Why creativity and play are key to understanding the real needs of micro-entrepreneurs

Strive Community
Strive Community
Published in
6 min readNov 8, 2022


Photo credit: Courtesy of Shujaaz Inc

The following is a guest post by Shujaaz Inc, an organization that offers practical insights on designing research approaches that work — particularly in research focusing on young people.

At Shujaaz Inc, we’ve been working with young people for more than 10 years, designing media and tools that reach 71% of 15- to 24-year-olds in Kenya and 15% of this group in Tanzania. It’s sort of our business to understand what’s really going on for East African youth!

Throughout the last decade we’ve developed a research methodology we call “GroundTruth” that sits at the heart of everything we do. We used this research methodology in our needs assessment for our Strive Community program.

Here are the four tips and lessons we’ve learned about designing research that really works.

1. User-led research means leaving your assumptions at the door.

At Shujaaz Inc, we’re thrilled to see that user-centric research methods and design are becoming mainstream. We have always believed that the most valuable research and insights emerge when you create the flexibility for group and individual discussions to be genuinely user-led.

But it is important to remember that user-led research means leaving all your assumptions at the door. That begins with the language we use.

For example, ask a group of young Kenyans, “Are you an entrepreneur?” Most will say no — even if they’re getting up every day to make mandazi (a type of Kenyan pastry) to sell to commuters in Nairobi, and then run a second-hand clothes stall in the afternoons. This leaves us with inaccurate data and skewed results.

When we bring our own assumptions of what it means to be an “entrepreneur” to our conversation, we miss out on understanding why a person we know is running a micro-business doesn’t think of themselves as an entrepreneur.

By using open-ended, non-technical questions and (as we’ll see below) creative tools, we’ve learned that most young Kenyans are working on a few business ideas. They identify more closely as a “hustla” or as someone working in “biz.” Most young people believe that to be an entrepreneur you have to be running one successful business that enables you to be financially independent.

The takeaway? If you want to know what’s really going on for young people, especially on a topic that is not well researched, remember this: very few terms have a universal meaning. Whether it’s identifying yourself as an “entrepreneur” or “a voter,” your definition of a term is deeply personal. We all self-categorize according to our own, internal narrative — and that’s the only one that matters.

2. Embrace creative and disruptive techniques to get to the truth.

Most of us are naturally inclined to want to please the person in front of us, particularly if we perceive them to be “important.” As a result, when asked a direct question, we tend to produce “socially desirable” answers, the responses we believe will please the person asking it. Outside of conversations with close friends, direct questions rarely reveal personal truths.

That’s why at Shujaaz Inc, we try to avoid overreliance on traditional qualitative research techniques. Instead, we’ve designed our GroundTruth focus groups around a range of immersive participatory tools and gamified exercises that help create an open, candid space that’s led more by peer-to-peer interaction than a traditional researcher-to-participant dynamic.

Shujaaz Inc uses immersive participatory tools and gamified exercises to create an open, candid space. Photo courtesy of Shujaaz Inc.

In our group sessions, we create an immersive experience where young people play games, act out proposed scenarios, create art (draw or write poetry), and engage with each other in playful, creative, and fun ways. For example, in a recent group session, young people worked together to design an “entrepreneurial mountain” and then annotate different stages and barriers they believe entrepreneurs face when building a business. This exercise revealed a fresh perspective on what it means for a young Kenyan to start and grow a micro-retail enterprise.

This novel approach leads young people to reveal — often by a mutual discovery — their “personal truths” (i.e. ideas, attitudes and preferences), which rarely happens as a result of using a traditional question-and-answer routine. We have learned that to better engage young people, we need to design studies that are fun, engaging, purpose-driven, and judgment-free. Ultimately, young people need to want to be there and to talk to us!

3. Seek out outliers — they hold the real hero insights.

Much of our research is focused on finding common threads and similarities in micro-retailer narratives. We want to know what it’s like for a young Kenyan entrepreneur to have or be in a business. What are the biggest barriers most entrepreneurs face? What are the enabling factors? Such commonalities are crucial to understanding and designing products, services, and programs that can create impact at scale.

Yet many powerful insights come from the stories of outliers: young people who are brave enough to venture into “uncharted territories.” In every group of young people we gather for a focus group discussion, there’s one who is finding innovative ways to break down the internal, sociocultural, or economic barriers that hold them back and hinder their success in business and in life. These are the trailblazers, the young pioneers, who become role models and mentors to other youth who are just starting their entrepreneurial journey.

The technical term for those people is “positive deviants.” But we call them heroes or, in Swahili, shujaaz.

Who is a shujaaz in the informal micro-retail sector? A shujaaz might be an entrepreneur whose business is similar to that of his peers but brings twice the profit of other businesses in their neighborhood. Or a hustla who is taking the time to teach her friends about challenges she’s overcome in her business, to help them succeed.

If you find an outlier or “positive deviant,” take the time to speak to them one-on-one. In our experience, you might just hear an insight or solution that can work at scale for millions of people.

4. A good insight is a verified insight!

As humans, we tend to slightly embellish our stories, adding details and color to keep the narrative interesting. We sometimes change our stories or perspectives to avoid conflict, or to align with the dominant opinion in the room. Adaptive narratives and embellishments are our ways to fit in and to gain acceptance from our peers or people we like, respect, or report to.

More often than not, those sorts of modifications are subconscious — not intentional or planned. That is why we use a mixed-method approach that ensures we can “triangulate” or verify our insights. For example, we often run rapid-fire SMS polls after a qualitative data collection, like a series of focus groups, to understand if the perspective we are learning from our participants is common to young people in other parts of Kenya and Africa.

Or, if you’re only able to use qualitative methods, even changing the scene with participants, or chatting one-on-one or online, can help to stress test your findings by creating a different environment. We also often interview “key informants,” adults who interact with young people on a regular basis and have expertise in particular areas.

There are many approaches to triangulation, but once you’ve done it, you have an insight you can trust and design around.

In their next post, Shujaaz Inc will take a closer look at the findings from the needs assessment for their Strive Community program. Learn more about the program.

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