Posts Tagged ‘consumer insights’

How do we make a business case for an innovative concept given the data scarcity for the African mass market?

Anzetse Were writes some thoughtful points on the challenges facing private sector innovation in Kenya, and Africa. Two of her points caught my attention, in particular:

With regards to the private sector, an interesting point raised is that innovation targeting it must have a business case for adoption otherwise the innovation won’t be absorbed. Innovation must demonstrate that the short-term inconvenience of adoption will pay off in the long term.
[…]
We have a real problem with information asymmetry and data bias. [… ] strategies for market penetration and sharing cannot be rolled out since the lack of data means the private sector doesn’t know where the market sits.

While Anzetse has specifically focused on the interface between the private and the public sector with regards to innovation, the points she brings up are nevertheless a challenge for either or both parties.

Size and value of the market opportunity for an innovation when data is scarce

Investors in innovation for new and untapped markets need the numbers to make sense of the opportunity. A dollar value and estimated size of the market are among the conventional metrics used to provide evidence of a return on their investment. How substantial is it?

In the African context, the mass market where the volumes can be found tends to be heavily biased towards the informal sectors, and still for the most part based on cash transactions. Textbook approaches to sizing and valuing the market space fall short without accessible and relevant data.

A few years ago, we were faced with a similar challenge for Village Telco, a social enterprise launching an innovative ICT device for low cost voice and data communication. They had developed the Mesh Potato,  a device for providing low-cost telephony and Internet in areas where alternative access either doesn’t exist or is too expensive. It is a marriage of a low-cost wireless access point capable of running a mesh networking protocol with an Analog Telephony Adapter.

They were looking to enter the Kenyan market, with the notion that the cyber cafe industry would make the best target audience for their device. Their investors wanted to know the size and value of the market opportunity prior to launching the product in Kenya. Although this happened just over 6 years ago, Kenya had already made a name for itself as a forward looking mobile phone market unafraid of experimentation.

Our challenge was two-fold: We were to look at 2nd and 3rd tier towns, not just Nairobi and Mombasa. Village Telco was looking to connect the unconnected. And we had to estimate the size and value of the market opportunity for a sector – internet cafes – that was primarily cash based and informal, particularly given the rural and small town geography we were considering. There was little or no data available to even get a handle on the number of cyber cafes operating in Kenya.

Secondly, we had to get an idea of the price point at which the product would be acceptable to this target audience. Keep in mind that the device was wholly unknown – an innovation – and there was nothing comparable on the market.

A qualitative approach to quantitative estimation

Given that this was not a conventional research project, and time and resources were constrained to a market analysis, we designed a minimal viable market discovery phase that would permit us to gather enough insights directly from the cyber cafe operators in order to estimate the size and value, as well as recommendations for pricing and market entry.

In late 2011, Kenya’s administrative divisions were still the original provinces.

Based on population density and relative income demographics, as well as an ICT gap analysis of voice and data services – reports available through Kenyan government institutions – we planned an optimal route that maximized exposure to the types of locations Village Telco had specified whilst sampling cyber cafes across a range of infrastructure access and regional income. This coverage was completed in less than 3 weeks.

Surfacing trends through indepth open ended interviews

Where we invested our time and effort was in identifying entrepreneurial and innovative cyber cafe operators in the smaller towns and villages we visited. The vast majority of internet cafes are run as side businesses by the owners who might be white collar employees or civil servants, and often managed by employees. It was the cyber cafe owner operator who saw their business as a growth opportunity that we were seeking.They not only knew their market but had seen the opportunities to grow and expand their services.

They were able to give us an idea of the future of the cyber cafe business in their region, a rough estimate (few businesspeople are willing to openly share revenue data) of the scale of their business, and the trends in decline or growth of the types of services they offered.

Through the data gathered, we were able to estimate the high growth regions for internet cafe services – Nakuru town for instance had seen the number of cybers grow from 10 or 15 in 2007 to upwards of 50, primarily due the increase in tertiary education institutions. Kilifi, on the Coast, had seen a doubling when a local university campus opened.

At the same time, we were able to gauge the value of the opportunity space by using the proxy of the proportion of owner/operators to manager/employees – the former were more likely to be interested in the Mesh Potato than the latter.

