Posts Tagged ‘design’

Mobile First Africa: Opportunity for Accessories that Boost Productivity on Smartphones

Long ago, when smart phones were still on their way to changing the world, I remember the product development of a host of accessories that would boost business productivity in a variety of areas for phone owners.

The projector phone was one such innovation, flopping back when it was launched due to the tech not having caught up yet. I bring this up because I read an article this morning that highlights a major challenge for the ‘mobile first’ African market.

“We hear about mobile-first Africa, it sounds sexy,” said Nanjira Sambuli, digital equality advocacy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation. “But how much meaningful work can you get done through your mobile. Are we creating a divide? We are not going to be equal if mobile is the only way. Because mobile is for consuming.”

Today, technology is far more advanced, and as China has shown us, far more affordable. Can a range of productivity solutions be launched as accessories for smartphones to disrupt the African SME market?

The Japanese are already ahead with their answers, such as this keyboard by Elecom. The products are all out there, I think its just a matter of identifying the opportunity and the price point for the African markets.

The continent tends not to be taken as seriously for enterprise solutions as it could be. Informal sectors do not mean lack of purchasing power or opportunity space. Perhaps this is the sector that is now ripe for disruption by an enterprising entrepreneur.

Book Review: Operation Elop, the final years of Nokia by Merina Salminen and Pekka Nykänen

Design auditing the new Life Tools for Nokia, Sept 2009, India

Operation Elop, uploaded by Harri Kiljander has just been made available in English and I’m already on Chapter 8. I saw the editor’s tweet 23 minutes after he said “It’s done and available on Medium under a Creative Commons license” and I haven’t stopped diving in and out since.

It starts with a memorable day in Finland – 10th September 2010 – so memorable that one asks “Where were you that day?” and people remember. I remember it well, and I have photographs to prove it. My life changed rather dramatically in the year that followed, and the period that the book covers is the same period I was away from Finland, having already decided to make my home here for the remaining years of my life.

Its complicated, this history of Nokia’s demise. The impact on Finland was palpable, the responses ranging across the spectrum of human emotions. You have to know that I was in love with Nokia and the changes they had wrought across the developing world. In 2007, there’s a photograph of me sitting in their lobby stunned from the impact of coming face to face with a corporation that conveyed the values of their brand. And its because of Nokia’s design and innovation researchers blogging their exploratory user research across Africa that inspired me to do what I have been doing for the past 10 years. Every chapter in this book has been adding new layers to my own personal journey.

I’ll highlight the one paragraph that’s important to me. When all the news was breaking over the years, I thought that Nokia was splitting their product development energies too broadly. In fact, in May 2011, I was invited to a feature phone workshop to present on the future and on Africa. What I said we wanted to put on t-shirts, “Don’t get stuck in the missionary position.” They were taking a Mother Teresa route in Africa instead of focusing on what they were good at – robust engineering and products that stood up to harsh climes and rough usage. At a value for money price point. I didn’t know it was already too late, but here’s the key snippet from the book that helped me make sense of things from long ago as I read it today.

From Chapter 19:

In 2010, the foundation of Nokia’s business consisted of devices priced at a few tens of euros ($30–50), with which one could make calls, send text messages, and use simple web services. Thanks to efficient production, feature phones yielded larger profit margins to Nokia than smartphones. The amazing efficiency was based on the S40 operating system, which had been introduced in 1999. Nokia conquered the world with S40. It was made possible because the system could be tailored at a low cost to mobile network providers operating in different regions. By 2012, Nokia sold 1.5 billion S40 devices across the world.

This was squandered in the race to the top, the glamour of being world famous, complicated by so many factors – all simply and accessibly laid out in the book – that it still makes one weep to think of what might have been. All I know is that the Nokia I own today doesn’t even have predictive text.

I want to thank the translators for their hard work and effort. The book has been a joy to read and it’s kept its Finnishness in choice of words, and sentence structure. You can read it online or download it for free.

