Participatory Market Research: New Target Group Insight

By Christina Gradl and Claudia Knobloch, Endeva

Participatory Market Research: New Target Group Insight
Photo Credit: Claudia Knobloch

Sawing a bed in half to create bunks that will fit in a small room may seem strange at first glance, but look deeper: Furniture on offer in Brazilian stores does not meet the needs of low-income customers. As a result, these consumers either modify what’s available, or spend more money to have something custom made. Therefore, the data that suggests that Brazilian low-income consumers invest very little in furniture for their houses is misleading. They do invest, but not in the places covered by this data.

Participatory market research can provide reliable data for the development of inclusive business models. By involving the target group as partners rather than passive objects, researchers cannot only see the world through their eyes, but also discover new solutions together with them.

At Endeva, we define research as participatory when it gives the target group the ability to influence the researchers’ perspective.


Bringing in the target group’s critical insights from early stages can circumvent many common challenges that business models operating in low-income markets face. Although relatively more resource and time intensive than pure desk research, well-designed participatory market research can yield great benefits. First, it empowers and creates trust. Researchers are often foreigners and recognized as such by the communities they’re observing. Trust is important, and can be gained through deep interaction and dialogue. Secondly, it enhances understanding. A product may not sell for many reasons – local perceptions, informal rules, or constraints. A person may not want to replace a stone cookstove with “superior” solar cookstoves because the solar version doesn’t allow for warm meals after dark, or stones used for cooking are traditionally an inheritance for their daughters. Lastly, it can identify innovative solutions straight from the users.

Endeva’s experience with such market research in places like Brazil, Sierra Leone, and Madagascar has given us some great insights on the best ways to get the information that businesses need and empower low-income communities to work on a partnership level to create products and services.


Participatory market research is not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are many different methods that can be applied depending on the situation and the product or service. Endeva has identified the main research methods, organized by the various outcomes an organization can aim to achieve:

Type of information obtained from consumer

Use Context




Self-documentation (“Paparazzi”)

Interview, focus group

Idea competitions, toolkits, Innovation workshops

Role of target group


Respond to and discuss questions

Co-create products and services


Target group observes itself

Target group is asked for information or consulted for specific information

Target group engages in joint activities and “co-creates”

Outcome 1: Use Context

Self-documentation encourages participants to portray the context of the product or service with their own eyes. In Brazil, we gave people disposable cameras and papers with happy and sad faces. They were encouraged to put the smiling face on furniture solutions they liked, in their homes or those of acquaintances, and the frowning face on what they did not like. They took photos of their observations to provide us with documentation.

Outcome 2: Perceptions

Semi-structured interviews and focus groups allow researchers to gain deep insight on how the target group views their needs and experiences with certain products. For example, in Sierra Leone, we developed a seasonal calendar with the members of a cassava cooperative, which allowed us to identify when they sold products and cash flow was strong, as well as when it was significantly less.

Outcome 3: Solutions

The target group already has ideas about solutions, and these reveal more information about preferences and constraints. In Brazil, people were asked to draw ideas for furniture they would find useful. Using space efficiently, e.g. through multifunctional furniture, emerged as a key theme.


Our experiences in Brazil, Sierra Leone, and Madagascar resulted in lessons on how to best prepare, implement, and use the methods described above. These lessons include:

  • Get informed about the local context as well as possible before beginning the research; work with local researchers if possible.
  • Focus your research on key questions to maximize time and resources.
  • Select participants purposefully, e.g. by speaking to opinion leaders, like the mayor or teachers, or by leveraging existing social groups, like farmer associations.
  • Brief participants by clearly stating the reasons for your research and what they can reasonably expect to come out of it. Don’t create false expectations!
  • Use visual materials to avoid problems with language or literacy.
  • Triangulate results by combining different research methods.
  • Be aware of your research methods’ blind spots to make the results as objective and useful as possible.

What is your own experience with market research at the BoP? Share your insights and discuss with us, here in this blog or at our upcoming peer-learning workshop on Sep 10 in Berlin!

Note: This blog post is a summary of a longer article that will soon be published in the first book of the BoP Learning Lab Network.

Endeva is an independent institute based in Berlin, specializing in building, sharing, and applying knowledge of inclusive business and private sector-led development solutions. For the projects mentioned in this post, we worked with the following partners: market research in Brazil was done for the Research Centre for Design and Sustainability (Núcleo de Design e Sustentabilidade) of the Federal University of Paraná; in Sierra Leone we worked in cooperation with the ILO’s Youth Employment Network; and in Madagascar, we worked with HERi Madagascar.

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One Response

  1. Thank you, Aline, for sharing your insights. Indeed, I can only agree on the importance of participatory research. I also have to agree that participatory research is much more difficult and requires a whole different level of empathy, adaptation, flexibility and understanding of the local culture than desk research does.

    In this regards, what I found during different participatory research in the past was that it was of great importance to take the time to talk to as many people engaged in the field as possible before working with your target group. In order to identify the struggles and needs of cassava- and honey cooperatives, I tried to get an insight from other people’s work: NGO’s working with honey and cassava cooperatives, processors, supermarket owners etc. In order to identify promising strategies for market-driven rice value chain development in Sierra Leone, I talked to a great number of development partners, importers, governmental agencies and caterers, amongst others. All of them have direct contact to your target group in one way or the other and can give you valuable insights from different angles. For instance, the reasons why a certain trader/company/organisation does or does not engage with your target group, or product- and project failures, but also success stories and successful collaboration, will tell you a lot that cannot usually be found in (often beautified) statistics and reports.

    Based on these insights, it is easier to identify key questions, select the right participants and get support in one way or the other. Often, different organisations have similar goals and are very happy to collaborate. Furthermore, it happens quite regularly, that your participants try to give the answers you want to hear. Having an idea of what other people struggled with before allows you to get to the bottom of the question and listen carefully to your participants answers. However, be aware to not form an opinion before you talk to your target group and leave space for new answers and opinions! 



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