Lessons from the Field for BoP Developers

We live in a bubble called Nairobi.

There has been a rapid uptake in adoption of mobile services and other web-based applications in Nairobi; however, away from Nairobi, many do not know of the existence of some of these applications and services or their usefulness. This is in reference to developers who are working on applications designed for those people at the base of the pyramid (people who earn less than 2.5USD a day (BOP))

iHub Research is carrying out a survey on the potential for technology in the water governance by finding out what the citizens’ thoughts on service delivery and if they have had any need for a mobile/web or other services as a medium to send and receive information between the citizen and the government/service provider in the water sector. From the 5th to 20th September 2012, researchers were out in the field collecting data. I had the privilege to join the research team at various points during the research.

The field research yielded insights that could possibly direct developers in their processes:


Developers planning to develop services whose main source of revenue is SMS need to learn that majority of the people in rural Kenya spend very little on SMS. This is because many people find it easier to call rather than text. This correlates with the iHub Research BOP study that reveals more people prefer calling than texting.Additionally, spending patterns on SMS are quite low, so one would have to consider alternate revenue stream for a target audience outside Nairobi.

Language barrier

The researchers had carried with them questionnaires translated in English and Kiswahili. We had anticipated a language barrier problem for the villages we visited in Kiambu, Makueni and Migori and even hired locals who assisted with the translation. As anticipated, the communication with the respondents ended up in mother tongue. A question thus arises, how many people consider language barrier when designing their applications? Depending on the nature of your application, if you are targeting people living outside Nairobi, consider translating it into the local mother tongue language as well.

Free information

Some of the questions in the questionnaire asked respondents if they would be interested in using mobiles to communicate with service providers in the water sector. Several people I spoke to responded affirmatively, but quickly retracted their statements when it occurred to them that these services might cost them some money. While this was demotivating to some extent, on further inquiry, I learned that if one can prove that the concept works, most respondents did not mind spending money on a service. Developers should consider offering some services for free, in order to build their subscriber base.

 Energy-saving applications

If you are building an application that will require one to spend a lot of time on it, the developer has to keep in mind that those who do not have electricity in their homes often have to pay to get their phones charged. This results in them using their phones very little to reduce the number of times they have to charge it in a week.

Take the Prototype to the Field

While the list is not exhaustive, we highly recommend that before spending so much money on product launches and branding, if you are designing an application for the BOP (Base of the Pyramid), take the prototype to the field. Gauge the reaction of the respondents. The feedback you get will save you a lot of time and money you would otherwise have wasted trying to perfect an application that may not even address a problem that the BoP truly faces!

Note: The research team is currently doing data entry and analysis of the data collected from over 900 respondents interviewed. We shall be releasing more updates regarding this study.


Cross-posted from iHub Research Blog

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