Posts Tagged ‘irregular incomes’

Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy in Asia

This is the original working paper of the research conducted on rural household financial management, in developing country conditions, pioneering the use of methods from human centered design for discovery, during Nov 2008 to March 2009, aka the Prepaid Economy Project. It was peer reviewed by Brett Hudson Matthews, and I have incorporated his comments into the PDF.

This research study was carried out with the aid of a grant from the iBoP Asia Project (, a partnership between the Ateneo School of Government and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (

The abstract:

The challenge faced by Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) ventures has been the lack of knowledge about their intended target audience from the point of view of business development whereas decades of consumer research and insights are available for conventional markets. What little is known about the BoP’s consumer behaviour, purchasing patterns and decision making tends to assume that there are no primary differences between mainstream consumers and the BoP except for the amount of their income – pegged most often between $2 to $5 a day.

In practice, the great majority at the BoP manage on incomes earned from a variety of sources rather than a predictable salary from a regular job and have little or no access to conventional financial tools such as credit cards, bank accounts, loans, mortgages. This is one of the biggest differentiators in the challenge of value creation faced by BoP ventures, particularly among rural populations (over 60% of the global BoP population lives in rural areas).

Exploratory research was conducted in the field among rural Indian and rural Filipino populations in order to understand how those on irregular incomes managed their household expenses. Empirical data collected by observations, interviews and extended immersion led us to identify patterns of behaviour among the rural BoP in their management of income and expenditure, ‘cash flow’ and ‘working capital’ and the significance of social capital and community networks as financial tools. Practices documented include ‘conversion to goods’, ‘stored wealth’, ‘cashless transactions’, and reliance on multiple sources of income that mature over different times.

This paper will share our observations from the field; identify some challenges these behaviours create for business and also explore some opportunities for value creation by seeking to articulate the elements that BoP ventures must address if they are to do business profitably with the rural ‘poor’ based on their own existing patterns of financial habits and norms.

The Conclusion:

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Seasonality as an element of contextual planning for emerging consumer markets

livestock flows eac fewsnetGrowing up as a Hindu expat in multicultural ‘West Malaysia’ of the 1970s and 80s, it was a matter of course that every festival would be a big occasion. We had Christmas in December, and Chinese New Year soon after, to be followed by Hari Raya (Eid) and Deepawali – each of them deserving of TV specials and decorations on the streets.

Seasonality of cash flows and income streams in the informal and rural economy translated in the urban areas as festivals triggered a boom in consumer sales. India’s formal economy still keeps watch on the onset of the annual monsoons, as those rains will have documented impact on their 3rd quarter sales in the peak festival season of October and November, leading into the wedding season.

In Eastern Africa, this seasonality is seen, among other things, in the lives of pastoralists and livestock farmers. As Eid Al Adhar approaches in a few days, livestock sales for the annual sacrifice are reaching their peak. Trade in meat is one of the staple income sources in the arid lands and the Port of Mombasa is one of the keys to the distribution networks.

The livestock trade to the Middle East accounts for 60 percent of Somaliland’s gross domestic product and 70 percent of its jobs.

This, however, is changing, as the Port of Berbera will soon receive millions of dollars of investment in improved infrastructure. The element of seasonal cycles over the course of the natural year, however, will not change. And this is worth noting for those considering the emerging consumer markets in the developing world.

Beyond word of mouth, however, it is hard to get a proper idea about the economic impact of Ramadan. Perhaps because of sensitivities around dealing with a religious institution, international organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and United Nations Development Programme have not conducted research on the precise economic impact of the custom.

FMCG majors already feeling the pinch of shrinking domestic markets are finally taking note of this entire opportunity space. In Indonesia, Unilever, Beiersdorf and L’Oreal are making halal face creams and shampoos to court Muslims as sales in Western markets taper off.

There are patterns of trade around major holidays in each region, be it Chinese New Year or Dussehra, and the informal sector prepares for, and relies upon, these expected bumper ‘harvests’ in their cash flow. It will be interesting to watch what happens in the context of the African consumer market as the Asian giants begin to eye it seriously as the last frontier for significant growth.

