Amana

Saving micro-business affected by the pandemic

Welcome: Amana

How our creative engineering hackathon team attempted to come up with a simple and elegant solution for micro-businesses in emerging markets in 5 days.

COVID impact on developing markets

Coronavirus has crushed emerging markets: GDP in developing regions is to shrink by 2.5% this year, millions of people lost their jobs, and even the poorest countries have to implement strict and costly lockdowns to save the homelands from collapsing. African, Latin American, and South-East Asian countries suffer as never before: the Philippines, for instance, previously considered to be the “economic star” of the region is now in serious economic decline for the first time in two decades.

Coronavirus has crushed micro-businesses in developing countries: almost 42% of small and growing businesses are likely to crash in the next 6 months, not to mention about 6% that already did, and the local entrepreneurs — residents of underdeveloped regions working hard to provide for their families at the “hole in the wall” restaurant or a tiny takeaway — are in need of financial and technical assistance.

Image source: reuters.com

Coronavirus has created a new normal for everyone: strict social distancing measures, travel restrictions, and policies designed to prevent the spread of pandemic ruined the travel industry and put many independent business owners relying on tourists as much as on casual walk-ins at great risk.

Small businesses generate around 50% of the global GDP and employ about two-thirds of the global population. Helping local entrepreneurs recover from the effects of the pandemic, attract more customers, generate a stable income is essential — and luckily, a lot of countries and international foundations have been quite thoughtful: for instance, Nigeria that offered a year mandatory on loan repayment for the local business owners.

Image source: nbcnews.com

Coronavirus has crushed emerging markets but also gave the unprecedented opportunity to grow and expand: the people tend to turn to digital more than ever, including the first-time Internet users, and as the pandemic eases, the “new normal” gets rid of the ‘new’ in its title. COVID most definitely leave scars on the society and the economy of the developing world, but eventually, through transformation and change, it will adapt and thrive again.

So, how might we — as a creative engineering squad — thoroughly study the situation, apply design thinking, and offer a solution that will allow the local micro-businesses to restore the balance, attract new customers, and accept and embrace the “new normal”?

Thinking

We merely had four days to come up with a solution that would not only be helpful to the business owners but also assist the local community, create an intimate digital bond between the customer and the business, open the way for the micro-business to the digital world.

In developing countries, mobile devices remain the primary way of accessing the Internet, and although only 59,6% of the world’s population was able to browse the web earlier this year, the number is most likely to grow — partially, thanks to new affordable technologies such as KaiOS that allows over 150 million users to use the Internet for pleasure and business. This data suggested that we should find a suitable mobile solution that would fit the needs of our primary users and their customers.

Micro-business owners tend to address the issues a bit differently and measure success and failure in a very special way, keep the business size and scope manageable, often don’t employ more than 10 people, and rely a lot on themselves, so complex digital solutions would most likely not be well adopted by them. Given the limited infrastructure and digital illiteracy, it’d be naive to assume that micro-business can successfully compete with the international corporations and local giants, despite Grab’s attempt to provide a rebate for small businesses and hawkers.

Monica Masiga, Keynan entrepreneur. Image source: leagningonline.xyz

Monica Masiga, Kenyan entrepreneur. Image source: leagningonline.xyz

At the same time, the popularity of messenger apps, such as WhatsApp, is still quite huge in the developing markets, not to mention a tad more archaic SMS that is still being actively used in the developing world — take, for instance, the example of M-Pesa that is quickly gaining popularity despite its limited capabilities and almost no technical requirements. This gives us a perspective that in order to gain competitive advantage on the emerging market, the micro-business may not necessarily need advanced technology or infrastructure, quite the opposite: the more familiar the people are with technology, the faster they adopt it.

Another thing worth mentioning is the role of the community: most of the cultures of the emerging countries tend to be collectivistic and more focused on helping others in need. They most likely are to do what’s best for society, work as a group, and stay close to one another. In other words, what’s good for the community, good for its members — in our case, this gives us an idea that helping micro-business may also help the local community.

Traits of collectivist culture. Image source: verywellmind.com

Something worth noting is that small local business, regardless of location, especially in the F&B sector, is quite often portrayed as authentic: using predominantly traditional technologies and employing as little upgrades and techniques as possible, they offer “traditional” and “real” experiences. Often owned and operated by a single family, they sometimes turn their story into a selling point, like Islamic Restaurant in Singapore that opened in 1921.

