Archive for the ‘Design’ Category
Last week, an illustrious panel was joined by a reasonably sized audience at the iHub in Nairobi for a no-holds-barred discussion on the question is the Silicon Savannah hype or reality? Andrea Bonstedt triggered the discussion earlier in the week with an article published in The Star that resulted in animated discussions online. Sitting on the panel with Conrad Akunga and Njeri Rionge, she clarified her position on “Not every techie is an entrepreneur”. There’s a good summary of the evenings discussions on the iHub blog and in this follow-up piece by Andrea.
General consensus by the panel was that there’s still a long way to go and more to be done to improve the start-up ecosystem in Kenya. In conversations with a few private equity fund managers over the last week, Andrea’s claims were supported; there is still very little potential within the sector for fund managers to grow their pipelines from tech startups.
Meanwhile, inMobi announced it was scaling down its international operations and closing down offices in Africa and Russia. These markets will now be served by their London office. This at a time when the numbers show mobile penetration as rising exponentially on the continent. In the face of declining ARPU there’s increasing demand for data across Africa and the globe but the growth of smartphones on the continent is still slow. One plus one should equal two. Rising mobile penetration plus increasing demand for data should mean (somewhere in there) that there’s huge potential in the short term for businesses providing content and services on mobile via the internet. In my opinion, the potential is probably bigger than any commentator can say. It’s my view that the problem is in the timing. Apparently, users on the continent are on their own clock and exhibiting online behavior that deviates sufficiently from the norm common in the west as to make it less attractive for businesses like inMobi to justify a physical presence here.
Within this hype-vs-reality quandary lies a question which, due to inadequate answers, is probably one of the biggest reasons tech startups on the continent struggle. What do users in the mass market do with their mobile phones and how do they do it? A study by iHub Research funded by infoDev takes a stab at this problem from a high level perspective providing entrepreneurs planning to launch products/services designed for the mass market with useful analysis.
Hype gives us all something to aspire to. Reality makes sure only products that score well on the utility vs hype ratio stay alive. It’s natural selection at its best. Until we find actionable insights on user behavior related to mobile telephony on the continent we may have little to show but hype. Without actionable insights only chance can produce apps/services people would pay for.
But what can be done to give tech startups in sub Sahara Africa a fighting chance in this difficult operating environment? I can think of three quick ways.
- Less hype more work. I am all for hackathons, pitchfests and all manner of contests that put young entrepreneurs in the lime light. I believe they are an important part of the ecosystem allowing stories to spread and giving young people something to aspire to. Let’s add to these events metrics that reward entrepreneurs who successfully bring to market their products otherwise the only story we tell is about people who build cool things. Let’s also take these events on the road to cities and towns other than Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Kigali.
- Teach shipping. We should find ways of teaching basic entrepreneurship in our institutions so that we help young business owners understand how to build teams and run businesses. That way they know what to look for in someone to run things for them. Most of all, more focus should be put on equipping start-ups with the skills to ship products. It’s pointless building a great app if all it ever does is get whipped out at the next challenge/competition/pitchfest. Get customers or close up shop. Those who end up in formal employment would benefit from these skills as they, by necessity, include focus, project management and strategy.
- Think business. What are we building? Who shall use it? How will we get paid for it? How will they obtain it? How will we support them? How much will it cost us to do this? How will we grow to break even? We need to spend less focus on grants and more focus on building sustainable enterprises that make more money than is spent running them. I am always surprised by the number of tech startup owners who can’t answer 5 out of 7 of the questions above.
- Learn from people. It is difficult to become an expert in a problem users face until you have met them and spoken to them. Building a solution to a problem implies that one understands it enough to be somewhat of an expert on it. Basic design thinking skills coupled with lean methodologies can provide young businesses with the agility they need to learn quickly and launch compelling solutions. Putting your product out in the wild and learning from user experiences and feedback is invaluable to a young business. Leave the attitude at home and go out the door where you can learn from other people.
The reality isn’t pretty. The mobile technology industry in East Africa, though still in its infancy, has come along way already. In this hyper-connected age, we just haven’t come far enough fast enough.
“The rationale behind how a business creates, delivers and captures value.”
