Posts Tagged ‘Purchasing patterns’

Dignity drives purchasing decisions for South African low income consumers

graph-1There is so much I was going to say when I came across this snippet in the news about South African consumer habits among the lower income folk for yesterday’s post. I am not convinced by the framing of the interpretation of the qualitative data but that’s an embedded SA problem with qualitative research in townships. So for now, I’ll just stop with the following quote:

Melzer says spending on clothing in South Africa is phenomenal. Talking to people about their spending patterns, the word “dignity” comes up again and again, she says.

Moreover, customers aren’t necessary buying what businesses think they are selling. A clothing retailer might think it is selling clothes, when in actual fact it is selling dignity or status.

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.

Research Question: Why is the informal retail sector so persistent and resilient?

retail2Retailing in India is currently estimated to be a USD 200 billion industry, of which organised retailing makes up 3% or USD 6.4 billion. By 2010, organized retail is projected to reach USD 23 billion and in terms of market share it is expected to rise by 20 to 25%. (Sinha et all, 2007)

These claims of projected growth were made based on a 2005 KPMG report on the Indian Consumer market, while the chart itself with it’s aspirational forecast is from the IBEF website. I have been watching and waiting for more than ten years for India’s retail revolution to take place.

The consistent message from the beginning of the retail boom has been that since the organized retail sector (what we would call the formal) has only been ~2% of the total retail trade in India (the balance is informal retail) there was ample opportunity for growth in modern retail.

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious (or, perhaps, aspirational, in the push for modernization driving India’s recently opened markets) – formal retail has only reached 8% penetration in the past 10 years. Nowhere close to the 25% expected by 2010. Mind you, these were all the management consultancy reports bandying the numbers around.

I bring this up because I’m seeing the same kinds of projections happening right now for the African consumer market by the very same firms. And with very few exceptions, the majority of the SSA markets tend towards the same kind of proportions of organized vs unorganized retail  (formal vs informal, modern vs traditional et al are all variations on this theme with minor differences in definition).

And, even as the retail real estate development investments are booming, we are already seeing the very first signs of the same challenge that India faced – over capacity, low footfalls, and empty malls. Just yesterday, the news from Ghana – a firm favourite of the investment forecasters –  has this to say:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongsidethe dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll – titled Ghana, Retail Barometer Q2, 2016 – overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.
“International players are also looking at the market and re-adjusting their product/pricing mix to cater for the real middle class, whereby we are talking more in terms of value products rather than high-end products.”

And, retail developers are turning their attention to secondary cities such as Kumasi and Takoradi, as Accra reaches saturation point. The exact same pattern as we have been seeing in India. You would think people might pause a moment to take a look at similar markets and operating environments to assess patterns of market creation development.

This pattern is what gave rise to the research question I would like to frame – why has the informal retail sector been so persistent and resilient? What does this mean for modern trade? And, what are the implications for urban development and planning?

The trajectories of the Indian and the Ghanaian economies have taken different turns, thus, while one might point to these factors as the reasons for the challenges facing the mall owners and the retail brands, the big picture over the past twenty years points to something more fundamental in these operating environments common to the developing world.

That is what I would like to find out.

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.

Purchasing Patterns in Cash Based Markets and Informal Economy

When cash flow is irregular and not always unpredictable, both in amount and frequency, such as it is for the majority earning a living in the informal economy, buyer behavior is not quite the same as for mainstream consumers with access to credit cards and regular paychecks.

I’ve quite often made reference to how operating primarily in cash money influences purchasing patterns. Here, I cluster the patterns observed into 4 categories, based on a combination of need and money available.



1. Paid for in advance – Usually a service that can be utilized or consumed over time can be purchased in advance when funds are available and then made to last as long as possible. The best known example of course is prepaid airtime – voice, text and data for mobile phones. Consumers on limited budgets then seek coping mechanisms to extend the “life” of the service purchased.


Source: Niti Bhan, South Africa January 2008

An example is this refrigerator powered by LPG available in rural South Africa. It helps conserve the electricity consumption (South Africa was the first to install prepaid electricity meters) and is a parallel investment in ‘prepaid’ energy – the LPG cylinder.