That being said, how might we combine the traditional values, the importance of the community, and the outdated infrastructure into an affordable mobile technology that would allow the local micro-business to approach the new customers, recover from the pandemic, grow, and give back to the community?

Islamic Restaurant in Singapore. Image course: islamic.sg

Design process

We started small: by mapping out the problems and coming up with the solutions that will help our users on both sides. It was of utmost importance to ask what the future failures might look like, perhaps more important than the hypothesis itself.

Lean UX Canvas

What if our customers refuse to adopt the new technology? What if they don’t want to learn and won’t accept anyone teaching them how to do business? What if they won’t have the capacity to maintain their digital presence and wouldn’t want to risk investing in it?

With that in mind, we decided to sum up our mission into a single statement:

We are to create an online platform where micro-business owners and personal service providers can promote and sell their products, tell their story, post updates, search for helpers, and give back to the community.

With our solution, we decided to utilise the strong points and turn the weak ones into gains: while seeing the system as a platform for “micro-sites for micro-businesses”, we decided to give them the opportunity to use more traditional channels — for instance, create and print the QR codes for their walk-ins to scan and access the catalogue.

Given that the bankless population in the emerging markets is quite high — due to a common perception that banking is for the rich — we decided to not implement a payment system and allow for a more common and simple solution: the owner would contact the customer via WhatsApp or any other messenger upon their choice.

Defining the Value Proposition

The main focus of the platform would be the authenticity and affordability: it would only allow independent entrepreneurs and micro-business owners to join, wouldn’t take a standard 30% commission. Instead, it would focus on encouraging those willing to share their stories, tell more about their usually unnoticeable venue that might have a great history, help employ those that were laid off during the pandemic, and give back to the community, courtesy of local charity foundations or governments.

In order to better understand the needs of our potential users, we create two primary and two secondary personas. We paid attention to mapping out their immediate needs and identifying their paths — from launching our product to successfully reaching the end goal.

User Personas

A simple exercise helped us to follow the business owner and empathise with their persona as they were launching the dashboard to add a new product and participate in the charity for the local community.

Business owner User Journey

Same was done for the average user: from the point where they discover the platform thanks to the word of mouth through the discovery process to the final step. On the way, we identified some potential pain points and room for improvement: for instance, the potentially unclear delivery form and the voice search accessibility in certain cases. We also focused on creating trustworthy images of the venues for our users that may experience anxiety when visiting or ordering for the first time.

Prospect customer User Journey

This is where the name came in: Amana — fulfilling or upholding trusts. Among the other things, the platform would value trust between all parties.

Here is where we came up with the basic information architecture for the MVP-0: a simple web application, easily scalable, accessible, and lightweight, designed with the users needs in mind.

Amana Information architecture

After a round of design jams, we implemented the findings into a simple and beautiful ecosystem of the main application and the dashboard for the micro-business owner that would allow managing the information. We decided that Amana will take care of moderating and validating the reviews, charity foundations will call for initiatives and suggestions, and the owner will eventually be responsible for keeping the information up to date. We also gave the owner permission to set the venue status manually due to pandemic and regular schedule interruptions.

Amana overview

The checkout process was deliberately kept simple and intuitive with all the necessary suggestions and notes for the customer and no hidden fees. We also suggested the notification system to ensure that customer is aware of the coronavirus regulation or won’t place an order when the restaurant is about to close.

Amana Checkout process

To help support those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, we created a section with job openings that will mostly cater to those looking for part-time or vocational positions, such as courier.

Amana Jobs

As a consolidated place for the community efforts, we combined all charity initiatives launched by the local vendors, as well as included the page dedicated to the foundations that support such initiatives.

Amana Community and Charity

Future thinking

As part of the future thinking process, we would love to see the concept evolve into a more sophisticated marketplace, somewhat similar to those of craft goods that were becoming popular right before the pandemic outbreak.

Amana has the potential of becoming a native application built for both emerging markets and developed countries: with a full desktop version and, perhaps, a companion smartwatch app at some point, it would promote the values of authenticity and affordability to the local residents, help them find the best craftsmen and recruit talented workforce, support those in need, share, and give.

We understand that launching a product for the developing markets — even as simple and basic as Amana — would require tremendous efforts and quite a lot of convincing. However, we truly believe in the power of affordable technology, in the values of the community, and in the chance for the bright future in the new normal for those that work hard to achieve it and willing to change and adapt.

Designed and built by Kristian Mikhel. Website in development :)