Posts Tagged ‘rural economy’

A matter of timing: seasonal opportunities


Temporary stall for festive goods (Photo: Niti Bhan, March 2017)

These stalls full of water pistols and balloons sprouted overnight a couple of days before the spring festival of Holi (March 13th 2017) – these vendors are neither local nor regulars in the market complex. They’re here to offer seasonal products and might even have been invited by the local shopkeepers to provide attractive temporary displays not unlike festival shopping at the mall.

IMG_7356Seasonal opportunities for special offers and custom products are not to be missed chances for a boost in sales. India’s FMCG majors can’t afford to ignore the seasons that guide the cash flow for the majority in the informal and rural economies over the course of the natural year.

Time to reach consensus on the #informaleconomy debate

As yesterday’s post showed, the unforeseen outcome of India’s demonetization initiative on the rural cash economy arose due to the lack of disaggregation of all that tends to get lumped together under the umbrella label “informal”. Segmentation would lead to more impactful design of policy and programmes.

WIEGO has an excellent review of the academic debates on the informal economy, covering the competing schools of thought. There is the Shadow Economy with its tax evasion and under reporting vs the livelihoods of the poor struggling to make a living in adverse conditions.


In 2009, Ravi Kanbur, Professor of Economics at Cornell University, posited a conceptual framework for distinguishing between four types of economic responses to regulation, as follows:

A. Stay within the ambit of the regulation and comply.
B. Stay within the ambit of the regulation but not comply.
C. Adjust activity to move out of the ambit of the regulation.
D. Outside the ambit of the regulation in the first place, so no need to adjust.

Under the Kanbur framework, category A is “formal.” The rest of the categories are “informal,” with B being the category that is most clearly “illegal.” (Kanbur 2009). […] Kanbur argues that using a single label “informal” for B, C, and D obscures more than it reveals – as these are distinct categories with specific economic features in relation to the regulation under consideration.

While acknowledging that it is useful to have aggregate broad numbers on the size and general characteristics of the informal economy, Kanbur concludes that disaggregation provides for better policy analysis.

So, why do we continue to wave our hands over the whole thing and conflate the legal with the illegal?

These distinctions are all well and good to debate in the cozy conditions of a seminar room without needing to come to any consensus, but as the human and economic cost of demonetization in rural India becomes clear, particularly the impact on the planting season, it puts a spotlight on the shortcomings of the way the rural and cash economies are currently dealt with. A pragmatic conclusion is urgently required.

My literature review on the past 20 years of research on the informal trade sector in Eastern Africa showed that this lack of distinction between what was shadow (B) and what was merely below the radar of the regulations (C &D per Kanbur’s distinctions above) gave rise to the criminalization of even the smallest livelihood activities of the local tomato seller who might cross a border to get a better price for her wares.

This in turn led to their harassment – particularly financial and sexual – by the authorities as there were no counteractive regulations in place that recognized fulltime crossborder trade as a licit occupation or profession.

What will it take for this to change?

India’s current experiences provide ample evidence of the dangers of leaving this untouched.

Unforeseen outcomes of India’s demonetization shine light on the value of our design philosophy

Informal Economy, Market Analysis and SegmentationLatest news on India’s demonetization informs us how the rural economy is bearing the brunt of this initiative.

The action was intended to target wealthy tax evaders and end India’s “shadow economy”, but it has also exposed the dependency of poor farmers and small businesses on informal credit systems in a country where half the population has no access to formal banking.

The details shed light on the consequences of implementing interventions without a holistic understanding of the landscape of the operating environment. In this case, it is the rural, informal cash intensive economy.

…the breakdown in the informal credit sector points to a government that has failed to grasp how the cash economy impacts ordinary Indians.

“It is this lack of understanding and not appreciating the importance of the cash economy in India on the part of the government that has landed the country in such an unwarranted situation today,” said Sunil Kumar Sinha, an economist and director of public finance at India Ratings.