Our route planning also provided evidence of the pathways for innovation diffusion, outwards in a hub and spoke model from the central hub of Nairobi’s business district where new electronic products landed from the manufacturing centers of Asia.

Sitting down face to face with the cafe owners and showing them the product and what it could do gave us the insight on pricing and market entry strategy. By the end of 5 weeks from start to finish, we were able to make a business case for innovation meant for a data scarce environment.

Innovation means breaking new ground

While the effort on the ground was very different from a conventional market analysis exercise due to the need to elicit information directly on the market and the product, the time and resources invested by the client were no different from an analysis based on secondary sources and accessible data flows.

The nature of the African mass market is such that pioneers entering the market will have to break new ground, not only with their products and services, but also their approach to analyzing and evaluating the business case for investment. It is not an impossible task and should not be considered a barrier to entry.

Introduction to rural household energy consumption behaviour in East Africa (1 of 3 parts)

The following is extracted from a six month study during 2012 on household energy consumption behaviour in rural Kenya and Rwanda among the lower income demographic, that led to an understanding of some of barriers hampering the sales of client’s solar products in this market. This first part is an overview of household financial management in conditions irregular and unpredictable income streams from a variety of sources. The 2nd and 3rd part will focus on fuel usage and consumption behaviours for cooking and for lighting separately. Users sampled for this study were selected based on varying fuel consumption patterns, ranging from a single homestead to a rural hotel catering for more than 12 hours a day.

Aspirational ownership and tangible evidence of savings in prepaid purchase model of solar panel, as seen in Chuka, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan, February 2012)

Rural Kenyans are not very different from rural Filipinos or Malawians or Indians when it comes to the way they manage their daily household expenses. Similarities in decision making, in purchasing patterns and in observed consumer behaviour, all stem from the same underlying need to plan and manage on irregular incomes from a variety of multiple sources in harsh environments of scarcity and uncertainty. The underlying driver is always to stretch the limited shilling, rupee or peso to the maximum while keeping one’s head above water.

With the exception of the salaried schoolteacher, who managed on fixed amounts of cash paid predictably on a calender schedule, the rest juggled an irregular cash flow against required expenses, attempting to minimize the differences over calender time and as a planning mechanism across the natural year’s seasons of abundance and scarcity. Even cash croppers like Mama Grace, who received end month payments from the tea factory, coped with the significant difference in the quality and quantity of tea harvested during the wet and the dry seasons with a variance of as much as 300% between high and low payments.

Rural homesteads manage their household finances rather like a “portfolio of investments” that mature over varying times such as cow’s milk which can be sold daily for cash, while a chicken takes less time than a field of maize to be ready for harvest and sale. Thus decisions are made based on timing of the expense and the choice of ‘investment’ to liquidate on what was ‘ready’ as well as the amount of cash required. For example, in Kilala livestock market it is a known fact that livestock prices always drop in January as its time for first term school fees and everybody needs to sell to raise the necessary cash. Similarly, major purchases or cash outlays are planned for known times of abundance such as right after the seasonal harvest.

Unlike those on a fixed salary who are able to plan ahead, those on irregular incomes need greater control and flexibility over the timing – that is the frequency and the periodicity; and well the amount – in cash or kind; of their cash flow, as a planning mechanism for financial management. In fact, the greater the span of control the customer has over their time and money, as articulated above, the greater the success of a business model or payment plan. This is why prepaid airtime is the preferred model for 96% of the African continent’s 700 million mobile phone users and also why kerosene has been so hard to dislodge. It can be purchased by cash amount (say 40 Kes worth) or quantity (half a litre or 5 litres) on demand or in bulk, and then frugally used for as long as possible, allowing consumers control over their “time” and “money” with great flexibility.

Observations on household fuel and energy use reflect these purchasing patterns and consumer behaviour. Cooking and then lighting are the most important needs, and the two elements of time and money as discussed above, show up in the form of duration and location. While duration of use has a direct relationship to the amount of time and money required, location has a critical bearing on behaviour in rural Kenya as will be seen in forthcoming posts.

 

Part One: Introduction to Household Energy Consumption Behaviour Study in East Africa (2012)
Part Two: Cooking
Part Three: Lighting & Concluding Remarks

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.

