user centered design methods for entering the frontier and emerging markets of the developing world where a significant proportion of economic activity is confusingly labeled “informal”, rather than unformal as the case tends to be.

In more advanced consumer market contexts, where there are umpteen data flows, and decades of consumer research and insights to draw upon, the unquestioned assumption is that user research tends to level the playing field among contenders.

However, this doesn’t hold true, in my experience, in the emerging and frontier markets, such as those in East Africa. Simply basing one’s product development and market entry strategy on even the most rigorously designed user research program does not suffice. At the frontier, competitive advantage boils down to how well you interpret your data so gathered using design ethnography methods and quantitative surveys.

The biggest and best data collection in the world cannot help you if it’s not answering the right questions, nor the insights drive design if there are underlying biases filtering the inputs.

The key, as any trained anthropologist will inform you, is in being able to shift one’s perspective sideways, enough so as to perceive the landscape and the context from the viewpoint of the users being researched. And, perhaps, that is why increasing the diversity of experiences and perspectives of your team can make or break your new product introduction and/or your competitive strategy.

An amusing example of this kind of problem is one I discovered yesterday when poking around my twitter profile after the sudden change in UI that took place without warning. It seems that because I hadn’t input my real gender in the system, Twitter’s data analytics designated me “male” based on my tweeting behaviour.

Their age range is vast enough that they cannot go wrong, and besides, a lady never shares her real age. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I’m considered male or female in the system. What is of concern is the underlying assumptions that the designers of the system have made when assigning behavioural choices to one or the other gender.

Now, if we were to extrapolate this relationship between initial design settings in the system, and the inaccurate output – as clear a case of their assumptions being rooted in stereotypes as any that I’ve seen – imagine for a moment what would be the case if the same sort of unthinking, unquestioned stereotypes were applied to the interpretation of user research data collected from a geography or context vastly different from one’s own?

What if this same approach was used for the system of designating assumed behaviours and user needs meant to guide the design of solutions for the rural African market woman?

If the most modern and global social media messaging systems of Twitter are unable to distinguish something as basic as gender – they state based on your profile and activity – they’d do better by stating they are unable to distinguish gender based on these factors than to make gross assumptions on “What do women tweet?” in 20 foot pink letters.

I’d have more respect for them tbh instead of feeling I’ve been put in some fluffy fuschia box, as a woman, just because the stuff I do (my profile is professional) and the stuff I tweet about (business, trade, economics, and design strategy) flags me as a male?

Extrapolating this challenge further, in the context of frontier and emerging markets, where the markets are not crowded with competitors at this early stage, nor is your brand recognized, is this the first impression that you can risk making?

I’ve often said that these are some of the most challenging markets, and affordable connectivity is only making it harder – word of mouth now flies at the speed of silicon, and a new entrant must stand up to social media scrutiny.

Frankly, in my own discipline and field of focus, it only makes me more confident of my team’s ability to offer a distinct competitive advantage.

The dangerous assumption that there’s no competition from the informal sector

In addition, the informal economy of open street markets still dominates 90% of retail in large countries like Nigeria and Kenya, meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room to grow. ~ Quartz Africa, Jan 2017

Failure is a risk, and an inescapable function of the amount of resources invested, not just money. Time, effort, and managerial ambitions are also losses that destroy value for companies. Danger, then, lies in leaping to assumptions that turn out to be wrong. This is one of them.

First, a bit of history. Just over a decade ago, the Indian market was opening up to world’s investment flows in the retail sector, and estimates of the potential were as rosy and glowing as Africa’s today. From The Economist in April 2006:

Most Indian shops belong to what is known, quite accurately, as the “unorganised” sector—small, family-owned shops surviving on unpaid labour and, often, free land for a small stall. “Organised” retailing accounts for only 2-3% of the total, and of that, 96% is in the ten biggest cities, and 86% in the biggest six. However, organised retailing is growing at 18-20% a year and inspiring a rush of property development. Shopping malls are springing up in every big town: some 450 are at various stages of development.

By 2015, it was clear that these ambitious potentials were never going to materialize, though many malls did spring up in cities across the country. Last year, I covered this topic looking back at the growth projections and the subsequent real numbers achieved from the perspective of the resilience shown by the informal retail sector. I noted, in August 2016:

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious – formal retail has only reached 8% penetration in the past 10 years. Nowhere close to the 25% expected by 2010. Mind you, these were all the management consultancy reports bandying the numbers around.

