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Forget the pyramid, connect with the people

by Gillian Klawansky
Driven by a strong sense of social justice, Dr Mélani Prinsloo uses her research company, Infusion Knowledge Hub, to provide valuable insights into marginalised communities. These insights also inform her academic work as an executive fellow at Henley Business School Africa.

As researchers, we are asking the wrong questions," suggests Dr Prinsloo, speaking to the very foundation of her PhD thesis. "We are also asking questions in the wrong ways. We have to work much closer with communities to gain authentic insights into the lower end of the market as well as any form of understanding of what upward mobility looks like."

Dr Prinsloo, who started her career in marketing and communications, launched human-centric research and analytics company, Infusion Knowledge Hub, more than 20 years ago. She has since grown the company into a unique research entity that not only delivers bespoke research for commercial clients and public entities, but also operates a community-based research and business platform, the Centre for Democratising Information (CDI). CDI is a non-profit organisation that attempts to address the shortage of detailed information on underdeveloped communities.

In formulating Infusion’s unique offering, Dr Prinsloo was faced with the number of companies that commission work to better understand the middle to the upper end of the economic pyramid. These companies are also willing to invest handsomely into obtaining these insights. "Yet, if you go into the lower end of the market, companies are more resistant to pay [for research], despite the fact that these groups are the largest markets," she explains. The result of this is that people in marginalised communities are often just grouped together as a faceless collective.

"We still talk about poor or rural or informal, as if poverty is one dimensional," reveals Dr Prinsloo. "Yet the category is so nuanced that we tend to miss a lot of the actual insights which would help us to do proper design in certain products. For example, in the area of micro insurance, the insurance product could really help the person with their well-being and upward mobility, rather than just being an investment into poverty."

It is not just Dr Prinsloo’s genuine interest in people from all walks of life that galvanises her, but an innate desire to challenge the status quo. She is keenly aware of the advantages she has enjoyed in this life and feels compelled to do her bit to build a fairer and more inclusive world.

"I can’t help people, but I can make sure I don’t make their lives more difficult," she explains. "And I can create platforms on which people can possibly help themselves."

An energetic agitator

Dr Prinsloo is careful to qualify that she is in no way a voice of the underprivileged. However, as someone who comes from a more privileged background, it is possible to lay the groundwork for others to advance themselves by working towards a more equitable system.

Even though her parents were not wealthy, the state school Dr Prinsloo attended was good enough to get her into university and progress from there. "From that perspective, I am privileged," she suggests. "So, how do we as privileged people, because we have power, try to influence the system? What would it require of us to lead with empathy and to understand that people do not come into this world with remotely the same opportunities?"

In working to create meaningful inclusion, Dr Prinsloo believes we need to create opportunities, adding that people are fundamentally good. "It’s the systems that often criminalise people," she asserts. "If we can, we must use the power we have to stand up to the system."

This applies to people as individuals in society and to leaders. "From a leadership perspective, I think the crux of it is to understand that the system favoured me. I was born in 1970 in Pretoria, white and Afrikaans," she says.

An empathetic approach

Given her passion for social justice, it is hard not to imagine a young Dr Prinsloo pursuing a career as a psychologist or a lawyer, but she was dissuaded from both due to concerns that she could not maintain sufficient emotional distance. As it happens, ill health meant that she could not write matric and actively select her own path of study. Instead, she was given an adjusted mark and a university exemption, but the degree course still open to her was marketing.

Marketing was not a natural fit, but it did not take long before Dr Prinsloo "started to realise how marketing theory can be used very differently." Thus began her interest in understanding the problems of societies and communities, and "how people are struggling to participate." It was this realisation that led her to explore different ways of collecting and reporting on information; a community-based research approach that would form the basis of her PhD.

In approaching research in a different way, Dr Prinsloo developed an employment project that trained and temporarily employed 500 fieldworkers or "information agents" living in poorer municipalities. Their research skills were developed through training and feedback, and soon people used their community networks to unearth insights in exchange for income.

The different cost structure associated with the employment project was not the only unique element, the research detoured from the traditional and formal research process, where "a client contacts you with a brief and a research question," explains Dr Prinsloo. "My own studies found that some research approaches may be more geared to formal markets and may even be irrelevant in the lower end. This is because we are asking the wrong questions. We are asking questions that are interesting to us, but not those that necessarily reflect the realities of people living in the lower end of the market or the informal markets."

Instead of barging into a community with a preconceived notion of what the research would show, this approach afforded people and their communities a voice. A voice they used with gusto, giving more than 7 500 interviews a month that enabled the fieldworkers to unearth a massive amount of data. The insights gained were encapsulated in 12 reports a year, covering commercial and social issues with the aim of better understanding the context in which people are living and in which projects, programmes, products, and services can yield value.

This project led to the development of a data-gathering platform with the focus on building a data commons. The platform is called Wakamoso and it organises many data points, making it more useful and accessible. Wakamoso, which means "the future one", is run under the CDI umbrella and provides a streamlined platform for creating professional CVs, proof of residence, wills, and business registration, ensuring that marginalised individuals are not anonymous or invisible within the digital domain. It also creates more micro-income-earning opportunities for people in the areas in which they live.

Wakamoso is set to continue providing invaluable data about people in the lower end of the market. "Everybody’s got their, let’s say, 100 000 clients, and they are forgetting about the 10 or 20 million people that could be their clients," Dr Prinsloo explains. "Rather, we argue that we need to create a data commons that is a digital twin of the informal sector. The country is supported by an informal sector into which we have little real insight. A data commons can enable us to do analysis on the full economy – formal and informal."

According to Dr Prinsloo, we cannot simply mould the informal economy into our understanding of the formal one. This market is unique and must be understood as such – which is where Henley Business School Africa steps in.

With the help of Henley Business School Africa

When asked what challenges she has faced in her own career, Dr Prinsloo immediately points to the need for income, especially for the kind of variable-funded work, which is her focus. That is why she is so grateful not just for the research and academic opportunities at Henley Business School Africa, but for the financial security it provides.

"I can do all my projects and I don’t have to worry about whether I get paid from them because the school is paying me and I’m using a lot of the insights in my classes," she says. "Henley has been so flexible and has really helped to make this financially viable. The school is an avenue for the research, but it also secures my income, which opens my time to do the research and share my insights."

Dr Prinsloo credits her colleagues for being such wonderful sounding boards for her ideas. "The relationship with Henley has increasingly strengthened during the years that we’ve been working together," she reflects. The more than 10-year relationship has also opened her mind to the importance of resilience and flexibility. "You never know how things will work out. You just need to believe that they will."

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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