Saturday, March 28, 2015

I saw the sign.....and ignored it

Will this sign keep hungry people from their brunch? Holey Bread, Dhaka.

Dhaka has a great new brunch place: Holey Bread.  They started a few months ago with just a bakery, but now have expanded to full-service dining.

A few weeks ago, we were having a peaceful discussion over an omelette and French toast, when an argument started behind us.  A foreign couple was really angry that a pair of local guys had taken a table that had just vacated, while they had been waiting patiently by the sign out front (pictured above).

Who is right?

When I moved here, I would have sided with the sign readers.  But now I'm not so sure. Generally, signs in Bangladesh are meant to be ignored unless there is a human being enforcing them. Bangladesh takes "you snooze, you lose" to a new level.

Every system breaks down when stressed beyond its intended limit. In Dhaka, that's the norm.  The combination of diverse needs, limited regulation, and constant change mean that chaos is perhaps more efficient than a rigid system.  At least that's what I tell myself, when stuck in gridlock traffic because vehicles from all four directions decide to go at once--first the cars, then the rickshaws, then the bikes, and motorcycles, and finally the pedestrians who can squeeze through the narrow mazes available.

When a plane lands at the Dhaka airport, the passengers rush out, and only foreigners (and the occasional Non-Resident Bangladeshi who doesn't know better) pay attention to the signs explaining in which line you belong in immigration. Recently I've realized that the "VIP and crew" line is usually the shortest, so I opt for that one. Unless there's a shorter one, there is.

I used to wonder why people didn't just obey the signs. But now I wonder, why would they?  It's kind of amazing, when you think about it, that signs are an effective form of control anywhere.  That takes huge self-regulation! Think about it: people have to learn what the sign means, buy into the importance of obeying it (either for their own benefit or to avoid the consequences of not obeying it), and then voluntarily do so.  When everyone does so, the system runs smoothly--this is why traffic lights and stop signs actually can control traffic in some parts of the world.  They can't in others.

So who got the table?

The couple following the sign, in this case. Holey Bread is committed to providing diners with a peaceful ambiance, and having incoming customers wait at a respectful distance is part of that.

I'm betting that within a month they have a guy standing by the sign to enforce it.  And if they don't, I won't be naive enough to wait there when a table opens up!

Update from our last visit: they've gotten a bigger sign.  We got there early enough that we could get the table of our choice without waiting  :)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday morning brief: smart phone frenzy, frugal innovations for health, and singing about mobile money

Morning-ish, depending on where you are :)

I recently signed up for the New York Times "morning briefing" and LOVE it.  The writing is witty, the news bites short and sweet, and very interesting.  I highly suggest it if you're like me and you despise reading newspapers but want to stay informed on the world.

I'm inspired to do a quick round up of my own.  These changes are more gradual than breaking news but just as significant.  And since Friday is our day off here in Bangladesh, it's a good excuse to catch up on my reading.

What's going on this week:

India has more smartphones than the United States does, and sales are climbing.  As India signals that its regulation towards mobile money is opening up, this will be the hotbed of innovation on digital payments, apps, e-commerce, and hopefully financial inclusion.  With the world's fastest growing mobile money market next door in Bangladesh moving over $50 million in daily transactions, let's hope that lessons learned can find a way across the border (and back).

The US health care system is starting to look more like that in many developing countries--and that's a good thing.  The affordable care act disrupted the status quo and changed the business calculus for the established players.  Pharmacy-based health delivery has taken off, which is unsurprising to anyone who is familiar with the health care markets in Latin America or South Asia.  For a great deal of medical needs, no hospital or physician is required, and costs are far lower for service delivery in simpler settings.  But this spells trouble for the Mass Generals of the world, for whom the big dilemma is: "If they persist with their high-cost business model even as their customers discover that cheaper alternatives are good enough, they will be in trouble."  Nothing like competition and chaos to spur new innovations!  My guess is that consumers will come out the winners.

Research shows: social enterprises usually requiring a functional government, and international scale up is a difficult endeavor.  Usually social enterprise is touted as the a solution to a weak state and the inefficiencies of the non-profit sector.  Too many aspiring social entrepreneurs describe their "solution" as globally applicable with very little proof beyond a very convincing elevator pitch and some nice financial projections.  This article digs deeper into the relationship between the welfare state and social enterprises, and why it's so hard to transfer innovations from one organization or context to another. In conclusion, "What is needed may instead be simply a renewal of the public sector, where reorganisation and more efficiency is the solution. In any case, it is not wise to be bemused by new initiatives and epochal social innovations."   Good food for thought as I gear up for our 3rd annual Frugal Innovation Forum on scaling sustainably.  Follow the discussions on twitter with #scalefrugal.


