Publication: Innovation and scaling of ICT for the bottom-of-the-pyramid

Foster, C.G., Heeks, R.B., 2013. Innovation and scaling of ICT for the bottom-of-the-pyramid. Journal of Information Technology, 28, 296–315.
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Scaling represents successful diffusion that ensures sizeable impact and earnings from information and communication technology (ICT) innovations in emerging markets. Practice can still be shaped by dualistic views – innovation vs diffusion, pilot vs scale-up, lead firm vs other actors, technical vs social.

Synthesising the literature that challenges these dualities, this paper creates a systemic perspective that is particularly appropriate for scaling of ICT to bottom-of-the-pyramid (BoP) markets. That perspective is then instantiated through the case study of a successfully-scaled ICT innovation that has reached millions of poor consumers: the Kenyan m-money system, M-Pesa. It finds that scaling of this ICT system can be understood as a four-stage process of exploratory, incremental then aggressive growth, followed by (attempted) standardisation.

Throughout these stages of scaling, ongoing adaptive innovations have been fundamental and have been both necessitated and shaped by the BoP context. These innovations have been more socio-technical than technical, and have emerged from a growing variety of actors and locations closer to poor consumers than the lead firm. The lead firm has buffered the unfamiliarity of BoP markets by approaching them through the ‘middle-of-the-pyramid’ and by intensive learning. At times, its planned ‘shifts’ in scaling strategy have triggered adaptive innovations. At other times, emergent innovations and learning lead to incremental ‘drifts’ in lead firm strategy.

ICT firms wishing to scale goods and services for BoP markets must therefore recognise the multi-locational, continuous, and emergent nature of innovation, and develop processes to monitor and address those innovations.