Digital Platform Adoption In Developing Countries

7/23/2018 -

This post was originally written shortly after my 2018 internship at Coinbase, and served to suggest some way companies could adopt local strategies to better support the adoption of Cryptocurrencies in Developing countries
The big question around the adoption of digital services in developing countries is: how do we get people with supposedly limited exposure to any technology to actively adopt novel digital platforms? In answering this question, I think certain assumptions about this user base must be reexamined.
Firstly, let’s forsake the assumptions around the knowledge/exposure gap and replace it with the obvious, yet more robust, assertion that adoption will definitely occur, provided that there is a sufficient need for the platform we are shipping as well as a low barrier to accessing the platform. The counter assumption is that people will otherwise have no motivation to abandon their current way of doing things. High accessibility is of emphasis here because whether or not people can make use of a platform that does something fundamentally important is based upon how easily they could start using it.
An example of a highly accessible interface to digital platforms is airtime vendors. Informal vendors dealing in food stuffs and convenience commodities are ubiquitous in countries like Nigeria, where they are fondly referred to as “Mallams”. Telcos have mimicked traditional vendor-based distribution networks as a means of providing intuitive access to their digital platforms. The distribution technique allows anyone to walk down the street and buy an airtime recharge card from the same local vendor who they’d also buy biscuits and toothpaste from.
Here’s a more technology-oriented example: banks and mobile phone service providers in SSA offer USSD/SMS interfaces for basic operations like checking a bank account balance or purchasing mobile data. This platform specifically meets the high-accessibility requirement because of the near ubiquity of “dumb phones” across the continent.
Vendor networks and USSD/SMS in particular are in tandem by telcos as a means of providing convenient access to airtime recharge cards which can be used to reload balances over USSD, an ultra convenient framework that could be considered to be the primary driver of high GSM adoption rates in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Additionally, the mobile data and airtime case present an interesting potential bridge across the assumed knowledge gap between customers in developing countries and cryptocurrency platforms because mobile data and airtime are effectively digital utility tokens for the services of telcos. Recharge cards could be thought of as an intermediary physical token between fiat currency and the digital utility token.
Some other use cases of these interfaces would include IrokoTV, a subscription video streaming service, adopting vendor networks to enable subscribed users who might not have good internet connections to download titles data-free via their “pink kiosks”; and Paga, a payments and e-commerce startup, uses a network of “agents” that help customers facilitate operations ranging from bill pay to transfers, as an alternative to customers who might not be able to use the website.
These seemingly simple or archaic techniques serve merely as examples of how digital platforms can be built to be highly convenient for the target audience. Such accessibility could also come in a more high-tech form such as an Android app which is built to provide educational services to middle class students in developing countries and is optimized for minimal battery consumption as well as robust offline functionality. The point of this piece is to orient our thinking around technology adoption as more of an accessibility and user experience problem – with roots in UI design, performance and efficiency – than a problem that solely leans on getting as many users signed up onto new platforms.
In practice, this is not a trivial thing, but reframing thinking in this manner is, in my opinion, crucial to achieving (or perhaps just replicating) the ideal level of adoption of digital innovations in developing markets.