Source: Niti Bhan, South Africa, January 2008

2. Bought in bulk – Usually food staples or something you cannot live without would be purchased in this manner, either when there is a sudden influx of cash or a payment at the end of manual labour, or, if managing on a fixed amount each month such as remittances from abroad. This ensures that there is something to eat even if money runs out before the next payment might be due. If it’s a sudden influx of cash for someone not on a pension or remittance, then this lumpsum is also the source of funds that may go towards a consumer durable purchase or big ticket item of some kind. In rural economies, the harvest season is major shopping time and boost to local commerce.

Freshly shredded cabbage (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Source: Niti Bhan, rural Kenya, February 2012

 3. On demand or daily purchase – mostly perishables like bread, eggs, fresh vegetables purchased for the day’s needs. Partly cultural but also influenced by availability of cash in hand. Cigarettes sold loose or two slices of bread and an egg are some examples we’ve seen. Indian vegetable vendors are also willing to sell you a small portion of a larger vegetable either by weight or by price. You can buy 50p worth of cabbage for a single meal. Mama Mboga in Kenya will even shred it for you. Minimizes wastage whether you’re cooking for one or have no fridge.

This is also the most common pattern if you earn small amounts daily, like the vegetable vendor, shelling out what you have for what you need and then if there’s some change, debating what do with it.


Source: Niti Bhan, The Philippines, January 2009

4. Single use portions – A form of on demand purchase. Interestingly, I came across this working paper by Anand Kumar Jaiswal at IIM, saying that sales results in rural India seemed to imply that only shampoos and razor blades were more successful in sachet form, whereas things like milkpowder, jam etc sold more in the larger size.


Source: Niti Bhan South Africa January 2008

The author cautions against assuming all sachets will sell. I believe it could be based on the usage pattern of the product in question or its nature – what if you packaged a perishable item in single servings that didn’t need refrigeration until opened? Formal packaging in sachets – the kadogo economy – emerged from existing behaviour in informal retail. Breaking bulk down into smaller portions is popular across the developing world’s informal markets.

Single meal portions of vegetables, Cabatuan market, Iloilo February 2009

Single meal portions of vegetables, Cabatuan market, Iloilo February 2009 Photo: Niti Bhan

This shopkeeper in The Philippines has gone a step further to offer you the convenience of purchasing all the vegetables you need for stew – carrots, beans, cabbage – without the financial burden of having to purchase the entire cabbage or carrot. Its a combination of the single use packaging (not quite a sachet) and the on demand purchase of what’s immediately required or affordable. The Philippines has some of the most creative variations of the kadogo or sachet economy that I’ve seen in informal retail.

Business Models for the Informal Economy

You can see the roots of the many variations on business models in these purchasing patterns. As people told me over and over during a project on household solar in East Africa, it wasn’t the price of the product that was the problem but the payment plan which didn’t fit with their existing behaviour. Both must be designed to meet the needs of your intended target audience.

Contact me if you need insights on consumer behaviour, household energy consumption behaviour and financial management behaviour in the rural and informal markets of the developing world. Note, this is not a free offer.


Source: These insights are drawn from patterns of behaviour observed among consumers in cash based and informal markets in South Africa, The Philippines, India, Kenya, Rwanda and Malawi. Primary research led and conducted by Niti Bhan. Citation.

Breaking bulk and profiting at the margins


Photo Credit: Michael Kimani

Michael sent me this information from Nairobi last week. He’d spotted informal retail within the context of a mini-supermarket – known as traditional trade in the jargon of consumer product distribution and retail. He adds,

“So 500 ml of Rina cooking oil retails for 120KES, 1 litre for 195 KES. What the owner of this store found out is buying a 20 litre (which she retails for 2700 KES) and repackaging it into 1 litre  plastic bags in red basket), is more profitable according to attendant doing this – Each bag retails for 135 KES”

Quick math informs us that she’s not giving her customers an out – the retail price for the 20 litre jerry can works out to 135 KES per litre. On the other hand, purchasing an informally packaged plastic bag over the formal product packaging offers you savings of 60 KES and helps stretch the grocery budget a little more.

A search online shows me an e-tail website whose prices for Rina are even higher – 500 ml at 121 KES, 1 litre at 214 KES and the 20 litre at 3,300 KES.