Why I’m cautious about most mobile platform consumer research in Africa

Standard-Chartered-and-Premise-Data-are-using-smart-phones-to-better-und...StanChart’s price tracker rolled out in Nigeria is a great example of where and how mobile phones can really add value in understanding the African consumer market and add substantially to its scarce database. What concerns me however is the increasing promotion of the ubiquitous cellphone as the means to gather consumer insights for all sorts of polls, surveys and sentiments.

Why?

Surveys conducted online and through the phone may not, at this point in time, offer a representative sampling of the relevant population, no matter how random. Ironically, in this context, its this very randomness that creates skewed results. Unless the results and the methodology clearly specify the gender, age, income and education breakdown of those responding to their survey, there’s little basis to assume that they are representative of the population. Reliance on such results should very much be contextual – which country, what are they aiming to show, who exactly did they survey, rather than accepting results from any old location on face value.

Here are some recent stats that help explain why:

The Mobile Africa 2015 study, conducted from GeoPoll and World Wide Worx, surveyed five of Africa’s major markets; South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda finding that mobile Internet browsing now stands at 40% across these markets – Ghana: 51% Nigeria: 47% South Africa: 40% Kenya: 34% Uganda: 29%

And these are the top 5 markets.

Let’s say you get results via mobile surveys – you’ve already narrowed down your sampling base to less than one third of the population. If you’re not calling them up, then you’re narrowing it further than those who can read and write, and if your survey was in English or French, its narrowed further to those educated in the language. By the time you actually get to the people responding to the survey, you’ve effectively sampled a tiny unrepresentative slice of the national population.

If I wanted to know what young tech-savvy men think, I’d never hesitate to use  the results of a mobile survey. If I wished to have a better idea of lower income or female heads of households, or even those in regional towns and cities, I would be sceptical of any research conducted without human intervention. There’s also a high risk of surveys being filled in for the nominal cash or equivalent rewards. There isn’t enough quality consumer research available on the African consumer market that we can risk further muddying the waters like this.

On the other hand, as this StanChart price tracking system shows, there’s a lot of untapped potential for the use of phones in consumer market research across the entire continent. It just may not necessarily be something that works in exactly the same way in the OECD world.

Understanding-Nigeria-economy-through-smartphones

Retail ranking metrics vs Readiness for formal retail #AfricanConsumerMarket

The-ARDI-top-15-18133Continuing the thoughts expressed by Yacine in the previous post, I’d like to explore these rankings and their value. We’ll use the example of Tanzania, ranked 5th by AT Kearney in their 2015 African Retail Attractiveness Index (ARDI).

The ARDI states:

Tanzania is starting from a low base: With only 30 percent urbanization, high poverty levels, and less than $2,000 GDP per capita, Tanzania is in the early stages of development. Therein lies the opportunity—the unsaturated market has one of Africa’s fastest growing retail sectors, boosted by new shopping malls. Compare this with Kenya, which has one of Africa’s most developed markets—but also one of its most saturated.

By the less than clear metrics used in this Index (Kenya, for example, has surprisingly never managed to be ranked at all), Tanzania is a high potential market for a long term retail investment strategy. Yet nowhere is there any mention of local consumer behaviour or purchasing patterns.

The ARDI assumes that a “shopping culture” attractive to modern retailers will emerge organically as these nations develop economically and infrastructure wise.

Last year, South African retail giant Shoprite pulled out of Arusha in Tanzania. Arusha is a major international diplomatic hub, thus no less attractive to supermarket chains than Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam.

Here’s some insight from the local paper, that offers some food for thought, and a clear signal that one cannot rely on metrics and rankings alone when considering an opportunity in these attractive yet challenging markets.

With many of Arusha residents still living in single rooms, thus few can afford to buy groceries in advance due to lack of storage space and therefore choose to shop when the situation arises then consume whatever was bought on spot.

A child will be sent to buy things like sugar, rice, cooking oil and charcoal for fuel three times a day; for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the shopping trend will again be repeated on daily basis.

As the result, the city is now dotted with hundreds of small grocery stores capable of breaking their stock down to the last grain in order to accommodate the economy and space conscious customers.

Boasting a population of 500,000 residents and additional 100,000 daily visitors, it comes as surprise that ever since it was made a township in 1948, Arusha has had only one supermarket to date.

Even worse, the one and- only supermarket, which opened here in 2002 courtesy of South Africa’s Shoprite- Checkers, has just fled from the city citing the lack of supermarket culture among Tanzanians but especially those living in Arusha.