That’s the short version definition for the term ‘business model‘. For those with no background in economics or commerce (read techies) all this talk about ‘value’ can be too vague to be much good. It leaves too much to subjective interpretation. It needs to be less so. Less subjective interpretation on the innovators end and about the same as before on the consumer end. For purposes of this post, techies include those who make things like handbags, solar panels, furniture…as well as computer programmers.
Tech innovators typically need to ideate less from the comfort of their space (workshop/keyboard) and more from the environment their clients will be using their product or service. This means clients continue to judge the performance of the product using their existing schema and the innovator adopts their own interpretation of value to the users subjective interpretation.
So what does delivering value mean for a techpreneur in Africa? It boils down to job descriptions. What job is the client trying to get done and how does your new app/service/magic help them do it better, faster, cheaper and/or cooler? When clients choose to take the risk of investing money or time (or both) in trying your technology, they expect something to happen. Delivering on that expectation is your easiest definition of delivering value. It means innovators need to spend lots of time with the people they expect to serve with their technology in order to understand what this expectation would be.
But when is value actually delivered? Is it at point of sale? Is it at point of use? Is it at point of disposal? Is it at multiple areas? Social enterprises and civil society led projects generally tend to lose sight of this resulting in huge amounts of wasted resources and a muddied view of their sector in the public domain. For-profit organizations can be just as guilty of failing to understand their clients. Financial services businesses can be notorious for creating products that are poorly distributed or whose value is eroded at the point-of-use such as low density of ATMs resulting in long queues and high charges for clients wishing to close their accounts (point-of-disposal). Some products are essential enough and common enough to be almost impossible to differentiate at the product level. However, new value can be delivered through better distribution, better packaging, easier disposal or better branding that taps into the client’s aspirations.
So before you spend too much time building out some amazing new app, chair, bag or drone make the time to listen and watch your clients to understand what their lives are like and how your product can make a part of it better by helping them get a job done; or to put it in buzz words we all understand…
“Understand how your product or service empowers users across the value chain by synergistically delivering new value through innovative business models.”
or get more buzz words hereTweet
If you are preparing to launch a solar lighting product in sub-Sahara Africa, especially Kenya, here are four things to consider based on my observations in Eastern Kenya earlier this year. No citations here, no scientific data just my thoughts.
- Tradeoffs will happen. Be on the right end of the tradeoff when it does. Usually these tradeoffs are not just price versus features but new thingymajigy vs status quo. Despite the trouble with kerosene, most consumers know how to cope with it. Save the customer time or money and you will be on the better side of the tradeoff. Time in getting a job done or money that is spent as a consequence of the existing solution (medical bills for children studying by kerosene lamps, burns, continued purchase of kerosene etc). If the payoff from your solar solution appears to require a long wait, you may already be on the wrong end of the tradeoff. Find a different benefit to present.
- Aspirations exist. Customers purchasing their first solar lighting product are moving up from kerosene to something cheaper to run. However, once they light up their house they begin to plan for the next electricity consuming device. A bigger radio and a television rank fairly high on the list of these customers. If your product can scale up with them to a point on that journey, they won’t feel they will have to write it off when they are ready for something bigger. Panels that form an array, charge controllers that can be replaced with bigger ones, the option to add batteries…these are some of the ways you can plugin to the customer’s aspirations and grow with them. A point to note; solar home system users in off-grid locations consider a grid connection once it becomes available despite the obvious cost benefit of solar power. A grid connection is considered a step up.
- Price isn’t everything. People like to show off their latest acquisitions, especially when these acquisitions translate into improved perceptions of their social status by their own peers. If your product is known for being cheap, that erodes the ‘brag-abilty‘ of it. Nokia mobile phones were very popular in the slums of Kibera despite not being the cheapest.
- Be part of an ecosystem. While showing off a solar product to residents of rural towns in Kenya earlier this year, they repeatedly asked what they would do with it if it needed repair. Because it features an LED light with integrated power storage, they immediately began asking how it would work with regular solar bulbs or readily available alternatives. They complained the panel was too small (they hesitated to classify it as a solar solution) and it worked with nothing else they that is readily available at their local electronics stores. Any one of those issues was a deal breaker. Play nice with others in the ecosystem and that includes other LED lights, batteries and fundis (local skilled technicians).
It seems to me that any firm selling a 5w-10w panel + 12v 60AH (or more) battery + easily available bulb is on the right path. Now if the solution allows additional panels to be integrated, a charge controller added and bigger batteries plugged in, you have a winner.