This lack of understanding the dynamics of the cash economy (I don’t mind calling it the prepaid economy, in this context) and it’s role in the rural Indian value web has led to unforeseen challenges at a time when farmers are planting seeds for the next harvest, hampering the flow of farm inputs as traditional lines of credit face the obstacle of an artificial shortage of liquidity.

I want to use this clear example of systems design failure to explain my philosophy and approach to our work in the informal economies of the developing world. I’ve written often enough about what we do, now I have an opportunity to explain why we do it, and why it’s important.

Read On…

Is Uganda’s rural, informal economy helping people climb over the poverty line?

uganda poverty worldbank opendataI stumbled across this dataset on the World Bank’s open data website yesterday, and couldn’t resist making a table to convey the message. Uganda’s poverty headcount halved in the decade between 2002 and 2012. Their statistics are rated well enough that this doesn’t seem to be too far off the mark. In the three years since, one can imagine it has only dropped a wee bit further. For context, the poverty headcount in the United States is officially 14.5% – not too far away from 19.5%.

datasetThis intrigued me enough to go through the data for the greater East African region. The first table is sorted in order of GNI per capita, with Kenya leading the pack, while the second table is sorted by the least proportion of the population below the poverty line.

Here are some visual outcomes of my playing around.

regional analysis efl wbregional indicators efl wbThough Kenya is the “richest” country, its poverty headcount is more than double Uganda’s. What’s interesting is that Uganda’s per capita GNI (Income) is around half of Kenya’s. Uganda is heavily dependent on agriculture, and not as urbanized. In fact, the urban poverty headcount is a wee bit higher than the rural.

Given that rural economies, especially in East Africa, are technically part of the “informal economy”, I wonder if looking closer into that might offer some insights on how a “Low Income” country can slash its poverty level so dramatically? It might help explain why the per capita GNI is so much lower (Kenya is far more industrialized) yet far less people are living hand to mouth.

Lessons for Formal Finance from Informal financial services


On one of my many field explorations on rural financial services,  I found out, that for one mama biashara, as soon as payment checks in, she withdraws all her funds from her local coffee SACCO account, and spreads it out via micro-deposits across her more than 5 local informal savings groups (from right to left on diagram).


Choice of Informal Formal financial services – continuum


A report conducted across East Africa using data from [Finaccess, Fin survey – ’09,’12,’13] Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, found that on average, 60% of survey participants saved with informal groups and places – ASCAs, ROSCA, SECRET place


“Determinants of Household Savings Mobilization across EAC Countries: An Exploratory Analysis.”


Even M-Shwari – “a new [mobile] banking platform that enables customers to save, earn interest, and access small amounts of credit instantly via their mobile phones”, on paper an ideal tool for banking the unbanked, faces the same challenge as per CGAP’s How M-Shwari Works: The Story So Far Report (pdf).

“The main competition to M-Shwari as a place to deposit and store money temporarily comes from informal savings groups and banks”

There is mounting evidence of widespread use of informal and semi-formal financial services, despite efforts to shift to digital financial services (DFS). While in formal circles they may be perceived as ‘a risky place to borrow/put your money’, based on evidence, there is an allure that does not readily lend itself to be seen. Often, what is lost in countless narratives, is the fact that before banks (B.B.), people weren’t necessarily unbanked per se. As creative social beings, they devised ways to meet typical banking functions  eg credit, saving, credit rating etc Not devoid of shortcomings, but filled a role all the same.

How, do they [informal financial services] compete so well with formal finance with nil marketing budgets?


Consider Financial Historical Data

In the formal world of finance, any unrecorded financial history before Banks or Telcos proprietary mobile phone spending history is non-existent. Mobile phone history instead, is preferred as a surrogate for credit history. In turn, the bank provider

“partners with Safaricom (telcos) to use one’s mobile phone usage data and Mpesa transaction data as a credit score for how much in instant loans you qualify for”

Here, there is a rather obvious disconnect. For starters, majority of transactions in rural and informal economies (where the poor, unbanked and underbanked likely found) occur in cash – forms of savings, micro-loans and micro-transactions! Secondly, rich peer to peer (P2P), business to consumer (B2C) and business to business (B2B) credit exchanges, occur frequently in this domain, based on social ties, trust and familiarity in rural and informal economy transactions. Both inherently valuable credit histories.

