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Published: January 10, 2002

 
 

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Low-income markets present a prodigious opportunity for the world’s wealthiest companies — to seek their fortunes and bring prosperity to the aspiring poor.

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid
Illustration by Marco Ventura
With the end of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union and its allies, as well as China, India, and Latin America, opened their closed markets to foreign investment in a cascading fashion. Although this significant economic and social transformation has offered vast new growth opportunities for multinational corporations (MNCs), its promise has yet to be realized.

First, the prospect of millions of “middle-class” consumers in developing countries, clamoring for products from MNCs, was wildly oversold. To make matters worse, the Asian and Latin American financial crises have greatly diminished the attractiveness of emerging markets. As a consequence, many MNCs worldwide slowed investments and began to rethink risk–reward structures for these markets. This retreat could become even more pronounced in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States last September.

The lackluster nature of most MNCs’ emerging-market strategies over the past decade does not change the magnitude of the opportunity, which is in reality much larger than previously thought. The real source of market promise is not the wealthy few in the developing world, or even the emerging middle-income consumers: It is the billions of aspiring poor who are joining the market economy for the first time.

This is a time for MNCs to look at globalization strategies through a new lens of inclusive capitalism. For companies with the resources and persistence to compete at the bottom of the world economic pyramid, the prospective rewards include growth, profits, and incalculable contributions to humankind. Countries that still don’t have the modern infrastructure or products to meet basic human needs are an ideal testing ground for developing environmentally sustainable technologies and products for the entire world.

Furthermore, MNC investment at “the bottom of the pyramid” means lifting billions of people out of poverty and desperation, averting the social decay, political chaos, terrorism, and environmental meltdown that is certain to continue if the gap between rich and poor countries continues to widen.

Doing business with the world’s 4 billion poorest people — two-thirds of the world’s population — will require radical innovations in technology and business models. It will require MNCs to reevaluate price–performance relationships for products and services. It will demand a new level of capital efficiency and new ways of measuring financial success. Companies will be forced to transform their understanding of scale, from a “bigger is better” ideal to an ideal of highly distributed small-scale operations married to world-scale capabilities.

In short, the poorest populations raise a prodigious new managerial challenge for the world’s wealthiest companies: selling to the poor and helping them improve their lives by producing and distributing products and services in culturally sensitive, environmentally sustainable, and economically profitable ways.

Four Consumer Tiers
At the very top of the world economic pyramid are 75 to 100 million affluent Tier 1 consumers from around the world. (See Exhibit 1.) This is a cosmopolitan group composed of middle- and upper-income people in developed countries and the few rich elites from the developing world. In the middle of the pyramid, in Tiers 2 and 3, are poor customers in developed nations and the rising middle classes in developing countries, the targets of MNCs’ past emerging-market strategies.

Exhibit 1: The World Economic Pyramid

Now consider the 4 billion people in Tier 4, at the bottom of the pyramid. Their annual per capita income — based on purchasing power parity in U.S. dollars — is less than $1,500, the minimum considered necessary to sustain a decent life. For well over a billion people — roughly one-sixth of humanity — per capita income is less than $1 per day.

Even more significant, the income gap between rich and poor is growing. According to the United Nations, the richest 20 percent in the world accounted for about 70 percent of total income in 1960. In 2000, that figure reached 85 percent. Over the same period, the fraction of income accruing to the poorest 20 percent in the world fell from 2.3 percent to 1.1 percent.

 
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Resources

  1. The concepts in this article were first articulated in 1998, and have been made available for discussion in a working paper. For more information, contact the authors.
  2. Stuart Hart, “Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 1997; Click here.
  3. C.K. Prahalad and Kenneth Lieberthal, “The End of Corporate Imperialism,” Harvard Business Review, July–August 1998; Click here.
  4. “Is the Digital Divide a Problem or an Opportunity?” Business Week Supplement, December 18, 2000
  5. Robert Chambers, Whose Reality Counts? Putting First Last (ITDG Publishing, 1997)
  6. Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999)
  7. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
  8. Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (Basic Books, 2000)