The Africans are not beneficiaries anymore

By | October 9, 2012

Innovating without knowing your customer is like being lost in the dark with your eyes closed: you’ll never know if you hit the light switch ~ @bdoorn

My colleague on my current project in The Netherlands, Bart Doorneweert, tweeted that insight after our next to last user interview today (tomorrow is our last). While I’ve been hesitating to say out loud that there is a crying need for user centeredness in program and policy development (design, even), its even more obvious when our client’s perception of the users has not changed since aid meant charity for beneficiaries and not economic and market development of the BoP customers.

That is actually the biggest difference between the Indian and Chinese business interactions across the African continent, including everyone’s former colonies, and the erstwhile European Union. Its hard to do business when your broker is a notforprofit NGO whose mandate is not to make a profit. Sustainability in agriculture, for example, does not mean the cost of going green is so high against the pittance paid by the megamultinationals for cocoa that farmers are giving up the business as a lost cause.

Maximizing resource extraction while minimizing input does not take the human condition into account. The so called Bottom or Base of that economic pyramid prefer that we Maximize our constraints and minimize our resources.

They want to do business but the trendy money is chasing “sustainable social enterprises” set up by trust fund designers. Ben Lyon, founder of Kopo Kopo told me in a conversation a few months ago in Nairobi:

We weren’t beholden to our customers until we starting thinking like a business.

We didn’t hold ourselves accountable until we started treating our ‘beneficiaries’ as customers.

No investor took us seriously until we dropped the ‘social enterprise’ label.

 I think that is going to be the biggest shift required in perspective – to think of your beneficiaries as your customers and to consider the design of win win business and revenue generation models. This reminds of when I first realized this kind of big shift difference in positioning users in the designer’s mindset. It was back in early 2008. Because I can see the difference in the mobile landscape in Africa, starting with the internet cafe industry project for Village Telco one year ago across Kenya that allowed me to get a rapid yet varied snapshot by end of July 2012 when I ended my second contract with ToughStuff in Nairobi.

The BoP are not really the Bottom of anything nor do they think of themselves like that in Africa. And along with this change came the simultaneous impact of increasingly affordable phones and data access to the world wide web leading to very rapid rate of adoption of everything on the mobile platform. In 4 short years, the size of the African mobile phone user base has come a year or two away from doubling.

Think about that for a moment.

This is not an iPhone in every suburb. This is a world wide communications device bringing the World Service to your ear. All you need for that, really, is 20 bob for a week’s charge of electricity. Plugging into Facebook or Twitter will change your thinking of the world.

So, even in the remotest village, some smart kid is already dreaming of hacking his own makerbot or at the very least gawking at the global consumer mainstream floating by, through his little screen.

This, however, does not change the realities of their consumer behaviour. Their irregular incomes from a variety of sources, if part of the cash based informal and/or rural economy, are seasonal and life remains hard, even though the webz are changing dreams and aspirations almost as fast as hotcakes.

When you are talking to a potential customer, you seek to touch his aspirations with your offer, but when you address beneficiaries, you only talk about the social benefits not the human dreams.

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