Kibera is Kenya’s largest slum: informal settlement if we go by the more established euphemism in use today. The corrugated iron sheet roofs do not stand alone on this vast landscape but are interspersed by TV antennas, so many they seem to stand guard like an army watching over the roofs as far as the eye can see. Should the residents of Kibera be spending their hard earned money on television sets? Shouldn’t they be fighting their way out of poverty? Saving for their future? Investing in better healthcare?
I hear these questions frequently enough from visitors from the West. Very valid questions which even middle class Africans ask of their lower-on-the-BoP ‘brethren’. I especially hear these questions asked by many involved in social enterprises with products that have obvious benefits to users rural, poor or both.
There exists a disconnect between these organizations’ aspirations (for instance: eliminate the use of kerosene) and their customer’s aspirations (for instance: be connected to electricity) introducing some interesting challenges for vendors. The focus by the vendor on building a product that eliminates harm and improves well being leads the business into a cul-de-sac where great products go to die. The same cul-de-sac where healthfood for the masses is to be found together with last year’s new year resolutions. The benefits of the product are undeniable and yet uptake remains poor. Sometimes the message behind the marketing communications destroys any chance a product has in the market. Especially when it asks customers to acknowledge, by purchasing the item, that they are financially unable to cope with the rising cost of living. An admission of defeat. The product does not provide a roadmap for advancement and by being an end in itself rather than a milestone on the journey to success catalyzes little hope for the future. No one wants to be hopeless, no matter how affordable it is.
Putting a great deal of thought into the design of a product comes easy for social entrepreneurs (at least it should) because they put impact before financial reward. However, the always very noble motivation of the service or product informs its positioning in the market. A market that also includes purely commercial players playing by a different rule book. This positioning sometimes aludes, through the products marketing message, to the hardship, poverty or level in society the user is most likely to be in. The poor (generally speaking) don’t wear the title with honor and pride. Reminding them that they are poor and disadvantaged at the point of purchase may only work as long as a competing product that tells them they can be superstars doesn’t exist. Here are two thoughts that are stirred in me whenever I travel to rural areas:
The customer social enterprises seek to convert may be in a disadvantaged situation or season in their life. If your messaging speaks to them as such, there will be a problem. Rural customers, especially those towards the bottom of the economic pyramid, don’t necessarily view themselves as poor. They make sophisticated financial planning decisions all the time trading-off performance against running cost and cost of acquisition against status quo. Speak to the job they are trying to get done and the aspirations they carry or your business will be on the wrong end of the trade-off.
Price isn’t everything in Africa. Ask Airtel, they have found out the hard way. Features you think matter to users may be of little consequence when held up against alternatives. Equity Bank grew rapidly as word of mouth spread about their easy-to-access credit and easy-to-open bank accounts resulting in acquisition of customers previously classified as ‘unbankable’; long queues in banking halls and at the ATMs notwithstanding. Spending a little time (at the very least) with customers and listening to their story may provide you with clues on what they need to get done and how pressing the need for a solution is. The intensity of your customer’s pain dictates the value trade-offs they are willing to make.
A customer only experiences pain because they are trying to get something done without the level of success they consider acceptable. Innovations that have succeeded in Africa have empowered customers not disempowered them. Our next posts will delve a little deeper into this.
This past week the Semacraft team was at Strathmore University holding a workshop for the MSc Telecommunications Innovation (Safaricom Academy) students on designing apps for the mass market in Africa. We are grateful to iLabAfrica for making the event possible.
It’s always great being at Strathmore University, the campus has a great sense of And the students have great energy. Our workshop was based on Semacraft’s basic innovation model called p5 which starts with people and keeps the user at the center of the innovation process throughout the service design lifecycle. A key part of the model requires the innovator to identify personas in their market who they would plan to address. It was impressive the number of personas the participants were able to come up with, some who are well represented throughout the planet’s growth markets. The potential for new disruptive ideas does lie among our young innovators. At Semacraft we look forward to being part of the process that brings to the surface the next generation of ideas that change the way people live and work in Africa.
This workshop was the first in a series designed to equip developers with better skills in business design and improve the quality of ideas launched by young tech innovators in East Africa. The workshop series will culminate in the launch of a handbook later in the year. The next workshop will also be at a Kenyan university later this month. Follow us on Twitter to stay updated.Tweet