Posts Tagged ‘biashara economics’

Exploring the Scope of Biashara Economics

biashara2There’s a dearth of research on the economics of biashara – the everyday commerce that keeps daily life running. And this hampers the efficacy of the design of programmes and policies meant for operating environments where the informal economy may be providing employment for more than half the working age population, and often, as high as 80 to 90% – India is at 92%, just for context.

This is not yet a literature review, although that is next on my list. It’s an attempt to capture the realization, while reading a couple of fascinating articles on the South African township economy, that the underpinnings of the informal retail and trade economy were not themselves the subject of research.

We stand firmly on the shoulders of giants, I realized, when reading these papers, though they maybe few in number. Without John Keith Hart’s body of work, none of us would be here, not even the “informal economy” –  the label itself attributed to his work in Ghana in the early 1970s. And without Martha Alter Chen’s rethinking of the informal economy, I wouldn’t have taken the path that I have this past decade.

…as long as you lump together the activities of the people like selling hotdogs door to door (although buying it from a wholesaler informally), distilling wine for the village, keeping small shops within walking distance when towns are far away or even urban services ranging from garbage disposal to dishwashing to repairing shoes – with the “firms that are hiding from formal regulations and don’t want to pay taxes etc” any formal programs or activities, whether from the social and economic development angle or the corporate profitability angle are going to act at cross purposes.

Martha Alter Chen writes in “Rethinking the Informal Economy” that India stands out as an example where the informal economy has been accepted, acknowledged and now slowly being addressed by government policy. Not in order to dissolve it or remove it but to work with it simply because the incomes of far too many people are dependent on it and no formal systems can be put into place to take care of each and every corner of the country nor her billion citizens.

One can then take what seems to be working, called “creative, resilient and efficient” by Hart, quoted by Chen, and enable systems that support it further, fostering development and increasing success rates at the touchpoints where the informal and formal meet.

So, it is with their distant blessing I will also put forth all that we’ve uncovered about the economics of informal trade and commerce, in the context of the various existing studies which overlap and provide us with insights or confirmation on our own findings. Including the tag “biashara economics”; I’ve now created it’s own category.

An economy of trust

_92445052_02Cash on credit is the caption given to this cartoon by the BBC. Neighbourhood groceries are offering their regular customers cash advances in addition to bread and milk.

While the media is filled with a plethora of stories of heartbreak, my own suspicion is that we’ll discover the resilience of the cash intensive informal sector lies in the relationships between people, once the hubbub has died down.

Perspective on the Carpenter’s Problem

exampleThis is my favourite concept for describing how to cost effectively iterate complex systems solutions within a given set of constraints and conditions. That is, the ideal solution for best fit, can be said to lie in the shaded area as shown in the graph above.

This approach to solution framing comes from operations research – what is the optimal solution that minimizes resources (inputs) for maximum outputs (value creation).

I first used this in a speech I gave at the CII NID Design Summit back in the December of 2006. Oh my, has it been ten years already? How time flies.

As Granny was saying, with this conceptual framework for problem statements, one is assured of the maximum constraints possible i.e. the most inclusive design is set up as the ideal – affordable, accessible, and equitable.

Even if language and literacy put up barriers between people connected to each other via their mobile phones, especially smartphones, can’t we not design a universal user interface, such as Ted Boulou’s Somtou device, that could use all the power of the tech at our fingertips to do the greatest good towards a more inclusive internet than all the free wifi in the world. There, I said it.

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.

 

 

Analysis of the mobile phone’s impact on cash flows and transactions in the informal sector

As we saw, Mrs Chimphamba needs to juggle time and money as part of her household financial management in order to ensure that expenses can be met by income. We also saw that the mobile phone was made viable and feasible by the availability of the prepaid business model that gave her full control over timing and the amount required to maintain it — how much airtime to purchase? when? how often? — all of these decisions were in her hands, within the limits of the operator’s business model. Now, we’ll take a closer look at the impact of the mobile on her domestic economy.

