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Fall 2011 MGAPE meeting

4 December 2011

some of the MGAPE participants, photo by Jen Brass

This weekend, Northwestern University’s Program of African Studies hosted the second-ever MGAPE meeting. There were a few newcomers to the group, as you’ll see in the lineup of six papers that were presented:

  • Lori Beaman: Small Change and Forgotten Sales: Evidence from an Experiment with Small Businesses in Kenya (co-authored work with Jeremy Magruder and Jon Robinson)
  • Marc Bellemare: Rising Food Prices, Food Price Volatility, and Political Unrest
  • Jaimie Bleck: Good Morning Timbuktu! The Impact of Radio in Rural Islamic Africa (co-authored work with Kristin Michelitch)
  • Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz: Parties on the Ballot: Visual Cues and Voting Behavior in Uganda (co-authored work with Devra C. Moehler and Rosario Aguilar Pariente)
  • Pamela Jagger: Property rights, clarity, and harvesting behavior in Uganda
  • Jacob Ricker-Gilbert: Can Subsidizing Fertilizer Boost Staple Crop Production and Reduce Poverty? Quantile Regression Results from Malawi (co-authored work with T.S. Jayne)

I could probably write a blog post about all of the papers that were presented—they were all very interesting—but I’ll limit myself to discussing just the one that you won’t find posted online, the paper presented by Lori Beaman.

Many of you who have made purchases in markets across Africa will relate to the problem Beaman et al. consider: the losses incurred by small-scale entrepreneurs when they lack sufficient change. (I knew I wasn’t the only person in Malawi who ever tried to buy one “heap” of tomatoes worth 40 Kwacha with a 500 Kwacha bill.) Beaman et al. find that surveying small-scale business owners about the amount of change they had and whether they had lost sales in the previous week for lack of change impacted future change kept on hand and future sales lost to lack of change. Just asking about the change entrepreneurs had on hand and any previous losses associated to [lack of] change sufficiently “reminded” these entrepreneurs the impact of having change on hand.

In addition to the survey, Beaman et al. implemented an information intervention:

After collecting data for a number of weeks, we calculated the lost sales for each firm and told them this in an “information intervention.” More precisely, we gave them information on the average number of lost sales and associated lost revenue and profit, the frequency and duration of leaving their shop unattended while searching for change, and the amount of goods given out on credit due to insufficient change.

Businesses randomized into the information intervention reported experiencing fewer problems associated with having insufficient change on hand after the intervention.

I found the “Small Change” paper particularly insightful for development practitioners. Whereas countless interventions target small-scale entrepreneurs in the hopes that on their success developing country economies will grow (whether by offering these entrepreneurs microloans or “management training”), the Beaman et al. intervention simply sheds light on a problem and then leaves it up to the everyday traders how to solve that problem. The paper thus shows that with very few resources, we can increase the salience of a problem by relaying it to the people who have the most at stake, and the people who stand to win/lose the most from that problem will rely on their own creative thinking to address it.

Though Lori said when introducing the paper that they had no vision that this project should be scaled up, when I read the paper, I thought a great intervention a development agency could provide would be to act as a change-bank in local markets, reducing the problems associated with lack of change for small-scale entrepreneurs. If you’re going to spend gobs of money on something like trainings (which we have no evidence is effective – not to mention the fact that doing so suggests limited skills, knowledge, and ability of the entrepreneurs), why not instead use a fraction of that to pay someone to sit in a market and offer change to the local sellers?

All of us owe gratitude to Assistant Professor of Political Science Rachel Beatty Riedl for bringing us to Northwestern and to Kate Dargis for coordinating the logistics. Though our next regional meeting will likely occur next fall (2012), we ruminated the idea of coordinating an MGAPE-oriented panel at the next African Studies Association meeting, scheduled to be held in Philadelphia November 29-December 2, 2012.

A few more photos, from my less-than-fantastic (and surprisingly loud) phone camera:

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