Thursday, December 26, 2013

Technology products for rural people: Why do they almost always fail?

In this chapter, we will discuss the topic of information technology products and services, designed primarily for users who are rural people living in subsistence farming villages. Unfortunately, these products all too often fail. We will analyze the reasons.

Crab hunting in a rice field in Takeo province, Cambodia 

Roughly 12,000 years ago the first humans invented agriculture, in other words, they acquired the skill and technology to grow crops and domesticate animals. Within a few millennia, this technology spread (or was invented independently in some cases, experts are not sure) to almost all human groups around the world. This was arguably the first major cultural revolution (meaning: a profound shift in the way of life) since the first people migrated out of Africa 50,000 years earlier (these numbers are just an approximation, the exact numbers are still being debated and also vary by region).

Imagine this - you’re an “anatomically modern human being” (meaning that your body and brain are essentially identical to today’s people) living 12,000 years ago, speaking some earlier version of your current language. You spend all your time either hunting animals, or gathering fruit from the forest to feed your family. Some days you are successful and make your wife proud of you, and sometimes your family goes to bed hungry. When that happens, your wife is not happy. The children cry. Life sucks. One day you agree to give shelter to a stranger that is traveling from a faraway place, and he teaches you that you can actually grow chicken or cows or pigs (or rather the early pre-domesticated versions of these animals) or fruit, rice or wheat right next to your hut - what a profound change in your life! It is easy to understand why this new technology became so attractive, that it was rapidly adopted by almost all people that were exposed to it. Indeed, societies that adopted agriculture became so resource-superior to their neighboring hunter-gatherer cultures, that the latter were often superseded by force - consider for example, the Bantu group, that originated in the region that today is Cameroon, and gradually took over most of Africa south of the equator starting about 3,000 years ago - riding on its technology and resource superiority to dominate the land previously inhabited by indigenous hunter-gatherer groups.

A fishermen's village, Masaka district, Uganda

This new way of life, after adoption of the Agricultural Revolution starting 12,000 years ago, is the way of life still practiced today, pretty much unchanged for 12,000 years, by a sizeable minority (just under 50%) of the world’s people. We call it Subsistence Farming. 

Meanwhile in the West, the Industrial Revolution started about 200 years ago, driving the Subsistence Farming way of life to extinction, changing the farming landscape to one of commercial farming and moving most of the people to urban areas. This is why rich-country people are the small minority of the world’s population that has very little understanding of the Subsistence Farming way of life. They also happen to be the people that invent most of the world’s information technology products.

A subsistence farming village, Goma province, DR Congo

Subsistence farming looks remarkably similar everywhere it is practiced. Basically, a family lives in a house (which can be anything from a simple straw or bamboo or mud hut to a nice modern brick or wood house) on a smallish plot of land, and grows a variety of food plants. It has some animals running around or tied up. The plants and animals may vary by region, climate, religion and ethnic group - for example, in Africa cows are very important (in fact, they are considered a key asset of the family). Most of the food of the family comes from what it grows. Surplus produce is sold to traders that regularly pass through the village, and once every week or two, the mother goes to the market in the regional trading town to buy necessities that are needed. Money is also important - it pays for schools fees, medical expenses and other needs. That’s the big picture. The details vary of course. In most cases, the children go to school. In some cases, they don’t, or they drop out after just a few years of primary school. Sometimes, the family has easy access to water. In other cases, water needs to be fetched from far away. In some cases, small-scale commercial farming is practiced - meaning that the family allocates some of its land to growing a crop with intention to sell rather than consume the produce. In some cases, poverty, disease and hunger are common. In many other cases, families live a simple yet reasonably comfortable life, and own some modern conveniences like a motorbike, a television and a mobile phone.