A Very Nigerian Opinion on E-Commerce and Online Fashion Startups

Folake Shoga shares her opinion on the recent spate of tech startups and apps mean to serve Nigeria’s fashion and fabric industry.

Two recent articles in Techpoint, the Nigerian online technology magazine, feature initiatives dealing with aspects of the clothing business. One is a startup letting studio space and equipment to makers, 360 Creative Hub; and one is an internet based fabric selling business, Fabricsphere. Reading up on the feasibility of these two initiatives has been an interesting experience, very much encouraged by the richness of Techpoint’s coverage of Nigeria’s tech and business ecosystem.

Having said that, as just a humble, occasional and above all provincial Nigerian, I’ll start by paraphrasing L P Hartley: “Lagos is another country; they do things differently there.” Sometimes, reading official accounts, reports etc of events in Nigeria really jarrs with one’s lived experience of the country (even though being as the standard of written professional journalism is generally excellent, this hardly every happens when reading the actual quality newspapers, Punch and The Guardian and their ilk.) In the aforementioned Techpoint articles some of the prices quoted for goods and services seem steep to me, which surely militates against takeup, but I am, as I said, provincial, and moreover brought up by Ijebu people. No doubt everything costs more in Lagos.

Startup culture is a thing in itself; current, progressive, innovative, aiming to breach new ground or disrupt! received conventions – although strictly speaking away from the comfortable global North there may already be more disruption going on than we are entirely comfortable with. But the term itself, startup, comes surrounded by an effervescence of aspiration, floating on an expectation of the power of a tech-determined state change in human affairs. “First we’ll click here, then we’ll be in tomorrow today already! Yay!!”

As recently as 12 years ago it was impossible to prejudge which casual, frivolous digital activity would end up as an engine of massive social change. Nobody could possibly have foretold, for instance, how a site for rating the comparative attractiveness of your female fellow students could have morphed into a giant data-gatherer, news disseminator and influencer of global public opinion. Or how a site for online shopping could evolve to be at the forefront of research into the logistics of drone technology and other automated delivery systems. So there is a hope and a hype around web-based startup culture, an eye for the next big thing, the next new system that will prove that from small beginnings come big changes. Nigeria, as a vast untapped market, has the potential to be a hive of new technology activity, and Techpoint in it’s many articles provides an interesting and thorough overview of the local scene, though concentrating almost entirely on Lagos.

Read On…

Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment

This topic is being shared in the form of a collection of essays on the following themes, each becoming hyperlinked on completion. Do bookmark this page for regular updates.

Introduction to Background and Context, some caveats apply
Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity
Rural household financial management as a foundation
Linkages and Networks span Urban and Rural Markets
Underlying Principles for Financial and Social Contracts in the Informal Economy
Informal Sector Business Development Strategies and Objectives
Why A Blanket Approach to Formalization is not a Panacea
Disaggregating and Segmenting the Informal Sectors
The Journey to Formalization Cannot be Leapfrogged


Creating Economic Value by Design (John Heskett, IJD 2009)
Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy (IDRC, 2009)
More or Less: The Fundamental Principle of Flexibility” Slides (Informal Economy Symposium, 2012)
A Comprehensive Analysis of the Literature on Informal Cross Border Trade in East Africa (TMEA, 2016)

On the relationship between economics and design

This is an extract from the Introduction to John Heskett’s seminal paper, “Creating Economic Value by Design

The work of Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate in Economics in 1978, is a rare exception of design being considered as a factor in economic theory. His starting point was acknowledging that the world we inhabit is increasingly artificial, created by human beings. For Simon (1981), design was not restricted to making material artefacts, but was a fundamental professional competence extending to policy-making and practices of many kinds and on many levels:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences. (p.129)

Implicit in Simon’s reasoning is an emphasis on design as a thought-process underpinning all kinds of professional activities; yet the varied skills through which design is manifested are not discussed. He did indicate, however, why design is so rarely considered in economic theory. Economics, he stated, works on three levels, those of the individual; the market; and the entire economy (p. 31). The centre of interest in traditional economics, however, is markets and not individuals or businesses (p. 37). A serious problem is thereby raised at the outset: two important considerations relating to design—how goods and services are developed for the market place and how they are used—receive scant attention.