This behaviour isn’t just seen in Kenya or the African continent – I’ve documented it in The Philippines, and in rural India.  Its the natural outcome of the purchasing patterns influenced by cash transactions and irregular incomes – of the retailer as well as their customers.

Without contextual knowledge of the operating environment of the vast majority of trade and services in the informal sector, implicit assumptions left unquestioned pose their own barriers to sustainable growth.

For Mama Biashara, it’s these margins that provide a little wriggle room for profit, while offering some added value to her customers.

How I Use My Phone – Extracting consumer insights from purchasing patterns

The Mobile Experience Center of the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria conducted a survey series – How I Use My Phone – where they looked at phone use among university students, white collar professionals, blue collar workers and market traders*.  I’ve screen-capped the section on airtime purchase patterns from each infographic to analyze a little further.

*Before we proceed, an observation that the survey on traders is the smallest sample (around 50 people) and only one market, while the rest of the segments have a population sample in the thousands. Still, theirs are the most interesting patterns and to me, the most significant. I’m also hampered by the fact that each infographic is unique and every survey is not the same i.e. some show salary or income, some don’t etc – I’m mentioning this upfront and won’t refer to these discrepancies further on.


Nigerian University Students

Some context to set the scene: @prepaid_africa Not exactly! Most Nigerians have a daily budget of between N1000 – N2000. This covers recharge, transportation & feeding.

— Area_Boy (@EUgwu) June 23, 2015


Nigerian blue collar workers

We can see the similarities between students and blue collar workers – both on limited budgets – the majority of weekly recharges for both fall in the lowest bracket of 100 to 500 Naira, and the preferred voucher amount is 200 Naira. Most people are not topping up their mobile airtime everyday, though students are spending a bit more.


Nigerian White Collar Professionals

Professionals are definitely adding more value to their airtime every week, and broadly speaking the preference for recharge amounts is equally split between higher and lower values.


Nigerian Market Traders

Here we can see an interesting difference after I convert these numbers into a percentage of mobile owners – 52 is the total.

20= 38%  10 = 19% 17 = 33% 4 = 8% and 1 = 2% – grossly rounded & totalling 100%.

Without converting, the first thing we note is that nobody purchases recharge denomination above 200 naira and the preference is more or less equally split between the lowest two values. Even the blue collar workers had some who purchased 400 naira of airtime, while a similar percentage of students purchased amounts other than 100 or 200.

We find that unlike the other segments who preferred these smaller denominations, more traders spent more each week. That is, they tended to very frequently top up with small amounts. While their total weekly purchasing pattern in terms of weekly recharge resembles the white collar professionals, their choice of denomination is significantly an outlier.

What does this mean? Low margins, high volumes

Even with all the disclaimers on sample size, consistency and quality of the data gathered, one can see quite clearly the cash flow patterns of the traders in the informal market. Small denominations, high frequency.

While every trader in the market may not be doing the same volume of business, there’s enough of a suggestion that there is a dynamic aspect of trade. Its made visible by the not insignificant number of traders whose total weekly expenditure on airtime recharge is 10 or 20 times the denomination value of the recharge coupon. They are most definitely topping up more than once a day. And on the phone, “doing business”.

Trade – in the informal economy sense of the word, not the formal container ships of industrialized goods – happens by negotiation, haggling, bargaining, brokering, mediating and communicating. Biashara, in this sense is a better word, for the marketplace as a bazaar, not a cathedral. Markets are conversations, to unearth a cliche, and the pattern of mobile phone use, coupled with the pattern of recharge, is an indicator of informal trade.

The implications of these surveys validating a hypothesis are immensely useful for design planning for the informal market.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In sum, it can be concluded that the challenges for value creation can be quite different for BoP ventures interested in addressing the rural markets. From the observations made in the field, we can highlight three key implications for business development. These are:

1. Seasonality – with the exception of the salaried, everyone else in the sample pool was able to identify times of abundance and scarcity over the course of natural year in their earnings. Identification of a particular region or market’s local pattern of seasonality would benefit the design of payment schedules, timing of entry or new product and service launch, for example.

2. Relative lack of liquidity – The majority of the rural households observed tended to ‘store wealth’ in the form of goods, livestock or natural resources, relying on a variety of cashless transactions within the community for a number of needs. Conventional business development strategies need to be reformulated to take this into account as these patterns of behaviour may reflect the household’s purchasing power or income level inaccurately.

