Review: Borderland Biashara Report (2016)


Image 1: Traders and Transport Options on the Border of Kenya and Uganda. Photo credit: Niti Bhan.

Upon reading the Emerging Future's Lab newly released report Borderland Biashara (2016), you will quickly realize that everything you think you know about trade and the informal economy on the Kenya/Uganda borderlands is probably wrong.

I have always been interested in what is labeled the informal economy. As an African American, de facto segregation and discrimination meant that my parents, and especially grandparents, operated in the informal economy. They hailed gypsy cabs before there was Uber. One grandfather was a money lender, so there was a preference to deal in cash not bank accounts. Wages could be paid under the table. Holiday presents may have "fallen off a truck." They operated in a gray zone of legality and illegality, when American laws were prejudicial against black people.

I more directly experienced the informal economy when I spent my formal anthropology career in East Africa (1993-1999), specifically in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. But this was before the cultural shifts happening in Africa due to access to mobile technologies. To understand the dynamic quality of entrepreneurship on the Kenya and Uganda border today, you must read the Borderland Biashara Report because it does two things extremely well.

First, the report does an excellent job of providing an in depth description of the interconnections between personal relationships, which, by definition of being part of the informal economy, are not mediated by formal contracts, and the success of a trader's business. This is due to the ethnographic approach of the research team: Niti Bhan, Emerging Future's Lab Director, Rinku Gajera, Research Lead, and Michael Kimani, Research Associate.

One of the key insights of the report is HOW different kinds of informal traders improve the quality of their family, financial, transport, information technology, and customer networks in order to improve their businesses. You could feel the hustle and bustle of the traders' various socially-driven economic activities whether it is calling, texting, or transferring  money on M-pesa for agents or family on their mobile phones; visiting a supplier via a matatu, or sitting under a specific tree where customers will know where to find them. Good social networks are good business.

Second, the report selects a trader segment, which the team calls the Hidden Middle, as a focus for their nuanced analysis of the relationship between formal and informal structures in support of the traders' business. I hate to break it to the banks out there hoping to cash in on the informal economy in Kenya and Uganda--you are seen to provide limited ROI in terms of these trader's business value and your fees make no sense. The team's insights into Hidden Middle's optimization of both systems present a  break through for those in development to understand when formalization works or does not work as a driver of entrepreneurship.

The Emerging Future's Lab Borderland Biashara Report demonstrates the best of what design thinking--although I think their work is more aligned with my seven principles of design anthropology--can do in helping organizations to better understand the dynamics and non-exploitative opportunities that exist in various alternative economies in the world. I hope to see the team presenting their report at all the design and ethnography conferences next year (EPIC, Core77, HOW Design Live, Ico-D) in recognition of their project's accomplishments.




Dori's Asia Design Rock Star Tour Recap

Okay, so my trip to Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Kuching, Malaysia was amazing for two reasons.

First, I received first hand status updates on the Cultures Based Innovation projects of the Bellagio Mandala group members within the region. It was moving to see how deeply they have taken on the principles of the Bellagio Mandala.


ZHOU Bo's of China Central Academy of Fine Arts showed me his historical studies of how digital technologies through image scanning and touch interfaces is leading to a resurgence in Chinese typographic learning and evolution. He also showed me the primary materials for his research on Chinese design guidelines from the 1930s and their first articulations of a nationalist Chinese approach to design.

There is also the work of the Arts Research Centre for the Olympic Games, which was the first major government effort to support Chinese-cultural based design innovations for nation branding.

Cathy HUANG of China Bridge walked me through her project with an NGO on eye-screening among the Chinese elderly and the cultural/societal barriers to their use the NGO's services. She is also starting a larger project on the Chinese rural and tier two city health systems and how they can use culturally-based process innovations to better serve their elderly rural patients so that the "one child" generation is not overly burdened with their parents' health care.

TANG Ming Xi of Hong Kong Polytechnic University showed the work of his doctoral students in his lab on the use of computer aided drawing and high fidelity prototyping of Yunnan folk instruments and weaving looms to produce small prototypes that could be locally manufactured for tourists. This is a project that should be connected with the MakerBot people.

He has a project in Suzhou on providing new products and markets for the over 1000 year old Kesi Silk industry. This site provided silk embroidery to Chinese royalty since the Yang Dynasty, but now have about 30 weavers who practice the skills in the last remaining factory. This project is urgent in that he believes that socio-demongraphic changes and youth lack of interest is this difficult skill will make the practice nearly extinct in the town in five years. He is convincing the local government to support the local factory with some success, but the challenge is finding a sustainable market for such a high end product.

On my end, next week is the final demo presentation of our Aboriginal Smart Art project. Here is the link to a video overview of the project that the students and I put together. (It is my voice in the voice over).

Second, I had given a series of lectures and workshops on Cultures-Based Innovation that were extremely well received. It seems that CBI has tapped into a global zeitgeist by providing what people said was 'the language and a model' to articulate the work that they have been doing or trying to do.


Cultures_based Innovation_sm

So examples of successful CBI-esque projects from my trip include:

The Te Aranga Strategy for Maori cultural landscape based urban development. Carin Wilson leads Nga Aho, the Society of Maori Design Professionals. The Te Aranga Strategy has just gotten the final approvals to build an urban development based on Maori principles. This is super exciting in that it required the cooperation of the design association, the Te Wananga o Aotearoa (a Maori indigenous university) and the Maori communities and getting prepared to move into a pilot village implementation stage. 

Gerai Orang Asal, which was founded by Reita Rahim in 2004. It is a volunteer-based mobile indigenous craft stall. It focuses on helping indigenous weavers develop new products and markets that revive and repurpose their craft. The organisation has been using Facebook as its platform of communication among the mostly indigenous women who participate in the organisation. There is a great opportunity for exchange with craft researchers and workers in India, especially the research that MP Ranjan and his wife have done to record, revive and repurpose Indian craft.

Again, it was great to meet so many cool people. I feel as if the world is a positive place.