In praise of simplicity, Liz Galpin on shopping experiences in Europe and Africa

Written by LIz Galpin Thursday, 18 August 2011 22:02
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Africa does things its own way….


 Walk into any African supermarket. What’s going to strike you, if you’re used to shopping in any ‘developed’ country, is the narrow range of choice per item. Want washing powder? Buy Omo. And no choice of powder, tablets, plastic sachets either. Just powder…. Want oranges? Only if they are in season… I’m excluding supermarkets in S African cities by the way – these tend to be sophisticated affairs. There are, of course, many disadvantages to the lack of choice, but some advantages to the limited choice in supermarkets as well – less time spent on deciding which products to buy, and what’s on offer is probably tried and tested, works well and tastes just fine.

I refer back to the words of my business partner, Oscar, on his views as to  why M-PESA has been so successful in Kenya : ‘Kenyans take to a successful initiative in droves…drink the same beer, smoke the same cigarette, buy the same detergent, long as they have faith in it’ Is that a clue to why there is less choice in Africa? Once a product has been successful, it is very difficult for its competitors to capture the market? I’d be happy to hear peoples’ views on this.

I only ever seem to catch taxis in London or Nairobi. Nairobi, because it’s really the only way for me to get around when I’m there. I really wouldn’t dare drive in Nairobi, even if hiring a car were possible, which I haven’t bothered to enquire about…. Actually I don’t much fancy driving in London either – growing up in a ‘one horse town’ in S Africa doesn’t especially prepare you for being able to navigate the streets of London too well. Besides, tubes and buses work just fine in London…normally….other than on Tuesday when I had 15 minutes to get from one meeting to another and to my dismay Victoria  underground station had a big sign up saying ‘Emergency – Station Closed’ and to emphasise the point the gates were firmly closed. So – I hopped into a cab, asked to be taken to the City and busied myself sending an email to say I may be a few minutes late. In Nairobi I don’t have to worry about carrying cash with me – as long as I check that the driver will accept M-PESA payment before we set off, I can do a ‘Send Money’ transaction – certainly much safer when travelling at night. By the same token I just assumed (stupidly), this being London, I’d be able to pay with my card – surely there could not be an expectation that you would have to pay by cash on a cab? I guess I hadn’t thought that through very well, and it was only when I glumly watched the meter ticking over, while standing stationary at the traffic lights for about 5 cycles, that it started to dawn on me that this taxi ride could cost more than the £15 I had in my purse….. In the end it was fine – the ride cost more or less £15 on the dot, but I did have an anxious ride, wondering whether (a) I would be hopelessly late for my meeting and (b) I’d be totally embarrassed by not having enough cash on me. And it seemed bizarre that I could pay for my taxi using my mobile in Nairobi, but that I had to have enough cash on me in London.  In South Africa and Nigeria it is also possible to use your mobile to pay for a taxi - I haven't experienced this first hand, but visit for more information. There you have it – less choice in Africa, but definitely more convenience…..

I read the next day that NFC was being trialled in New York for parking meters – wonder how long it will take for us to be able to pay taxi drivers with our mobiles.

I’m extremely pleased to be given the opportunity to work with MoWoza to supply the technical component of their ‘send goods home’ project. I love their ideas and can see them really taking off in Africa. The basic model is to enable folks to send goods, rather than money, to their loved ones back home. I guess this is the equivalent to being able, in developed markets, to buy a gift voucher for someone and either mail or email the voucher to them. The analogy I would use for ‘send money home’ (best example here would be M-PESA in Kenya) would be someone popping a tenner in a birthday card, or sending a cheque in the post, for their birthday, or possibly doing an on-line money transfer into their bank account.  All of these are reasonably convenient, but a ‘send money’ M-PESA transaction is probably the quickest of them all.

So – Africa is doing things in their own way. I’m not saying they are achieving these entirely on their own. There is much interest in the West as to ways in which technology can help emerging markets, but all the technology in the world isn’t going to achieve anything. It has to be embraced by the users, adopted and made their own. Only then will we see successful initiatives. And we ARE seeing successful initiatives, a hunger for these technologies and examples abound of where technology is being used to great effect.

We have to ask ourselves whether we need all these choices in the UK? Taking out a Mortgage – do I take out an interest only mortgage, a straight repayment mortgage, off-set mortgage or ISA mortgage? Fixed or tracker rate? Does it make my life easier to have such a wide range of choices? Or would I spend less time and energy if the number of products on offer were limited? It doesn’t matter what we think. In developed economies, we can’t turn the clock back now. We’ve all grown to expect all products available, all year round, irrespective of the growing season, time of year etc.  We all expect the choice of financial products. There’s no changing that.  But can we learn from the simplicity of successful initiatives in developing markets? It’s definitely something worth watching…

Liz Galpin is the author of Will There Be Another MPESA?

Last modified on Friday, 19 August 2011 08:10

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