3. Increasing the customer’s span of control over the timing, frequency and amount of cash required – Since the availability and amount of cash cannot be predicted on calendar time, this implication is best reflected by the success of the prepaid mobile phone subscriptions in these same markets. When some cash is available, it can be used to purchase airtime minutes for text or voice calls, when there is no money, the phone can still receive incoming calls. Models which impose an external schedule of  periodicity, frequency and amount of cash required may not always be successful in matching the volatile cash flow particular to each household’s sources of income.


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

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

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

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

Informal payment plans offer flexibility and convenience

Rural consumer electronics shop, Kenya 16 Feb 2012

Rural electronics shops in the North Meru region of Kenya are full of colour television sets, home stereos and DVD players as increasing electrification of smaller and smaller market towns takes place. How do aspiring customers pay for these high value items on their variable income streams?

Aspirational ownership and tangible evidence of savings

Since shop owners tend to know the great majority of their customers as members of the local community, as neighbours and friends, and are aware of the patterns of income flow in the local economy, they have evolved an informal layaway plan for these high ticket items.

Customers choose what they wish to purchase, not simply the brand, model or device but also the exact specific item in the store. While each shopkeeper has his or her own method of record keeping, the general pattern is to put the future owner’s name on the product, the total cost and start a page in a ledger to track payments made against purchase. Customers can pay as little or as much as they are able, whenever they are able and every so often, the sticker at the back (or whatever specific means each shop uses) will change to reflect this remaining balance.  Some customers can take upto 2 or 3 years to complete their purchase but none can take the device home until the full payment has been made.

This informal and simple method touches upon so many of the insights uncovered during the original ‘prepaid economy’ research conducted two years ago that it almost feels like the perfect solution that fits the needs of the customers and the shopkeepers. The elements are:

1. Increasing the span of control over time (periodicity and frequency) and money (amount) for the customer lowers the barriers to successful purchase and payments. There is no undue pressure on the customer to make a payment by any due date nor to pay any fixed amount. Like topping up your prepaid mobile phone account, you can come and pay any amount at any time towards this purchase.

2. Seasonality and its influence on the rural economy is understood by the shop owners and they know that even if payments may be small or slow during the relevant low season, there’s a high chance that the product will be owned by harvest time.

3. Tangible evidence of savings is demonstrated by the equivalent of the “Sold” sticker – even if the product stays on display at the shop until the price is paid in full, its a tangible reminder of perceived ownership that you have put your name on it and are working to take it home one day.

Convenience as a service

Shredded cabbage for sale, Wote, Kenya 3rd February 2012

Convenience can mean different things to the household consumer, depending on their location. In urban Chicago, its stocking up the freezer and pantry with a trip to a megastore like Costco while in Singapore it might be the ubiquitous neighbourhood hawker stand where rice, meat, two veg can be had for as little as $2.50 per person. Here in the mostly rural, arid Makueni district of Kenya where the concept of leftovers is moot and only bars and restaurants tend to have a refrigerator, convenience means stopping by the cabbage lady for just enough for tonight’s meal.

Kerosene sales, Wote, Kenya 4th Feb 2012

Purchasing patterns observed previously among those on irregular income streams have been clustered into  four major categories:
1. Prepaid or pay as you go
2. Bulk purchases of non perishables
3. Sachetization or as its called here in Kenya, kadogo
4. On demand, for immediate use

The shredded cabbage, being sold by weight or “amount” (half a cabbage or quarter) is a clear example of the last pattern and common across the world while the way kerosene is being sold could be said to be closer to a ‘sachet’ or small purchase as it tends not to be a daily or on demand purchase.

Interestingly, here I saw bulk purchasing for firewood or charcoal rather than foodgrains since most families have some land where they grow maize.  The maize is first and foremost for household use and only the surplus is sold.

So why have I called this ‘convenience as a service’?

There is a premium one is paying for the convenience – whether its the shredding being done for you or the difference in price of kerosene between the town and the village.  Someone has saved you the time and effort thus it costs money. There’s an entire economy around water and its supply chain that I’ll be taking a closer look in a forthcoming post.