I bring this up because I’m seeing the same kinds of projections happening right now for the African consumer market by the very same firms.

Second, this time it’s not just a management consultancy report with all the research and analysis efforts they pour into making their case. It’s not been distilled into one single yet dangerous sentence:

meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room

Yeebo_Market_08

“Plenty of room” (Photo Credit: Yepeka Yeebo in Accra, Ghana)

There’s an inherent assumption within the assumption that the myriads of little stands, market ladies and their longstanding relationships with customers and suppliers, and the entire ecosystem which exists, such as in the photograph above, can simply be bulldozed over with a granite and marble mall development covered in shiny unreflective glass.
It didn’t happen in India, and it’s not happening in Africa. From Ghana, this news article on mall development says:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongside the dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.

cth8lgkwcaauetyFurther, and more dangerously, this blithe assumption of a cakewalk where an informal sector so tangibly exists, overlooks the innate ingenuity of those who seek a dignified life even while hustling for a living. And that there’s no competition or customer service.

Top 3 Assumptions About the African Consumer Market

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Treichville Market, Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Claims have been made about the Great African Market Opportunity – in retail, in real estate, in banking, and packaged consumer goods – that drive investment decisions and marketing strategies. Yet, reality has been less opportunistic than imagined – Nestle’s struggles in Kenya back in 2015 are one such example.

Here are the top 3 assumptions, if left unpacked or unquestioned, that can make or break a new market entry strategy in the African Consumer Market. For most of the continent, it’s safe to say that the majority of the mass market are primarily employed in the informal economy.

1. Price is the problem
Affordability is not a matter of price but access to payment means or method. Upfront lumpsum cash transactions will narrow potential customer base down, depending on the season, or the income source.

What this means is that there are whole categories of products that would have had a larger audience but do not due to barriers set up by their own transaction model.

Accessibility and Affordability are thus not a function of the Price itself but the lack of flexibility in the business model. Flexibility drives consumer segmentation in the African Consumer Market, as product purchase decisions get made based on cash in hand and cash flow patterns.

2. Consumer Segmentation Metrics are the Same
The factors that influence the segments of the population who have the potential to be consumers are the following:
– Urban or Rural
– Sources of Income

Factors that do not influence “poverty” (ref: textbook market segmentation)
– Education
– Location
– Employer

Example: Schoolteachers are considered part of the rural elite in Kenya, accruing community status and respect. Yet, they may be on a fixed salary within a lower pay grade, albeit teaching with a Master’s degree, with less purchasing power than a school dropout with a successful trading business.

Assumption: Demographic attributes traditionally used such as Education level or stability of Employer correlate to consumer purchasing power or disposable income.

3. Brand Loyalty is absolute and unconditional
Consumer insight reports on the African market opportunity tend to highlight the high degree of brand loyalty prevalent among customers, and leave it at that. Recommendations then emphasize first mover advantage or capturing customer loyalty, with the assumption that once locked in, this will create a committed customer for life. Why brands matter so much is rarely, if ever, asked.

The assumption is that this brand loyalty implies pricing blind consumption and status seeking behaviours. While this may certainly occur at the upper end of the income spectrum, these drivers are not likely to be as common for decision making among the mass majority audience. Demand drivers for brand loyalty more commonly noted are:

– the need to minimize risk (of loss)
– maximizing the return on the investment (in the purchase) including status signalling and reputation factors, which have a role in accrual of social capital leveraged for business activities in the informal sector.

Trade-offs are constantly being made in purchasing decisions, influenced by a variety of factors. Yes, compromises may be made on groceries in order to pay for a branded product, but simplistic interpretations of this behaviour lead to egregious errors in the design of customer experiences.

Implicit Assumptions commonly held about Informal Markets

Mozambique

Woman owned and managed informal retail in Mozambique via Twitter

  1. “Informal Economy” always means illegal, shadowy, gray.
  2. High volume of low value cash transactions imply poverty, ignorance, lack of sophisticated money management.
  3. Operating with a lack of infrastructure and institutions implies ignorance, lack of ambitions and aspirations, and motivation.
  4. Lack of cash implies lack of purchasing power – particularly in rural settings.
  5. Lack of formal retail markets and packaged consumer goods implies lack of knowledge, information, and choices.
  6. Lack of competition, due to all of the above.
  7. Entering markets where informal retail dominates will be a cakewalk.

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.

