In East Africa’s regional informal trade networks, the business development strategy that works for the constraints and conditions of the operating environment is one of selective diversification in lines of business, and, upgrading from B2C retail to B2B micro-wholesale. It was an aspiration for every ambitious shopkeeper, to have women come and purchase from her shop to take with them deep into the interiors for their own shops. One can see this path in Nairobi’s largest informal wholesale market that serves the greater Eastern African regional trading networks, from Juba in South Sudan to the borderlands of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC is now part of the East African Community, and micro-cross border traders are the majority, and where women dominate entire sectors of product categories, from the riskiest fresh produce from their kitchen gardens which lose profit after 24 hours without cold storage in the hot sun, to entire container loads of bales of secondhand clothing from the charities of “the West”. A similar path from humble street vendor to established trader who rents three shops just for storage and employs 2 girls for customer service, a porter, a loader, and a packager is seen in the informal wholesale markets for fresh agricultural produce.
Trade in tomatoes is regional and cross border, the wholesale networks and knowledge brokering intermediaries having figured out a way to keep Nairobi supplied with fresh tomatoes throughout the seasons of the natural year by substituting imports from Ethiopia and Tanzania when the Kenya growing season prevents local sourcing. Developing the capacity to write this in less than 300 words took me just over 10 years. Now, I discover, that like them, I too discover the emergence of a second and parallel line of business as means to expand operations without cannibalizing existing practice, however dormant due to the restrictions of the pandemic.
I have raised funds from the Arts Promotion Council of Finland for restarting operations after 2 years of the pandemic. It is a small subsidy but it is enough to register a new organization structure in Finland and get corporate identity work and a website built from the ground up. Three founding members are required, along with a purposeful mission statement, in order to successfully operate as a non-profit association (Ry) in Finland. The word Ymm-umlaut a-rrys is translated by Google as “understanding”, but the sense I gather from Finns is that it is a somewhat more purposeful version, almost a verb, which implies that when you understand something well enough, you are empowered to take action in response. Such agency-fostering through collaborative sensemaking of ambiguities in making sense of changes to natural and social environments has been noted by globe spanning interdisciplinary teams of climate scientists as directly contributing to well-planned adaptations among the community members (Vanderlinden, 2020).
My two co-founders are respectively an visual artist completing her master’s thesis at Aalto ARTs, and my nephew in Brussels who is a non-profit professional and currently working for a private sector’s company foundation. In addition, we have a visual designer working with us right now as well in helping develop the concept of the non-profit. The mission is one which can be addressed in any number of ways, and whole of society is expected to do it in Finland. The circular economy concept is one which many startups must grapple with, and it requires a certain degree of specialized science and technological knowledge to incorporate fully into existing operations. Many underlying assumptions in frameworks and estimates must be pulled out and reviewed from scratch. Business operations cannot continue with existing processes and procedures without holding each functional line up to the light for assessment of circularity principles that the company selects as the most strategic decision to make, given their competitive landscape.
We believe that activating one’s creativity, particularly among entrepreneurs and innovators (see Van de Ven and Zahra, 2017), will lead to a burst of development (see Dorst and Cross, 2001) in creative bridge building (Cross, 1997; 2019) that is at the heart of the dynamic design thinking process of build-test-learn loops. Value analysis will be necessary to ask basic and secondary functions, and here, the difference is not cost cutting for efficiency & productivity metrics, but evaluating it according to the circularity metrics that frame the problem space (see Dorst, various).
Transdisciplinary collective creativity can be activated through the facilitation of various activities that rely on participants’ own creative expression for implementation. By drilling down to the first principles of creative design, we identify creativity, resilience, and innovation as the three attributes for evaluating the sustainability of a business transformation related apposite proposal (see Cross, 1997). Spanish scholars have found a relationship between organizational innovations – the non-technological ones that startups don’t pay attention to – and sustainable environmental impacts. Facilitating a startup’s own capacity to identify problem spaces for which to innovate a solution for, as a means to kickstart their sustainable transformation, would be in itself a sustainable solution. This is one of the reasons why the structure is that of a non-profit rather than a consulting firm. We see this work as contributing to society’s transformation in response to massive environmental changes.
Art and design are both needed to surface embodied and experiential knowledges, allowing for more holistic integration of stakeholder voices, including those of the silent, such as non-human living things. Grant funding today asks for projects that help communities transform their daily life practices to meet nature’s terms. What are nature’s terms? We believe this is something that only each group, community, company, or institution can answer on their own terms. This is where collaborative sensemaking of ambiguities in the problem space in a transdisciplinary manner as already tested by Vanderlinden and colleagues (2020) fosters agency for transformation because it makes clear what needs to be done. The how it is to be done will be answered in the solution development phase, a sequential activity.
Our website is under development as is the organizational structure for fundraising. In Finland, the non-profit form used by NGOs is the same as that for an association of members or a trade union. It is a recognized form of voice and platform. Ours is on behalf of sole traders, micro-enterprises, micro-entrepreneurs, and all the various subsistence livelihood activities that occur in rural. Such household enterprises do not have the big budgets for R&D that megabrands do. And, in Finland, as in many other places, SMEs are 98% of the economy, where SMEs are defined by the EU’s rule of firms with 250 employees or less. In this context, firms with 10 or less employees (micro-SMEs or MSMEs in India and across the African continent) fall off the map of addressable needs and solutions at scalable pricing. In many sectors a single business owner, a sole trader, is the norm. In small retail, this describes a hairdressing salon, a grocer, a tobacconist, a butchery, bakery and cafe. In rural, this expands to includes farmers and foresters and vocational trade occupations such as electrician, carpenter, mechanic, etc. This social innovation in the classical sense of Manzini et al., various.
Extensive literature review in the journals of innovation management and small enterprises demonstrates the scarcity of attention paid to this mundane sector of the economy. There is an unpublished Spanish dissertation on hairdressing salon innovations. There is a magazine article on plumbers competing with franchisees, both individual entrepreneurs but with a difference. Innovation capacity at the grassroots in required. Nobody can do it by themselves, that is why as a non-profit structure, Ymmarrys Ry can afford to share all its knowledge openly online. We have no secret sauce. We just recognize you as a creative human being, even if you’re only selling a handful of tomatoes in an African slum. Here’s a testimonial from a participant of one of our earliest programs, more than year after she completed a sequence of 3 sessions. She was able to use the planning tool introduced to generate and accrue cash to expand into a whole new line of business, opening a shoe shop, in addition to the vegetable vending. This strategy mitigates her risk from highly perishable leafy green veg by distributing her income stream to a shelf stable good – secondhand shoes.
Sustainable design thinking (SDT) is necessary (see Verganti et al., 2021) to meet the turbulence conditions accompanying massive structural change.