Posts Tagged ‘prepaid economy’

Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment

This topic is being shared in the form of a collection of essays on the following themes, each becoming hyperlinked on completion. Do bookmark this page for regular updates.

Introduction to Background and Context, some caveats apply
Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity
Rural household financial management as a foundation
Linkages and Networks span Urban and Rural Markets
Underlying Principles for Financial and Social Contracts in the Informal Economy
Informal Sector Business Development Strategies and Objectives
Why A Blanket Approach to Formalization is not a Panacea
Disaggregating and Segmenting the Informal Sectors
The Journey to Formalization Cannot be Leapfrogged


Creating Economic Value by Design (John Heskett, IJD 2009)
Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy (IDRC, 2009)
More or Less: The Fundamental Principle of Flexibility” Slides (Informal Economy Symposium, 2012)
A Comprehensive Analysis of the Literature on Informal Cross Border Trade in East Africa (TMEA, 2016)

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.

On the relationship between economics and design

This is an extract from the Introduction to John Heskett’s seminal paper, “Creating Economic Value by Design

The work of Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate in Economics in 1978, is a rare exception of design being considered as a factor in economic theory. His starting point was acknowledging that the world we inhabit is increasingly artificial, created by human beings. For Simon (1981), design was not restricted to making material artefacts, but was a fundamental professional competence extending to policy-making and practices of many kinds and on many levels:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences. (p.129)

Implicit in Simon’s reasoning is an emphasis on design as a thought-process underpinning all kinds of professional activities; yet the varied skills through which design is manifested are not discussed. He did indicate, however, why design is so rarely considered in economic theory. Economics, he stated, works on three levels, those of the individual; the market; and the entire economy (p. 31). The centre of interest in traditional economics, however, is markets and not individuals or businesses (p. 37). A serious problem is thereby raised at the outset: two important considerations relating to design—how goods and services are developed for the market place and how they are used—receive scant attention.

I was lucky enough to both work with him as a colleague as well as attend his classes in Design Policy and Design Planning & Market Forces as his student. I’ve been diving into my notes and his lectures of late as I wrestle with my theorizing on what I’ve been calling Biashara Economics, whose earliest avatar was the prepaid economy project of 2008/9.

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‘.

How to Spot Signals of Local Purchasing Patterns in the Market

np-md-mohamed-kanuThis photograph is taken from a regular news item from a Liberian newspaper announcing the opening of a new petrol station in the town of Ganta. What caught my attention is the size of the LPG cylinders being promoted. On the left is the 6kg and on the right is an even smaller size that I’ve yet to see elsewhere – the 6kg one has been spotted in the lower income side of Jakarta, and in the markets of Abidjan, and Nairobi.

What it tells me is that purchasing power in the local market is not only a little less than a major capital city, this is probably a tier 2 city, but also that its a cash intensive market where incomes are more likely to be the volatile cash flows from commercial activities in the informal sector.

The lumpsums available for LPG aren’t going to be as large as to afford the standard 13kg size, but it doesn’t preclude people from purchasing these smaller sizes more frequently. That is, we cannot assume total consumption volumes to be less than larger cities where larger sizes are more popular. On the other hand, the micro size on the right seems to hint at the possibility of LPG being more popular than traditional fuels such as kerosene, charcoal, or firewood.

These small sizes also signal a fragmented, informal market where small pack sizes and sachets are popular.

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.

Uber’s app lowers barriers to formalization for unorganized taxi industry in Kenya


Nairobi Taxi stand, Kenya. February 2016 (photo: Niti Bhan)

This interesting article in the Kenyan news made me think about the role that an app like Uber could play in markets where there’s a high proportion of informal & unregulated business activity.

As with much technological advancement, resistance comes with change. Mpesa and the internet were once thought to be passing fads and have later changed industries. Uber’s disruptive strategy strayed from the normal operations in the local taxi industry. However, its benefits cannot be slighted. The app organizes the industry while creating a registry of taxi operators complete with their personal details and revenue earnings.


Deal with the local taxi organization or the app. Under the current laissez-faire model, the taxi associations are unregulated with the government unable to protect the consumers. Uber has stepped in to shape an unstructured industry into a formal operation.

What’s really interesting here is that same elements of the sharing economy that disrupt the more structured, formal markets in the industrialized world, are those that could provide structure and organization to the chaos of the cash based, informal sector in the developing world.

