Monday, 13 December 2010

Information Highways

In countries like Nigeria I'm always reminded how important information is and how hard it is to come bye. It affects everything from concert timings, flight schedules, to market prices and food delivery. Google and Time Out have spoiled us in the West. In Nigeria, I have to be in 20 different mailing lists and get a whole lot of spam, just to find out what's going on next weekend. In a city of 20mn! Crazy!!

There's clearly room for innovation here. Companies that can capitalize on the information arbitrage that exists more clearly here than nearly anywhere else stand to win big. Cool new products won't help anyone if they don't know they exist! Technology can help spread 'the message'; low technology (SMS) probably more so than high tech (internet), but whatever we use we need to have a solid understanding of how it spreads. Shamefully, this is an area most companies have completely underperformed in. Though they now know better how their products get to people, they have little clue how news of them is getting there. There's no data that could help, and often information highways bear little resemblance to what we know or can conceive. A story told by a colleague recently brought the message home.

Her sisters dogs went missing on the mainland and couldn't be found; a cause of great upset not only to my colleague's sister, who I heard whaling on the other side of the line, but of the security guard who left the gate open, who now feared for his position and more. The dogs couldn't be traced anywhere. At the same time the sheer size of the dogs had scared a motorbike-taxi (Okada) driver to drop his passenger at the sight of them  on the other side of town. A resident on the street noticed the commotion on the way back from work and found the dogs. Eventually he noticed that they were well bread and decided to take them in, telling his staff to keep an eye out for the owners. The news was told to a newspaper boy who served the house and who happend to drop papers at my colleague's sister's house too. When he heard from her guard that he had upset the family by leaving the gate open and letting the dog escape, he immedateyl remembered the story and dog and owners were eventually reunited.

This unlikely tale is more than an anecdote on the power of the word of mouth but emphasises the crucial role that information intermediaries play in societies with poor formal information highways. I know little of these opportunities to bring news to low-income households, and from experience I know that marketing departments know even less. Clearly there's an opportunity here that we must develop on if we're to build inclusive products/markets. Any companies/people out there that do this kind of research/consultancy?

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