Posts Tagged ‘payment plans’

Is the pay per use business model changing household purchasing dynamics?

DSC08309The process of writing the previous post on India’s energy efficient cook-stove development efforts made me pause and reconsider my assumptions. Here’s the snippet that struck me in the article.

Philips took its India stove to more mature markets in Africa, where a raft of foreign-funded stove projects had familiarised customers with the product.

This seemed to explain why, when M-Kopa, the pay as you use solar system startup in Kenya, expanded their product line, the most popular first choice for low income consumers were improved cook-stoves.

Energy-saving stoves have been the highest seller to date, while smartphones are also proving popular.

Given the recent hand-wringing over the toilets vs phones stats, I would have expected smart phones to have been more popular than stoves. The fact that they aren’t implies to me that something more is going on than is apparent on the surface. I don’t think its as simple as “sensitization” efforts by NGOs, since the aspiration is still LPG not an improved stove.

You’ll note the assumption made in the pullquote from the Indian cook-stove article:

Women’s time and health were not valued; any family with Rs 1,000 to spare would first buy a mobile phone.

So, the question raised is whether M-Kopa changed this household dynamic, in a market where women’s domestic roles are similar to India’s?

During my exploratory user research study on household energy consumption behaviour for ToughStuff, a now defunct manufacturer of small solar products aimed at the exact same market segment in Kenya, I discovered that one of the barriers to the purchase of the product was the question of “Who would pay for it?”

The phone is a personal asset, purchased by the individual saving bits and bobs from their earnings, over time. Solar power or a cook-stove, is an asset shared by the entire household. Could it be that M-Kopa’s business model, predicated as it is on daily micro-payments to keep the lights running, has changed the dynamics of household purchase (rather than women’s roles)?

Its possible that whoever had the extra 50 shillings in their M-Pesa account sent it to M-Kopa for the day’s payment, and people took turns rather than the burden of purchase falling entirely on one income earner’s shoulders.

And now that more products have been made available for sale through this micro-payment method, it has opened up the opportunity for the purchase of more shared consumer durables, like cook-stoves, rather than individual items of use, like smartphones.

Given the implications of these snippets of insight from M-Kopa, and their importance to both women’s empowerment and the dynamics of domestic finance, I wish that the company would do more to release information, or offer their data for indepth analysis.

How social networks can share the cost of technology – An innovative payment plan

The original Prepaid Economy project grant from the iBoP Asia Project required me to design a payment plan for a shared community asset based on the exploratory user research on households managed their finances on irregular and unpredictable incomes. For the first time since I started looking into this space back in 2008 I’ve come across the use of this conceptual business model in the wild.

A successful South African entrepreneur who made his millions by selling computers in townships came up with an innovative variation of such as business model. Here are the details:

He soon realised the power of Stokvels, an informal savings pool or syndicate, in which money is contributed in lump sums on a rotational basis for family needs. Luvuyo clustered the teachers in groups of six where they contributed $35 every month. Within six months of starting the scheme, each teacher had their own computer.
[…]
He says you need to understand your business’s unique challenges to become a successful entrepreneur.

“We’re trading in Khayelitsha, where the employment rate is 60% and there’s no money. You need to be very smart in terms of how we get money and get people to pay. Some of the people coming for our services are dependent on social grants from government. They save that money for themselves to get a computer and better employment,” he says.

Part 3: Synthesis and Insights from original research on rural economic behaviour

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One can conclude from synthesizing the data collected across the geographies and the range of “BoP” income levels that rural households demonstrated similar patterns of behaviour in their management of household expenses on irregular income streams. These are:

  • the rapid conversion of cash into tangible assets such as goods or livestock,
  • the  subsequent storage of wealth in this form,
  • the ability to conduct cashless transactions by mechanisms both simple and sophisticated
  • shared or cooperative financial tools such as investments, loans, purchases and savings
  • the use of multiple resources allocated by cost and usage
  • knowledge and experience of seasonal ebb and flow influencing cash flow management

The irregularity of cash flow or income over time in the households studied can be said to be a combination of the known – such as the ebb and flow of income over the course of the year, either directly due to the natural seasons or due to other unnatural but predictable factors such as Christmas or vacations; and the unknown –  either the truly unpredictable such as a natural disaster or the simply random, such as not knowing how many customers will make a purchase on any given day.

The known component or the “reasonably predictable through experience”, is less a matter of the actual amount of income earned and more about knowing when to expect peaks and lows in cash flow. This element of seasonality would be a critical component of knowledge pertaining to a particular region or market for BoP ventures seeking to create value through successful introductions of products or services.

For example, in the rural region of The Philippines, January to approximately April or May (or until the rains begin) is considered the annual “summer” or “dry” season – unless a farm is very lucky to have access to sufficient water for rice growing regardless of rain, the farmers can only start planting when the rains arrive and are dependent on it for their second harvest as well. So overall, whether its tiny sari-sari1 stores supplying everyday essentials, snacks and cold drinks or some other business – even those selling necessities like food, all consider this a lean period.

Those who earn daily wages  helping farmers plant the rice have little work, farmers live on their stockpiled rice, everyone tends to spend less but along with the rains all of this changes and the pattern of spending increases until the annual Christmas peak. For some, wholly dependent on what they can earn locally (receiving no remittances from relatives abroad) this can mean a difference of 100% in their weekly earnings between the “wet” and the “dry” season.

The Indians and the Malawians were influenced in similar ways, only the actual timings varied due to geography. Whatever the reasons in any particular region, when evaluating the purchasing power of those who manage with irregular and unpredictable income, the first question to ask is if there are any known patterns of ebb and flow in their cash flow.