Readily available real time communication has helped Mrs C by speeding up the time taken for a decision on a purchase or a sale. That is, the transaction cycle has been shortened. As the speed of information exchange increases, it increases the speed of transactions — it shortens the duration of time taken to execute them from inception to completion. This, in turn, implies that more transactions can now take place in the same amount of time thereby increasing the frequency and the periodicity. When mobile money is present, one can see that as both quantity and frequency of transactions speed up, so does the cash flow. We’ll come back to this factor.

To explain using a real life example, Mrs Chimphamba does not need to sit at her homestead wondering if today someone will pass by to purchase a bottle of wine. Similarly, Mrs C’s customers do not need to go out of their way to pass by her homestead to see if the wine is distilled and ready for sale, or whether it will still take another day or two for the next batch to be ready. Further, the uncertainty of whether they’ll have cash on hand on that future day, or if they’ll return as promised are all elements that real time communication have minimized.

Now, Mrs C is able to let her regular customers know that she’s making a new batch for sale and do they want to reserve a bottle for purchase? It allows her customers to put aside cash for this purchase. She is even able to accept and execute larger orders for some future date, and even accept some cash advances if her operating environment includes the presence of a mobile money transfer system such as those more prevalent in East Africa. This in turn changes her purchasing patterns and decision making as the pattern of cash flows — timing and amount — changes. She isn’t making do anymore on an unknown and predictable sale based on sitting and waiting for someone to show up to buy her wine.

Real time communication has improved the decision making cycle for both buyer and seller in a transaction as it counteracts uncertainty and information asymmetry even while speeding up the time take for a decision.

As the quantity and frequency of transactions increase— first, in cash conducted face to face, and then later, remotely by mobile money, regardless of the size of each transaction — the change in cash flow patterns begins to smooth out the volatility (the uncertainty factor has changed completely) between incoming and outgoing, as well as the decisionmaking involved. That is, the gap between income and expense starts becoming less in terms of both timing and amount — there is the possibility of a steady stream in the pipeline. Calculus offers hints of how the curve can begin to smoothen out as frequency and periodicity of transactions begins to accelerate.

Size of transactions thus begin to matter less in that the incoming amount now does not need to be so large as to cover expenses for an unknown duration of time before the next incoming payment; nor do expenses have to be tightly controlled constantly due to the uncertainty of the duration of time before the next payment, and the types of expenses incurred during this unknown period of time.

So the boost in decision making — how long it takes to complete a transaction, how often can transactions be completed — enabled by the real time communication facilitated by the mobile phone; plus the attendant immediacy of receiving payment via the same platform is the root of the improvement in the hyperlocal economy and consumption patterns among the informal sector actors. This is why large established traders (with sufficient financial cushion) were heard to observe that both purchasing power and consumption patterns had changed in their market town (Busia, Kenya Jan 2016) in the past 10 years since first the mobile phone, and later, mPesa, were introduced into their operating environment.

Uncertainty and information asymmetry that have long characterized the fragile and volatile nature of the informal sector operating in inadequately provided environments with unreliable systems and scarce data. In the next chapter we’ll step back and take a broader look at communication, connectivity, and commerce in the informal economy starting with the description of the operating environment’s characteristics regardless of continent.

This is part of a newly launched Medium where I will write in detail on economic behaviour and its drivers in the informal economy. Much of it draws upon the original research in the field from 2008-2009 which was shared on the prepaid economy blog. I found that time had passed and increased my understanding and I wanted to explore those discoveries in writing. Much of this is the foundation for recent works on ‘Mama Biashara‘.

How to Spot Signals of Local Purchasing Patterns in the Market

np-md-mohamed-kanuThis photograph is taken from a regular news item from a Liberian newspaper announcing the opening of a new petrol station in the town of Ganta. What caught my attention is the size of the LPG cylinders being promoted. On the left is the 6kg and on the right is an even smaller size that I’ve yet to see elsewhere – the 6kg one has been spotted in the lower income side of Jakarta, and in the markets of Abidjan, and Nairobi.

