Posts Tagged ‘prepaid business model’

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.

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.

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.

Published! Pathways Out of Poverty by iBoPAsia Project

Innovating with the BoP in Southeast Asia.

The iBoP Asia Project has published the complete set of small grants funding innovation projects for those at the Bottom of the Pyramid in the ASEAN region. One of the first projects to win the Small Grants competition in 2008 was The Prepaid Economy Project: Understanding BoP household financial management.