Yet, all these financial exchanges that take place in these groups and the informal cash intensive economy are not considered as valid credit history.  If we consider mama biashara’s alternatives (as per my formal -informal continuum diagram above), for emergencies, she is likely to turn to her informal devices for plugging her short term credit needs – P2P credit, B2B credit, Business Self Help group etc than say a bank. As a function of trust therefore, these informal devices, rank favorably in her implicit trust continuum scale seen here.


Trust Continuum – informal and formal financial services


Takeaways from Informal

If by their own admission, telcos and banks admit informal savings groups are their biggest competitors, shouldn’t the first step be to understand the competition ?

by Damien Newman

Cash intensive rural and informal domains are a rich data mine semblance of spaghetti balls, unlike digital data that lends itself to direct measurement. The nature of this data is more qualitative – the kind collected from exploratory research, people, immersion, observing behavior, cues picked up from dialogues, and time spent interacting in environments. While we focus on readily measurable metrics, we are missing out on an even bigger source.



ASCA –        Accumulating Savings and Credit Associations
ROSCA –     Rotating Savings and Credit Association
SHG –          Self-help group of mamas with common business interest
Chama –      Informal cooperative society used to pool and invest savings
P2P credit –     peer to peer credit eg mama to mama
B2C credit –     business to consumer credit eg mama to her customers
B2B credit –     business to business credit eg a supplier to mama
MFI –          Micro Finance institution
SACCO –     Savings and Credit Cooperative

Meeting the challenge of consumer demand


Karantina Market, Kenya {photo credit: Niti Bhan}

Understanding consumer demand is an inherent part of the informal trader’s expertise. In the cash economy, unsold inventory is sunk cost. The balance between risk and return is a constant juggling, interwoven with the need for incoming cash flow to meet outgoing expenses.

This tabletop – informal retail – caught my attention for its unexpected juxtaposition of products for sale. Day old chicks which you would purchase to raise for eggs or meat and toilet paper. Mama had X amount of surplus cash available to invest in inventory, and one guesses that she’s not a regular market woman or trader so much as someone who saw an opportunity one market day to make some extra cash.

Neither product is a risk, yet in a sense they are both discretionary purchases the customers milling around the market might make if they had some surplus cash of their own. This is an example of opportunity in the margins, for both buyer and seller.

What observations can you add to this?

A design challenge for agric service innovation in rural Africa

Find a way to embed principles of sustainable good agriculture for the smallscale farmer in a socio-economically beneficial way.

drawing credit: herman weeda

drawing credit: herman weeda

How would we do this?

Where do we begin?

The answers to these questions and more will be forthcoming on this blog. I reach out and encourage you all to consider submitting your thoughts and opinions between 1000 to 1500 words in length. We will combine the thoughts of many voices together in this blog stream so you really should consider subscribing to the RSS feed.

Part 4: The visual documentation of the original research on rural economic behaviour


I have uploaded a PDF synopsis of the fieldwork conducted during the original Prepaid Economy research including approach and methodology.  Also documented are the different ways those in the rural economy manage their ‘investments’. These images support the observations documented in Part 2 and my thoughts on rural Indian cow ownership have been fleshed out here.

Also of interest maybe this paper from Purdue’s Agricultural Economics department on The multifunctionality of livestock in rural Kenya whose abstract states:

While many contemporary development programs with regard to Sub-Saharan Africa’s pastoralists promote improved livestock marketing as a way out of poverty, they also fail to take into account the multi-functionality of livestock within these communities, and thus are doomed to failure. While livestock are a main source of income for the pastoralist household, they also serve a purpose as a store of wealth, food source, and status symbol. Furthermore, cattle and smallstock (sheep and goats) fulfill each function to a different degree. Since livestock are so multi-functional, marketing projects could better achieve their objectives if they had a more accurate picture of what motivates household livestock sale decisions.