What it tells me is that purchasing power in the local market is not only a little less than a major capital city, this is probably a tier 2 city, but also that its a cash intensive market where incomes are more likely to be the volatile cash flows from commercial activities in the informal sector.

The lumpsums available for LPG aren’t going to be as large as to afford the standard 13kg size, but it doesn’t preclude people from purchasing these smaller sizes more frequently. That is, we cannot assume total consumption volumes to be less than larger cities where larger sizes are more popular. On the other hand, the micro size on the right seems to hint at the possibility of LPG being more popular than traditional fuels such as kerosene, charcoal, or firewood.

These small sizes also signal a fragmented, informal market where small pack sizes and sachets are popular.

Poverty is Dynamic and Flexible, Just like the Informal Economy: Evidence from India

…the concept of poverty today is fundamentally different from that of poverty three decades ago, and that safety nets need to be tailored to meet the needs of a society in transition.~ The Hindu, 2 Aug 2016

When quantitative data provided by the India Human Development Survey (the first large panel survey in India) provokes the academics involved to question their fundamental assumptions and premise of what poverty is, and what it might mean, its a noteworthy moment.

The survey, conducted by the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) for the same households at two points in time, viz. 2004-05 and 2011-12. Their analysis has led them to say:

Once we recognise that poverty is dynamic in nature, and that as per our conventional definition of poverty, poor households may move out of poverty and the non-poor may become poor over a period of time, we are forced to question the veracity of our fundamental assumptions about poverty. Perhaps poverty occurs not simply due to the accident of birth or as defined in terms of where and in which family people are born, but also due to the accident of life caused by the occurrence of disease, disability and unemployment. Achieving this recognition entails a complete transformation in our mindset.

I will leave them to their explorations from the perspectives of their disciplines, and explore the broader implications of their findings.

A few years ago, as part of my discoveries from more qualitative user research in the field on the informal sector’s financial context and operating environment, I had had my insight on the dynamic nature of poverty as it was conventionally defined.

It was when attempting to clearly distinguish between patterns of cash flow in the formal vs the informal economy, using the concept of the degree of control granted to the end user over the variables of time (duration, frequency, periodicity) and money (amount, cash or kind), that it struck me what kind of difference does control over timing mean for money.

That is, there is a complex value processing underneath each of the decisions on allocating available cash money, particularly in rural areas where cashless transactions can tend to be more common.

When one can control the timing of one’s payments – such as the advance purchase of airtime minutes to use a mobile phone – one’s income could be called dynamic. Within any particular set of calender based time eg a week or a month or a quarter; a vast majority of the lower income bracket cannot predict their total cash income nor feel confident enough to claim it. It can be affected by seasonality prevalent in their region, or it can be purely random volatility, one’s workshop burns down in an accidental fire.

Static income is that which is stuck, such as a fixed salary paid every calender period, regular in frequency, amount and periodicity.

As cash flows tend to be volatile, fluctuating with seasonal influences, chance, and the vagaries of daily life, those whose incomes are not as predictable as a periodic paycheck, are more often than not unable to clearly state (or even know) their monthly or weekly income.

That is, even as data gurus in development banks seek to segment people into neatly defined ranges such as $2 to $4 a day or whatever, it is neither a given that people will remain within this range over the course of the natural year, nor can it be a reliable and consistent indicator of their income level – Below Poverty Line (BPL) is the concept used in The Hindu’s article above.

Therefore, if the survey studied households in an agricultural region during its fallow season the first time, and then went back to study the same households during the post harvest season the second time, that simple little factor of calender time alone can create a difference of as much as 100% to the incomes being claimed during that period. If the study does not follow up the income question to ask if there was seasonality in their cash flows over the course of the natural year and if this question was being asked during the high season or the low season.

