Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

The Informal Industrial Ecosystem: An Introduction to REculture

The Art of Seeing Beauty in Garbage, Kenya, September 2010

This article introduces and explains some things I’ve been seeing in the informal industrial ecosystem in the developing world context for almost a decade now. First noticed in 2009, I then named it REculture, a neologism to capture the vast and complex ecosystem I saw in the revenue generating facility of recycle, replace, repurpose, reuse and resale. Given contemporary interest in developed country concepts such as the circular economy, and other sustainable and ecological initiatives, I thought it timely to sit down and attempt to synthesize the past work before proceeding to write more on current events.

What is REculture?

I thought I’d start from the beginning – is there, for example, a difference between “the entrepreneur” and “the producer”, “the creator” and “the innovator”, if at all? And if none, then perhaps start to fill in some few blanks based on our earlier thinking on the BoP “consumer” and their mindset, worldview or value system.~ June 2009

In July 2009, I was inspired by my observation of a man sitting under a tree in the administrative district of New Delhi with a visibly large bag of buttons by his side. His service, to the civil servants rushing to and fro from important governmental meetings, was to quickly repair a missing button from their suit jacket or shirt. Not unlike a shoeshine boy, this gentleman’s service was on demand, while you waited, his fingers flying rapidly with the needle as he sewed a reasonable facsimile of your missing button back on for you.

Look at the unusual yet welcome niche he had found for himself! A repair service that could only work in this part of the city where the common uniform was a suit and tie and important visitors the norm.

Once he opened my eyes to what it was I was seeing on the streets – the entrepreneurial opportunities squeezed out of the margins of daily life – I began noticing such services more and more. Repair, re-use, re-purposing, resale, and, in their own inimitable way, recycling of used up or abandoned products of industrialization were turning out to provide a significant chunk of the revenue streams of many of the informal sector’s service providers who now became visible to me.

In June 2009, I wrote:

…many other such observations got me thinking about the whole RE culture among the BoP. Stepping back, if you take the broad space of REuse, REpurpose, REpair and REcycle – its the low hanging fruit for the BoP entrepreneur’s opportunities for income generation. In fact, REpair is an entire professional service area in its own right, perhaps a subset of the opportunity space in the informal economy with varying degrees of skill and ability required.

But coming back to the other three, it seems at first glance that they look to be more or less the same thing i.e. how different is it to reuse a plastic bottle to contain some liquid from recyling it? particularly if the manufacturer had intended for it to be a disposable container? Yet, from the big picture perspective, one can say (and it has been said before) the whole concept of recycling is a cost in the OECD world whereas its actually a source of income, in a myriad ways, among the BoP.

The second thing that struck me, when I pondered these signs of a post-consumption economic ecosystem, was that the actors in the informal sector – whom we now discuss as traders, fabricators, service providers – were still then thought of as the “Bottom of the Pyramid” or the BoP – the economically vulnerable, the marginalized, the low income barely making ends meet on a dollar or two a day. There was no attempt at segmentation, this was the lumpen mass of the next 4 billion. Even though the late CK Prahalad had called them out as micro-producers, creators, and innovators, in his seminal book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, those who had grabbed the label with both hands and run with it were still thinking in terms of consumption. “How do we make products profitably for the poor?”

What about the creators, the makers, the innovators, and the producers in the informal economic ecosystem?

Again, back in June 2009, I wrote:

I am attempting to evaluate whether all our previous observations and learnings viz., “Life is hard” (the mindset and values of a customer at the BoP particularly one living on an irregular income) can help us begin to understand the other side of the coin, that is, the “innovator” or “creator/maker” or simply, the “informal business owner or service provider” at the BoP.

At this point at least, it seems to me, that rather than quibble about each individual word choice to describe “who” or “what” they are, perhaps we’re better off looking at the “why” and “how” – by this I mean, that the driver of motivation is to generate an income stream (the why) and the gaps observed, as mentioned above, are the opportunity spaces (the how). That is, the BoP seem to display more of a tendency towards ‘opportunity spotting’ (not quite the same as the word opportunists, though that may also apply in many cases or situations), filling the niche quickly with a service or product. Some of these services have arisen spontaneously around the developing world, mobile phone repair comes to top of mind.

It feels as though its a far more active than passive quality – poverty and hardship can be a powerful motivational driver in itself, though we tend to overlook the ingenuity and creativity involved.