Typical village house, Chiang Rai province, Thailand 

Lots of Westerners are fascinated by the subsistence farming way of life in developing countries - mostly because it is a foreign, exotic way of life that no longer exists in the West. The Western media, as all media, tends to focus on the extreme, emotion-provoking stories, when portraying the life of subsistence farmers, causing a huge gap between perceptions of Westerners and reality. Many Westerns tend to believe either extreme - either believing that subsistence farmers are desperately poor, infected with AIDS or Malaria and hungry, and hence need to be urgently saved by raising some donor money and starting an NGO, or alternatively - that their way of life mirrors our own past before the stresses of modern Western urban life - a pristine, non-money-oriented, pre-consumerist, strong-nit-community way of living.

Farmers in West province, Rwanda - commercial tea plantation 

In reality, neither of these extremes is generally true. Yes, most subsistence farmers are poor in the sense that they don’t have a lot of disposable income to buy many of the modern household items or go on holidays overseas. Some are desperately poor. Some are sick. But the big majority are just fine - going along with their lives as they have been forever. On the other hand, life in the village is also very far from being stress-free. When money is scarce, people tend to become extremely money-oriented. People spend as much, if not more, time thinking about money than many affluent Western people do, and disputes (sometimes violent) over money, land and resources (eg grazing rights) are quite common - so it is far from the romanticized idyllic life either.

Children "Playing Facebook" in a village home in Siem Reap province, Cambodia.
Their parents are mostly rice farmers. 

Whether it is because of the profoundness of the problems in rural areas, or because of a sense of adventure, intellectual interest, and desire to “have an impact” - or a combination thereof - the result is that thousands upon thousands of Westerners with the best and purest intentions are heading to developing countries to start or join NGOs that are running projects targeted at helping villagers with some aspect of their life. Many of these are trying to develop an innovative technological product to help with some social problem. It is notoriously difficult to succeed in this space, and indeed almost all attempts fail - either at the pilot phase, or in inability to scale beyond a pilot. Here are the common modes of failure. In a later chapter, I will discuss some examples of success stories, and how they overcame these obstacles.

First mode of failure: Invented in San Francisco. Well-intentioned technologists, based far away from the target market, and with a complete misunderstanding of the market based on skewed perceptions as discussed above, invent an awesome, cool, wow-generating product that is completely irrelevant for the market. To illustrate, here are a couple recurring examples I have seen several times:

- The bicycle phone-charger: Solution for charging a phone in a village without electricity - by riding a stationary bicycle and having a dynamo generate a current. Problem: human laziness. Have you ever charged your own phone by riding a bike for an hour? What makes you think anyone else would like to do it? I have seen these bike-charger stories in several Western publications over the years, but in all my travels throughout the developing world I have yet to see them once used in practice. Charging from a stand-alone car battery (see below) is far easier.

- Price transparency for agricultural products - save the poor farmers from being cheated by the middleman by giving them knowledge about the actual market prices. I’ve seen so many initiatives along these lines, and they always consistently failed. Farmers’ are just not motivated to use them. Why? Because in the age of mobile phones they have alternative faster ways to get the same information - such as calling a friend they trust in the market. In addition, they often have a long-term relationships with the trader, and they have a good understanding of the level of the trader’s trustworthiness as well as his business model and margins.

These two examples reflect the same problem: lack of deep knowledge of the end user, his needs and his existing and alternative solutions - which, when you think of it, is really Product Management 101. The chances of three well-intentioned Stanford-grads in San Francisco to dream up a solution for the problems of an African farmer and get it right are more or less identical to the chances of that African farmer inventing the next cool hit for American teenagers - they both just totally don’t understand their target market.

Second mode of failure: Focusing on Wow-ness instead of usefulness. An inherent problem in the NGO world, as well as with its cousin - the corporate CSR world, when it comes to designing technology products is that the customer, i.e. the person that pays the bills and hence the person on whose needs we are focused on satisfying (whether we admit it or not), is the donor (or corporate funder), not the end user. It turns out that the needs of the donor and those of the end users are different. Our donors like to pay only for Wow-generating products, those products that have a cool, non-obvious innovation, that generate inspiring and heartwarming stories from carefully curated pilots. Users, on the other hand, need products that are simple and useful.

Consider the bicycle-phone-charger. How do users in villages without electricity actually charge their phone? Well, the two methods that I have encountered are:

(1) Charging by using a stand-alone car battery (not connected to a car). The car battery lasts surprisingly long and is charged once in awhile.

