Posts Tagged ‘prepaid economy’

Lessons from the Informal Economy: Managing on Irregular Payments in the Gig Economy

Last week, an unusual report was released in Great Britain. Lloyds Banking Group (LBG), together with the Resolution Foundation, addressed the question of earnings volatility in the UK, a first for a developed country with a formal economy. Their research and analysis made use of anonymised transaction data from over seven million LBG accounts. That is, technically speaking, the financially included in the erstwhile first world.

To their surprise, accustomed as they were to only considering income changes on an annual basis, three-quarters of all workers did not receive the same paycheck from month to month – the problem being most acute for low-paid workers in the gig economy or on zero-hours contracts.

As the Guardian, when reporting on the household financial management behaviour of gig economy workers discovers:

The Resolution Foundation found that for those on the lowest annual incomes, the average monthly fluctuation in pay was £180 – which can make the difference between paying the rent or feeding the family.

As my research over the past decade, on the financial management behaviour of the lower income demographic (also known in older publications as the Bottom or Base of the Pyramid) in the informal and rural economies of developing countries has found, irregular and unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources is the norm.

What is different here, however, are the coping mechanisms.

Many are forced to turn to crippling payday loans or high-cost credit cards to make it through to the end of the month

In the developed country context such as the UK, gig economy and lower income workers have no recourse to customary and established coping mechanisms that can be seen across the developed world, from rural Philippines to upcountry Kenya.

Seasonality in rural regions, closely intertwined with the natural year and its direct impact on farming activities is a recognized and known fact of life. Incomes are seen to change by as much as 50% between the high and the low seasons. And, among urban traders and merchants, festivals and harvests mean peak consumer activity, and everyone prepares for the rush.

Knowing this, the informal economic ecosystem leverages social networks and trusted relationships to carry them through hard times and the low seasons; looking forward to the peak sales periods and the harvests to cover the difference. Numerous risk mitigation behaviours and coping mechanisms are established within households, customized to rural and urban contexts, as well as the context of the primary income source. These were the same coping mechanisms heard to be in use among India’s informal sector when hit by the liquidity crunch of the demonetization of 2016.

Just the way you can purchase one single cigarette or a 100 grams of shredded cabbage, depending on what you have in your pocket, you can find ways to adapt your daily lifestyle to your income in the flexible, negotiable, and reciprocal people’s economy of the Global South. The informal economy’s commercial operating environment is designed to maintain the dignity of their customer base.

These options are not available in the UK, or other developed and advanced nations of the Global North. Thus, gig economy workers forced to manage on unpredictable and irregular income streams from a variety of sources in the formal economy struggle to afford their groceries and expenses. In fact, I’d be curious to know if prepaid mobile subscribers (pay as you go) are increasing in proportion to the precariousness of employment and volatility of income discovered by the analysts at Lloyds.

If, as the researchers at the Centre for Global Development have found, the gig economy and the informal economy are the present, and the future of work in Africa, then there are lessons from the established customs and coping mechanisms which can inform beneficial solutions and tools for the developed world, for the UK, and for the Global North.

It’s time we recognized the truth about the future of work in Africa: it isn’t in the growth of full-time formal sector jobs. The future of work will be people working multiple gigs with “somewhat formal” entities. This is already true, and it will be for the foreseeable future.

This is true for the whole world now, not just Africa. And, it will change the way we think of platform design, payment plans, as well as policy frameworks, for our near and emerging future.

Rural Household Financial Management on Irregular Incomes

While all farms are not alike, and scale and variety and geography differs, the pattern of household financial management holds its fundamental logic across continents.

click to expand image

As we saw previously, an experienced farmer tends to fall somewhere in between a salaried employee and an odd job labourer in their ability to predict with any reasonable degree of accuracy when they might expect cash income to arrive and approximately how much. They are able to estimate the quantum of the crop, and when it will be ready to harvest. They may already have buyers or a market.

However, in practice, farmers rarely rely solely on these infrequent lump sums for managing their household finances – a big harvest once or twice a year, maybe three times depending on the crops and the local geography. Instead, they manage on sophisticated portfolio of investments, each maturing over different periods of time, as a way to mitigate risk, as well as smoothen out cash flows over the course of the natural year, and minimize the impact of uncertainty or shock. The drivers for these goals are the foundation for the variety of business practices observed across sectors in the informal economies of the developing world.

You will find even the humblest farmer, as long as he owns the patch of land on which his homestead is built, even if his fields may be further away, doing some or all of a combination of these activities to manage his income stream over the course of the natural year. I will explain the basics, and then give examples from different regions.

Managing A Portfolio of Investments based on “Time and Money”

The illustration above captures our attempt to map the various cash flow patterns from the farmer’s portfolio of investments. Consider each cluster of elements as a “deposit” with varying times of maturity for cashing out, as the need may be. For example, cows give milk which can be sold for almost daily cash returns, as can the eggs from chickens. The fresh produce from the kitchen garden matures far more quickly than staples such as maize or beans. And, if there is a cash crop such as tea or coffee, this may taken an entire year for the harvest to be monetized. At the same time, various farmyard animals are invested into when young, maturing over time for sale, as an emergency cushion or for earmarked expenses such as annual school fees.

