Posts Tagged ‘pay as you go’

The business model of drinking water in urban Ghana

In Accra, Ghana, packaging potable water into single serve sachets for the mass market (the prepaid economy) is a business model that has evolved extremely rapidly in response to customer demand and purchasing power.

Bottled mineral water for the elite trickled down in quantity and form until the man on the street can buy a glassful for pennies. From the article The cost of pure water:

“I think we’ve seen almost an entire product life cycle in just a decade,” Stoler said. “Initially it was more of the autocrats drinking sachets. Very quickly, within a few years, it seems to have shifted to lower income and the poorest of the poor… You don’t go to a conference or symposium and get served sachet water.”

Stoler believes the “warp-speed evolution” of the industry has quickly made the product better and cleaner. Due to the enormous demand, bigger producers like Voltic have stepped in and are using the same water they put in bottles, sold to the rich, in the sachets sold to the lower and middle classes. And with lots of competition in most areas, and billions of bags being consumed each year, the customer base is quickly becoming more discerning about what they buy.

“This is one of those weirder examples of almost pure capitalism,” Stoler said. “You have this gap in supply, so the private sector steps in and fills the demand. Customers start to understand that there’s differentiation in product quality. Better quality producers rise to the top, the market incentives produce better quality products, and without tons of over-regulation, the market has ended up with a pretty good product.”

His work shows that the intelligent Ghanaian customer base has helped evolve the experimental, and perhaps unhealthy, product that Osei sampled into a cleaner one. In a recent study focusing on two poorer neighbourhoods of Accra, Old Fadama and Old Tulaku, Stoler found no faecal contamination in any sachet sample.

Reading the article further, you’ll note that this service is typical of the way the informal sector quickly senses an opportunity to be satisfied.

Exploratory User Research in the Rural Economy

When I first began developing the attributes by which to select representative user profiles for the original fieldwork to begin understanding the “prepaid economy”, that is, household financial management in rural India, The Philippines and Malawi, it was based on people’s ability to plan and budget.

Sustainable Value Chain 8

One can plan best when one is certain of the amount of money incoming and its date of arrival, thus one is best able to manage household expenses on a regular salary on a periodic calender based schedule.  If we cluster rural residents by their ability to accurately estimate the amount of money against its arrival, then the salaried employee is at one of the continuum of certainty. He or she knows exactly how much they will receive and on which date. The other end, however, is the most uncertain, such as the case of the daily wages labourer who may or may not be called for work on a particular day or week.

The farmer, if experienced, tends to fall in between these two points, as they are usually able to look at their crops and estimate approximately the yield and readiness of the harvest. This simple framework of time and money allowed for a reasonably representative sample of any particular region where geography is responsible for the climate and the seasons. The uncertainties faced by local farmers were broadly the same.

Now, we hope to take a closer look at this segmentation model to better refine our understanding of rural economies. At which point did a farm transition from mere subsistence towards aspirations? How? What distinguished a member of the global emerging middle class (GEMs) from one who was barely able to hold house and hearth together? Which other actors were critical to the rural economy, delineated in this case as the last mile of the agricultural value chain, and who were the supporting cast ? All farmers in a region are not alike – how would we begin to cluster sub-segments and which additional attributes would help us?

As a starting point, here are some of the key insights that have already been consistently identified:

  1. The greater the span of control the end user had over their time and money in a payment plan – the amount, whether it was in cash or kind; and its timing i.e. the frequency, periodicity and duration, the greater the likelihood of its success.
  2. Seasonality was a fact of life and cash flows over the course of the natural year reflected this aspect. High seasons and low; wet seasons and dry – the rural economy was closely tied to the land, the ebb and flows of income affecting everyone in the farming community, from shopkeepers to truck drivers.
  3. Liquidity does not reflect wealth, nor cash expenditures a signal of purchasing power.
  4. Affordability is less a matter of absolute price and more dependent on the flexibility of the payment pattern.
  5. In the majority of the developing world, the rural economy is flexible, informal, local, social and interdependent. Trusted social networks were the basis of looking upon the community as insurance in bad times and resilience in the face of uncertainty and adversity a recurring characteristic.

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.

The Informal Economy Symposium, Barcelona on October 12th 2012

Our aim with this symposium is to explore the global scope, innovations and potential futures of the informal economy.

Opening Keynote will be John Keith Hart, who coined the term “informal economy” and the day long symposium on the 12th of October will be closed by John Thackara.  There will be three panel discussions, as follows:

PANEL 1: SCOPE, MEANING AND TENSIONS IN THE INFORMAL ECONOMY

This panel will explore the scope, tensions and influences of the informal economy. It will set the stage, provide case studies, and present new themes that make clear why the informal economy is a key topic for business and society today. It will address critical questions for the symposium: What are historical foundations, contemporary developments, conception and misconceptions of the informal economy? What parts are institutionalised or marginalised and which are not?  What does regulation look like?  How is the informal economy similar or different in emerging vs. developed markets?  What kinds of goods and services does it include?  Are there good and bad informal economies? How are the informal and formal linked? How do labor, goods and services move within and between them? Why does contemporary business need to understand the informal economy?

