Caroline Ashley

Caroline focuses on how innovative economic models can deliver more inclusive and resilient development.

Caroline has worked on markets, business models and investment approaches that deliver social impact for many years in roles with challenge funds, impact investors, entrepreneurs, corporates, NGOs and policy makers. As Results Director of the DFID Business Innovation Facility, and Sida Innovations Against Poverty programme, she founded the Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business in 2010, then took on hosting it, and acted as Editor of the Hub for 7 years before it transitioned into managed by IBAN.

Most recently Caroline led economic justice programmes at Oxfam GB, before moving to Forum for the Future, to lead global systems change programmes to accelerate our transition to a sustainable future.

Data, data everywhere... But what does it mean for inclusive business?

13. Nov 2017

Three things we know to be true:  a data revolution is underway, with more data available and processable than ever before;  businesses are seizing the data opportunity, as providers of data services and users of information; and the development community has stepped up its investment in data as part of its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals.  But what does all this mean for inclusive business? 

Is the development community's investment in data accessible to business and useful for it?  Is the historic lack of data gap on Base of Pyramid (BoP) markets and needs now closing?  Are businesses investing in data services in ways that will benefit low-income people not just the bottom line?    This month we see how data usage is shifting and influencing inclusive business across sectors from agriculture to energy, from farmer data to data from space. 

Understanding the BoP market 

One of the costs and risks of doing business in BoP markets is that conventional market data - on incomes, spending, preferences - is simply not available.  This is beginning to change.   Euromonitor International provides fascinating insight on trends and spending patterns in Africa's largest BoP markets while Christina Gradl-Tewes highlight just how bad current data is, and the potential for change. [Want to know more about Kibera? Artificial Intelligence can help.]  Last month's Editor's Choice was on a welcome report that finally reviews data on whether the broad 'BoP market' actually includes 'poor' people, on around $1-2 a day.   

Business providers 

Businesses are stepping in to fill data gaps, providing tailored information about BoP clients or production by low income producers. Smallhodr is a new business managing data on smallholder production and supply chains, offering gains to both farmers and agricultural companies. [Spreadsheets are where data go to die]. TTC deploys mobile-based surveys to capture trends, such as the slump in fresh fish consumption around Lake Victoria. [A case study]. E-kutir already has a smallholder-focused service reaching 70.000 smallholders and a team are looking at how to expand such services for more farmers.[Planting the seed for integrated precision farming]. 

Sector-specific data initiatives and partnerships 

While each innovative business has a role to play, there is a bigger shift at work:  public  sector investments in sector data and public private partnerships for data to guide investment and planning. Claire Melamed , leading Global Partnerships for Sustainable Development Data, outlines the data revolution in development with examples of how companies are tuning in. With sector examples, this month we hear about: 

  • data on food fortification consolidated by GFDx (Global Fortification Data Exchange), with potential to spur more action to save millions of lives from hidden hunger 
  • data from space on trends in water, temperature and more, which can guide water planning by region, or frost-prevention measures on a coffee farm 
  • geo-spatial data about energy use and availability. 

There are also great sources of data on poverty and development trends?  I bet that not many in the business sector know the great visuals from 'our world in data'.  SO we have done our own blog listing some of these useful tools. 

Beyond just generating data 

It's good to see these investments in accessible rich data to guide investment. But I have two perhaps contradictory concerns, both about who uses the data.  First, I know the gulf between development actors and business actors:  different languages, different sources of information, different networks.  I wonder if these development-backed initiatives will do enough to make their data accessible to and really used by businesses that are working at the BoP. I have not seen evidence yet that investment in crossing development and business boundaries is sufficient.  

Secondly, data should not stop in the hands of business or governments.  Andreas Pawelke from the Web Foundation raises a warning flag, that current inequality in power and wealth is simply reinforced by unequal data access, so argues for greater investment in building capacity for data analysis at local level, plus requirements for open data.   

Back to basics:  the value of listening to people at the BoP 

While big data is the big new opportunity, quite simple technology is also unlocking some 'back to basics' customer feedback within inclusive businesses. We hear great examples from an animal feed business in Ghana, and a low-cost medical business in Brazil, of how customer-centric data is used to understand what low-income clients want and how the business can improve to scale and serve them better. 

This blog is a part of the November 2017 series on data for inclusive business.

Read the full series for insights on how the data revolution could affect inclusive business. Will it bring an end to the uncertainty of business in Base of Pyramid markets? Can it straddle the development-business divide? Will the data drive spurred by the Sustainable Development Goals be useful to inclusive business?