“No Ordinary Disruption” – Africa’s Transformation

McKinsey consultants have released a new book – No Ordinary Disruption – looking at global mega trends and market forces that are forcing a rethink of the foundations of their intuitive knowledge. Assumptions are to be challenged and questioned, they say, as these changes impact a deeper transition in the way the world works. Even as all eyes are on Asia, the fastest growing region on the planet, it behooves us not to overlook the second fastest growing and often overlooked opportunities of the African continent.

“Well, there was a reason why: growth has moved elsewhere—to Asia, Latin America, the Middle East.”

B6vtjfTIYAAq1mfLet’s look at their key points and reflect upon Africa’s transformation.

McKOneThe first trend is the shifting of the locus of economic activity and dynamism to emerging markets like China and to cities within those markets. These emerging markets are going through simultaneous industrial and urban revolutions, shifting the center of the world economy east and south at a speed never before witnessed. […] Perhaps equally important, the locus of economic activity is shifting within these markets.

FG-Seizing-Africas-Retail-Opportunities-2Numerous reports are pointing out the immense potential inherent in African urbanization and population growth, for retail, for real estate and for opportunity. Not all 54 countries on the continent are seeing economic growth as its unevenly distributed, just like in Europe. Some points of note:

Nigeria became the largest economy last year, surpassing South Africa the traditional leader, after their economy was re-based. Kenya has just been ranked as the 3rd fastest growing economy. Rwanda is also expected to show similar growth – both are in the 6 to 7% range. Ethiopia is making strides in infrastructure and industrialization – attracting manufacturing as well as high street brands like H&M and Primark. China has been looking closer at the lower costs of labour on the African continent.

What is notable is that instead of the usual sources of wealth like oil or other natural resources, most of this emerging  economic growth is coming from modern sectors like telecom and services. Entirely new industries such as mobile gaming are gaining traction and e-commerce is another fast proliferating area. Cote D’Ivoire has gained visibility with its embrace of online marketplaces while the Nigerians’ penchant for shopping has captured attention at home and abroad.

All this urbanization means a boom in construction – transportation infrastructure, power plants, dams, houses and malls – cement magnate Dangote has already invested over a billion dollars across the entire continent while competition hasn’t dented LaFarge’s healthy profits.

mckTwoThe second disruptive force is the acceleration in the scope, scale, and economic impact of technology. Technology—from the printing press to the steam engine and the Internet—has always been a great force in overturning the status quo. The difference today is the sheer ubiquity of technology in our lives and the speed of change.
[…]
Processing power and connectivity are only part of the story. Their impact is multiplied by the concomitant data revolution, which places unprecedented amounts of information in the hands of consumers and businesses alike, and the proliferation of technology-enabled business models, from online retail platforms like Alibaba to car-hailing apps like Uber.[…]Entrepreneurs and start-ups now frequently enjoy advantages over large, established businesses.

hubs-overview-large

Source VC4Africa

The impact of the democratization of technology has already made itself visible. Incubators and tech hubs are popping up across the African continent. New startups are emerging almost every other day. One of my favourites is Cladlight –  a safety jacket with indicator lights to be used by motorcycle taxis.

Whether its Uber or grocery delivery in Lagos and Kampala – apps that leapfrog the lack of adequate infrastructure and distribution systems are disrupting their local markets. Technology, both at the front end and the back is expected to change the face of retail and service delivery.

00291221-2a748c192dd93802a2db7252e1576c74-arc614x376-w614-us11

This is the Ethiopian capital’s new light rail system.

And its not just computers and smartphones – a variety of solar powered products, distinguishing themselves with payment methods and business model innovation, are lighting up the formerly dark continent, while China’s ambitions in high speed rail will soon connect the unconnected.

mck3The human population is getting older. Fertility is falling, and the world’s population is graying dramatically. While aging has been evident in developed economies for some time—Japan and Russia have seen their populations decline over the past few years—the demographic deficit is now spreading to China and soon will reach Latin America. For the first time in human history, aging could mean that the planet’s population will plateau in most of the world. […] But by 2013, about 60 percent of the world’s population lived in countries with fertility rates below the replacement rate. This is a sea change
Euromonitor-populationCall it the demographic dividend or the African youth bulge, but the cradle of mankind remains the youngest continent on earth. This is one of the reasons why Africa matters for the emerging future.
mck4The final disruptive force is the degree to which the world is much more connected through trade and through movements in capital, people, and information (data and communication)—what we call “flows.” […] “South–south” flows between emerging markets have doubled their share of global trade over the past decade. The volume of trade between China and Africa rose from $9 billion in 2000 to $211 billion in 2012. […]the links forged by technology have marched on uninterrupted and with increasing speed, ushering in a dynamic new phase of globalization, creating unmatched opportunities, and fomenting unexpected volatility.

