African smallholder farmers are not the only ones famous for producing commodities before conducting market research. Corporates are not immune to such a disease. Instead of investing in market research, most African corporate companies prefer monopolizing the air waves, bill boards along urban roads and mainstream print media with advertisements. The consequences of such actions recently caught up with one of Zimbabwe’s big corporates which declared huge annual losses from a business portfolio comprising digital communication, banking and other business units.
Rather than bringing into perspective customers’ historical experiences with agricultural corporates and financial institutions in Zimbabwe, the corporate mentioned above continues to develop products from the top using imported knowledge. Like some financial institutions, the thinking has been that an effective way of correcting or addressing customers’ negative historical experiences is through advertising and launching new products. Yet you can’t remove or heal people’s bad experiences with financial institutions through advertising or introducing new products. Neither can customers’ negative experiences be erased by creating more banks, introducing mobile money as a guise of bringing banks closer to the people, advertisements, introducing zero deposits to new bank clients or even reducing transaction costs.
New approaches to rebuilding confidence
There is definite for corporates to come up with a totally new model of rebuilding confidence. For instance, the banking division of the corporate referred to above incurred losses due to operational costs. It embraced the agent banking model before conducting thorough market research, leading to operational costs. Youths and staff members who were engaged to promote the bank through reaching out to everyone and opening bank accounts in the streets were paid on the basis of the number of accounts opened not what the bank would get after accounts were opened. The majority of potential new clients opened bank accounts just for convenience and emergency not because they wanted to save money.
What is now clear is that there is a sound business model no longer exists between clients and banks in Zimbabwe. Customers are resorting to as a last option while some are forced by institutional arrangements where salaries have to come through banks. As if that is not bad enough, banks are not investing much in rebuilding the confidence of customers towards generating revenue and re-investing it through loan products. Ideally, more than 90% of bank revenue should be earned through loans but banks are not developing alternative loan products.
Failure to build business models around business ecosystems
The financial inclusion model being touted across Africa does not have a very strong component of revenue generation. One of the reasons is that financial institutions have failed to identify ecosystems around which sound business models can be built. For instance, what business model can be built with traders in informal markets like Mbare in Harare or Soweto market in Lusaka? Banks have become more carried away with opening bank accounts through road shows and advertising. Their assumption has been that handing over more bank accounts to more people is equivalent to addressing historical and current challenges faced by clients. Yet as long as financial services are good, customers can travel long distances to open bank accounts using their own resources. Simplifying opening of bank account is not a solution.
Chasing too many hares and riding on development organizations
What also contributed to losses for the corporate mentioned above is not allowing new products to complete business cycles: early stage – growth – maturity – decline. Ideally this takes five to 10 years but the corporate disrupted these growth patterns by constantly bombarding the markets with advertisements of other new products. Some of the products have relied too much on other actors like development programmes to provide life support. For instance an agricultural mobile platform intended for farmers was largely driven by business models of development organizations. Phasing out of such programmes saw the platform failing to stand on its own feet and thus collapsing irrespective of mass advertisements.
Lack of investment in authentic market research has resulted in the corporate referred to above failing to develop products based on customer needs and new clusters. Its products have remained too general and lacking niche markets which are very critical in sustaining business models. The corporate has ignored the 20/80 rule where a business should ensure to have 20% local customers and 80% on – off customers.
Most of the said corporate’s products do not have strong roots from where products can be developed for the new tree trunk, when using the tree analogy. For instance a product meant for providing mobile transport services in the city of Harare and the digital platform intended for farmers do not have a core cohesive foundation where the products can be controlled. They are all over the place and more opportunistic based on assumptions. The assumption is that the main challenge in Harare is lack of transport yet the real challenge is congestion.
Who says farmers need technical information?
The digital mobile platform intended for farmers was introduced on the assumption that farmers want more technical information yet farmers already get the information from government extension services department which has years of experience in providing technical advice to farmers. Some seed companies and NGOs are also already providing technical advice to farmers in their contracts. Since farmers have more options to switch from one service to the other, the agricultural digital platform has become unviable and redundant as it does not offer unique services but a cost to farmers.
There is also no clear value proposition in sharing weather information with farmers through the mobile digital platform, a service already provided by the Meteorological Services Department. Assuming such information is provided to farmers, what action will they take if they are told that tomorrow temperatures will be 40 degrees Celsius hot? Such information does not add much value because ordinary people and farmers cannot make meaningful decisions about the weather which is an external factor.
Given that most products of the corporate mentioned above are not inter-related, they cannot reap advantages in mixing resources towards strengthening business models or shaping the growth path of the whole institution. The corporate has not been able to direct resources to a growing part of the business or prune or refine old business models the way trees are pruned to increase fruit yield, leading to losses.
Lack of valuable content
More importantly, the mentioned corporate’s products lack content that brings value. A bank remains a bank, a bank account remains a bank account. What does an account bring to the customer? What benefits accrue to someone who banks his/her money to his business or life? The mobile money is an account but it doesn’t have a business model. It is basically a last option when one cannot hand over money to the bus conductor going to his rural home for handing over to his mother who can easily walk a few kilometres to the bus stop or business centre. The mobile money notion was developed without a business model around it. People do not rush to use mobile money merely because it is a platform tied to wide network coverage by a mobile network operator. They do so if it offers a valuable service.
Informal markets like Mbare have proved that they don’t need mobile money but a simple model where a farmer brings something of value and the trader brings along the demand side so that trading happens without the need for a middle actor like a mobile money agent. The corporate also introduced a platform for tractor tillage services on the assumption that tillage services are a major challenge for farmers in Zimbabwe yet that is not backed by facts on the ground. Had the corporate conducted market research and asked farmers to rank their challenges it would have discovered that farmers rank the high cost of inputs higher than tillage. Inputs may be available but the main challenge is affordability. The second ranked challenge would be absence of viable markets. Tillage would be ranked the last challenge because production is no longer a good starting point for farmers and African agriculture but markets. If the market is available and viable it can provide most of the services including tillage services. Traders can pay for tillage services just as they have traditionally financed farmers to produce specific crops. Providing tillage services in isolation is not a viable business model at all.
It is unfortunate that several African businesses are now more into counting of numbers. For instance, of the 92% mobile penetration by big mobile network providers no one knows how much is being utilized. There is a difference between penetration and utilization. Utilization is the source of income and growth not penetration. A viable business depends on 90% local trading. Informal markets survive shocks because more than 90% of their trading business is through local currency.
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