[…]

But come 2014 and Shoprite, the supermarket which started it all, announced that it was closing shop, complaining that the large store business had totally failed to pick up even after 12 years of operating in the city.

The South African Supermarket chain somehow did not conduct any research prior to venturing into the Tanzanian market especially Arusha where people buy their groceries only during the time when they need them.

Supermarket shopping usually means walking into the large department store, pushing a cart and then loading one item after another onto the basket before checking out through the computerised counters handled by bored ladies.

It also means that a person or family has to make their weekly or monthly purchases once, and then store everything in the house until the next shopping date. That may require special storage cellars at home, refrigerators, deep-freezers and cabinets, not forgetting the cars required to carry everything home in the first place.

However, in Arusha where accommodation space is hard to find, most residents are forced to live in single rooms or cubicles that serve as living rooms, bedrooms and kitchen at the same time.

With hardly any space to store rice, flour, oil and other groceries, for future use, few ever think of practicing supermarket shopping.

It is the unquestioned assumption that lack of modern retail or formal economy institutions imply lack of an existing shopping culture – local & relevant & appropriate to its context and conditions. The real question is whether a region or country is ready for formal retail culture.

This newspaper article isn’t hard to find, supermarkets in Tanzania would uncover it easily, were the analysts working on these indices and reports considering the entire ecosystem of the operating environment in which retail would operate rather than easily measurable indicators.

These insights are not enough on which to base one’s market entry strategy but more than sufficient to make one pause and evaluate whether a more qualitative and exploratory market survey offering consumer insights and buyer behaviour might actually be worth investing in far more in the first instance than years of losses later. This is exactly the kind of moment you’d want to call us in to help you craft your strategy.

African consumer market insight from Chinese flip flop manufacturer in Tanzania

This recent interview of the Chinese owner of a flip flop factory based in Tanzania offers some interesting insights into the mindset of the East African consumer.

Trade in commodities has been the dominant feature of China-Africa relations over the past 20 years, but many traders, particularly those who arrived in Africa early, are now well aware that there must be more to the relationship than that.

“It’s very important to set up a factory in Africa to ensure that one’s products have staying power in this market,” says Wu Quanman, owner of Li Lai International in Dar es Salaam, which makes flip-flops.

He first came to Africa in 1998, to Rwanda, and moved to Uganda in 2000, and set up the factory in Tanzania in 2006.

With a bit of search, I was able to dig up this BBC article from 2006 about the state of the flip flop market in Tanzania.

But at Tanzania’s only flip-flop factory, these are dog days.

A few years ago 3,000 people worked at OK Plast and their wares were exported to 22 countries across the region.

Today the factory employs just 1,000 and Fadl Ghaddar, the Lebanese general manager, told me it was struggling to break even.

All but a few varieties of Africa’s flip flops now come from China and local companies cannot compete.

Yet, Mr Wu says they average a 100,000 pairs a day in his Tanzanian factory:

“If we wanted to grow this business, building a factory in Africa seemed to be the only solution, and it was certainly ideal for us. After thinking carefully about the possibilities, we decided to build the factory in Tanzania, given that Rwanda is landlocked and the Ugandan market was limited.”

00221917e13e164b82aa1fIt made me wonder whether he’d purchased the struggling factory mentioned in the older BBC article and how he turned it around? Even if he didn’t purchase that factory, his business was apparently booming as the interview quotes him on his plans to invest in local manufacture of the materials required for making flip flops.

The key seems to be consistency – of quality, of supply, a matter of reputation. As Mr Wu says:

“Another thing that prompted us to open a factory here was the significance of brand in the market. African customers are very keen on well-established brands, but previously our products in this market were very random, with various brands from China, so we need our own brand and reputation.”

One valuable lesson Wu learned in Uganda came directly from the customers. Wu says they complained every time they were given products that they were unfamiliar with, and it was decided that if the business was to be sustainable, it needed to sell a well-known brand.

There are a couple of insights here that are interesting. The first is the importance of a brand, or rather, a reliable way to identify a consistent product that had been “tried and trusted” i.e. the familiar and known.

This also makes me wonder why the original local factory was unable to compete and was struggling. Was it that they were accustomed to pricing high in a seller’s market and then unable to offer a wider range of patterns when the market first flooded with Chinese imports? Or was it that they had not invested in building an established brand? We may never find out but the snippet leaves me with the feeling there’s a story behind it.

