Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to share my research on the past decade of mobile ecosystem development across the African continent with Dr. Antti Saarnio, founder of Zippie; co-founder of Jolla (developers of the Sailfish OS, among other things).
“We want to test our product first and foremost in Africa because there is an extensive and established informal economy,” he said.
That captured my attention immediately, since few think of the Africa’s vast “informal” commercial operating environment as a strength to be leveraged for competitive advantage, preferring to hope against hope that it will disappear into thin air to be replaced by the more familiar structures of the formal and organized sectors.
And, it got me thinking about the African fintech space, and the lessons it may hold for the rapidly proliferating gig economy in the ‘developed’ world. And, since at this point of time, all I know of Zippie, Dr. Saarnio’s latest venture, is that it’s a blockchain based mobile OS – not the kind of thing that you’d expect to be piloting in Africa – I asked him to elaborate on his thinking a little further.
Easy, he said. Not only does the informal economy dominate, with established norms and coping mechanisms, but its a mobile first and mobile only environment where people are already comfortable with the exchange of value in digital form, be it airtime or currency. People are already incentivized to think about boosting their productivity through newfangled digital tools on their smartphones. More often than not, the younger urban population is educated and tech-savvy, and in places like Kenya, ready to try something new.
I couldn’t argue with his assessment. In fact, I’d take it a step further, based on my own decade’s worth of research into the informal sector’s financial behaviour and cash flow management practices. The developed world economy is beginning to show signs of convergence, in pattern and in the types of challenges faced when attempting to manage in highly uncertain situations, on irregular and unpredictable income streams, often with the very same elements of seasonality – time of abundance and scarcity – as seen in rural Phillipines or India or Malawi.
For instance, Finnish farmers are being driven to use high interest payday loans to tide over the lean times because few other coping mechanisms exist in Finland’s highly formal commercial operating environment. Wedded to the land, they face the same challenges as a farmer in India, Kenya, or The Philippines. Yet no microfinance institutions catering to farmer needs would dream of showing up in rural Finland. Similarly, in the UK, lower income workers, dependant heavily on gig economy apps to generate revenue, can face significant differences in their cash flows from month to month, but again have no recourse but to use their credit cards or high interest payday loans to tide them over. The systems in their operating environment are designed for the past generations’ periodic and regular wages and paychecks, and cannot cope with the irregular cash flow patterns, as prevalent in the informal economy.
That is, the characteristics of the gig economy and the informal economy, when seen from the perspective of the end-user, are more or less the same. Ironically, however, those in the developing world have numerous solutions available to them – albeit informal, social, local – available to them to cope with shocks and volatility. These coping mechanisms have developed over decades (and centuries, in the case of India), hence the well known resilience of the local rural or informal economy.
As uncertainty increases globally, there are numerous lessons to be learnt from the mostly ignored informal economies of the developing countries which have provided incomes and employment for the vast majority of their populations, in times of conflict or peace, making sure that food reaches the urban table from the farms out in the countryside, regardless of the adequacy and availability of either systems or infrastructure. This is one situation where the formal economy’s inbuilt rigidity and dependence on predictability and periodicity are its embedded weak spot at a time when flexibility and negotiability are required to ride the shocks and volatility.