I was lucky enough to both work with him as a colleague as well as attend his classes in Design Policy and Design Planning & Market Forces as his student. I’ve been diving into my notes and his lectures of late as I wrestle with my theorizing on what I’ve been calling Biashara Economics, whose earliest avatar was the prepaid economy project of 2008/9.

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.

Cognitive dissonance and smartphones in East Africa

via twitter, a modern day kanga from East Africa

Its jarring to see high level INGO messaging still talking about “ICT4D” not doing it’s part to bring about technology driven transformation in rural or informal sector Africa when every other sign from the continent points to a mainstreaming of ICT that goes beyond the individual’s capacity to tweet.

The kanga is a traditional item of women’s clothing worn all along the Swahili coast of Eastern and Southern Africa. Probably originating from the monsoon driven textiles trade with the west coast of India long ago in the mists of history, the kanga is rather well known for incorporating Swahili proverbs and aphorisms within its design.

While traditional sayings might refer to love or social relationships, warnings and idiomatic sayings, this photograph of the kanga, now making the rounds on social media, which I’ve shared above, provides clear evidence of the ubiquity of smartphone technology and social media communication in local culture.

Surely your screenshot is waiting in your inbox isn’t a traditional proverb nor an age old Kiswahili aphorism.

Systemic design thinking and complex adaptive systems

Going back to first principles has been a refreshing exercise. Even as our work has taken us into some wholly new places, there’s comfort in knowing that others have thought deeply about the concepts, though not in our context. I’m a firm believer in not re-inventing the wheel. Consider it a working prototype to be tested in a new environment, rather like I’ve been doing with Vijay Kumar’s innovation methods.

Here’s the context of the thinking I’d been doing on iterative programming for complex, adaptive systems – that is, taking on the wicked problem space of international development where the operating environment is rather greatly different from the predictable regularity of the developed world:

People-centered systems design thinking for complexity
Pivoting from “best practice” to “best fit”: An interdisciplinary perspective (Intro)
An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools (Part 1)
Enabling development’s paradigm shift from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’(Part 2)

Thus, it was with pleasure that I dived into exploring Peter Jones’ publications on social transformation. Two, especially, caught my attention.
The first lays the groundwork in the work of bringing together the two disciplines – systems thinking and design.  From the abstract of his Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems:

Systems theory and design thinking both share a common orientation to the desired outcomes of complex problems, which is to effect highly-leveraged, well-reasoned, and preferred changes in situations of concern.Systems thinking (resulting from its theoretical bias) promotes the understanding of complex problem situations independently of solutions, and demonstrates an analytical bias. Design disciplines demonstrate an action-oriented or generative bias toward creative solutions, but design often ignores deep understanding as irrelevant to future-oriented change.While many practitioners believe there to be compatibility between design and systems theory,the literature shows very few examples of their resolution in theoretical explanation or first principles. This work presents a reasoned attempt to reconcile the shared essential principles common to both fundamental systems theories and design theories, based on meta-analyses and a synthesis of shared principles. An argument developed on current and historical scholarly perspectives is illuminated by relevant complex system cases demonstrating the shared principles. While primarily oriented to complex social systems, the shared systemic design principles apply to all complex design outcomes, product and service systems, information systems, and social organizational systems.

And once I noted there was a bit of an overlap between the references I’d drawn on for my initial exploration of design planning as the discipline from which to source methods to address the challenge of complex, adaptive systems as currently explored in the development space, I was relieved to see that I was on the right path for our own theoretical evolution.

This paper is a great starting point for our methods development for the context of the informal sector in the East Africa, particularly outside the urban centers. And, a second paper by Jones – Design Research Methods in Systemic Design validates many of our assumptions while working with only the methods and systems thinking from one school of thought – the Institute of Design’s philosophy and approach.

