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Published: January 10, 2002

 
 

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Lowering cost structures also forces a debate on ways to reduce investment costs. This will inevitably lead to greater use of information technology to develop production and distribution systems. As noted, village-based phones are already transforming the pattern of communications throughout the developing world. Add the Internet, and we have a whole new way of communicating and creating economic development in poor, rural areas. Creative use of IT will emerge in these markets as a means to dramatically lower the costs associated with access to products and services, distribution, and credit management.

A Common Cause
The emergence of the 4 billion people who make up the Tier 4 market is a great opportunity for MNCs. It also represents a chance for business, government, and civil society to join together in a common cause. Indeed, we believe that pursuing strategies for the bottom of the pyramid dissolves the conflict between proponents of free trade and global capitalism on one hand, and environmental and social sustainability on the other.

Yet the products and services currently offered to Tier 1 consumers are not appropriate for Tier 4, and accessing this latter market will require approaches fundamentally different from those even in Tiers 2 and 3. Changes in technology, credit, cost, and distribution are critical prerequisites. Only large firms with global reach have the technological, managerial, and financial resources to dip into the well of innovations needed to profit from this opportunity.

New commerce in Tier 4 will not be restricted to businesses filling such basic needs as food, textiles, and housing. The bottom of the pyramid is waiting for high-tech businesses such as financial services, cellular telecommunications, and low-end computers. In fact, for many emerging disruptive technologies (e.g., fuel cells, photovoltaics, satellite-based telecommunications, biotechnology, thin-film microelectronics, and nanotechnology), the bottom of the pyramid may prove to be the most attractive early market.

So far, three kinds of organizations have led the way: local firms such as Amul and Grameen Bank; NGOs such as the World Resources Institute, SELF, The Rainforest Alliance, The Environmental Defense Fund, and Conservation International, among others; and a few MNCs such as Starbucks, Dow, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, Citigroup, DuPont, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, and ABB, and global business partnerships such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Business Development. But to date, NGOs and local businesses with far fewer resources than the MNCs have been more innovative and have made more progress in developing these markets.

It is tragic that as Western capitalists we have implicitly assumed that the rich will be served by the corporate sector, while governments and NGOs will protect the poor and the environment. This implicit divide is stronger than most realize. Managers in MNCs, public policymakers, and NGO activists all suffer from this historical division of roles. A huge opportunity lies in breaking this code — linking the poor and the rich across the world in a seamless market organized around the concept of sustainable growth and development.

Collectively, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what is the biggest potential market opportunity in the history of commerce. Those in the private sector who commit their companies to a more inclusive capitalism have the opportunity to prosper and share their prosperity with those who are less fortunate. In a very real sense, the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid represents the loftiest of our global goals.

Reprint No. 02106


Authors
C.K. Prahalad, cprahalad@aol.com
C.K. Prahalad is the Harvey C. Fruehauf Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan Business School, Ann Arbor. He is also the founder and chairman of Praja Inc., a pioneer company in interactive event experiences, based in San Diego, Calif.

Stuart L. Hart, slhart@unc.edu
Stuart L. Hart is professor of strategic management, Sarah Graham Kenan Distinguished Scholar, and codirector of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan–Flagler Business School.
 
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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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