PANEL 2: THE FUTURE OF MONEY AND THE INFORMAL ECONOMY

This panel will explore the use of money and other exchanges in the informal economy. This panel builds on the previous, starting with the premise that the informal economy is a place to create new value for business and society. It will discuss the relationship between regulated finance and informal exchanges, focusing on, among other things, mobile money. Some key questions to be addressed include: How is the use, exchange and idea of money similar or different in formal vs. informal economies? How do digital technologies encourage and expand informal practices and exchanges?  What are the ways to establish financial links and other bridges between formal businesses and informal practices? What are specific financial needs in various informal economies? What are the challenges faced by companies operating in financial services and other businesses when addressing the context and practices of the informal economy?
panelists: Ben Lyon, Ignacio Mas, Niti Bhan  moderator: Rich Radka

PANEL 3: INNOVATION AND OPPORTUNITIES IN THE INFORMAL ECONOMY

This panel will look at innovation within the informal economy. Rather than approach informal economic practices as make-do strategies of people in the margins, panelists explore the potential for the lean and agile practices of the informal economy to adapt to contemporary global shifts. Some key questions to be addressed include: Can informal economic practices be indicators of future economic activity? What can these practices teach us about our own innovation efforts and modes of doing business?  What does the persistence of informal economies mean for the future of business? What challenges does it present? What are some ways companies can act on opportunities?

You can register for the symposium here, or follow the blog and twitter hashtag #informaleconomy.

“Kadogo” kerosene vs “Lumpsum” LPG: Trade-offs and cost/benefit analysis

Following a fascinating conversation with @bankelele and @majiwater on Twitter regarding the cost of kerosene, pay as you go models and relative benefits of each, I’ve been inspired to write this post exploring the topic further.

Before I proceed, I’d like to take a moment to clarify what the “Prepaid” in the title of this blog means: it is not so much the literal meaning of the word, as in you have paid in advance, although that is a part of the business model, but refers to the inherent flexibility built into the “pay as you go” business models. That is, the end user has a significant degree of control over the timing of a payment, the amount paid, the periodicity and frequency of such payments and that each time payments can be of different amounts. This underlying element of flexibility over time and money is what has made the prepaid business model so attractive and thus successful, among the majority of the world’s population on who manage on irregular income streams from a variety of sources.  For those interested in diving into this finding further, you can read posts tracking the original field research in 2009 by using the category of “user research” on this blog.

The conversation this morning however was on the patterns of purchase observed in household energy consumption – kerosene and liquid petroleum gas (LPG) as well as which offered a better ROI, intermingled with class/status associated with choice of fuel and its availability in urban vs. rural areas. The following discussion is based on the Kenyan context but the exploration of cost/benefit and the flexibility inherent in business models for each, are of relevance to the larger discussion on payment plans for the informal economy.

Lumpsum LPG versus “Kadogo” Kerosene

One of the reasons that kerosene is so hard to dislodge as the fuel of choice among lower income populations (or, as may be the case, based on further research, “lower middle class” behaviour rather than income per se) is that it can be purchased on demand, on a pay as you go basis. That is, it can be purchased by quantity (as little as 1/4 litre) or cash amount (give me 50 Ksh worth of kerosene) as and when required. There is no imposition on the customer to purchase any fixed minimum quantity or cash amount.

LPG comes in cylinders of fixed sizes, that is the quantity and its cost is already preset, although one can see a wider range of smaller sizes across the developing world, offering a greater amount of flexibility than the single size/cost of the standard LPG cylinder more popular elsewhere.  Thus, it requires a “lumpsum” to be available – either for first purchase or for a refill, although, over the duration of use, it provides a better return.

There is a discussion here that can happen on the “poverty premium” imposed by the lack of such lumpsums of cash available to those who manage on more irregular incomes, thus forcing them to use a more expensive fuel only due to the flexibility of its business model.

This morning we looked at actual numbers, from Nairobi where kerosene retails at 100 Kenyan shilling per litre while the average LPG cylinder purchase is around 4000 Ksh.  Those who use kerosene as their “fast cooking” fuel, as opposed to slower charcoal for their primary cooking, still end up requiring a litre a day – that’s 3000 shillings a month, while the cylinder costing 4000 Ksh can be made to last for 3 months before requiring a refill. Refills cost 2000 Ksh.

This seems to imply that choosing LPG over kerosene is a no-brainer, and in fact, this cost benefit comparison was shared with me by Felix, who has often worked for me in the capacity of local guide and driver. He’s a taxi driver by trade, however, and its more likely that he will have available the lumpsum cash required for LPG purchase. For someone whose income sources do not offer the same quantity of lumpsums (smaller daily cash flow and transactions), this may not be a viable, though cheaper, option, forcing them to purchase more expensive kerosene simply due to the cash in hand constraints.

