Posts Tagged ‘mobile’

Connectivity, Communication, and Commerce: The 3 Cs of Africa’s Smartphone Led Future

Recent headlines touted the decline in marketshare being seen by smartphones on the African continent, and the concurrent increase in sales of basic devices. Yet a closer look shows that this shift might only be numerical due to the opening of new markets in heavily populated DR Congo and Ethiopia – first time buyers are likely to start with entry level phones.

In fact, role of smartphones in Africa is not only likely to grow and evolve over the coming 3 to 5 years but its very likely that it will be connectivity apps driving their adoption. We Are Social’s latest report shows Africa’s internet user numbers have been growing by over 20% year-on-year.

The 4th C – the Challenge of Unquestioned Assumptions and Great Expectations

With connectivity and communication, commerce was expected to take off but anyone tracking the headlines would notice the challenges faced by African e-commerce platforms. Some point fingers to connectivity as the issue, expecting to reap benefits from scale of penetration. Others point to high costs of data and devices, or challenges with completing the transaction online.

Looking at the patterns exposed by all the reports and the articles makes one wonder whether it’s the underlying assumptions and expectations that are the real problem. The untapped market is hyped out of proportion by each new entrant who rush in with their disruption to revolutionize the African consumer, only to rush back out again when the traction fails to succeed. This has been muddying the waters of what could have been a considered thoughtful opportunity to transform the social and economic landscape.

Yet its not all negative. If someone was to ask me about how connectivity and communication are driving commerce in the African context, I’d point to the plethora of informal trade in goods and services being conducted daily across social media platforms. Everyday there’s a new product or service launched with a tweet. Groups on Facebook encourage and support the entrepreneurial journey. Cryptocurrency trading is making Kenya famous as a first mover.

The difference in traction seems to be that which is self organized and organic vs that which is institutionalized and/or introduced from elsewhere. The external pressure to succeed in the same terms as that visible in the Silicon Valleys might actually be a greater barrier to the sustainable development of the African online community led commerce, increasing pressure on founders and startups with every negative headline. Maybe the lesson from the informal organic growth online is that might actually be a matter of throw the technology at them and see what emerges without lifting the lid every other second to check progress?

Maybe all that is needed is more locally relevant content, such as already being seen emerging from Nigerian and Kenyan tech blogs, rather than the imposition of metrics and heuristics from developed nation contexts.

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.

Samsung took its commitment to the African market very seriously

This article in the Financial Times caught my attention first for it’s mention of Samsung’s seemingly innovative adaptation to the harsh operating environment prevalent across the African continent. It reminded me of the very first exploratory user research programme I had been part of, for Samsung, back in early 2008. That was a seminal trip for me, 3 weeks by Landy through the bleakest parts of rural South Africa, in search of how people lived, worked, and played with their mobile phones.

Mobile phone repairman, Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa, January 2008 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

We discovered what I would now look back and recognize as a whole new world. This fieldtrip was the turning point in my career, and the prepaid economy project was the outcome of questioning many of the assumptions around what were then called “Bottom of the Pyramid” markets, which had been shattered, in my eyes, by this journey’s end.

Life is hard” became my mantra for the next couple of years, as I illustrated the vast chasm between the mainstream consumer market’s mindset of credit driven consumerism, and the cash intensive hitherto ignored reality of the townships and informal settlements. The article I wrote on the mindset and values of Africans in their guise as customers for consumer goods – who had not been conditioned by generations of advertising messaging since the poor (the BoP, the bottom of the pyramid)- went on to be cited by the late CK Prahalad himself in the revised 2010 Introduction to his seminal The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

Next came the development of a holistic strategy to reach these untapped opportunities, with a semblance of a value system rather than be driven by the pure profit motive alone.

The core values, then and now, for a consumer appliance, device, or hardware, any durable really, was the following:

Simple
Easy
Endurance
Survivor/al
Commitment

If Samsung is established in its foothold in Africa today, and their appliances are designed to survive the environment and meet the needs of their African customers, then I am very pleased to read it.

That first photograph is of the slider that Samsung models being sold at that time had. And in Africa, as the repair guru holding the part was showing us – and two of Samsung’s own mobile design team members – was the weakest point of failure in their phones. Grit would get in and jam the part, and most such phones came in for repair within a few months of their purchase date.