That is, back then, just over 9 years ago, I connected the dots I was seeing in this space – the mindset and values of the low income customers and their post consumption behaviours, taken together with the “RE” space where visibly they were earning income – and framed it so:

That is, the lower income market tends towards maintenance and extending the lifespan of the products (through repair or repurposing it) they purchase rather than disposing it for convenience or replacing it for a trendier style. All very obvious, you say, but its this very same quality that leads to the wide variety of opportunities for the entreprenuerial or the innovative to make some money (or even a living). From the very basic, in terms of skills and ability such as the button repair guy to the complex, such as the mobile phone hacker, all of these services meet an ‘unmet need’ in the market, an opportunity gap which they can fill.

However, what’s interesting about this is the fact that these opportunities would very rarely be either a) spotted as one in mainstream consumer culture; b) not be a gap per se due to a difference in mindset/worldview OR even c) not be profitable enough, given the comparative cost of labour vs the price of the product involved. These conditions for making money, and more so, making money that is deemed a valid ROI seem only to be available among the lower income demographic and in the developing world.

For the precondition to their success is also a sufficient customer base seeking such a service and their willingness to pay for it,  and that, imho, emerges from their mindset as BoP consumers, one quality of which is their need to Maximise the return on their investment (purchase). This shows up in this context as a wish to REpair, REuse, REsell (for REpurpose or REcycling or whatever along those lines) – I doubt if they’ve stopped coming by from door to door among the ‘consuming classes’ in India to buy old bottles, newspapers and other sundry junk. (A sign of development if it stops?)

Once I could “see” the entire post consumption entrepreneurial activity in the informal sector, I went back to my research documentation conducted in rural Philippines and India for the original ‘prepaid’ economy work, and pulled out the patterns seen in the photographs that, when fitted together, showed all the evidence of an entire industrial ecosystem. As a working title for this seemingly vast economic space within the informal economy across Asia and Africa, I had called it REculture – the group blog went on spawn a magazine.

An entire industrial ecosystem within the informal economy based on the discards of the consumer lifestyle

A discarded Kraft cream cheese bottle would be picked out of the garbage by a waste picker and sold to an intermediary who would clean and sort these by colour and size and sell them on to a fabricator, who in turn, would convert these into affordable – and handmade mass produced – kerosene lamps, completed with spot welded wick tube.

An entire industrial life cycle from “raw material” through to “mass production” supported by distribution and retail. The only difference? The informal nature of the entire value chain and the post consumption adaptation of the materials and discards.

My concluding thoughts at the stage in which I’d left my explorations almost a decade ago can be summed up thus:

So, at this point, early stages of exploration though it is, one could say that the whole area of “post consumption” consumer practices – most of which have withered away like the appendix in the ‘rich’ world – forms one major  basis for both products and services, with value addition to varying degrees, in the ‘informal economies’ of the developing world.

There are insights to be teased out here on flexible, adaptable, ‘on demand’ business models ~ but applied outside the virtual world. Scarcity of resources and circumstance force lean overheads and inventory. Constraints of demand and customer purchasing power create their own flows in the chaos. Is there a pattern to the flow of the informal after all?

What next?

I summed up this history so as to provide me with the foundation and backdrop to pick up the threads of this conversation, now with the added insights of the past decade, and the increasingly sophisticated frameworks of framing the informal economy as a commercial environment in its own right, populated with entrepreneurs and niches that the mainstream overlooks.

As the topics of sustainability, resource conservation, and the circular economy become top of mind and critical, the early lessons from the developing world will only become more important going forward. I’ll be writing more under the category and tag “REculture” for old times’ sake.

Book Review: Operation Elop, the final years of Nokia by Merina Salminen and Pekka Nykänen

Design auditing the new Life Tools for Nokia, Sept 2009, India

Operation Elop, uploaded by Harri Kiljander has just been made available in English and I’m already on Chapter 8. I saw the editor’s tweet 23 minutes after he said “It’s done and available on Medium under a Creative Commons license” and I haven’t stopped diving in and out since.

It starts with a memorable day in Finland – 10th September 2010 – so memorable that one asks “Where were you that day?” and people remember. I remember it well, and I have photographs to prove it. My life changed rather dramatically in the year that followed, and the period that the book covers is the same period I was away from Finland, having already decided to make my home here for the remaining years of my life.

Its complicated, this history of Nokia’s demise. The impact on Finland was palpable, the responses ranging across the spectrum of human emotions. You have to know that I was in love with Nokia and the changes they had wrought across the developing world. In 2007, there’s a photograph of me sitting in their lobby stunned from the impact of coming face to face with a corporation that conveyed the values of their brand. And its because of Nokia’s design and innovation researchers blogging their exploratory user research across Africa that inspired me to do what I have been doing for the past 10 years. Every chapter in this book has been adding new layers to my own personal journey.

