Publication: Does Quality Matter for Innovations in Low Income Markets?

Foster, C.G, 2014. Does Quality Matter for Innovations in Low Income Markets? The Case of the Kenyan Mobile Phone Sector. Technology in Society, 38, 119–129.
Full paper padlock | Pre-publish version | Blog summary


Growing interest in lower income groups as consumers in emerging and developing markets has led to discussion on the issue of product quality, but so far work has generally focussed on simple goods rather than technology and innovations. However with innovations, one would expect that product quality would be more crucial in order to push trust of complex products amongst inexperienced users. Thus, this paper seeks to build understanding around issues around quality of innovations; focussing on what quality declines mean for vulnerable low income groups, and the types of policy approach that can be undertaken to improve quality.

Research was undertaken in the mobile phone sector in Kenya where firms have increasingly focussed on diffusion amongst low income consumers. Here it was found that quality has become an increasing contested and problematic terrain. In the short term, decline in quality is often acceptable for inexperienced low income users, but in the longer term this becomes detrimental to innovations both in terms of trust and expense amongst consumers, as well as effecting the livelihoods of informal entrepreneurs who are often part of delivery of innovations to low income groups.

Policy around quality was found to be present, but was limited by two key tenets. First, where implementation actors were unclear, public standards on quality tended to collapse into private standards followed only by diligent firms. Second, standards were often applied at a firm level which missed out on issues emerging amongst downstream diffusion actors often involved in adaptations which linked to quality variability.

Undertaken and focussed correctly, policy on product quality drives diffusion of innovation and supports a level playing field, which in the long term supports more inclusive innovations. A lack of focussed policy can lead to the risk of rejection of innovation and ‘big bang’ policy interventions that are detrimental to the trust in innovations amongst low income groups.

Earlier version

Foster, C.G., 2013. Does Quality Matter For Diffusion Of Innovations In Low Income Markets? The Case Of The Kenyan Mobile Phone Sector. Presented at the Development Studies Association Conference