It is the unknown component that creates the unpredictable volatility that those on irregular income streams must deal with in order to manage their household expenses with any degree of control. The behaviours observed listed above, taken together, can be summarized to state that each household managed what could be called a “portfolio of investments” that acted as deposits maturing over time.

They either maintained multiple sources of income simultaneously since available cash was often converted into these investments, spreading the risk of any one source failing when needed or stored their wealth accordingly.  Maximizing available resources based on their cost and intended usage along with the tendency towards minimizing the need for cash based transactions all worked together  to smoothen the volatility of the household‘s income.

For example, one family in Malawi reared pigs for sales (or food in emergencies), grew vegetables and maize for their own needs, distilled wine from sugar cane for cash sales and also kept bees with a cooperative for annual harvest of honey. Cash was thus available in varying amounts from a variety of sources at different points of time.

In the Philippines, an extended household living together in one compound pooled their resources from a kitchen garden, stored fuel in the form of bamboo and dried coconut husk, kept chickens and occasionally a pig, as well managed on the small amounts of cash earned daily through running at small sari-sari store on the premises.

While in the Indian village, even the silversmith who made ornaments only during the harvest peak, used his metalworking skills and workshop the rest of the year to make doors, windows and grillwork.

This portfolio management approach to household expenses* implies the manipulation of their span of control over elements of time such as periodicity and frequency as well as currency, i.e. cash or goods, in order to decrease the volatility of their cash flow, improve their ability to plan and while decreasing the variance between expenses and income.

Across the board, the particular characteristic that most stood out during conversations with the rural populace in India and The Philippines, echoing  prior experience in the field elsewhere, was their undeniable pride in their degree of self reliance, and thus, their level of independence from the formal or cash based economy.

Over and over, people would proudly point to assets like firewood, livestock, kitchen gardens etc and emphasize that these resources were ‘free’ and didn’t need to be purchased for cash, often in the same breath pointing out how everything needed to be bought if you lived in the city. Whether it was a nanny goat kept just to provide the daily cup of milk for morning tea or an extra sack of rice held back from the harvest sales, there was a distinct sense of achievement for every penny that didn’t have to be spent.

This trait of minimizing the need for actual cash money also cropped up in other patterns of behaviour including the storage of wealth in the form of ‘kind’ or ‘goods’ (that could be liquidated when and if required); cashless transactions within the community, from the simple to the sophisticated; and the rapid conversion of surplus cash into goods or ‘kind’ (livestock, for example, as investment or planned savings in the form of silver or bricks for a future house).

Expensive resources that required cash outlays such as fuel – diesel for irrigation pumps; liquid petroleum gas cylinders for cooking; or airtime minutes purchased on prepaid plans for the ubiquitous mobile phone, would be stretched out for as long as possible before the need for replenishment. For example, a common behaviour was the choice of cheaper or ’free’ fuel such as firewood or dried cow dung for cooking food which took a long time to cook such as beans or stews, saving the use of the more expensive gas stove for fast cooking items.

All of these behaviours, taken together, imply a challenge for businesses seeking to serve rural populations effectively since their relative lack of liquidity places them in a challenging position as future customers. Conventional business development methods include the use of market research to evaluate the disposable income or purchasing power of the target audience. When considering rural BoP households, these tools may not supply any meaningful data, skewing the perceived income levels or earnings of those studied.

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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Conclusion

Broadly speaking, there was evidence of far more sophisticated cash flow management than has either been expected or assumed among the rural BoP households in the sample pool. In fact, one future task would be to parse out whether the terms ‘irregular’ or ‘unpredictable’ can be be applied. Certainly, income was not as predictable and regular as a salary, but on the other hand, neither were they totally random and unknown. At this point, it seems far more accurate to say that the rural BoP households do not manage their expenses on a “fixed amount arriving on a known day or date”.

Also to be reconsidered is whether those in the rural communities in developing countries should simply be lumped together with their urban brethren as an undifferentiated mass called “the BoP” or “the poor” – for one, living on $2 a day has an entirely different meaning where much of the hyper local economy may not even be based on cash transactions, or else, few daily requirements need to be purchased.

If we’re to seriously evaluate business development for BoP ventures, then a far more nuanced understanding of local culture, buyer behaviour and segmentation of these emerging consumer markets is required.

* Given the similiarities in findings, it should be noted that these insights emerged from a workshop conducted in Helsinki, Finland in April 2009, prior to the release of the now famous book, Portfolios of the Poor.

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.

The underlying principle of flexibility

The Economist writes about the proliferation of mobile money across the African continent, high lighting some aspects of its rapid adoption by the local population – 96% of whom are on prepaid or pay as you go mobile subscriptions.  A new survey of global financial habits by the Gates Foundation, the World Bank and Gallup World Poll found, among other things, that:

Most mobile-phone transactions are tiny. Market traders, for example, use mobile phones to pay peasant farmers for a single bag of cassava or maize-meal. One of the most successful mobile-phone products in Kenya is a SIM card costing just a few cents—but that is all people need for the occasional transaction.

In the informal economy, where the need to control one’s time (duration, frequency and periodicity) and money (cash or kind) was paramount, and where already the vast majority of mobile phone users are on prepaid accounts, these mobile money transfer systems offer the flexibility that those on irregular income streams need, in order to manage their finances effectively.  No credit checks or payslips or reams of banking paperwork involved.

I saw this informality in the social measurements used in the market – rough approximations of quantity and estimates of weight. I wondered in a different post what this willingness to be flexible might imply – where neither the buyer nor the seller were concerned about exact weights and measures, allowing a communal decision on fair price to emerge instead. Now it strikes me that the underlying principle of flexibility is what makes all of these models work.