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Published: January 10, 2002

 
 

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

This extreme inequity of wealth distribution reinforces the view that the poor cannot participate in the global market economy, even though they constitute the majority of the population. In fact, given its vast size, Tier 4 represents a multitrillion-dollar market. According to World Bank projections, the population at the bottom of the pyramid could swell to more than 6 billion people over the next 40 years, because the bulk of the world’s population growth occurs there.

The perception that the bottom of the pyramid is not a viable market also fails to take into account the growing importance of the informal economy among the poorest of the poor, which by some estimates accounts for 40 to 60 percent of all economic activity in developing countries. Most Tier 4 people live in rural villages, or urban slums and shantytowns, and they usually do not hold legal title or deed to their assets (e.g., dwellings, farms, businesses). They have little or no formal education and are hard to reach via conventional distribution, credit, and communications. The quality and quantity of products and services available in Tier 4 is generally low. Therefore, much like an iceberg with only its tip in plain view, this massive segment of the global population — along with its massive market opportunities — has remained largely invisible to the corporate sector.

Fortunately, the Tier 4 market is wide open for technological innovation. Among the many possibilities for innovation, MNCs can be leaders in leapfrogging to products that don’t repeat the environmental mistakes of developed countries over the last 50 years. Today’s MNCs evolved in an era of abundant natural resources and thus tended to make products and services that were resource-intensive and excessively polluting. The United States’ 270 million people — only about 4 percent of the world’s population — consume more than 25 percent of the planet’s energy resources. To re-create those types of consumption patterns in developing countries would be disastrous.

We have seen how the disenfranchised in Tier 4 can disrupt the way of life and safety of the rich in Tier 1 — poverty breeds discontent and extremism. Although complete income equality is an ideological pipe dream, the use of commercial development to bring people out of poverty and give them the chance for a better life is critical to the stability and health of the global economy and the continued success of Western MNCs.

The Invisible Opportunity
Among the top 200 MNCs in the world, the overwhelming majority are based in developed countries. U.S. corporations dominate, with 82; Japanese firms, with 41, are second, according to a list compiled in December 2000 by the Washington, D.C.–based Institute for Policy Studies. So it is not surprising that MNCs’ views of business are conditioned by their knowledge of and familiarity with Tier 1 consumers. Perception of market opportunity is a function of the way many managers are socialized to think and the analytical tools they use. Most MNCs automatically dismiss the bottom of the pyramid because they judge the market based on income or selections of products and services appropriate for developed countries.

To appreciate the market potential of Tier 4, MNCs must come to terms with a set of core assumptions and practices that influence their view of developing countries. We have identified the following as widely shared orthodoxies that must be reexamined:

  • Assumption #1 The poor are not our target consumers because with our current cost structures, we cannot profitably compete for that market.
  • Assumption #2 The poor cannot afford and have no use for the products and services sold in developed markets.
  • Assumption #3 Only developed markets appreciate and will pay for new technology. The poor can use the previous generation of technology.
  • Assumption #4 The bottom of the pyramid is not important to the long-term viability of our business. We can leave Tier 4 to governments and nonprofits.
  • Assumption #5 Managers are not excited by business challenges that have a humanitarian dimension.
  • Assumption #6 Intellectual excitement is in developed markets. It is hard to find talented managers who want to work at the bottom of the pyramid.
 
 
 
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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)
 
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