First world trends: Financial inclusion, the unbanked, and the prepaid business model


The Economist explains just how expensive banking can be for the lower income population, even in the United States. Financial inclusion for the unbanked and underbanked must include cost/benefit analysis based on the limitations of income streams of those whom they hope to serve. The cost of ownership is often overlooked in current day literature, which tends to focus on access to formal financial services, whether digital or otherwise. As the data clearly shows, value for money is a critical part of access, and a deciding factor in the choice to remain unbanked.

Life is expensive for America’s poor, with financial services the primary culprit, something that also afflicts migrants sending money home (see article). Mr Martin at least has a bank account. Some 8% of American households—and nearly one in three whose income is less than $15,000 a year—do not (see chart). More than half of this group say banking is too expensive for them. Many cannot maintain the minimum balance necessary to avoid monthly fees; for others, the risk of being walloped with unexpected fees looms too large.

Increasing popularity of prepaid business models

The GSMA expects the North American prepaid market to grow to 31% by 2020 and its hovering around 29% at this time. This is just over double the proportion of prepaid vs postpaid subscribers in the past 5 years.

In fact, US telcos like Sprint have recently announced their intent to drop the 2 year contract business model, offering smartphones on lease just like competitors Verizon and T-Mobile. And phone maker Apple has gone as far as to offer their own rent to own program, one which resembles SUV leasing arrangments with a new model every year.

Screenshot-2015-09-10-10.02.44-600x283This is an interesting trend as it points to the reluctance of consumers to commit to 2 years of unexpected bills at the end of the month, preferring the certainty that prepaid offers over your spending. Concurrently, there’s been a noticeable rise in prepaid credit cards and other similar facilities.

As of 2012, roughly 12 million Americans used a prepaid card at least once a month and we collectively loaded $65 billion to them – double the amount loaded just three years prior. That figure is expected to rise to $337.8 billion by 2017, according to Mercator Advisory Group – an increase of 420%.

The prepaid business model empowers customers by putting control over timing – frequency & periodicity, as well as amounts spent, in their hands. Flexibility to manage one’s expenses, against incomes, is another aspect that’s attractive about this business model. Companies love it too as cash flows accrue in advance, minimizing the risks of defaults.

Consumer income streams are changing in America

Do these trends reflect the changing patterns of cash flow among consumers, as indicated by the rise of such revenue generators as Uber, AirBnB and others of their ilk?

Irregular and unpredictable income streams are part and parcel of the independent worker, regardless of label, as they are not guaranteed a known amount in the form of a salary arriving on a predictable calender schedule.

This app offering to help you manage uncertainty seems to imply so.

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.

Convenience as a service

Shredded cabbage for sale, Wote, Kenya 3rd February 2012

Convenience can mean different things to the household consumer, depending on their location. In urban Chicago, its stocking up the freezer and pantry with a trip to a megastore like Costco while in Singapore it might be the ubiquitous neighbourhood hawker stand where rice, meat, two veg can be had for as little as $2.50 per person. Here in the mostly rural, arid Makueni district of Kenya where the concept of leftovers is moot and only bars and restaurants tend to have a refrigerator, convenience means stopping by the cabbage lady for just enough for tonight’s meal.

Kerosene sales, Wote, Kenya 4th Feb 2012

Purchasing patterns observed previously among those on irregular income streams have been clustered into  four major categories:
1. Prepaid or pay as you go
2. Bulk purchases of non perishables
3. Sachetization or as its called here in Kenya, kadogo
4. On demand, for immediate use

The shredded cabbage, being sold by weight or “amount” (half a cabbage or quarter) is a clear example of the last pattern and common across the world while the way kerosene is being sold could be said to be closer to a ‘sachet’ or small purchase as it tends not to be a daily or on demand purchase.

Interestingly, here I saw bulk purchasing for firewood or charcoal rather than foodgrains since most families have some land where they grow maize.  The maize is first and foremost for household use and only the surplus is sold.

So why have I called this ‘convenience as a service’?

There is a premium one is paying for the convenience – whether its the shredding being done for you or the difference in price of kerosene between the town and the village.  Someone has saved you the time and effort thus it costs money. There’s an entire economy around water and its supply chain that I’ll be taking a closer look in a forthcoming post.