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 / First Quarter 2002 / Issue 26(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

As the Unilever example makes clear, the starting assumption must be that serving Tier 4 involves bringing together the best of technology and a global resource base to address local market conditions. Cheap and low-quality products are not the goal. The potential of Tier 4 cannot be realized without an entrepreneurial orientation: The real strategic challenge for managers is to visualize an active market where only abject poverty exists today. It takes tremendous imagination and creativity to engineer a market infrastructure out of a completely unorganized sector.

Serving Tier 4 markets is not the same as serving existing markets better or more efficiently. Managers first must develop a commercial infrastructure tailored to the needs and challenges of Tier 4. Creating such an infrastructure must be seen as an investment, much like the more familiar investments in plants, processes, products, and R&D.

Further, contrary to more conventional investment strategies, no firm can do this alone. Multiple players must be involved, including local governmental authorities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), communities, financial institutions, and other companies. Four elements — creating buying power, shaping aspirations, improving access, and tailoring local solutions — are the keys to a thriving Tier 4 market. (See Exhibit 5.)

Each of these four elements demands innovation in technology, business models, and management processes. And business leaders must be willing to experiment, collaborate, empower locals, and create new sources of competitive advantage and wealth.

Creating Buying Power
According to the International Labor Organization’s World Employment Report 2001, nearly a billion people — roughly one-third of the world’s work force — are either underemployed or have such low-paying jobs that they cannot support themselves or their families. Helping the world’s poor elevate themselves above this desperation line is a business opportunity to do well and do good. To do so effectively, two interventions are crucial — providing access to credit, and increasing the earning potential of the poor. A few farsighted companies have already begun to blaze this trail with startlingly positive results.

Commercial credit historically has been unavailable to the very poor. Even if those living in poverty had access to a bank, without collateral it is hard to get credit from the traditional banking system. As Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto demonstrates in his pathbreaking work, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, commercial credit is central to building a market economy. Access to credit in the U.S. has allowed people of modest means to systematically build their equity and make major purchases, such as houses, cars, and education.

The vast majority of the poor in developing countries operate in the “informal” or extralegal economy, since the time and cost involved in securing legal title for their assets or incorporation of their microenterprises is prohibitive. Developing countries have tried governmental subsidies to free the poor from the cycle of poverty, with little success. Even if the poor were able to benefit from government support to start small businesses, their dependence on credit from local moneylenders charging usurious rates makes it impossible to succeed. Local moneylenders in Mumbai, India, charge interest rates of up to 20 percent per day. This means that a vegetable vendor who borrows Rs.100 ($2.08) in the morning must return Rs.120 ($2.50) in the evening.

Extending credit to the poor so they can elevate themselves economically is not a new idea. Consider how I.M. Singer & Company, founded in 1851, provided credit as a way for millions of women to purchase sewing machines. Very few of those women could have afforded the steep $100 price tag, but most could afford a payment of $5 per month.

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  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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