Thus, over the course of the year, cash arrives in hand with varying degrees of frequency, and periodicity, thus ensuring the farm’s ability to manage regular household expenditure on a more or less regular basis, even though there are no predictable wages. Nor, is the farmer burdened with credit and debt over the time whilst waiting for her 2 or 3 major harvest seasons.

Variance in regional seasonality influences coping mechanisms

While the foundational framework of the farmstead’s domestic financial managment remains the same, regional differences due to geography, and thus seasonality, influence crop choices, number of harvests, and the details of the coping mechanisms selected by the farmer to manage her financial portfolio.

For instance, in rural Philippines, in the rice growing Visayas islands, only well situated farms benefit from three rain fed rice harvests a year whilst the majority must manage on two. Thus, farmers invest in piglets, calves, or even cull chicks for nurturing into fighting cockerels which sell for more than 10 times the price of a regular chicken. They stock firewood, coconut husk, and supplement their cash money needs through petty retail during the low season.

In rural Malawi, outside of Blantyre, the farmwife who is a member of beekeeper’s cooperative, distills traditional wine for sales 2 to 3 times a week, boosting her cash flow frequency instead of waiting for the annual honey harvest.

Minimizing volatility to enable financial planning

Thus, we can see that even under conditions of uncertainty, farmers have established the means to manage their household expenses, including periodic ones such as school fees or loan repayments, on irregular and unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources. Their sophisticated portfolio of investments contain “deposits” that mature over varying times, for different amounts, and their planning, thus, goes into ensuring that the volatility between income and outgoing expenses is kept to a minimum.

Next, we will see how less agriculturally dependent sectors of the informal economy base their financial management patterns on the rural economy’s foundation of portfolio management.


Collected Works
Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment – Links to organized series of articles on the topic

Competitive Advantage & Customer Relationships: Lessons from Market Mummies of Ghana

Source: Gerry van Dyke presentation

Source: Gerry van Dyke presentation

How would you differentiate yourself in this informal retail market? Ghanaian market research guru Gerry van Dyke took a closer look at the market ‘mummies’ – Mama Biashara, as we call her – and their consumer marketing techniques in the “non-label environment”. His findings form an excellent foundation for understanding marketing and customer relationships in the informal sector. You can explore insights from his presentation here (PDF).

The story that follows tells the interesting marketing skills that reside in the traditional African market and the similarities in the tools employed by modern marketing.

TEDTalk video: Recognizing the value creation and economic contribution of the informal economy

My talk given at the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, this August, went live on at some point during the night a couple of days ago. At that very moment, I was on a Finnair flight from SIN to HEL, so with a wee bit of delay, here’s the link to the video of the talk. Also available is a recommended reading list I curated, along with footnotes.

I just want to add that its high time we considered the informal sector as a commercial operating environment in its own right. This change of perspective will transform the way we think about poverty, it’s alleviation, and, importantly, open the doors to innovating products and services that can help boost productivity and revenues for micro, small, and medium sized businesses across the developing world, but particularly in Africa and India.

By doing so, we can recognize the economic contribution and value creation by women who make up the majority of such entrepreneurs, and put dollar values to their investment capacity and growth opportunities. As long as they’re lumped together under the umbrella term “informal sector”, with its unquestioned assumptions of low skill and low productivity, they’ll remain invisible, and solutions meant to support their development will never reach them.

2017 is the Year Mobile Service Operators Became Banks

South African business headlines read MTN takes on Vodacom for title of Africa’s biggest digital bank and usher in a whole new era for banking and finance on the mobile platform. Having watched this space impatiently for more than a decade, seeing this was a landmark worth noting.

The number of mobile-money customers in the region (Africa) is growing rapidly, having surpassed the number of traditional bank accounts in 2015 to reach 277 million by the end of last year, according to GSMA. ~ Moneyweb, 3rd November 2017

Here’s a curated selection of my journey watching the phone become a bank:

Photograph of Nairobi billboard taken January 2016 by Niti Bhan

Blowin’ in the Wind – perspective, May 2007

A User Centered Approach to Banking the Unbanked in Rural India (PDF, entire process) – January 2007

Pondering the Mobile Innovation Divide – perspective, December 2007

African Potential meets Indian Experience – perspective, May 2008

The Telco and the Bottom of the Pyramid – perspective, January 2009

Systems Thinking Applied To Why M-Pesa’s Economic Impact and Wealth Creation Lessons Affects the Entire Ecosystem – Afrinnovator, March 2012

What is The Prepaid Economy anyway? – 14.7.14, in response to Michael Kimani

Banking Opportunities in Africa – The Banker’s Association of South Africa, 2014

A bank meets a telco – how mobile banking is changing the landscape of financial services in Africa – The Prepaid Economy: African Edition, January 2016

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.