The other interesting insight from this interview is the fact that customers “complained every time they were given products that they were unfamiliar with” … there is nuance in here whose further exploration will be critical for consumer product companies accustomed to pushing “New and Improved” every so often to increase their market share.

If this reluctance to embrace the unfamiliar and/or unknown is simply a matter of unreliable product quality – a common factor of bulk Chinese imports sourced primarily on price – then global brands can rest assured their systems are in place to meet the expectation of this emerging consumer market.

But if this preference is for the tried and trusted, the familiar and known, and may possibly imply that the consumers are not enamoured of the “new and improved” then this characteristic is worth noting for those seeking to enter these markets successfully.

 

Segmenting the African Middle Class without dollar figures

Continuing the thinking from my previous post on the various attempts to size and value the potential of the emerging African middle classes based primarily in dollar figures, I thought to take a step back from income data to see if I could approach the challenge of segmentation in a different way. Below is the chart estimating the size of the original emerging African middle classes as posited by the African Development Bank back in 2011.

That is, rather than simply segmenting by range of daily expenditure i.e. $2 to $4 or $10 to $20 a day, what if we took a closer look at the reasons behind the spending and segmented by consumer mindset and buyer behaviour. After all, given the size of the informal sector in the majority of African countries and the percentage of population relying on irregular income streams from a variety of sources, few can confidently expect to spend exactly $4 each day. There might be times of abundance when hundreds of dollars may be available, and big ticket items purchased like colour television sets, offset by times of scarcity when one might just be making ends meet. Variability in cash flow is an inherent characteristic of entrepreneurship, regardless of income bracket or revenue sources. Furthermore, we can add geography as a factor, since urban expenditure is of a highly different nature than that in rural regions. Taking all of this (and more, based on years of observations in the field among consumers) here is my version of consumer segmentation of the same demographic as covered in the chart above.

Descriptive segmentation of consumer behaviour

The Middle class – traditional definition, white collar jobs, steady paycheck, education/professional qualifications, closely aligned with “upper middle class” in the AfDB chart.

Emerging “middle” or rather the increasingly visible African consumers – non traditional (OECD cite), rapid upward mobility, primarily based in informal sector trades and services, newly successful entrepreneurs, small businessmen, extremely ambitious

Floating class 1 (“Brass Ring Syndrome“) – seeking status signifiers that are the ‘brass ring’, that is, they are ready to leap upwards, are almost there, focused on investing in future revenue generation opportunities, aspirational, may tend to be seen more in rural areas than urban.

Floating class 2 (“Fragile” or “Newborn”) – seeking footholds to gain enough stability to balance upon so as to make the leap for the brass ring, saving to invest in future revenue generation, hungry for more (not food but a mindset, as in hungrily seeking upward mobility), they may include the youth startups, tech entrepreneurs and all looking for the “something”, maybe more urban, and in the African contextual usage of the word “hustling” for the opportunity.

“Bottom of the Pyramid” –  The $2/day demographic made famous by CK Prahalad,  they are the pool from which the above three segments are emerging and are critically important in Africa in a way that they aren’t in opposed to India for instance because they don’t think of themselves as permanently poor, just temporarily cash crunched, especially migrant workers. Very, very different consumption behaviour between urban  and rural in this segment. They may indeed form the rural version of Floating Class 2.  I include them here because AfDB segmentation starts at $2.

Concluding thoughts

Once one’s mindset has evolved into considering oneself as part of a certain lifestyle, even if one’s income is “floating”, there are changes in buying habits that remain as part of this upward mobility. An example is that of the milk ATMs in Kenya. That is why I believe that taking a closer look at shifts in household consumption patterns as indicators of emerging into the so called “middle class” may offer more valuable insights for consumer market analysis than attempting to segment by dollar figures alone.

My 2 shillings worth on the size or value of the emerging African middle classes

There’s been a lot in the news of late about the size and worth of the emerging African middle class subsequent to the release of an as yet unseen report by an economist, Simon Freemantle, at Standard Bank, South Africa. The various headlines conflict each other, some say the middle class isn’t as large as earlier reported, others say its growing at a rapid clip. Their tone seems to depend on which aspect of this alleged report they support.