I’ll highlight the one paragraph that’s important to me. When all the news was breaking over the years, I thought that Nokia was splitting their product development energies too broadly. In fact, in May 2011, I was invited to a feature phone workshop to present on the future and on Africa. What I said we wanted to put on t-shirts, “Don’t get stuck in the missionary position.” They were taking a Mother Teresa route in Africa instead of focusing on what they were good at – robust engineering and products that stood up to harsh climes and rough usage. At a value for money price point. I didn’t know it was already too late, but here’s the key snippet from the book that helped me make sense of things from long ago as I read it today.

From Chapter 19:

In 2010, the foundation of Nokia’s business consisted of devices priced at a few tens of euros ($30–50), with which one could make calls, send text messages, and use simple web services. Thanks to efficient production, feature phones yielded larger profit margins to Nokia than smartphones. The amazing efficiency was based on the S40 operating system, which had been introduced in 1999. Nokia conquered the world with S40. It was made possible because the system could be tailored at a low cost to mobile network providers operating in different regions. By 2012, Nokia sold 1.5 billion S40 devices across the world.

This was squandered in the race to the top, the glamour of being world famous, complicated by so many factors – all simply and accessibly laid out in the book – that it still makes one weep to think of what might have been. All I know is that the Nokia I own today doesn’t even have predictive text.

I want to thank the translators for their hard work and effort. The book has been a joy to read and it’s kept its Finnishness in choice of words, and sentence structure. You can read it online or download it for free.

Samsung took its commitment to the African market very seriously

This article in the Financial Times caught my attention first for it’s mention of Samsung’s seemingly innovative adaptation to the harsh operating environment prevalent across the African continent. It reminded me of the very first exploratory user research programme I had been part of, for Samsung, back in early 2008. That was a seminal trip for me, 3 weeks by Landy through the bleakest parts of rural South Africa, in search of how people lived, worked, and played with their mobile phones.

Mobile phone repairman, Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa, January 2008 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

We discovered what I would now look back and recognize as a whole new world. This fieldtrip was the turning point in my career, and the prepaid economy project was the outcome of questioning many of the assumptions around what were then called “Bottom of the Pyramid” markets, which had been shattered, in my eyes, by this journey’s end.

Life is hard” became my mantra for the next couple of years, as I illustrated the vast chasm between the mainstream consumer market’s mindset of credit driven consumerism, and the cash intensive hitherto ignored reality of the townships and informal settlements. The article I wrote on the mindset and values of Africans in their guise as customers for consumer goods – who had not been conditioned by generations of advertising messaging since the poor (the BoP, the bottom of the pyramid)- went on to be cited by the late CK Prahalad himself in the revised 2010 Introduction to his seminal The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

Next came the development of a holistic strategy to reach these untapped opportunities, with a semblance of a value system rather than be driven by the pure profit motive alone.

The core values, then and now, for a consumer appliance, device, or hardware, any durable really, was the following:


If Samsung is established in its foothold in Africa today, and their appliances are designed to survive the environment and meet the needs of their African customers, then I am very pleased to read it.

That first photograph is of the slider that Samsung models being sold at that time had. And in Africa, as the repair guru holding the part was showing us – and two of Samsung’s own mobile design team members – was the weakest point of failure in their phones. Grit would get in and jam the part, and most such phones came in for repair within a few months of their purchase date.

Later, in London, where the Samsung Design Europe office was located, we walked into one of their phone shops – somewhere near Harrods, if I recall correctly, and asked about the longevity of their slider phones. The salesman gave us a long song and dance about how these parts had been tested to “slide” a thousand times before each model went on sale. Yes, I mused to myself, it had. In the dustfree laboratory conditions of their engineering unit, or the less harsh environment of London or Seoul. What about upcountry South Africa? Or Senegal or Kenya or even, India?

The 2009 models introduced for emerging market opportunities, such as those on the African continent almost a decade ago, were all candybars.

As for me, I’ve never stopped using a good oldfashioned “dumb” Nokia that stolid Finnish engineering and product development ensured would survive and endure anything – even being run over by a truck.

Roadmap for reverse innovation – how to leverage context for disruption

Vijay Govindarajan and Amos Winter have an interesting article in the July/August issue of Harvard Business Review. They identify the barriers to successfully integrating reverse innovation from emerging markets into the product pipeline for mainstream consumer culture. Their key paragraph echoes the issues of people, pesa and place I’d written about earlier:

Our research suggests that the problem stems from a failure to grasp the unique economic, social, and technical contexts of emerging markets. At most Western companies, product developers, who spend a lifetime creating offerings for people similar to themselves, lack a visceral understanding of emerging market consumers, whose spending habits, use of technologies, and perceptions of status are very different.

And they go on to identify the common mental traps that act as barriers to innovation.

