The Ground-up Approach to Designing for Emerging Markets

image from Wikimedia commons

One of the days, the vehicle I boarded drove along through the inner areas of Lagos (most times you have to use those inner unpopular roads to beat the merciless traffic of the city).

These places do not always make it to the news because they are core realities we do not like to talk about. Streets filled with people going about their daily informal businesses. Many were out to make just enough to get through the day, and there was these group who seem not to have any particular intention for the day in our local vernacular (anywhere belle face).

These scenarios kept playing in my head and I began to undoubtedly understand why we never fail to be the poverty case studies of the world.

This article will be exploring the realities of emerging markets and using this insight to make informed decisions towards building products that are unique to these markets.

Microsoft Research Lab India in a study, confirms that one of the greatest challenges in providing information and communication technology access is that about 775 million people in the world are completely non-literate and many are able to read only with great difficulty and effort.

Even though mobile phone penetration is growing very fast, people with low levels of literacy have been found to avoid complex functions, and primarily use mobile phones for voice communication only.

We need to acknowledge that taking the basic steps toward a digital transformation is crucial for putting Africa on the global technology map before even considering implementing other sophisticated new forms of technology.

Solving the ground level problems will aid us to level up towards solving predominant and sustainable issues.

In other words, we might need to consider building from the ground-up, being that we need to solve the bottom of pyramid problems so that people can begin to see a need to reach for other higher forms of living and possibly technology (people can’t use what they don’t see a need for or understand why they should use it).

Tech cabal points out here, where Rob Shuter, CEO of MTN Group said that after many years, 4G adoption is only still in its early stages on the continent. Only 7% of the 774 million mobile connections in Africa is 4G.

This is way lower than the 44% global average. 2G, much older broadband and 3G have continued to dominate the African market. In 2016, 70% of the continent’s mobile connections were 2G, while 3G was 28%.

After over a decade since its adoption, GSMA predicts that 3G would replace 2G as the dominant connection by 2020. For some context “3G is still coming to replace 2G in 2020? While the technologies we want to imitate are moving on to 5G.

And then again what has this got to do with me as a designer or engineer even as a tech entrepreneur?

Let’s be realistic.

Looking at technological innovation in emerging markets, it almost seems like a recycling affair. Giving no room for significant sustainable changes as would have been imagined.

It is important that we begin to see technology as an enabler and not a strategy in itself.

We need to start with processes that must have a thorough understanding of the differences between the developed countries and the emerging market's infrastructures.

This will not only foster a different genre of innovation that is tailored to the unique challenges that we face but also birth solutions that solve our overarching problems.

In view of the fact that when we begin to tailor strategies and solutions to our contexts as it relates to our peculiarities, we can capitalize on our strengths and build scalable and sustainable solutions.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with replicating solutions from developed worlds, but we very importantly need to consider modifying the copied business model to suit the institutional contexts of emerging markets.

Some foreign companies come and they study our realities, they capitalize on it and some build products that scale.

You might choose to say “ oh well I’m a bystander and the aforementioned demography are not my target users”

The question now is, if everyone banks for a particular demographic of users, the market becomes so saturated that supply overly begins to exceed demand (Which is already what it is).

Looking around we see that we have majorly convenience products that are “nice to have over the need to have” (Vitamins over painkillers).

It is, as a matter of urgency that we should begin to see technology as enablers that drive growth to our most essential problems and treat it as such.

Rather than being illusional, we must develop a deep knowledge of how technology will impact and make for better living in emerging markets and then use processes and techniques borrowed from the tech to facilitate change.

We need to go back to our tenants of design, which is problem-solving.


We need to stop building for only ideal scenarios, but rather consider worse case scenarios accommodating the challenges we face as Africans. That’s because of the quality of the market and different infrastructures vary widely from country to country.

Lastly, there’s a need for founders and intending founders to be realistic with their approach towards solving our own problem. We really should rethink our silicon valley approach and maybe develop a silicon valley idea but a “computer village” execution strategy.

Hope you find this article interesting.



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