aftzIncreasing regional integration for trade and commerce are changing the economic landscape of the continent. At the forefront is the East African Community, who have already issued a single tourist visa for Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda whilst pushing forward with infrastructural development and various trade related initiatives to tighten their financial and commercial links.

smdc-silkroad-21st-mapFlows of information mean increasingly connected consumers, as smartphone penetration and mobile subscription growth puts the internet in the hands of even the nomadic pastoralists. Social media use is moving beyond friends and family to become platforms for informal trade and banking. And mobile money’s ability to provide financial inclusion profitably is driving the continent’s telcos to overcome their competitive nature and join hands in interoperability.

CDV_KdpWIAAiT23.jpg large

Afropolitan, Africapitalist, Afro futurism – all of these are ways to name the basic trend that Africans are finally reaching out to grab their turn on the global stage. Most recently Credit Suisse named Tidjane Thiam, originally from Ivory Coast as their new CEO. Africa’s future is being transformed by the global forces shaping the world and cannot afford to be overlooked.

As the authors conclude:

The fact that all four are happening at the same time means that our world is changing radically from the one in which many of us grew up, prospered, and formed the intuitions that are so vital to our decision making.[…] Yet we work in a world in which even, perhaps especially, professional forecasters are routinely caught unawares. That’s partly because intuition still underpins much of our decision making.[…] If we look at the world through a rearview mirror and make decisions on the basis of the intuition built on our experience, we could well be wrong. In the new world, executives, policy makers, and individuals all need to scrutinize their intuitions from first principles and boldly reset them if necessary. This is especially true for organizations that have enjoyed great success.

Pasteur’s Quadrant and Ethics: Research framing among lower income and rural people

Informal Economy, Market Analysis and Segmentation

Banglemaker, Rajasthan, Dec 2008 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

When I forget myself, I come back to this photograph to remind me of whom I really work for and why. His name was never asked because he was much older, and thus respected. One could only call him aap (thou). He was my first interviewee for The Prepaid Economy project, more than 6 years ago, when I set out to find out more about those on irregular and unpredictable income streams managed their household finances in the rural context. Patriarch and Master Craftsman, he led his family in the hand crafting of lac bangles, which he and his son then took to the capital to sell.

I come back to him today because I never forgot the sharp  and sudden lesson I learnt from my experience in attempting to interview him for the project. Oh, he was all smiles and goodwill, welcoming and willing to helpfully share whatever he could. I’d been introduced to him before, as he was a wellknown craftsman in the region. And yet, till date, I could probably not tell you a single thing about the way this home based informal business managed their household finances.

I was dumbstruck once the tea had been drunk and the polite necessities out of the way.  I’d come prepared with a 10 page questionnaire on all kinds of things related to the informal economy, the unpredictability of cash flow, on savings and loans and emergencies, as well as why the prepaid business model work so well. Only when I faced him with this sheaf of paperwork did I realize that I could not bring myself to ask him any of these probing, nosy questions on something as personal as his income and spending habits.

Respect was the barrier to curiosity. Respect silenced me. And with deep regrets and much respect I made my farewells after a few half hearted and polite questions on the business of making and selling bangles and bracelets.

Respecting the researched

I was reminded of him today when I came across an extensive global survey of people’s financial habits. I cannot put my finger on what made me feel as though this survey didn’t care about seeking to understand people’s lives and challenges, the constraints and conditions in which they struggled to hold life and limb together. To dream about sending the youngest to university or aspire to owning a milch cow.

It seemed to feel more like a market research report meant for a profit seeking consumer product company attempting to identify opportunities to exploit and gaps to leverage, to grow market share and reach a new consumer segment. Yet, it was meant for the greater benefit of the target audience, unlike say, beer.

Solutions meant to improve quality of life must grapple with the tension between creating value and capturing it ~ Niti Bhan

Beer does not pretend that drinking it will improve the quality of your life and wellbeing. It knows its place and role in your life. The market research for beer has its own integrity. You don’t expect to understand the context and the operating environment of the excluded.

Why should this be an issue anyway?