Another factor that plays here is urban fuel use patterns as opposed to rural. While the daily juggling between “fast cooking” and “slow cooking” items is the same, i.e. use cheaper fuel for things that take longer to cook and expensive fuel for speed or convenience (morning tea before rushing to work), those in small market towns and rural areas tend towards a combination of firewood and charcoal, while the housing layouts and structures force urban dwellers to use charcoal and kerosene.  Firewood is forbidden and/or simply not available as it is on the shamba.

Again, as we know, long standing habits and behaviour migrate along with people, however, there may be interesting findings in taking a closer look at why existing behaviour is so hard to change and the correlating influence of business models.

One has heard this morning, however, that there is a pilot program in Nairobi which is testing the pay as you go / on demand purchase model even for LPG refills. This will be an interesting program to observe and I hope to be able to do so in the coming weeks.

Informal payment plans offer flexibility and convenience

Rural consumer electronics shop, Kenya 16 Feb 2012

Rural electronics shops in the North Meru region of Kenya are full of colour television sets, home stereos and DVD players as increasing electrification of smaller and smaller market towns takes place. How do aspiring customers pay for these high value items on their variable income streams?

Aspirational ownership and tangible evidence of savings

Since shop owners tend to know the great majority of their customers as members of the local community, as neighbours and friends, and are aware of the patterns of income flow in the local economy, they have evolved an informal layaway plan for these high ticket items.

Customers choose what they wish to purchase, not simply the brand, model or device but also the exact specific item in the store. While each shopkeeper has his or her own method of record keeping, the general pattern is to put the future owner’s name on the product, the total cost and start a page in a ledger to track payments made against purchase. Customers can pay as little or as much as they are able, whenever they are able and every so often, the sticker at the back (or whatever specific means each shop uses) will change to reflect this remaining balance.  Some customers can take upto 2 or 3 years to complete their purchase but none can take the device home until the full payment has been made.

This informal and simple method touches upon so many of the insights uncovered during the original ‘prepaid economy’ research conducted two years ago that it almost feels like the perfect solution that fits the needs of the customers and the shopkeepers. The elements are:

1. Increasing the span of control over time (periodicity and frequency) and money (amount) for the customer lowers the barriers to successful purchase and payments. There is no undue pressure on the customer to make a payment by any due date nor to pay any fixed amount. Like topping up your prepaid mobile phone account, you can come and pay any amount at any time towards this purchase.

2. Seasonality and its influence on the rural economy is understood by the shop owners and they know that even if payments may be small or slow during the relevant low season, there’s a high chance that the product will be owned by harvest time.

3. Tangible evidence of savings is demonstrated by the equivalent of the “Sold” sticker – even if the product stays on display at the shop until the price is paid in full, its a tangible reminder of perceived ownership that you have put your name on it and are working to take it home one day.

Some concerns about ‘pay as you go’ lighting solutions in rural markets

Daily chores, rural Kenya 7 February 2012

Having just got back yesterday after immersion in an arid part of rural Kenya, it struck me after coming across yet another solar lighting solution with a pay as you go or prepaid business model that this may become a barrier for many subsistence farmers, most of whom are off the grid and so, are a potential market for such solutions.

Why, when people are already accustomed to small top up amounts for airtime or for regularly charging their phone?

First, because the phone is the asset. Owned in full by the customer. Whereas, I am not yet clear whether the plethora of lights available for use with a mobile payment will eventually belong to the customer or not, and when.

Second, those who live on their land relying on farming to support their families tend to minimize their need for cash money for a variety of reasons. Often they can go without if they must as staples are stored after harvest and barest minimum for survival is usually assured – even if the phone goes uncharged or topped up.

Third, most mobile money transfer systems such as Safaricom’s MPesa, have a fixed percentage of commision on each transfer regardless of amount. This can hurt at the amounts that the majority tend to top up (for example it costs about 20 shillings to charge your mobile phone or your average top up might also be that amount) and I’m sure that the whole benefit of pay as you go business models is the small amount each time. To give context, see the photograph above of the lady of the house walking an hour or two with 20 litres (20 kg) of water in order to save 20 shillings paid to the water seller.

I have felt that this business model was important and critical but now I question it. I have been tracking such models for around 3 years now and can see its value but at the same time, I have begun questioning whether it can be applied in blanket form for any and every thing. Sort of like what happened with sachets – shampoo worked and so did margarine. Next thing you know everything was in a sachet. Not everything worked, there’s research to that effect out there from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad for those interested.

After this trip, it struck me that people like reaching goals and owning visible assets – be it a cow, a goat or a solar light. Layaway plans are extremely popular – they allow for the same flexibility of putting small bits of cash against a future asset but then, some day, you get to own it. The lack of clarity around when these customers will own all these solar products is disturbing. Why isn’t it being mentioned clearly? Where are the terms and conditions?

Pay as you go may make sense in the context of future ownership but I’m still curious to know how it will all work out in the context of usage, for you can do without your phone but you cannot do without your light at night and early in the morning. Many have said that if they had to choose what to charge first with solar or with available cash, they’d pick light over a phone. Will these products and their programs create such tradeoffs in decision making for their customers?