(2) By having two phone batteries - and charging one at a friend’s place in the nearby town (that has electricity) while using the other, and switching once a week (it helps that cheap phones can run for a week without charging). In fact, many phones sold in many African rural areas come with two batteries by default.

Would any NGO ever raise money from donors for a proposal of distributing car batteries for charging phones - the prefered, superior solution to this problem? Unlikely. Phone-charging-bicycles are way cooler.

Third mode of failure: high-touch and unscalable. Some products are actually useful once the user masters them, but they have a steep learning curve or difficult installation process. What is a considered a steep learning curve or difficult installation process? Well, one that requires a person to be present to train the user or to install the product.

If there is no profitable business model that is cash-flow positive on an individual village basis, then the result is usually a great pilot in one village, adequately staffed by the product developers, followed by a great slide deck with inspiring photos to be presented in conferences. However, there is no apparent way of scaling this success across the board, because it is simply not economically feasible to send such staff to every village.

How many villages are we talking about? Well, India alone has 640,000 villages. Extrapolating from that number, the number of villages worldwide is probably within the 2-3 million range. When you design a product for rural users that you hope to scale to thousands of villages, you must design for scalability from the get-go. If your product requires a staff member to individually touch each end user, you are unlikely to succeed.

Fourth mode of failure: rural-first. The normal path of technology adoption is as follows: most information technology related products invented in past decade or so, were invented in the world’s technology hubs (Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, Seoul, Tel Aviv and a few others), then adopted by the crowds in the rich countries. Shortly after, they are adopted by the rising ranks of the middle class in developing countries which are always attuned to cool new products coming in from overseas. Then, as they become cheaper and more accessible, they are slowly adopted by working class people in urban areas, who are often migrants from the village. Finally, perhaps several years later, people in the village start picking them up as well. For example, while mobile phones have finally made their way to village in the past 2-3 years, Smartphones have only reached the middle class in developing countries in a big way only this past year or so, perhaps 2 or 3 years after rich countries, but have not propagated to working-class urban people yet.

It is very difficult to bypass this natural adoption process and introduce a product directly to rural people, because the reason for the cycle is fundamental, but unfortunately quite poorly understood:

In addition to all the obvious difficulties in rural areas such as low income, language barriers, lack of tech savvy etc, there is one other often overlooked factor that is very real and impactful, but often overlooked or not well understood: psychological propensity for technology adoption.

What do I mean by that?

All over the developing world, urbanization is in high gear. It is not uncommon that half or more (sometimes as many as 90%) of the teenagers in any village will move to the city when they reach their early 20s. As one Thai commentator recently noted with sadness about villages in the rural North East of Thailand: “When I was young, the villages were full of children. Now they are full of old people”.

Consider this: who are the ones that move to the city and who are the ones that stay behind “to sit and watch the rice grow” (as Cambodians say)? It is precisely the more entrepreneurial, ambitious, self confident people who are the ones that move to the city.

The Early Adopters, in the Geoffrey Moorean sense of the word, are all within this group of migrants to the city, practically none of them stay in the village. As explained in detail in Moore’s excellent Crossing the Chasm, it is almost impossible to successfully launch a technology product without first getting it adopted by the people with a psychological makeup of Early Adopters, and in today’s villages in developing countries, these early adopters are increasingly hard to find - almost all of them have moved to the city.

It is extremely difficult to succeed with a technology product designed specifically and exclusively for rural people - and do it in a way that scales beyond just a handful of villages. However, there a few examples of success which I will discuss in a later chapter. Each one of them, though, has some specific, innovative, non-obvious “trick” allowing them to overcome the fundamental challenges described above.


You can also check out my other posts:

Developing Technologies for Developing Countries - Introduction to my blog

Technology products for rural people: Why do they almost always fail

Languages: How to decide which ones and how many?

Access is solved, so where are the users? Part 1

Access is solved, so where are the users? Part 2

Copyright (C) 2013. Divon Lan. All rights reserved.