When I did the original fieldwork for the prepaid economy project on an IDRC grant, looking at the rural household financial management behaviour in rural India, Philippines, and Malawi, I found that depending on the local region’s primary cash crop harvest patterns over the natural year (say monsoon to monsoon, or Christmas to Christmas) the entire local economy felt the impact of the difference in cash flowing through their ecosystem during the high and the low season. Or, the wet and the dry season.

It was not the naming of the seasons that is important. It is the ability of the people to forecast known fluctuations in their income streams based on patterns recognized from experience and local wisdom. Within the context of an environment of uncertainty and volatility, it offered them some anchors for planning and financial management.

Given that the vast majority of the poor in the developing world, like in India and across Africa, are dependent on irregular, often unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources, in an environment of higher risk and uncertainty, their incomes can confidently assumed to be dynamic, rather than a static salary.

And the dynamic nature of the informal sector precludes conventional classifications and categorizations of poverty, especially by any stated amount of money mapped against a particular duration of calender time. Time and money are themselves the uncertain elements requiring flexibility built into the systems if they are to work properly in this operating environment.

Thus, I can confidently state that what the Indian data is finally providing the evidence for are the findings from my qualitative research among the same segments of the population, using design ethnography methods. That is, we now have the quantitative data to support the insights derived from the qualitative research.

Full Stop.

Le commerce direct des produits fabriqués en Chine est-il susceptible de perturber le marché des consommateurs africains?

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

La première plateforme d’e-commerce spécialisée dans la vente directe des produits fabriqués en Chine vient d’être lancée au Togo, un pays de l’Afrique de l’Ouest. Coincé tout comme la République du Bénin entre deux grands pays davantage connus, le Nigeria et le Ghana,le Togo est un petit pays francophone d’environ 7 millions d’habitants.

frenchComme l’énonce l’article :
« Nous voulons être les pionniers du commerce électronique au Togo et tirer parti de la forte coopération multiforme entre la Chine et le Togo, le premier pays carrefour commercial en Afrique de l’Ouest “, a déclaré Yuan Li, fondateur de JMSA-MALL, à Xinhua vendredi dernier à Lomé.
«Nous faisons la promotion d’échanges commerciaux directs, entre les clients africains et les commerçants chinois, de produits authentiques chinois à des prix intéressants “, a-t-il expliqué.

Des appareils électroniques jusqu’aux machines agricoles, la plate-forme offre une large gamme de produits chinois, qui sont vendus au Togo, ainsi que dans plusieurs autres pays de la sous-région tels que le Bénin, le Niger, le Ghana et le Burkina Faso.

Toutes les principales cartes de crédit sont acceptées comme mode de paiement ainsi que le système de paiement local via mobile money – Flooz (Moov). Il y a une politique de garantie avantageuse, et les articles sont entreposés à leur arrivée dans un bâtiment local pour les livraisons, au cas où l’article commandé n’est pas déjà disponible en stock dans leur entrepôt local. En outre, JMSA-MALL offre aux PME locales l’occasion de vendre leurs marchandises à travers leur plateforme. En apparence, cela semble bien – en supprimant les intermédiaires, ils peuvent offrir des meilleurs prix.

Yacine Bio-Tchané, notre collègue béninoise a aussi ses marques à Lomé. Ensemble, nous avons discuté de l’impact potentiel de ce lancement dans le contexte local, ainsi que des implications plus larges. Voici quelques réflexions:

Est-ce que cette plate-forme de vente « directe au consommateur» a un impact sur les commerçants locaux qui se rendent en Chine pour se procurer leurs produits?

Yacine a fait observer qu’à partir du moment où la plate-forme vend tout, des appareils électroniques aux machines agricoles, si certains éléments coûteux et lourds ne sont pas facilement disponibles au Togo, mais pour lesquels il existe une demande,ils peuvent être achetés en ligne et les utilisateurs pourront profiter de cette occasion. Aller à la Chine, identifier le bon produit au bon prix et l’expédier au Togo est long et coûteux (1). La plate-forme e-commerce réduit considérablement les coûts de transaction, ce qui la rend très attractive pour les acheteurs locaux.