Yesterday was BRAC Day.  When you employ close to 100,000 people and reach 135 million more, I guess you're entitled to a little self congratulations.  We contributed by putting together a pala gaan (folk song) on the BRAC value of innovation and mobile money, complete with a music video (and yes, I'm in it!).

What did I miss?  What did you read about this week that is eventually going to rock the world?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

mobile money--adding convenience or transforming lives?

Last Friday, the New York Times ran a great piece on the Gates Foundation's investments, including $11 million in bKash, a mobile money company in Bangladesh.  In the past few months, thanks in part to Bill and Melinda Gates' mention of bKash in their annual letter, the global visibility of mobile money in Bangladesh has grown tremendously.  They write,

In the next 15 years, digital banking will give the poor more control over their assets and help them transform their lives. 
The key to this will be mobile phones. Already, in the developing countries with the right regulatory framework, people are storing money digitally on their phones and using their phones to make purchases, as if they were debit cards. By 2030, 2 billion people who don't have a bank account today will be storing money and making payment with their phones. And by then, mobile money providers will be offering the full range of financial services, from interest-bearing savings accounts to credit to insurance.
As they mention, the premise behind mobile money is simple: most people in Bangladesh and many other developing countries don't have bank accounts, but they have mobile phones. So if financial services, like savings, transfers, and payments, can be transacted on  mobile phones instead of requiring in-person services or a physical bank, access can improve significantly. In essence, people can have a "wallet" on their phones, and can add money to their wallets through agents functioning as "human ATMs". bKash has set up a network of 110,000 agents across Bangladesh, who serve roughly 16 million clients and enable $70 million worth of monthly transactions.

Big, impressive numbers. But what does this look like at the client level?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Lather. Rinse. Repeat. If only replicating successful development programs was that easy

What if we could take what was working one place and spread it globally?  Wouldn't progress happen so much faster?  Luckily, many are working on just that.  For example, the Center for Global Development puts out a regular publication on "Millions saved," cataloging successes in health delivery from around the world.  There are websites and entire organizations dedicated to identifying practices and making them more visible globally.

But here's the catch: few practices highlighted in these resources seem to catch on and spread widely.  Those that do are often supported by a lot of hand-holding and financial resources, and potentially even a lot of nudging from donors.

But why is this?  Is it that hard to figure out what works and what doesn't?

Unless you're talking about a drug cocktail or a vaccine that has essentially the same effect on everyone who receives it, heck yeah it is!!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Empty pockets in the morning

This morning, I was in a bit of a rush when I headed out the door for work.  A cursory glance at the content of my wallet indicated a problem: the smallest bill I had was a 100 (roughly $1.25).  This was going to create problems.

I walked down the street to the place where we usually catch a rickshaw.  At least half the time, we get one of the three rickshaw-wallahs that are regulars and know our route and rate (R&R).  But they only stick around until 8:30AM.  After that, I have to go with whoever is there.

This morning, it's one of the guys I know.  I hop into the rickshaw.  As he pulls after I ask, "Do you have change for 100?"  He laughs.  No!

Most rickshaw drivers start the day with just a few taka in their pocket.  Some mornings they don't even have tk 5 change.  By the end of the day, most go home with tk 200-300 ($2.50-4.00).  Many sleep on top of the rickshaw garages to avoid paying rent, allowing them to save more money to send home to their families in the village.

In fact, most of the time it's actually really difficult to get change.  One time I went into a small store to buy a bottle of water (tk 20) to break a tk 1000 note ($13), and the owner told me to take the water and come pay him later; he didn't have that kind of change.  When I have a tk 100 or tk 50 note that a rickshaw driver can't break, usually I appeal to the tea stall owners.  Usually they'll help me out in those cases, but not for a bigger note.

Is there more money at the end of the day?  Is it easier to repay loans or make bill payments if office hours are in the evening?  Are there disadvantages to having so little cash at a business, or is it just me?  How do distributors time their deliveries?

As it turns out, upon inspecting my wallet more thoroughly, I actually had the tk 25 change ($0.32) needed to pay the driver.

I asked him if he had 5tk change, to see if I could give him tk 30 and get a valuable tk5 note as change, but he pulled out his money to show me that he only had two twenty-taka notes.
Guess today I can't be the change I want to see.....