For too long the excluded have also been the ignored. The informal economy, lumping together as it does the shadows and the greys, is perceived, for the most part, as a bad thing. The cash based rural and informal markets, the livelihood activities, the various ways  and means those ekeing out a living make do, all these end up tarnished by the same  brush.

And so, we have little or no knowledge of the way this operating environment works, what makes it tick, what are the larger patterns at play and the rhythms of its transactional flows. Its only now that this segment of the population is being taken seriously in their own right, as customers and as a demographic, not simply as passive beneficiaries.

Look at that man above. A much respected craftsman and artisan, part of the cash based rural economy of his home village, his return from the big city after selling his inventory only means an injection of capital for the entire community.

Thus, if we’re to design and develop products or services or even, programmes, meant for him and his family (and all the others like him, who make their livelihoods in these humble traditional ways), we’re better able to succeed if we can contextualize our concepts and anchor them to the conditions and constraints of the operating environment.

That is, we need to understand the ecosystem in which we seek to introduce the new. We need insights to understand not only his aspirations and goals and needs, but also his challenges, patterns of cash flow and buyer behaviour.

Pasteur’s Quadrant and Ethics

Simply counting heads or the “What” or “How” is not enough, in my opinion. We must also seek out the “Why” without which there is always the danger of exploitation or over emphasis on the profit angle. Consumer insights for those with disposable incomes are not the same as understanding the conditions of those without. Solutions meant to improve quality of life or wellbeing for the under served must grapple with the tension between creating value and capturing it.

pasteurThis diagram, better known as Pasteur’s Quadrant, captures this inherent tension between consumer marketing driven research (Applied) and social sciences (Pure basic) to offer a middle path. One that fits the context of the lower income demographic, or those who manage outside of the formal institutions and services. I’m not using the word “Bottom of the Pyramid” anymore because the more I’ve gone into the field to talk to people the less I think of them as the bottom of anything. That’s a top down label that lumps billions of people into an undifferentiated mass rather than acknowledging their agency and aspirations.

The Ethics of Use-inspired basic research

This validates the paucity of knowledge and understanding of the informal sectors of trade and business, even as it seeks to identify opportunities and synthesize insights that can inform solution design.

Ethics in research is not simply how personal data is anonymized etc but also integral to the framing of the lens through which we choose to study the target audience.

Do we see them as an untapped resource to be exploited for profit or do we seek knowledge that can better enable us to provide for their needs?

This is a choice that researchers must make as their frame of reference, their biases and assumptions, and the goals of their intended audience all come through clearly in the manner in which the reports are written and the material shared.

Questioning the narrative of extreme affordability for mobile phones


Yesterday I had a long conversation with someone whose job is related closely to mobile phone design. You’d recognize his employer’s name very easily. He asked me about extremely affordable phones for the low income segment in emerging markets. Late in the year of 2012, I found myself hesitating before answering immediately with a resounding “Yes” to support the concept of low cost mobile phones for the BoP customer in India, Africa or wherever.

That was enough to make me reflect on why I hesitated. After all, wasn’t this the default aspirational outcome for these demanding customers?

It was, indeed. But the narrative has not yet caught up with the reality on the ground. For citations, lets go to Alexis Madrigal’s article on The Phone of 2022, where he mentions:

No one has tracked these market shifts better than Horace Dediu at Asymco. He’s documented what he calls “a tale of two disruptions,” one from above in Apple and one from below in cheap Chinese and Indian manufacturers. In just the last five years, Nokia, LG, and RIM have seen their market shares and profits collapse due to this pincer movement.

This disruption from below has changed the mobile phone landscape for the lower income segments everywhere. Suddenly, their aspirations are affordable and the trade offs they make are now between a cheap fake with all the trimmings and a more expensive brand with less features, not between a phone and no phone at all.

For branded manufacturers of mobile phones, going after this low cost segment simply does not make sense anymore. Their own cost structure will never support what a Bird or a Tecno is able to provide for quite the same price. The low end mobile phone market is now a commodity market, where even the repairmen tell you that people don’t bother to get their phones fixed anymore because a Chinese replacement is cheaper than the branded spare parts. Furthermore, mobiles are a personal asset and one worth saving up for – why not aspire to the best possible you can afford?

Thus you’ll find a taxi driver in Nairobi flashing his iPhone or the security guard with Blackberry curve. The “smart” aspect of the phone may not always have to do with the innards of the device.

