Posts Tagged ‘flexibility’

Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity

There are two key elements which underpin the dynamics of any business or commercial enterprise in the informal sector. These are Time and Money.

A generalized framework can be diagrammed, as shown above, where the dotted line denotes the degree of uncertainty and volatility of an individual’s cash flow patterns – whether from a variety of informal economic activities – such as for the farmer or trader; or from the salary received for a white collar job. The X axis – Time – denotes the increasing accuracy of estimating the Arrival date of a cash payment (from some revenue source), and the Y axis – Amount – denotes the increasing accuracy of estimating the Amount that will arrive. Their relative ability to estimate Arrival and Amount with any degree of accuracy is indicative of their ability to forecast and plan for expenditure.

Thus, at one end of the continuum, one can position an odd jobs labourer who may or may not get paid work on any given day, and is unable to predict with any degree of certainty what type of job he’ll get selected for, nor for how many days it will last. It could be as basic as loading a truck for half a day’s pay, which in turn might even be in kind, and not cash. And, at the other end of this continuum, one can position a the typical white collar salaried professional or civil servant who knows with certainty exactly on which day they will receive the salary and exactly how much will arrive.

 

Positioning and Location

Now, we can frame these two elements of the commercial operating environment in the form of a position map, as shown above, that maps the ability to plan expenditures against the stability of the cash flow. The red arrow is the continuum of certainty and stability of Timing and Amount of an income stream, anchored by the most vulnerable odd jobs labourer at one end and the relatively most secure salaried professional at the other.

Where it gets interesting is the relatively liminal space in the middle where the various economic actors in the informal economy constantly shift position as they seek to mitigate the volatility of their income streams, through a variety of mechanisms. Much of their decision making is related to their own perception of uncertainty and ability to forecast.

For the purpose of this explanatory diagram, I have selected 4 typical examples drawn from different sectors of the informal economy common in the developing country context. Each are at the more vulnerable end of their own segments i.e. a subsistence farmer, rather than one with an established cash crop; or a small roadside kiosk rather than an established general merchandise store in a market town; since they have not yet achieved the goal of their business development strategies to move their own entrepreneural ventures towards relative stability, and thus provide more insight on the relationship between cash flow patterns and investment and expenditure planning.

The hawker of goods at a traffic light or junction is in a comparatively more fragile situation than the kiosk owner with a fixed location who works to develop relationships with passing customers in order to convert them to regulars at her store. Unlike the kiosk, which might be located near a busy bus stop, or outside a densely populated gated community; the hawker cannot predict which cars will pause at the red light as he darts through traffic shouting his wares. However, compared to the odd jobs labourer, the hawker has comparatively more control over his income generation since his is not a passive function of waiting to be picked from the labour pool in a truckyard or construction site.

The smallholder farmer might actually be better off economically in many ways than his urban brethren involved in informal retail, being able to live off the land more cheaply than in the city. Experienced farmers, for the most part, are able to predict with reasonable accuracy, more or less the quantity of their crop, and the estimated timing of the harvest. However, his sense of uncertainty is often perceptually greater due to the unmitigatable impact of adverse weather conditions, or the sudden infestation of a pest or blight, any of which could at any time completely destroy his harvest, and thus, his expectations. This sense of insecurity in turn influences his decisions on expense commitments to far ahead in time, or too large a lumpsum at some point outside of his regional harvest season. The farmer’s income streams are relatively more out of his control than the disposable income in the pockets of the kiosk’s customer base.

The market woman with her display of fresh produce, at the entry level of inventory investment capacity, might only have one or two different varieties of vegetables or fruit to sell, and may not yet have established a permanent structure – a table, a kiosk – in the market. She might start off with only a tarpaulin on the ground with some tomatoes and onions for sale. Unlike the traffic intersection hawker, however, she is more likely to begin by assuming a regular placement and location as this establishes the foundation for her future business development, through the factors of discoverability and predictability among the customers in that locale.

That is, in addition to Timing and Amount of Income – the cash flow patterns and sources – we begin to see the role played by location – Place1, as a supporting element of the commercial activity in the informal economy. While farmers are least likely to have much control over the location of the land they may inherit, their risk mitigation strategies to minimize volatility of their income streams and maximize their ability to plan for the future and manage emergencies will be discussed in depth in the section2 on rural household financial management. These practices are the foundation of business development strategies commonly observed in the informal economy in developing countries which tend to be less urbanized, and as is often the case, more dependent on agriculture as a component of national GDP.

 

Appendix
1 People, Pesa, Place: A Multidisciplinary Lens on Innovating in Emerging Markets
2 Rural Household Financial Behaviour on Irregular Income Streams at the Base of the Pyramid

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.