Instead of simply defining the middle classes by available daily spending power, as the African Development Bank did back in 2011, when they first announced the emergence of these new consumers, the Standard Bank report goes on to assess households by using the South African Living Standards Measure (LSM) as a means to segment them. But because we have yet to find a copy of the actual report itself, only articles referencing it (via a press release, to hazard a guess), there is no clarity on whether the South African LSM segmentation was directly applied to the households under consideration or whether the LSM was adapted for regional, social and cultural differences.

Even the SAARF, the South African body responsible for this evaluation tool has been questioning the validity of the LSM as it is structured at the moment. There are a few different approaches under development, from what I can tell based on a quick search online, including one which seeks to regionalize the LSM so that it can be far more accurately applied across the continent rather than for South African conditions alone. Again, we are not sure which version has been used in this new Standard Bank report.

The bottom line is that the emerging African middle class may indeed be smaller than imagined, though growing rapidly, or, that its as large as the AfDB originally estimated. That is, we still don’t know the size and worth of this consumer market. I suspect the reason for this that we’re trying to measure volatility, the underlying characteristic of the informal sector’s income streams, and that is why the goal posts seem to keep shifting.

The OECD had once said that the global emerging middle classes of today are not the same as those that emerged after the industrial revolution and established the foundations of the highly industrialized nations of the so called ‘first world’. That these new upwardly mobile and aspirational consumers were in fact emerging from the population segment originally designated as the ‘base of the pyramid’ and were less likely to have university degrees or salaried jobs.

This was also the point that Bright Simons made in his HBR article, that while it was undeniable that there was an increasingly visible pattern of conspicuous consumption happening across sub Saharan Africa, it should not be conflated with the concurrent rise of a “middle class” as the term is commonly understood.

I would first ask why are we trying to put numbers on the size of the middle class?

Are we conflating the concept of an educated white collar bourgeoisie with the corporate need for market analysis required to estimate the size and value of a market opportunity before making the decision to invest or enter a new market?

And, if so, then are the two necessarily the same thing?

The African Consumer Market: Where the Informal meets the Formal

Informal Business: Township Hair Salon, South Africa, January 2008 Photo Credit: Niti Bhan

 

Formal retail:Haircare products, South Africa, January 2008 Photo Credit: Niti Bhan

While still largely based in the informal economy, the African haircare business has become a multi-billion dollar industry that stretches to China and India and has drawn global giants such as L’Oreal and Unilever. ~ Reuters, 6 Aug 2014

This snippet captures what I’d said in my HBR article on the challenge to marketing posed by the African consumer market. The size and value of the opportunities are undeniable as are the impact and influence of the informal sector.

Chaos, uncertainty, word of mouth, personal relationships and far too much flexibility is how those accustomed to the muted muzak of their local supermarket would describe an open air bazaar bustling with matrons ready to haggle with their favourite merchants over the price of onions while tramping through the narrow muddy paths in between the umbrellas and the rickety wooden structures.

This stymies the multinationals accustomed to ever increasing efficiencies in supply chains and distribution. L’Oreal’s website goes as far as to explicate all the challenges faced in distribution. The demand is there, how do we satisfice it in a profitable manner? seems to be the message.

Fragmentation of the retail space, prevalence of informal markets, a preference for ‘break bulk’ shopping daily in small quantities, all add up to a distinctly different consumer culture – an African one – that has been evolving quietly under the radar. It is only now that Africans are being perceived as consumers in their own right and the emerging middle classes capturing the attention of global giants. The hair care industry’s size and value, is not so much an overnight development as it being taken seriously as a viable opportunity.

If we go by the plethora of management consulting reports highlighting the African consumer market’s opportunities,  there’s an underlying assumption common to all that existing systems can simply be put into place, if only there wasn’t so much informality. Is that a realistic wish in the near term given the vacuum of infrastructure?

Simply building a supermarket in suitable locations will not work, as Shoprite discovered in Arusha, Tanzania, people’s purchasing patterns were influenced by so many more factors than just a lack of modern retail. It makes sense, then, to look at the consumer culture that exists, than to bemoan the fact that its completely unlike what ‘global giants’ are accustomed to dealing with, or to attempt to introduce solutions without taking the entire ecosystem into account.

