Posts Tagged ‘prepaid economy’

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

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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

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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?

The formal sector and economic development: A lesson from marketing

Pursuing the thoughts introduced in the previous post further, I looked up the original reference on “formalization of the informal sector”1.

Alan Gelb, et al. 2009. “To Formalize or Not to Formalize? Comparisons of Microenterprise Data from Southern and East Africa.” CGD Working Paper 175

“…in East Africa, weak enforcement of tax payment and no significant difference in access to services between formal and  informal firms means that these variables do not explain the allocation of firms across the informal-formal divide.

We conclude that in countries with weak business environments, informal firms are just as likely as formal firms to increase their productivity as they grow.

Thus,  interventions to increase productivity and lower the cost of formality may be helpful.”

The question comes back to what is the benefit of formalizing when the costs associated with it do not offer any additional services, such as reliable electricity, for instance, that offset the investment.

Formality only becomes a barrier when new market opportunities require paperwork – a formal sector customer, or a chance to export.

“…improvements in the business environment in East Africa are potentially more valuable in changing the balance of benefits and costs from formalization, and so encouraging small firms to formalize and grow.”

Really, what seems to be the case is that instead of pushing individual entrepreneurs to formalize, it is their operating environment that must be tweaked in order to attract them towards formalization. As long as there’s little difference between the formal and informal sectors of the economy, there is no incentive to invest in the relatively expensive and cumbersome process.

The key insight here is that the current day efforts to push towards formalization, must instead transform into a pull towards formality.

If indeed we’re now seeing the end-users as customers of our services, then we must market the benefits in order to attract them. This has implications for the durability, and thus, sustainability of programs and initiatives, beyond the life of the project.

With the nuanced shift in perspective offered by Gelb et al, we can also see the role that human centered design can play in this journey. Who better to identify what customers’ need and want?

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Retail ranking metrics vs Readiness for formal retail #AfricanConsumerMarket

The-ARDI-top-15-18133Continuing the thoughts expressed by Yacine in the previous post, I’d like to explore these rankings and their value. We’ll use the example of Tanzania, ranked 5th by AT Kearney in their 2015 African Retail Attractiveness Index (ARDI).

The ARDI states:

Tanzania is starting from a low base: With only 30 percent urbanization, high poverty levels, and less than $2,000 GDP per capita, Tanzania is in the early stages of development. Therein lies the opportunity—the unsaturated market has one of Africa’s fastest growing retail sectors, boosted by new shopping malls. Compare this with Kenya, which has one of Africa’s most developed markets—but also one of its most saturated.

By the less than clear metrics used in this Index (Kenya, for example, has surprisingly never managed to be ranked at all), Tanzania is a high potential market for a long term retail investment strategy. Yet nowhere is there any mention of local consumer behaviour or purchasing patterns.

The ARDI assumes that a “shopping culture” attractive to modern retailers will emerge organically as these nations develop economically and infrastructure wise.

Last year, South African retail giant Shoprite pulled out of Arusha in Tanzania. Arusha is a major international diplomatic hub, thus no less attractive to supermarket chains than Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam.

Here’s some insight from the local paper, that offers some food for thought, and a clear signal that one cannot rely on metrics and rankings alone when considering an opportunity in these attractive yet challenging markets.

With many of Arusha residents still living in single rooms, thus few can afford to buy groceries in advance due to lack of storage space and therefore choose to shop when the situation arises then consume whatever was bought on spot.

A child will be sent to buy things like sugar, rice, cooking oil and charcoal for fuel three times a day; for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the shopping trend will again be repeated on daily basis.

As the result, the city is now dotted with hundreds of small grocery stores capable of breaking their stock down to the last grain in order to accommodate the economy and space conscious customers.

Boasting a population of 500,000 residents and additional 100,000 daily visitors, it comes as surprise that ever since it was made a township in 1948, Arusha has had only one supermarket to date.

Even worse, the one and- only supermarket, which opened here in 2002 courtesy of South Africa’s Shoprite- Checkers, has just fled from the city citing the lack of supermarket culture among Tanzanians but especially those living in Arusha.

[…]

But come 2014 and Shoprite, the supermarket which started it all, announced that it was closing shop, complaining that the large store business had totally failed to pick up even after 12 years of operating in the city.

The South African Supermarket chain somehow did not conduct any research prior to venturing into the Tanzanian market especially Arusha where people buy their groceries only during the time when they need them.

Supermarket shopping usually means walking into the large department store, pushing a cart and then loading one item after another onto the basket before checking out through the computerised counters handled by bored ladies.

It also means that a person or family has to make their weekly or monthly purchases once, and then store everything in the house until the next shopping date. That may require special storage cellars at home, refrigerators, deep-freezers and cabinets, not forgetting the cars required to carry everything home in the first place.

However, in Arusha where accommodation space is hard to find, most residents are forced to live in single rooms or cubicles that serve as living rooms, bedrooms and kitchen at the same time.

With hardly any space to store rice, flour, oil and other groceries, for future use, few ever think of practicing supermarket shopping.

It is the unquestioned assumption that lack of modern retail or formal economy institutions imply lack of an existing shopping culture – local & relevant & appropriate to its context and conditions. The real question is whether a region or country is ready for formal retail culture.

This newspaper article isn’t hard to find, supermarkets in Tanzania would uncover it easily, were the analysts working on these indices and reports considering the entire ecosystem of the operating environment in which retail would operate rather than easily measurable indicators.

These insights are not enough on which to base one’s market entry strategy but more than sufficient to make one pause and evaluate whether a more qualitative and exploratory market survey offering consumer insights and buyer behaviour might actually be worth investing in far more in the first instance than years of losses later. This is exactly the kind of moment you’d want to call us in to help you craft your strategy.

First world trends: Financial inclusion, the unbanked, and the prepaid business model

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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.