Analysing shifts in consumer household purchasing patterns – Milk ATMs in Kenya

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Uchumi Supermarket, Ngong Rd, Nairobi Photo Credit: @bankelele

“We are selling one litre at Sh65, but a consumer can get as little as 77ml at a cost of Sh5. All one needs to do is key in the amount they require, and the product is dispensed,” Gitonga, who procures his machines from Italy, said.

Flexibility is the key to survival, indeed. This quote is from a Kenyan newspaper article titled “Dip in purchasing power drives demand for milk dispensers” which covers the increasing visibility of these milk vending machines in Nairobi and touches upon some of the demand drivers.

Mr Gitonga told Business Beat he shares the profits equally with supermarkets and retailers as he is protected from other expenses such as rent, water and electricity.

He said the demand for milk from the machines is being dictated by changing dynamics in the local market, including the need for quality milk, depressed purchasing power and a surging population.

The prices for processed milk have increased since the introduction of VAT last September, which has prompted consumers to turn to raw milk. Currently, a litre of raw milk in most estates costs between Sh50 and Sh55, while a litre of processed milk averages Sh85.

“We are giving consumers who frequent outlets in estates that sell raw milk that may not be inspected a safer choice.”

What strikes me is the fact that this shift back to one of the fundamental purchasing patterns observed among the lower income demographic is not only an obvious sign stretched household budgets due to rising price of food, but a classic example of the flexibility required by those managing on irregular income streams.

That is, this daily habit to purchase only what is needed and that too by cash amount (5 shillings) or quantity, is the same purchasing model for kerosene, another household staple.

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Could this shift in buyer behaviour also be considered a signal of the fluctuating fortunes of the “floating class” identified by the African Development Bank as those who are part of the emerging middle class but their cash flow might not be as steady as for someone on a regular paycheck?

If so, then we’re seeing here an example of an innovative solution to providing a daily need – milk – to urban households without a cow in the backyard – by ATM entrepreneurs as a whole new market creation opportunity.

Not for milk per se, but for products and services which can offer the flexibility that volatile income streams require, and are still upwardly mobile or progressive consumables that the emergent middle class household needs for their shopping basket, in this case, pasteurized milk.

And the increase in demand might actually also be an increase in the population of those who are now part of “middle class with floating”… this could be one of the dividing lines. I’d keep an eye on the fortunes of these milk machines in supermarkets if I were interested in the African middle class market.

 

Affordability is not the same as a lower price point

Third party informal kerosene sales point deep interior of rural Eastern Kenya. Photo credit: Niti Bhan

Absolute price of a product has always been assumed to be the means to successfully reach the BoP customer and the concept of affordable is often a synonym for cheaper. While price bands do matter when targeting this market, price/performance ratios tend to be more important to those who seek the best value for their hard earned and limited cash and affordability is proportional to the flexibility of the payment plan than the lumpsum amount. This is evidenced by the findings from the household energy consumption behaviour research conducted among representatives of the claimed target audience (the Base of the Pyramid living without electricity) which captured fuel usage and purchasing patterns based on income and cash flow.

The vast majority of the rural BoP who tend to be subsistence farmers managing on irregular income streams from a variety of sources have seasonal peaks and lows in their cash flow. Only on occasion during the course of the natural year are lumpsums of cash available for direct purchase. Documented behaviour includes storing household ‘wealth’ in the form of livestock, to be sold on demand for emergencies or at predetermined times of need such as for school fees at the beginning of the year.

Harvests are a seasonal time of plenty and shopkeepers in each region are aware of the major buying season for consumer durables and other high ticket items. At other times, purchases are made by the way of a variety of ‘informal microfinance’ tools such as shopkeepers offering layaway plans within their local community, permitting customers to pay off the price of the desired product over time and offering flexibility of duration, periodicity, frequency and amount of each payment per the customer’s convenience.  The risks are only when the customer is a relative stranger to the area.

This purchasing pattern, based as it is on an irregular cash flow of varying but small amounts, is why kerosene as a choice of fuel for lighting is so embedded in rural BoP markets. One can purchase it on demand, by cash amount (as little as 5 eurocents) or quantity (250 ml or even less) thus its purchase and use can be determined by the cash available on hand to the customer. It is the requirement of a lumpsum amount of cash that more often acts as a barrier to purchase than the absolute price of the product.

Thus, affordability of a product or service, in the mind of the BoP customer, has more to do with the flexibility of the payment plans than the price range. An example of this is the widespread prevalence of prepaid or pay as you go payment plans for mobile phone airtime that has made mobile phone usage affordable in the informal economy where few have the regular paychecks or consumer credit facilities to consider post paid subscriptions that deliver a monthly bill for an unknown amount.

More or Less: the flexibility of the informal

One of the things that stood out for me during the recent household consumer behaviour study was the lack of weights and measurements used to sell foodstuffs and commodities in the market. There were no weighing scales at all, unless they themselves were for sale. Instead, some form of “socially accepted” measure was used to display various quantities and their price.