In effect, the gap between teh formal and the informal required something that could provide flexible, negotiable business models and organization structures in order to bridge effectively. Prepaid business models are one that work for the informal sector’s cash flows but they don’t provide any facility for an industry to organize – here, taking the necessary elements of flexiblity, negotiability, and reciprocity one step further into an app, the Uber solution offers information neatly captured and accessible at your fingertips.

Mobile Money’s next challenge: Enabling the development of a cashless ecosystem


Equitel billboard, Nairobi Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan Jan 2016)

The latest GSMA State of the Industry report on Mobile Money is out this month and the numbers look great in the developing world.
developing mmtThe report frames the industry’s next challenge as the need to grow the platform beyond the basics of airtime purchase and person to person transfer.
use case 1Here are my concerns, starting with the very first sentence – “to convince customers to actively diversify their usage patterns.”

This is where there is a critical need for MNOs to segment their userbase prior to designing fresh approaches to increase adoption and build an ecosystem. According to the report, only a few MNOs have data on urban vs rural, much less on gender.

use case 2The report’s fashioning of the data available into the form of an “average user” will hinder the progress more than it will help. Look at the geographic spread across widely varying economies, there’s no such thing as an average user when it comes to a tool closely related to one’s patterns of cash flow and income sources. Usage patterns reflect cash flows – why else would the prepaid business model be dominant in these same locations?

The hard work of disaggregating the information into region specific customer profiles must be done if solutions are to work effectively beyond teh basics of P2P transfer and airtime purchase – mobile money’s equivalent of a phone call and an sms.

Many of the reasons why its important to segment by rural/urban, and the proportion of users in the informal sector and on prepaid subscriptions are covered in my old posts on Google’s BebaPay fiasco – a smartphone app enabled NFC solution for cashless public transport payments introduced in Kenya a few years ago.

Economic ecosystems, particularly those with a heavy dose of the informal sector, and closer links to rural hinterlands, such as those common in sub Sahara, will need to be mapped out and understood before interventions can be designed to lower barriers to adoption. These use cases may not be plug and play components or readymade low hanging fruit, as imagined by the writers of this report. They need grounding in the context of the existing operating environment – formal or informal, urban or rural – and, the characteristics of the informal and rural economies, depending on the segment.

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.

When would you buy life insurance for a week? New products for the informal market

A South African company has figured out the back-end technology required to provide easily accessible prepaid or pay-as-you-go insurance products that can be serviced via your smartphone. Their solutions are designed for the unbanked, informal trader, typically living on an average household income of US$8 a day.

At first glance, I wondered who on earth would want to purchase health insurance or life insurance for just a day or week, or, even a month. The article just leaves it at “in case that’s all you can afford” – which doesn’t make sense from the informal trader’s perspective. Intermittent insurance is a form of gambling.

On the other hand, what’s left unsaid, is that South Africa’s informal traders face unpredictable violence whenever a bout of xenophobia shakes the community. That’s an unmistakeable period of insecurity and the risk is obvious, since most of those targetted in these riots are the informal traders themselves. If you can quickly purchase health and/or life insurance, through your phone, for a short duration of time, you’ve covered your responsibilities to your family in case of an accident.

The duo realised that while low-income consumers were willing to insure themselves against risk, these products needed to cater to their specific social and economic circumstances. They came up with a voucher system, where insurance could be purchased in more affordable packages to cover shorter timeframes. For example, life or medical insurance could be bought to cover just one day, a week, or a month – perhaps while a consumer makes a risky trip to visit family…

While their use cases mention funerals, I have a suggestion for a product meant specifically for small businesses like informal trading, particularly on irregular incomes. Can they design a insurance product that falls in between health and life categories? One that’s not quite disability, although it might include this.

Mitigating the random effects of uncertainty is what insurance is about. The challenge for many in the lower income segments, such as these traders, is that there will be times when their income will be affected by factors out of their control – an illness, when they’re the sole head of household/single parent; or drought, as is happening in SA right now. Or even, a known season of low income – informal manufacturing has a low season over the Christmas holidays unlike retail – such an insurance product could be purchased a few months in advance and money put away towards a payout at the start of the New Year.

These are just ideas based on what I’ve seen during my fieldwork over the past 8 years. There are probably more such opportunities available that can be fleshed out with a bit of research. The point is, that if you’ve worked out the technical aspects of how to make “Insurance on Demand” work, why stop at conventional categories from the formal economy like health or life?