Human beings are aspirational. This shift in the consumer’s perception and choice in response to the larger shifts as documented in the snippet above includes the reality of increased choice. Even 4 years ago, it was difficult for a poor farmer to contemplate the purchase of a mobile, seeming as it did a shiny shiny way outside his grasp. Today’s market forces have brought it home to him, well within his reach, as any beachboy surfing Facebook will inform you.

The old emerging market for mobile phones narrative is a dangerous one for the big global brands. The emerging stories are now the Tecno’s and the MicroMax’s. Yes, there is a lowest income bracket or those 2 remaining families without a phone, but that market has now spun out of reach. The digital divide is being bridged by names you’ve never heard of and the discards of those who’ve gone on ahead.

Far better to take a step back from the fray and think about where the dots are with regard to the mass majority markets of the world. The internet experience. The window to the wider world. The global social network. The aspirations that the commodities cannot fulfill as easily. Far, far better to offer a stairway up than a dumbing down. Nobody aspires to be the bottom of anything.

Lessons from working with Social Enterprises

Aisle Manager at Nakumatt

By the end of my most recent project, I was convinced that the label “Bottom of the Pyramid” (or Base of the Pyramid) also known as “the BoP” was one of the biggest barriers for organizations seeking to serve these emerging consumer markets in the informal economies of the developing world.

The alternative long and descriptive sentence is not as snappy as the BoP and I struggle with this everyday as I try to capture the characteristics and qualities of this market. But the problem with the label is that it has come to be closely associated with poverty alleviation rather than an emerging market opportunity, and thus gets loaded with the detritus of the aid and development industry. If you are to be a sustainable business, you need to generate revenue if not make a little profit and for that you need to consider your target audience as your customer, not your beneficiary.

The peculiarities of social enterprises seeking to serve the poor include the existential struggle between doing good and good business. But the emphasis on the BoP as the poor, the underserved and overlooked (by myself included) diverts us from taking them seriously as financially shrewd even if economically challenged customers in their own right. We barely know where they shop and why, how they make their decisions to purchase and how they plan to pay for them, in fact there’s little or no serious consumer research on these segments of the population. No wonder if they are not considered serious consumers to be wooed and won over like any other.

“Should we be profiting from the poor?” ask a plethora of well intentioned articles when those who do business with each other in the informal, cash based economies have no such compunction when doubling the price of kerosene as a premium for the convenience of transporting it 10km closer to their customers.

If we took away this well meaning yet now increasingly problematic label (with all the associations of poverty and helplessness), we’d perceive a diverse group of people with varying needs, aspirations, cash flows and consumption habits. We’d be segmenting them with the same rigour of a Unilever or attempting to reach them wherever they shop like Coca Cola. We would not be sitting around measuring impact of the soda or wondering how to scale. I’m going to wrestle with this wicked problem further but in the meantime, here are some collected thoughts from my observations in field recently:

Questioning the value of the term Base or Bottom of the Pyramid aka the BoP
But why aren’t they buying my fantastic life saving product?
Assessing social impact vs financial sustainability for Base of Pyramid business models
Why so much “BoP” marketing fails in the developing world

 

Social enterprises and the target audience for their value propositions
What does it mean when Chinese manufacturers enter the social enterprise space?
Systems thinking and the mobile for economic impact and wealth creation
Raising some concerns about urban user research insights being applied to design for rural markets

 
Navigating the African market opportunity
Caution: The emerging African market PDF stampede
Cracking the informal markets in Sub Saharan Africa: the need for strategic improvisation
Insights from the South African low income market (BoP) opportunity
The ingenuity economy: grassroots social enterprises abound

 

In conclusion: Lessons from The Village Telco project in Kenya

We’ve finally reached the point in our work for Village Telco where there’s been enough time for some reflection after the intense weeks of travel and observations across Kenya.  I can cluster our learning into three broad areas: our approach, methodology and team work; Kenya’s people and the informal economy; and finally, the role of the mobile phone and the internet across the country.

Facebook
Top of mind, what I would really like to do is take a deeper look at all the factors Why a social networking site like Facebook has become so popular – is it like Mxit, a far more affordable and convenient way to stay in touch with extended social networks or are there reasons beyond the obvious?  Given the variance in socio economic backgrounds and education among all those who were active on this platform, I wonder whether there are learnings of value for the larger goals of what ICT can do to enable social and economic development. Instinctively I feel its not Facebook per se that is the critical factor, like a Mxit in South Africa or an Orkut in Brazil, it simply happened to be there. However, given my approach to increasing understanding of a particular demographic or validating a hypothesis, my first principle is to question my own instinct and subsequent assumptions.