In future blogposts, I will attempt to triangulate the thinking from all of these disciplines – design planning, human centered design, systems thinking, and international development. There’s a paper I’m hoping to write by the Autumn, if all goes well and the abstract accepted for a conference at the end of the year.

Frame Insights: Going back to first principles in the Innovation Planning Process

After conducting research, we need to bring structure to what has been found and learned. We sort, cluster, and organize the data gathered and begin to find important patterns. We analyze contextual data and view patterns that point to untapped market opportunities or niches. Finding insights and patterns that repeatedly emerge from multiple analyses of data is beneficial. ~ Vijay Kumar, 101 Design Methods

“It’s what happens after the research that’s important” is something I found myself saying three times to three different people in three different contexts over the past couple of days. Anyone can go out and interview users and beneficiaries. What’s important is what happens during the Analysis phase.

To ponder this in detail, I wanted to go back to first principles, and drill down into the post research stage where we are expected to frame our insights.

Vijay’s slide pops out 5 key outcomes from this phase, and these are critical for solution development in the subsequent phase. These 5 outcomes from analysis of the data collected during the research phase are:

  1. Looking for patterns
  2. Exploring systems
  3. Identifying opportunities
  4. Developing guiding principles
  5. Constructing overviews

It is this stage that distinguishes the quality of the outcome. Now, in the case of our work in the informal economy operating environment, we have built up an overview of the landscape over the past several years, primarily through immersion and thick data collection using design ethnography methods.

Starting from the purchasing patterns and buyer behaviour of low income consumers, back in early 2008, all the way through to the development of guiding principles such as flexibility, we have explored and mapped the ecosystem from numerous vantage points.

Today, our synthesis of user research does not happen in isolation from the body of work – intellectual property – that has been developed over time, through experiential and practical knowledge.

This, then, is what underlay my conviction when I spoke about the importance of the quality of interpretation of the data, and the transmutation of these interpretations into implemented insights in the form of new product features, service design elements, or nuances of the payment plan in the business model.

Increasingly, the Frame Insights phase of our work has led to the evolution of our understanding of the commercial landscape in rural and informal markets where incomes tend to be irregular and volatile, and infrastructure is inadequate or missing. It is this that I’ve been attempting to capture under the category of Biashara Economics.

It’s not Africa specific. The patterns hold, give or take ~30% margin for historical/cultural/social differences, across continents. That is because these patterns are the natural response to the common characteristics of seasonality, volatility, uncertainty, and unpredictability. And this is why one can see the success of the prepaid business model around the world.

It strikes me here that this in fact validates the methodology and approach to exploration and discovery in unknown contexts, something I had framed as the starting point for the very first such project almost a decade ago. Over time, I discovered how much the methods, as delineated by Vijay in Chicago, had to be adapted for the context but that is a topic for another time.

How the African movable assets bill can unleash innovation opportunities for the rural economy

Somewhere in Kenya, 4th June 2012 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

As Kenya joins Zambia and Zimbabwe in ratifying a Movable Property Security Rights Act, there’s a sense that the floodgates to innovation in access to finance might be taking place in rural Africa, south of the Sahara and north of South Africa.

Kenya’s law also goes beyond the cows and goats and allows a borrower to collateralise future receivables arising from contractual relationships.

How it ends up being implemented will set the stage for the next big disruption in financial inclusion. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at the opportunity space for innovation in the informal and rural economy that dominates these operating environments.


1. A whole new bank, designed to meet the needs of rural Africa

Last night, a tweet by Charles Onyango-Obbo struck me forcibly, and reminded me of our Banking the Unbanked proposal crafted for ICICI back in January of 2007.

The very fact that contemporary thoughtleaders in the Kenyan banking industry are unable to take the concept of livestock as collateral for loans seriously, taken together with the deeply embedded assumptions of the formal economy’s financial structure leaves the door wide open to disruption.

