The world’s largest companies know that fast-growing emerging markets offer exciting opportunities in the years to come. But they have a problem: Securing the data needed to run a modern consumer business – from market size to sales and inventory levels – is extremely difficult in these markets. Enter aiSight, a start-up backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which thinks it has the answer.
Founder and CEO Umar Saif originally started aiSight to work on health issues in developing countries, where the lack of basic data on who lives and works where, as well as what health treatments they have access to, makes planning very difficult. Saif believed that harnessing satellite imagery and combining it with sophisticated analytical tools would allow him to identify and map population centers in much greater detail than ever before – and therefore predict the spread of disease before it sets in.
This work has led to notable advances in health care planning in countries such as Saif’s native Pakistan, where officials have been able to use the system’s findings to respond to outbreaks with overwhelmingly positive results. Meanwhile, aiSight has also put its technology to work for commercial customers, helping solve the data problem facing consumer businesses.
“These companies don’t have much to do when they’re operating in a lot of emerging markets,” says Saif. “They depend on monthly data collected by researchers in the field, which is often patchy and outdated.” Many companies have pulled out of markets where they recognize there is huge potential for growth simply because they have been blocked by this lack of visibility, he adds.
The solution, according to Saif, is aiSight’s technology. It works with satellite imagery to create remarkably detailed data on the number of homes, shops, and other buildings in almost any location. The company’s data also allows it to predict with great accuracy how many people live and work in these localities, as well as the demographic profile of this population. When a large consumer company plugs its own data into a given location – the stores it works with, for example, and the products it supplies – aiSight’s predictive analytics engine can provide the sophisticated intelligence work economy on which it depends in more developed economies.
The goal is to track millions of products in every store in a country to generate real-time recommendations for the consumer business. As soon as aiSight’s technology identifies an opportunity to increase revenue – by expanding distribution, improving sales targets, optimizing trade promotions, minimizing out-of-stock stores or refining assortment, for example – it informs the company so that it can act quickly.
“Think of aiSight as a fully automated command and control center that generates demographic and socioeconomic profiles using satellite imagery for every neighborhood in a country,” says Saif. “It continuously monitors every store, product, channel, distributor, brand, shopper profile, and trade promotion, and generates actionable alerts whenever it discovers an opportunity to optimize sales, commerce, or marketing functions for maximize revenue.”
That’s quite a promise, but a growing number of large multinational consumer companies are signing up to it. aiSight’s marquee clients include Unilever, PepsiCo, Red Bull, Reckitt, British American Tobacco and Phillip Morris International, all of which use its technology to execute much more data-driven sales strategies in key developing markets.
This is potentially transformative for these very large companies, many of which are now struggling to generate growth in their traditional markets. Emerging economies already account for 55% of global consumer spending with large fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies. But over the next five years, consumer spending in these markets is expected to grow three times faster than in developed economies, with total spending expected to exceed $6 trillion.
aiSight’s ability to give consumer goods giants greater access to this growth is seeing the company expand rapidly, along with demand for it to offer its services in more markets. The company already offers analysis of countries in Asia and the Middle East, but is almost constantly increasing its coverage. This week, he will announce another major push in Africa.
The company operates on a software-as-a-service model, with subscription fees depending on the product lines and countries the company wants to track.
Seasoned retail analytics consultant Jason Elliot thinks it’s a winning formula. “Such a platform has been the holy grail of the FMCG industry, which is still stuck in monthly retail audit slides, Excel sheets and basic PowerBI charts made by armies of industry analysts. sales,” he said.
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