If we are indeed to begin to address the challenge of satisfying the demands of Africa’s emerging markets, then we need to step back and look at it from an entirely different perspective. CK Prahalad once described what he called the tyranny of dominant logic and offered an alternate way to look at the challenge of dealing with the fragmentation, informality and inadequate infrastructure of the developing world. He proposed turning the problem on its head and looking at it from the lens of the constraints and conditions that are existing, then innovating to meet the criteria rather than attempting to force fit success metrics from one operating environment into the context of a wholly different one.

What if we were to do the same for the African consumer market? To begin from the point of view of understanding entire ecosystem of trade and how it works, mapping the existing landscape, and then seeking to develop solutions that would fit contextually.

This conversation will be continued. 

Part 3: Synthesis and Insights from original research on rural economic behaviour

broad_prepaid
One can conclude from synthesizing the data collected across the geographies and the range of “BoP” income levels that rural households demonstrated similar patterns of behaviour in their management of household expenses on irregular income streams. These are:

  • the rapid conversion of cash into tangible assets such as goods or livestock,
  • the  subsequent storage of wealth in this form,
  • the ability to conduct cashless transactions by mechanisms both simple and sophisticated
  • shared or cooperative financial tools such as investments, loans, purchases and savings
  • the use of multiple resources allocated by cost and usage
  • knowledge and experience of seasonal ebb and flow influencing cash flow management

The irregularity of cash flow or income over time in the households studied can be said to be a combination of the known – such as the ebb and flow of income over the course of the year, either directly due to the natural seasons or due to other unnatural but predictable factors such as Christmas or vacations; and the unknown –  either the truly unpredictable such as a natural disaster or the simply random, such as not knowing how many customers will make a purchase on any given day.

The known component or the “reasonably predictable through experience”, is less a matter of the actual amount of income earned and more about knowing when to expect peaks and lows in cash flow. This element of seasonality would be a critical component of knowledge pertaining to a particular region or market for BoP ventures seeking to create value through successful introductions of products or services.

For example, in the rural region of The Philippines, January to approximately April or May (or until the rains begin) is considered the annual “summer” or “dry” season – unless a farm is very lucky to have access to sufficient water for rice growing regardless of rain, the farmers can only start planting when the rains arrive and are dependent on it for their second harvest as well. So overall, whether its tiny sari-sari1 stores supplying everyday essentials, snacks and cold drinks or some other business – even those selling necessities like food, all consider this a lean period.

Those who earn daily wages  helping farmers plant the rice have little work, farmers live on their stockpiled rice, everyone tends to spend less but along with the rains all of this changes and the pattern of spending increases until the annual Christmas peak. For some, wholly dependent on what they can earn locally (receiving no remittances from relatives abroad) this can mean a difference of 100% in their weekly earnings between the “wet” and the “dry” season.

The Indians and the Malawians were influenced in similar ways, only the actual timings varied due to geography. Whatever the reasons in any particular region, when evaluating the purchasing power of those who manage with irregular and unpredictable income, the first question to ask is if there are any known patterns of ebb and flow in their cash flow.

It is the unknown component that creates the unpredictable volatility that those on irregular income streams must deal with in order to manage their household expenses with any degree of control. The behaviours observed listed above, taken together, can be summarized to state that each household managed what could be called a “portfolio of investments” that acted as deposits maturing over time.

They either maintained multiple sources of income simultaneously since available cash was often converted into these investments, spreading the risk of any one source failing when needed or stored their wealth accordingly.  Maximizing available resources based on their cost and intended usage along with the tendency towards minimizing the need for cash based transactions all worked together  to smoothen the volatility of the household‘s income.

For example, one family in Malawi reared pigs for sales (or food in emergencies), grew vegetables and maize for their own needs, distilled wine from sugar cane for cash sales and also kept bees with a cooperative for annual harvest of honey. Cash was thus available in varying amounts from a variety of sources at different points of time.

In the Philippines, an extended household living together in one compound pooled their resources from a kitchen garden, stored fuel in the form of bamboo and dried coconut husk, kept chickens and occasionally a pig, as well managed on the small amounts of cash earned daily through running at small sari-sari store on the premises.

While in the Indian village, even the silversmith who made ornaments only during the harvest peak, used his metalworking skills and workshop the rest of the year to make doors, windows and grillwork.

This portfolio management approach to household expenses* implies the manipulation of their span of control over elements of time such as periodicity and frequency as well as currency, i.e. cash or goods, in order to decrease the volatility of their cash flow, improve their ability to plan and while decreasing the variance between expenses and income.