As we will show in the following pages, the reverse innovation process succeeds when engineering creatively intersects with strategy. Companies can capture business opportunities only when they design appropriate products or services and understand the business case for them.

I’ve annotated the design principles developed by an engineer and a strategist with a soupçon of human centred design *cough* thinking below:

Trap 1: Trying to match market segments to existing products.

Design Principle 1: Define the problem independent of solutions.

Tech driven innovationCompanies tend naturally to look at opportunities from the perspective of their the product lines, placing their technology front and center of their opportunity assessment. Govindarajan and Winter suggest stepping back to evaluate the landscape of the operating environment for which they wish to innovate.

Trap 2: Trying to reduce the price by eliminating features.

Design Principle 2: Create an optimal solution, not a watered-down one, using the design freedoms available in emerging markets.

torchlight-phonesWhich designer sitting in the comfort of the developed world’s stable and reliable infrastructure would have thought of adding a torch to a mobile phone if Nokia’s exploratory user researchers had not observed people’s behaviour? In developing countries with inadequate infrastructure, power cuts are a frequent occurrence and the bright screen of the device in your pocket was being used by people to find the keyhole in the door.

Trap 3: Forgetting to think through all the technical requirements of emerging markets.

Design Principle 3: Analyze the technical landscape behind the consumer problem.

This is really why a landscape map of the operating environment is critical (and yes, I’ll be following up with a post that explains a landscape map). No-one can remember all the constraints and criteria for product design in environments of scarcity and variance in infrastructure. Whirlpool was one of the first to discover this with their World Washer designed specifically for emerging markets 25 years ago. From Govindarajan and Winter:

When designing offerings for the developing world, engineers assume they’re dealing with the same technical landscape that they are in the developed world. But while the laws of science may be the same everywhere, the technical infrastructure is very different in emerging markets. Engineers must understand the technical factors behind problems there—the physics, the chemistry, the energetics, the ecology, and so on—and conduct rigorous analyses to determine the viability of possible solutions.

It boils down to listing assumptions and questioning them rigorously, something engineers are already accustomed to doing. And, now, my favourite of all these traps and principles.

Trap 4: Neglecting stakeholders.

Many multinationals seem to think that all they need to do to educate product designers about consumers’ needs and desires is to parachute them into an emerging market for a few days; drive them around a couple of cities, villages, and slums; and allow them to observe the locals. Those perceptions will be enough to develop products that people will purchase, they assume. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Design Principle 4: Test products with as many stakeholders as possible.

Companies would do well to map out the entire chain of stakeholders who will determine a product’s success, at the beginning of the design process. In addition to asking who the end user will be and what he or she needs, companies must consider who will make the product, distribute it, sell it, pay for it, repair it, and dispose of it. This will help in developing not just the product but also a scalable business model.


Complex Value Web of Transactions in Cash, Kind and Information. Sketch: Michael Kimani

There are two key assumptions embedded in Trap #4 and its supporting Design Principle. These are:

1. End users are individual actors.
2. That the ecosystem is a conventional value chain

This may be true in the highly individualized mainstream consumer culture of “the West” where the bulk of consumer facing organizations and their designers head quartered. In most of the developing world, users – people – are part of a closely networked community, more true the lower down the income stream you go. Not only must organizations consider the entire ecosystem in which their new product or service will be introduced but they need to consider the individual customer’s social and communal ecosystem as well.

Understanding Users

The Individual as an Ecosystem Sketch: Jeroen Meijer

In fact, as we discovered in the last mile, the value chain is actually a complex value web with overlapping nodes and roles – a community of trust, social capital, information flow and opportunity networks.

Overlooking these characteristics and constraints, that too in the context of the informal and/or rural economy, where transactions are mostly in cash or kind, with few formal financial instruments, has impact on the design of the business model and payment plans as well, not just that of a tangible artefact.

Which leads us to the final and most important point being made by Govindarajan and Winter:

Trap 5: Refusing to believe that products designed for emerging markets could have global appeal.

Design Principle 5: Use emerging market constraints to create global winners.

Though most Western companies know that the business world has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, they still don’t realize that its center of gravity has pretty much shifted to emerging markets. China, India, Brazil, Russia, and Mexico are all likely to be among the world’s 12 largest economies by 2030, and any company that wants to remain a market leader will have to focus on consumers there. Chief executives have no choice but to start investing in the infrastructure, processes, and people needed to develop products in emerging markets.

And, critically, India, China, Brazil and Russia, among others, are all eyeing the opportunities in the emerging economies of the African continent. Understanding these challenging conditions and satisfying the demands of these connected consumers will become all the more crucial going forward.