Later, in London, where the Samsung Design Europe office was located, we walked into one of their phone shops – somewhere near Harrods, if I recall correctly, and asked about the longevity of their slider phones. The salesman gave us a long song and dance about how these parts had been tested to “slide” a thousand times before each model went on sale. Yes, I mused to myself, it had. In the dustfree laboratory conditions of their engineering unit, or the less harsh environment of London or Seoul. What about upcountry South Africa? Or Senegal or Kenya or even, India?

The 2009 models introduced for emerging market opportunities, such as those on the African continent almost a decade ago, were all candybars.

As for me, I’ve never stopped using a good oldfashioned “dumb” Nokia that stolid Finnish engineering and product development ensured would survive and endure anything – even being run over by a truck.

Prepaid Mobile: The Business Model that Empowers

It feels like a long time since I last pondered the nuances of the prepaid business model, until I came across some words written by Indian social media researcher Swati Janu. She documented her observations on the infrastructure of insecurity from the tenements of New Delhi.  There’s value in reflecting on how our understanding only increases over time, and we can never say that we’ve stopped learning

This sentence caught my attention:

From a rural population that is fast going online to the resourceful teens in urban slums, the lower income demographics are choosing to buy internet, through small but recurrent amounts, which enable them to straddle the line between affordability and aspiration.

The small but recurrent amounts – the Rs 10 mobile recharge Janu writes about – are the lifeblood of the prepaid payment plan for voice, text, and data (airtime) for the now ubiquitous cellphone that has changed the landscape of the developing world.

To enable the lower income demographic’s ability to straddle the divide between their aspirations and their ability to afford them is empowering. One could say that:

Prepaid is a business model that empowers aspiration, through affordability, incrementally.

Instant gratification has never been within their purview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design of Digital Financial Services for Inclusion Needs More Respect and Humility to Succeed

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Source: https://twitter.com/SharonKith

In the past week alone, I’ve seen three glaring cases of unquestioned assumptions around the design and implementation of Digital Financial Service (DFS) particularly for financial inclusion, but also otherwise. This gives rise to the question whether the industry is prepared to undertake the mission they have set for themselves.

The first is that their technology, in whatever form – the app, the device, the USSD service – will and should (unquestioned, remember) disrupt people’s behaviour completely. While it is true that using a mobile phone to make a payment instead of cash is a change in behaviour, or rather, habit, it is not the same as type of change as transforming the entire culture to become more individualistic as opposed to communal; or less relationship oriented and more contractually transactional. I am finding the words clumsy to use and hope that one of you reading this has the expert knowledge at their fingertips to better articulate what I am attempting to describe. Hofstede had a clue.

There is a fundamental arrogance in framing the need for human intermediaries in the digital financial service transaction model as a “necessary evil” – sounds like a toddler’s bad habit that they need to be weaned off in order to become adults. The bulk of those who are financially excluded live in cultures where human contact and social relationships within the community are more important than faceless, meaningless transactions by the individual isolated with their techno-utopian device. To expect this to change to conform to your pretty little use case diagram is rather presumptuous, if not downright offensive.

The second is more generalized. Its a blithe disregard for any differences in context and operating environment between the more formal economies and those where the informal sector is the majority. Nobody pauses to question whether there are differences that need to be considered. Its like landing on Mars expecting the same atmosphere. This report on the global emergence of a cashless economy ends with offering 3 implications of 4 megatrends.

If indeed two of these implications are the outcome of the single factor of increasing financial inclusion, then how can they be lumped together with the third implication which is clearly one meant for more advanced consumer markets? The interpretation on transaction volume and pricing behaviour is thus rendered inaccurate as it does not distinguish between the digital payment ecosystem currently prevalent in emerging markets from that existing in advanced markets.

When your fundamental premise has no foundation, your extrapolations and projections will not only be in error, but the unquestioned starting assumptions will snowball along the strategy and product development chain leading to a vast gaping void between your original intent and the actions taken, much less the outcomes aimed at.

Lastly, when it comes to fintech in the African context, there’s a pattern of analysis that is either too basic in its assumptions – mobile phones are good for digital financial services and nobody has actually noticed this fact because we never did; or, too ready to read the worst in a chart or the data. This leads to policy recommendations in 2016, ten years after Mpesa was introduced in Kenya, that offer up such insightful suggestions as “Africa must promote the use of mobiles to include the excluded financially.”