Across the board, the particular characteristic that most stood out during conversations with the rural populace in India and The Philippines, echoing  prior experience in the field elsewhere, was their undeniable pride in their degree of self reliance, and thus, their level of independence from the formal or cash based economy.

Over and over, people would proudly point to assets like firewood, livestock, kitchen gardens etc and emphasize that these resources were ‘free’ and didn’t need to be purchased for cash, often in the same breath pointing out how everything needed to be bought if you lived in the city. Whether it was a nanny goat kept just to provide the daily cup of milk for morning tea or an extra sack of rice held back from the harvest sales, there was a distinct sense of achievement for every penny that didn’t have to be spent.

This trait of minimizing the need for actual cash money also cropped up in other patterns of behaviour including the storage of wealth in the form of ‘kind’ or ‘goods’ (that could be liquidated when and if required); cashless transactions within the community, from the simple to the sophisticated; and the rapid conversion of surplus cash into goods or ‘kind’ (livestock, for example, as investment or planned savings in the form of silver or bricks for a future house).

Expensive resources that required cash outlays such as fuel – diesel for irrigation pumps; liquid petroleum gas cylinders for cooking; or airtime minutes purchased on prepaid plans for the ubiquitous mobile phone, would be stretched out for as long as possible before the need for replenishment. For example, a common behaviour was the choice of cheaper or ’free’ fuel such as firewood or dried cow dung for cooking food which took a long time to cook such as beans or stews, saving the use of the more expensive gas stove for fast cooking items.

All of these behaviours, taken together, imply a challenge for businesses seeking to serve rural populations effectively since their relative lack of liquidity places them in a challenging position as future customers. Conventional business development methods include the use of market research to evaluate the disposable income or purchasing power of the target audience. When considering rural BoP households, these tools may not supply any meaningful data, skewing the perceived income levels or earnings of those studied.

In sum, it can be concluded that the challenges for value creation can be quite different for BoP ventures interested in addressing the rural markets. From the observations made in the field, we can highlight three key implications for business development. These are:

1. Seasonality – with the exception of the salaried, everyone else in the sample pool was able to identify times of abundance and scarcity over the course of natural year in their earnings. Identification of a particular region or market’s local pattern of seasonality would benefit the design of payment schedules, timing of entry or new product and service launch, for example.

2. Relative lack of liquidity – The majority of the rural households observed tended to ‘store wealth’ in the form of goods, livestock or natural resources, relying on a variety of cashless transactions within the community for a number of needs. Conventional business development strategies need to be reformulated to take this into account as these patterns of behaviour may reflect the household’s purchasing power or income level inaccurately.

3. Increasing the customer’s span of control over the timing, frequency and amount of cash required – Since the availability and amount of cash cannot be predicted on calendar time, this implication is best reflected by the success of the prepaid mobile phone subscriptions in these same markets. When some cash is available, it can be used to purchase airtime minutes for text or voice calls, when there is no money, the phone can still receive incoming calls. Models which impose an external schedule of  periodicity, frequency and amount of cash required may not always be successful in matching the volatile cash flow particular to each household’s sources of income.

Conclusion

Broadly speaking, there was evidence of far more sophisticated cash flow management than has either been expected or assumed among the rural BoP households in the sample pool. In fact, one future task would be to parse out whether the terms ‘irregular’ or ‘unpredictable’ can be be applied. Certainly, income was not as predictable and regular as a salary, but on the other hand, neither were they totally random and unknown. At this point, it seems far more accurate to say that the rural BoP households do not manage their expenses on a “fixed amount arriving on a known day or date”.

Also to be reconsidered is whether those in the rural communities in developing countries should simply be lumped together with their urban brethren as an undifferentiated mass called “the BoP” or “the poor” – for one, living on $2 a day has an entirely different meaning where much of the hyper local economy may not even be based on cash transactions, or else, few daily requirements need to be purchased.

If we’re to seriously evaluate business development for BoP ventures, then a far more nuanced understanding of local culture, buyer behaviour and segmentation of these emerging consumer markets is required.

* Given the similiarities in findings, it should be noted that these insights emerged from a workshop conducted in Helsinki, Finland in April 2009, prior to the release of the now famous book, Portfolios of the Poor.