Mobile Phones and the Internet
Our assumptions and inferences from the surplus of information and data available on mobile phone use in Kenya, for both online use as well as regular use, were seriously jolted. You could say we had the veil torn from our eyes.  A future post that has been percolating is one that turns my entire thinking about the Mobile and the BoP upside down, from the point of view of “the mobile as a platform for social and economic development” for the individual.

A big realization was that it was technically impossible for people to go online  – if it wasn’t just  the initial peek at Google or Yahoo or what have you – from their mobile device without visiting a cyber cafe (or using a computer) first. If you are a first time internet user and plan to use the mobile as your primary device to check your email and update your status in Facebook, you are unable – at this moment in time – to create your email account, and subsequently your Facebook page, without the use of the personal computer.

The second was that very few of these new internet users were cognizant of the way mobile operators structure the cost of browsing and data bundles. Safaricom, the country’s largest operator, had at least 3 different prices that I’d seen on their billboards and posters – Ksh 4 per minute if you simply went online, Ksh 2 per minute if you sent an sms for data conversion and finally, purchasing a data bundle or browsing package (unlimited by the day or bundle) which brought the cost down further. Thus many reverted back to browsing at cyber cafes where at least one knew what one’s cost would be or could estimate it in advance. Consumer education will be more critical for the uptake of the mobile internet since it is currently not to the benefit of either the operators or the cyber cafes to inform users about their cheaper options.

Kenya is different
We sensed this, we discussed it with Steve Song and we also heard it from others with years of experience of doing business in Sub Sahara. Kenya, as a representative sample of Sub Sahara or even East Africa, is a very different kettle of fish, all in a good way. It wasn’t just luck that most of the cyber cafe owners we met around the country were enterprising, articulate and opportunistic. Neither was it chance that very rarely was I unable to communicate – at least the basics – in English, no matter where we went.

Internet costs, mobile data and voice costs are significantly lower than in most countries and this factor, taken together with the maturity of the urban cyber cafe market and penetration of computing devices – laptops and desktops – meant that this was a very sophisticated market regionally. One cannot generalize our findings for other countries, in fact one would hesitate to do so. Rather, as we discussed with Steve, we’ll take Kenya as a leading indicator of shifts to come in the near future for the rest of the region. For example, VoIP as a service has atrophied into two or three neighbourhoods ever since international calling rates have stabilized at around Ksh 3 a minute (USD 3 cents or thereabouts) on the other hand, wifi is slowly demonstrating its future ubiquity.

However, some other factors would also play a part in this – literacy is at 85% here; what kind of difference does that make when it comes to uptake and popularity of text based communication mechanisms such Facebook, email and of course, the SMS.  Education makes a difference, since most of the time, even when passing by some of the technically most impoverished parts of the country, I kept feeling that it was in far better shape relative to similar locales in India. This is all good and bodes well for the future of the nation and the region – if I had to launch a wholly new product for the Sub Saharan market, I’d select Kenya for an environment with the lowest barriers to the adoption of innovation. The BoP market is sophisticated and mature while still demonstrating the core values and buyer behaviour seen everywhere else I’ve been.

In conclusion
We now have an innate sense of the Kenyan landscape when it comes to ICT: the technology, the internet and the phone. A gut feel for the where and how and why the diffusion is taking place, outward from the urban metro that is Nairobi and an instinct for the pulse of the country’s progress. The critical role of the cyber cafe was made apparent by the focus of this project and our philosophy and methodology in approaching this problem to be solved – answering Steve’s questions – has been validated and refined. For example, we found that the figure for our estimate for proportional penetration of internet between two regions differed from the Kenya ICT Board’s Access Gap Analysis data only by 0.2

We learnt that no two projects will ever be alike and the only certainty is uncertainty. There are no prepackaged ready made solutions or processes for the challenges we’ll face in our chosen line of work, however we’re on the right path for discovering the ways and means to use the tools available at our disposal in order to best address them.

Today, we’re confident enough to put it in writing that if you’re seeking answers to the unknown, in untapped or overlooked markets and when none of the regular methods and frameworks for addressing your marketing, strategy or design needs seem to work – give us a call or drop us a line. I believe we can help you.