Shelled green peas can be purchased by quantity displayed, and similar containers can be seen for dried fish and ground coffee as well. When asked, the shopkeeper may refer to each measure by “weight”, saying this is “half a kilo” or that is a quarter but in reality, these are simply approximations.

The dried fish has been more generously piled than the shelled peas, and this too is an interesting variance – primarily across product category rather than different shops. In a market, shopkeepers with similar products act like a cartel and offer similar quantities for similar prices (unless bargaining brings down the amount or a lagniappe is thrown in.)

Note how the ground coffee, which is slightly more expensive, is displayed in far small containers, catering to the purchasing power of the consumers frequenting the market.

This is called a ‘deben‘ and it is a standard measurement for charcoal across the entire country of Kenya. Prices naturally fluctuate between rural regions and city centers, but the container itself is ubiquitious though the actual amount piled on top might change according to the frugality of the seller.

This bagging was a surprise though, as I’d only seen it otherwise in rural Philippines (in informal markets, not supermarkets). This is not common.

These so called “social measurements” are intriguing to me. They are rough estimates and approximations and no two piles or containers will ever be alike, yet customers are quite willing for them to be priced the same. There is no pressure to measure exactly or purchase by weight of commodity, something so common in the wet markets of Asia. It seems to me there’s a link between this behaviour and the level of informality of the local market, as well as a greater willingness to accept that something might be “more or less” okay. How does this relate to local perceptions of time and money, the two key uncertainties in these challenging operating environments?

Your thoughts?

Why prepaid business models work so well for the rural and informal economy

We broke down the basic concept of the ‘pay as you go’ or prepaid mobile plan – in general, discounting the details of the various different strategies and pricing/time plans of different countries as a way to begin understanding what is it about this model that makes it work at the BoP.

Could we somehow find a general principle that could then be applied elsewhere, seeing as how successful this model has been amongst the lower income markets?

Fundamentally, all prepaid plans had one lumpsum upfront amount for the starter pack/activation and thereafter could be kept ‘alive’ by a minimum additional recharge or top up accordingly.

That is, this payment plan is flexible – it allows you to decide how much you wish to pay and when, though the absolute minimum frequency does depend on the provider’s rules and this decision making thus puts you in control of how much you spend and when; based on your incoming cash flow and current priorities for your discretionary spending.

Just for comparison’s sake, a mobile phone subscriber on a post paid model would have to pay the amount on the monthly bill by a certain date in order not to fall behind or incur penalties. That is, there is little flexibility (other than making actual changes to which plan you’re on) and the control of when to pay, how much to pay and the frequency of the billing is all in the hands  of the service provider. The user (customer) has little control over time and money.

Now, bringing it back to our findings from the workshop on the financial planning behaviour observed among those at the BoP where we see that it is their ability to control the elements of time – periodicity & frequency; money – cash or goods and also social capital or in this context “trust” that in fact allows them to increase their ability to plan their ‘cash flow’ and ‘working capital’ across their multiple sources of income and resource allocation, thus decreasing the variance between their income and expenditure.

We can already see the fundamental reason why, then, the pay as you go model has been successful for those at the BoP, it is one of the very few that essentially puts control over time and money in the hands of the user (customer) rather than the provider (business). One could, at this point, say that the element of trust or social capital is also involved – just as Ram Babu’s neighbour who loaned him Rs 1300 was willing to let him pay it back in small sums from the money he earned daily from his wheat mill until the total was paid off, the prepaid model does not impose fixed amounts and payment schedules on the user. The transactions occur at the customer’s discretion.

In sum

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Irregular income streams from a variety of sources pose their own challenges to both buyers and sellers but offer an opportunity through the flexibility designed into business models for the informal economies where this pattern of cash flow tends to be much more prevalent.

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Flexibility is key, as well as the ability to negotiate on “time” – frequency, periodicity, duration and “money” – amount. This works in the highly personalized transactions negotiated in most of the “developing” world but the challenge arises when those dependent on volatile cash flows meet “the system”, which cannot be negotiated with.

Between time and money in the equation of the underlying principle of flexibility is the “trusted network” or human beings. Facetime and financial flexibility have proportionate relationship to the success of a business model in such an environment.

Barcelona and informality

The ancient Roman town of Barsino, or Barcelona, the Catalan capital in Spain, was the location for the recently concluded symposium on the Informal Economy. Short overview of the conference is here, while on Flickr you’ll find my overdose on Antoni Gaudi as well as just the myriads of eyecatching details of the city.

I’ve been in Estonia this past week holding a human centered design workshop at the Tallinn University of Technology but those photos and writeup on the experience here will have to wait for another day or so after I’m back in The Netherlands. Today is a travel day.