Connecting the 'last mile' of market research in Africa
"One thing about data in Africa is that there's a huge lack of it," says Jasper Grosskurth, managing director of Research Solutions Africa, a pan-African research firm based in Nairobi, Kenya.
"If there is data, it's usually unreliable and dubious," he continues.
For example, in 2010 Ghana announced it had changed its base year for calculating gross domestic product (GDP) from 1993 to 2006, and overnight the country's GDP jumped 60%.
"Suddenly Ghana was much richer than we thought it was," explains Morten Jerven, author of Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It.
Much of the problem, he says, is that African governments have not put statistics at the forefront of policy and institutional reform agendas, leaving the private sector and non-governmental organisations to fill in the gaps. Yet the uncoordinated demands and needs from both sectors have resulted in fragmented collection of data.
'Land Rover' method
Africa's middle class is rapidly rising, fuelling the second fastest growing economic bloc in the world.
According to the World Bank's most recent Africa Pulse report, consumer spending accounted for more than 60% of sub-Saharan Africa's economic growth last year.
Companies are scrambling to get in on this growth, but one big barrier remains - how to gather reliable market information, insights and opinions from across the continent.
For many research firms, traditional data collection has involved sending a fleet of researchers out with pen and paper to all corners of a country.
But this is still the old-fashioned "Land Rover" methodology, says Nathan Eagle, founder and chief executive of Jana, a US-based company that powers one of the world's largest reward-for-survey platforms in emerging markets, mCent.
"You've got to get into an old Land Rover and head out into the field," he says, which is both expensive and time consuming. "[But] with the advent of mobile phones, that is shifting."
'Scratching the surface'
Jana's platform integrates directly into the billing systems of 237 mobile operators, enabling 3.48 billion people in emerging markets to be rewarded with airtime for taking part in surveys.
Users sign up for Jana through a mobile-friendly website or Facebook app, enter their information, and pick what surveys they qualify for. After completing the survey, airtime - ranging from 50 US cents to $5 (30p to £3) - is automatically credited to their phone.
The idea, says Mr Eagle, is to offer financial compensation for users that matches the valuable data they are offering to market research companies - data that would be much more expensive to obtain in other ways.
"We have millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa, and we're just scratching the surface here," he says. "We have far more supply than demand for market research."
Earlier this year, Jana helped CNN International to find out what Africans thought about the possibility of an African Pope. They surveyed 20,000 people across 11 countries over four days. (In case you're wondering, 51% felt an African Pope would be more conservative than previous Popes).
"It was an experiment for us," explains Peter Bale, vice president and general manager of CNN International Digital. "We're experiencing high rates of growth in CNN consumption in Africa, particularly through mobile devices. So we needed to look at how we tap into that.
"It's a proper means of exchange," he adds. "Fifty cents of airtime for six questions, and we got a tremendous flow of information."
Smartphone in the cloud
Although Jana rewards users through mobile airtime, users need an internet connection to fill out the surveys. The vast majority of mobile phones in Africa are feature phones, which can access the internet, but are generally sluggish in browsing and have high data costs.
In most cases in Africa, Mr Eagle says, users pay to go to local internet cafes, which could also cost them part of their reward.
Yet another company is addressing this problem with a different approach.
BiNu, an Australian firm launched in 2011, is a platform that gives basic mobile feature phones essentially smartphone-like capabilities by offloading all the processing to a cloud-based server, which offers an app store.
"It's like your smartphone in the cloud," says Gour Lentell, BiNu's co-founder. This makes it cheaper and faster to browse on feature phones.
Through BiNu's "Research and Rewards" platform, customers are prompted to opt in to receive surveys and questionnaires, for which they are rewarded with BiNu "credits", convertible to music, books or airtime.
While this type of research could be, and is being, done via text message - through companies like GeoPoll - texts have their limitations.
"The predominant way you'd reach consumers in emerging markets is SMS, because it works on every phone," explains Mr Lentell. "But it's cumbersome and slow, and the types of questions you can post, length of text and methods of collection responses is limited."
Digital v Land Rover
Digital may be a fast and efficient way to collect and analyse big data on the continent, but is the data deep enough to replace the old Land Rover methodology?
It depends, says Jasper Grosskurth of Research Solutions Africa.
"The problem with [digital] panels and response rates is that often all you know about the respondents is gender, age, and location or country," he says. "So if I want to run a well-balanced, representative survey, that's tough. It's not as randomised."
Although digital is cheaper, and perhaps better for basic opinion polls - like thoughts on an African Pope - if you want to thoroughly evaluate a development project, for example, "it won't work".
Nevertheless, small and medium-sized businesses are keen to take advantage of the benefits that digital can offer.
"The average consumer in Kenya makes seven to eight payments a day, even the poorest ones," explains Dylan Higgins, chief executive of Kopo Kopo, a Kenya-based start-up. "Those transactions are happening, but they've largely been anonymous to date."
While companies like BiNu and Jana use mobile phones to help big brands find new information from potential or existing consumers, Kopo Kopo aims to find what data already exists, and make it available to local businesses.
M-Pesa, the mobile money service that launched in Kenya in 2007, now has more than 17 million users.
Kopo Kopo captures all of a firm's untracked M-Pesa transactions, and digitises them into a dashboard for business owners to better understand and engage with their customers.
Once businesses are aware of their customers' profiles and spending habits, they can engage with them through offers, rewards, surveys and more.
"A lot of global brands are entering the African market, but there are also a number of brands developing in this market that could become regional or global," says Mr Higgins.
"It's a democratising tool that levels the playing field. As much as I would love to work with the larger brands, why should they be the only ones who can afford to understand and engage their customers?"