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.

Part 2: The Observations made during original research on rural economic behaviour

One can roughly consider the relative income (or wealth) across three regions where observations were conducted on a continuum where the Indian village was the ‘wealthiest’ while the Malawians were living closest to the edge. However, on synthesizing the combined data collected across geographies, patterns of financial behaviour emerged that showed similarities of intention and goals.

For example, non-perishable food grains such as wheat in India or rice in the Philippines were considered a form of wealth that could be stored, acting as savings or insurance. A portion of the harvest would be held back, to be either sold on demand for cash, over the course of the year or as a source of food. Wealth was also stored, as security, for the longer term, in the form of silver ornaments (in India) or as an investment, in the short term, as livestock – pigs, chickens or a milch cow.

Also, people rarely held on to money in the form of cash for any length of time, for the most part due to lack of access to banks and/or the high cost of maintaining an account proportionate to their incomes.  Available cash was usually converted to “kind” – either goods or livestock- the choice of which reflected careful prioritization. These tangible purchases then acted as financial tools depending on their “convertibility”-

  • long-term security (silver);
  • planned savings (buying building materials on a piecemeal basis over time until a house could be built);
  • insurance or a “cushion” against shocks (a pig that could be sold to raise cash or eaten as food) and finally,
  • investments (milk bearing cow, young piglets to rear to maturity, culling high margin ‘fighting cocks’ from chicks).

Cashless transactions, thus, were frequently observed. These behaviours were most complex in India; where a sophisticated mechanism allowed a group of farmers to negotiate the annual retainer for the services of a carpenter in the form of a number of sacks of wheat to be paid during the harvest and the local shops would set a ‘currency’ conversion rate of a kilo of wheat to the rupee to be used for buying sundry provisions. The shop that insisted on cash only transactions priced its goods about 10% cheaper than the rest. Barter was far simpler in Malawi, where a mobile phone could fetch its equivalent price in goats.

Here, it must be noted that very often each household’s resources such as a store of fuel (cow dung in India; firewood elsewhere), chickens or a kitchen garden and assets like milch goats or cows, would be pointed out with pride.  For their possession implied an independence from cash money – in almost every interview, people would emphasize how little they needed to purchase in the store or nearest town for their daily needs as they were self sufficient in these demonstrated requirements. Often it would be added that in a city, you had no choice but to purchase everything you needed.

Thus the use of purchased resources were optimized for maximum cost/benefit and  their use extended as much as possible before replenishment. For example, if a household had access to cooking gas, they would still use firewood or charcoal for foods that took longer to cook while the more expensive fuel was used for foods that cooked quickly.

In the Philippines, cashless transactions were rarely in the form of goods but tended to involve time or physical labour, primarily as a form of social capital in the community. These complex webs of the rural community’s social networks of trust were obvious in the patterns of sharing and cooperation seen in every country. Groups would invest and save together, for example, the extremely sophisticated cooperative ladies lending circle which had expanded over time to include the services of a local bank in India; or the beekeepers cooperative in Malawi where half the annual profits were saved in a common account while the other half was equally shared.

In addition to the behaviour patterns mentioned above, an external factor was observed to be of great significance in the management of rural household expenses.  While it naturally differed in timing and reason from region to region, every household and profession could predict, within reason, the ebb and flow of income based on the seasons of a natural year. In fact, many other observed behaviours were often directly linked to these expected peaks, such as the harvest season, and lows, for example the dry season when fields lay fallow.  This pattern of expected ups and downs or seasonality in income flow was seen to affect even those who were not directly involved in agriculture, as the local economies were closely knit and interdependent.

Note: This blog was begun as a way to publicly share my thoughts during fieldwork, so much of the raw data and immediate observations are available under the category “user research” as well as blog posts written during January 2009 to April 2009 as seen in the archives available on the right hand sidebar.