Les produits chinois sont connus pour être moins cher (en prix et parfois en qualité) que les autres produits de sorte qu’ils sont très compétitifs et accessibles à de nombreux Togolais, surtout compte tenu du faible pouvoir d’achat. Si, au lieu d’aller au marché et de se promener à la recherche de ces produits, tout le monde pouvait acheter en ligne, les gens préfèreraient le faire. Cependant, alors que le Togo a 67% de pénétration des téléphones mobiles, moins de 10% de la population a accès à l’internet. Cela implique que la solution de commerce électronique est accessible à peu de personnes, mais cela pourrait déclencher une utilisation accrue de l’Internet par les commerçants.

Bien que l’article ne dise pas quels sont les principaux acheteurs (nationalité), il dit qu’ils couvrent plusieurs pays. Il ne serait pas surprenant de voir que la demande soit plus orientéevers le Ghana par exemple.

Le commerce direct de la Chine crée des marchandises

D’autre part, étant donné les coûts, le temps et les tracas pour aller en Chine à la source et expédier des produits à vendre au pays, cette plate-forme pourrait être attrayante pour les commerçants locaux eux-mêmes, à la fois au Togo, et au niveau régional. Comme le fait remarquer Yacine, la demande pourrait ne pas émaner du Togo même mais plutôt des pays voisins. Selon le fondateur de la plate-forme, le Togo est une plaque tournante du commerce en Afrique de l’Ouest pour la Chine.

La Chine a accru le commerce et les relations diplomatiques avec le Togo au cours de la dernière décennie. Il est même dit que la Chine est devenue le premier partenaire financier du pays. Les entreprises chinoises opèrent dans les industries, l’agriculture, le commerce et la construction. Ils créent de l’emploi et sont en concurrence avec des entreprises locales dans la vente de certains produits tels que les tissus.

Le fait que cette plateforme d’e-commerce soit tournée vers les consommateurs et qu’elle soit soutenue par un entrepôt local rempli de marchandises produits par la Chine est symbolique. Pour Yacine, le message le plus fort que la plateforme envoie est que les Chinois sont entièrement installés au Togo. Ce genre d’investissement à long terme, associé à leurs investissements accrus dans les industries, est déterminant. La Chine n’est plus un simple partenaire qui vient pour des projets périodiques, maintenant c’est un acteur important qui influe sur le comportement des consommateurs. Elle est sa propre image de marque, avec le lancement de ce consommateur face à la boutique en ligne.

Géographiquement, le Togo est bien placé pour toucher facilement l’Afrique de l’Ouest anglophone et francophone. L’e-commerce est déjà en train de décoller de façon exponentielle sur le marché géant du Nigeria, mais il en est encore à gagner du terrain dans les autres pays voisins. La Côte-d’Ivoire a quelques acquis, mais elle est encore à ces premiers jours. Traditionnellement, les Chinois ont attendu que les marchés soient à maturité avant de les inonder avec leurs prix plus bas – le marché du téléphone mobile illustre cela.
Ce lancement de la plateforme semble précoce pour les perspectives de l’e-commerce (de même que les paiements mobiles), mais pas du point de vue des tendances du marché et du commerce mondial.

Les industries manufacturières de la Chine ressentent les effets rétrécissement du marché mondial, et les problèmes de surcapacité. Le marché intérieur a toujours l’axe majeur de leur développement, ceci semble êtreleur première tentative sur un autre marché. Le commerce informel entre l’Afrique et la Chine n’a pas entièrement été sous le radar –les compagnies aériennes africaines et chinoises ont été les premières à répondre à la demande. En outre, il y a d’autres changements en cours de réalisation qui impacteront directementl’Afrique de l’Ouest, comme cerécentarticle de CNN le montre:

Au cours des 18 derniers mois, bien que des chiffres concrets soient difficiles à trouver, des centaines – peut-être même des milliers – d’Africains sont soupçonnés par les habitants et les chercheurs d’avoir quitté Guangzhou.

