Increasingly, employment is becoming ad hoc and flexible. The gig economy and the informal sector share a common characteristic of incomes which are irregular and unpredictable, unlike the timely wages characteristic of formal employment. Both budgeting and planning thus become a challenge when there’s no predictable paycheck to rely on. Expenses are managed against cash flows to minimize volatility, and payments with calender deadlines become a challenge in planning.
It is in this scenario that the prepaid or pay as you go model works so well for the customer, one of the reasons why its ubiquity across the developing world drives the growth of mobile phones. It puts control over timing and amount of money spent in the hands of the user, allowing them juggle voice and data purchases against available cash in hand.
Here are the lessons for business model innovation applicable for a plethora of products and services, drawn from our decade of research into the financial frameworks underlying the operating environment characterized by unpredictability and volatility, and the success of the prepaid model.
The prepaid model is flexible. There is no rigid requirement on the amount that can be spent, beyond the voucher values of each telcom operator, nor are there periodic calender based deadlines such as those in a monthly bill. In Nigeria, traders have been found to top up their phones multiple times a week or even the same day, yet purchasing the smallest denomination of vouchers. High frequency of small amounts is a purchasing pattern that resembles their own cash flow while trading in the informal market. They don’t want to tie up their liquidity in airtime in case cash on hand is required for business, yet their trade is clearly dependent on mobile communication hence the frequent recharges.
This flexibility built into the business model clearly puts control over timing and amounts spent in the hands of the end-user who must manage a volatile cash flow situation.
In addition to the daily or weekly fluctuations in cash flow experienced by gig economy workers or those active in the developing country informal sectors, there are larger variations in income level over the course of the natural year. Unlike the regularity of a monthly salary, irregular incomes rise during peak seasons, such as festivals and holidays, and plunge during low seasons. Developing country economies are more closely linked to the seasonality of agriculture, given the greater proportion of the population’s dependence on farming. Incomes can vary as much as 300% for instance, for tea farmers in western Kenya’s Kisii region. Climatic effects also have greater impact on cash flows, and the current drought in East Africa is expected to depress livestock prices in the coming half year. On the upside, seasonal peaks in consumer durable sales are predictable as the regional harvest timings are a known factor. North India’s post harvest season in late October/November kickstarts an orgy of consumer spending during the festivals and the weddings which take place during this period.
Business models designed to take expected seasonal changes into account can minimize the dropout rate of customers when their income changes.
One of the biggest challenges we have wrapping our heads around when considering more rural or cash intensive economies is that liquidity is not equivalent to wealth, or even purchasing power. While this factor can apply to anyone relying on multiple income streams from a variety of sources, I’ll use the example of a small farmer to explain its importance to the design of business models.
The homestead is managed like an investment portfolio, with different sources of income maturing over different durations of time over the course of the natural year. This is also why control over Timing – frequency, periodicity – of payments, such as possible in the prepaid model, is so critical for the success of payment plans. A smartphone might be purchased after the major harvest of the annual cash crop, but its the daily cash from the sale of milk that would be used for recharges (and other basic necessities). Similarly, a calf may be purchased to fatten against the following year’s school fees.
This leads directly to a factor more relevant to heavily informal economies where variance in systems and structures means transactions are more human centered, depending on face to face communication, trusted references, and mutual compacts rather than legal contracts to enforce agreements. Negotiability of your business model, and its close relation, reciprocity – “the give and take” – is an element missing from faceless institutions that seek to serve this demographic.
This is one reason many prefer to seek solutions outside of formal banking institutions, for example, as their opening hours might not suit the trader’s business hours. In Busia, Uganda, most women traders had established trusted relationships with a mobile money agent, many of whom would show up at the end of the work day to assist the trader in transferring the cash earning safely onto the digital wallet. And, unlike the bank, the telco’s prepaid model allows customers to “negotiate” when and how much they’ll pay within the constraints of far more flexible terms and conditions than most other models.
A farmer has “purchased” this solar panel after coming to an agreement with the shopkeeper. He will pay off the total, over time, as and when he has spare cash, and collect the panel when payment is complete. There is no interest charge. The shopkeeper has put the farmer’s name on the panel but will keep hold of the item.
The greater the span of control over timing and amounts, the greater the success of the payment plan
The prepaid model bridges the critical gap between the predictable formal structures of the large institution and the dynamic challenges of the informal. The bottomline is that the flexibility, negotiability, and reciprocity of the model are more important factors for its success than the conventional understanding of permitting micropayments in advance. Numerous consumer product marketers entering emerging markets experienced this challenge when their micropayment hire purchase models failed customers who might have to miss one or two week’s payments due to illness or other emergencies – their products were repossessed without any recourse to adjustment. Its the rigid calender schedule embedded in a payment plan that is often the barrier to a high ticket purchase than the actual price itself.
None of these factors are insurmountable with today’s technology, and the field for business model innovation for irregular income streams such as those in the gig economy or the informal sector is still wide open for disruption.