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This is rather disheartening for the rest of us who have been watching the African digital financial economy move forward in leaps and bounds, in many ways far ahead of the rest of the world. It also takes the current conversation back to kindergarten level rather than the post graduate courses we could be discussing. Given the advancements already actively engaged with across the continent, isn’t it time that policy researchers took the trouble to come up to speed?

And given the importance of financial inclusion, isn’t it time that the stakeholders actively working on digital financial services took their target audience seriously, with some respect, and wee bit more humility? They might discover their efforts move forward much faster.

 

 

The imagery of contemporary tech startups from the African continent

1mmNo matter what Google’s search results may show, this is NOT the image of mobile innovation, technology startups, and the African continent’s ICT infrastructure. This is a photograph staged by Oxfam to show a Maasai moran – a young man from one of the pastoralist communities living in the arid lands of Eastern Africa.

equitel

This billboard is from Nairobi, the regional heart of fintech and app driven business models, emerging from the numerous co-working spaces now dotting the grid connected city. There is fibre underneath.

When you choose this photograph to illustrate your blogpost, article, or report on contemporary African tech and startup scene, what is the assumption you are making about the young people flocking online? What is the message you are choosing to send them about your opinion of them? Are you able to discern any difference between these two photographs?

Untapped opportunities in Francophone Africa for design of apps and smartphone solutions

Bacely Yorobi shares challenges at the AfDB Innovation Weekend, Oct 2015 Photo: Niti Bhan

Bacely Yorobi shares his challenges at the AfDB Innovation Weekend, Oct 2015  Photo: Niti Bhan

Bacely Yorubi frames the opportunity space for local app design and development in The Toronto Star:

“Lots of young Africans who’ve studied elsewhere and returned home have expectations of mobile services that don’t yet exist,” said Bacely Yorobi, an app developer from Ivory Coast. “So they’re the ones coding and putting new African-made apps out there.”
[…]
“Africans don’t like to put their money in the bank, but they will put it in their phone,” said Yorobi.
[…]
“We have everything we need to build an app, but we don’t have the support to bring it to market,” said Yorobi, during a trip to Paris to court investors.

I find it all the more interesting from the francophone West African perspective, as the nascent tech industry races to catch up with their anglophone neighbours in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. Given the waves being made by world class outfits such as Cameroon’s Kiro’o Games, or Senegal’s rapidly maturing tech ecosystem, one might discover they’ll outpace the competition given time and support.

Bacely’s comments also make me wonder why the global giants pushing financial inclusion in Cote D’Ivoire and other WAEMU countries aren’t looking for local partners and developers, given their ongoing struggles for traction. Perhaps its time to discover that not everything imported from abroad is always the best solution.

Cross-border mobile financial services in Africa are going to be huge

africa_webAnalysis Mason has an excellent article on the next big thing in mobile money across the African continent – cross border payments. I covered the emergence of these services, through regional operators as well as partnerships based on interoperability earlier. This is what I asked for:

Mapping it all

I’d love it if someone could capture all of this into one map and infographic – not only the cross border transactional ability but also the cross border interoperability as well as in country interoperability. Like the Zambians, I think the potentials for business, trade, e-commerce and biashara are far more than anyone has even considered. Top down reportage on banking and interoperability seems to focus only on the customer’s individual needs, and overlooks their agency as entrepreneurs, traders and business people.

And this is what Analysis Mason’s article has to add:

Cross-border mobile money transfer services enable the informal sector to participate in the formal financial system and avoid opening a bank account, which typically requires more extensive documentation (for example, proof of residence) than registering with a mobile operator. Mobile money provides a safer, quicker, and often less expensive, alternative for cross-border money transfers.

Demand for cross-border remittances is also driven by regional integration, particularly in East and West Africa where regional agreements promote cross-border trade and monetary integration. Significant movement of African labour across borders, to seek higher wages and new employment opportunities (especially within regional ‘blocs’), also creates a mobile population, driving demand for mobile remittance services.

Given the dates of emergence of partnerships extending the reach of well known services such as Mpesa after the publication of this analysis, I suggest going with the data collated here first. On the other hand, they were the first to map it all so I’m surprised my earlier search didn’t turn up this article which shows an earlier publication date on the web page.

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