Why You Should Be Listening To Informal Entrepreneurs

Why You Should Be Listening To Informal Entrepreneurs


As entrepreneurs, technologists and product developers with big ideas, we often think that we know best. Indeed, for many of us, sitting in our air-conditioned homes and offices reading high-level magazines, it’s easy to assume that the world really needs our solutions.

Yet when it comes to serving vast informal markets, for many entrepreneurs this could not be further from the truth.

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Can entrepreneurs who have never experienced the hustle and bustle of a street market in Kibera, or caught a taxi in the heart of Soweto, really assume that we know how to solve the problems that people in these markets grapple with?

The Digital Divide Continued…

This represents the digital divide in the development of new tech: whereby the majority of developers, designers and technologists are creating businesses, sometimes with little understanding of the markets they aim to serve – and this is particularly true when serving informal markets.

For some context around this divide, consider that on average, people living in Sub-Saharan Africa typically receive between 2-7 years of schooling – compared to the 15-16 years required for a Computer Science degree.

This digital divide needs to be overcome if you truly want to provide a tool or service that both serves people and is profitable in the long run.

So how does one achieve this?

Get Close to Your Market

Sadly, when looking at informal markets and sectors such as retail, transportation and agriculture, many entrepreneurs underestimate the depth and sophistication of the existing businesses and networks that drive these sectors.

They may be informal, but they are businesses with a great deal of underlying experience.

As a young company serving informal markets, we deliberately avoided this trap ourselves – of building solutions without first trying to better experience the daily realities of our customers.

For example, when designing a payment terminal for minibus taxis, we naturally assumed that smaller would be better. Yet it was only when we spent time with taxi drivers, in their context, learning about their reality, that we learned this wasn’t the case. Small terminals were more vulnerable to theft. This was a critical insight that we could not have gained from afar.

Grow Big Ears and Test Hypotheses

Often, technologists will have an amazing availability of solutions that they can apply to problems that people might not think about. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it doesn’t.

There are two extremes on this spectrum: there’s the approach of listening entirely to the market – and only giving them what they say they want. And at the other end of the spectrum is the idea that ‘people don’t know what they want so we will give them what we think they want’ (a concept epitomised by Steve Jobs).


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I believe that taking an iterative approach that sits between those two extremes is the right strategy. This involves offering a hypothesis and then listening carefully to the reaction – and then going to the next level and understanding the core motivation underlying that feedback.

Are You Tuned In?

Effectively serving vast informal markets will require listening to what your customers are explicitly telling you they need, but it will also require being attuned to what they are implicitly saying.

Do you really understand what your market’s broader concerns are?

Equipped with these insights, and inculcating this in your organisation’s culture, you will undoubtedly cross the gaping digital divide – and develop a sustainable, successful and impactful business in a huge market full of opportunities!


Vahid Monadjem
Vahid Monadjem is the founder and CEO of Nomanini, a South African-based enterprise payments platform provider that enables transactions in the cash-based informal retail sector.