It would not be too difficult to conceptualize a rural, co-operative bank custom designed for the local operating environment. In Kenya, where the mobile platform provides clear evidence of the viability, feasibility, and desirability of innovative financial tools and services that work for irregular income streams and provide the flexibility, reciprocity, and negotiability inherent in the cooperative local economies, such a bank could change the social and economic development landscape overnight.

In fact, one could conceivably foresee this “bank for rural Africa” scaling far beyond Kenya’s borders.


2. Insurance sector must respond to banking disruption

The domino effect of disruption in the banking sector should kickstart the stagnant insurance industry that has been ineffectually attempting to scale outside of the formal economy’s neatly defined boundaries. Bankers willing to take livestock as collateral for loans will therefore require insurance on their movable asset as a surety against the risk of disease, or drought.

Current products tend to emerge from the international aid industry, seeking to insure smallholder farmers against the shock of losing their livestock to climate related disasters such as prolonged drought, or an epidemic of illness. There is a dearth of relevant and appropriately designed insurance products from the private sector targeting the needs of the rural economy. For all the talk of African urbanization, even the most optimistic projections show that East Africa’s rural population will continue to dominate.

Thus, this an opportunity ripe for the plucking, given the right mix of product, pricing, and promotional messaging.


3. Disrupting assumptions of Poverty and Purchasing Power

Whether it is Kenya’s significant non profit sector or the nascent consumer oriented markets, the redrawn lines defining assets, collateral, and the floodgates of access to finance will require a complete overhaul in the way the population is segmented and measured.

Once these hundreds of movable assets have been valued, insured, and registered officially, even the most reluctant banker must now count the pastoralist among his wealthiest local clientele, able to draw a line of credit against his true wealth to the tune of thousands of dollars without feeling the pinch.


4. Triggering a rural investment and consumption boom

From mabati for a new roof and simti for the backyard wall, to the latest model smartphone or pickup truck, the concurrent boom in investments and consumption provides an ample playing ground for new products and services tailored for the contextual needs upcountry. Finally, Farmer Joe can install that solar powered irrigation pump for his orange groves in time to reap the next big harvest. And Mama Mercy can think of building up a nest egg of investments faster from the income provided by her farmyard animals.

Kagio Produce Market, Kenya, April 2013 (photo: Niti Bhan)

This might turn out to mean upgrading to a breed of high yield milch cows or being able to provide them with better quality feeds and medicines, but the financial bridge that a well designed strategy leveraging this movable assets bill and it’s timely implementation could mean the difference between the brass ring or treading water.


5. Trade and Commerce will open new markets

Given that the Kenyan Movable Property Security Rights Act 2017 goes beyond livestock to include other stores of wealth and value creation, there will be an undeniable impact on regional and cross border trade. No trader will give up the opportunity to leverage their existing inventory if it qualifies for additional credit that can be plowed back into the business.

On the road to Bungoma, Western Kenya, February 2016 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

Trader’s mindset and the documented biashara growth strategies already in evidence point clearly to the productive economic use of this access to finance rather than passive consumption alone. As their business grows, they will require a whole slew of tools and services tailored to their needs. This could be as simple as a basic book keeping app or as complex as customized commodity (assets, livestock, non perishable foodstuffs, grains and cereals) exchange platforms that integrate the disruptive new services percolating through the entire ecosystem.


In conclusion

These few steps outlined above are only the beginning of laying the foundation for disrupting the current social and economic development trajectory of small town and rural Kenya. I see immense potential for both direct to consumer as well as business to business segments for forward looking organizations seeking a foothold in the burgeoning East African markets.

We, at Emerging Futures Lab, would be pleased to offer you customized white papers on the opportunities for new products, services, and even business models, based on this emerging financial environment recently signed into law by President Kenyatta. Contact us for an exploratory conversation on the scope and scale of your particular industry’s needs. Our experienced team can help you maximize these opportunities from concept design and prototyping all the way through to path to market strategies.