La dépréciation du dollar dans les pays d’Afrique occidentale dépendante du pétrole, associée à la politique d’immigration hostile de la Chine, le racisme généralisé, ainsi que le ralentissement et l’échéance économie, indique que Guangzhou perd son avantage concurrentiel. […] Alors que la Chine devient moins rentable, de nombreux Africains ressentent avec plus d’acuité les aspects négatifs de la vie la bas.

Si la montagne ne peut pas soutenir Mahomet, pourrait-elle au moins réduire les coûts en construisant des entrepôts appuyés par des marchés en ligne? Les centres d’entreposage de marchandises chinoises ne sont pas inédits sur le continent africain, l’Afrique australe dispose déjà d’un certain nombre, tandis qu’il a été dévoilé que la Chine finance la plate-forme logistique de la Tanzanie. Comme l’a déclaré le fondateur de JMALL, cette “plaque tournante du commerce qu’est le Togo semble être un nouveau pays partenaire. Est-ce que la plateforme d’e-commerce est un projet pilote pour tester efficacementle coût régional du marketing B2C?

Les géants du e-commerce Chinois comme Alibaba ont montré la voie avec les efforts de leur agent pour ouvrir les marchés ruraux difficiles de l’arrière-continent. C’est seulement une question de temps avant qu’un autre type d’intermédiaires n’apparaisse au Togo (et ailleurs) et offre des services similaires pour faciliter le commerce. Cette fois, cependant, ce sera depuis le confort de leur pays d’origine, car ils assistent les commerçants et les consommateurs avec les achats en ligne. Pris ensemble avec des investissements continus dans les systèmes de paiement via mobile money, les initiatives d’inclusion financière et l’utilisation du modèle d’agence – la Chine semble avoir saisi un excellent espace d’opportunité à explorer.

 

(1) Voici un documentaire qui suit un commerçant congolais pendant son shopping à Guangzhou, en Chine, cherche à remplir son conteneur avec des marchandises exportables. Il donne une assez bonne idée de l’expérience client.

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

Borderland Biashara: Mapping the Cross Border, National and Regional Trade in the East African Informal Economy

efl research team

Rinku Gajera & Michael Kimani, Malaba Border, Kenya, January 2016. Photo: Niti Bhan

And, we’re back! With apologies for the long delay in posting on the blog, we’d been busy wrapping up our groundbreaking design research for development programming project for Trade Mark East Africa this past month or so. As you can imagine, the last few weeks of any project suck all the bandwidth out and leave little for blogging or writing.

Let me be the first to say that this project could not have been executed or completed without a rockstar research team – Rinku Gajera, Research Lead, and Michael Kimani, Research Associate, together put in gruelling hours in the sun, and on Skype, to help increase our understanding of the informal economy in East Africa, particularly the informal trade sector – cross border, national, and regional. Emerging Futures Lab has been immersed in design and development of pioneering methodology for mapping the informal trade ecosystem – henceforward known as biashara, at the borderlands of the East African Community, since November 2015.

tmeaFor this opportunity, I must thank the CEO of Trade Mark East Africa, Frank Matsaert, who saw our passion and our belief in the worth and value of the informal sector, and recognized the need to understand the traders, their business practices, and their aspirations, as the first step necessary for the design of interventions that are not only people-centered, but cost effective and impactful.  We were granted creative license to colour outside the box of the terms of reference with our designer’s empathy and exploratory mindset, and frame this project as an exercise in developing the understanding necessary for the design of human centered methods, tools and frameworks for development programming. You can be sure that there will be more on this topic published soon on this blog, so grab the RSS feed now, or sign up for inboxed posts.

Download the Borderland Biashara Ecosystem Mapping project at the Kenya/Uganda border at Busia and Malaba.

Nov 2015Inception report Informal Economy, Kenya/East Africa/Uganda
Jan 2016Literature Review on Informal Cross Border Trade in the East African Community (EAC), the DRC and South Sudan
May 2016Final Report, General Public – Borderland Biashara, by Emerging Futures Lab