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Published: January 10, 2002

 
 

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Computerization of microlending services not only makes the overall operation more efficient, but also makes it possible to reach many more people — lending money to individuals with no collateral and no formal address. Since there is lower overhead and little paperwork, AutoBank’s costs are 30 to 40 percent lower than those at traditional branches.

At the 1999 Microcredit Summit, the United Nations, in conjunction with several major MNCs, such as Citigroup Inc. and Monsanto Company, set a goal of making basic credit available to the 100 million poorest families in the world by the year 2005. Unfortunately, the success of this undertaking has been slowed by high transaction costs, a lack of automation, and poor information and communications infrastructures in rural areas.

To address these issues and accelerate the development of microlending, French banker Jacques Attali, the founding president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a former chief aide of French President François Mitterand during the 1980s, has created PlaNet Finance. Its Web site, www.planetfinance.org, links thousands of microcredit groups worldwide into a network to help microbanks share solutions and lower costs.

Ultimately, the development of an automated solution for tracking and processing the millions of small loans associated with microlending should be possible. If processing and transaction costs can be reduced enough, they can then be bundled together and sold in the secondary market to multinational financial institutions like Citigroup. This would greatly expand the capital available for microlending beyond the current pool from donors and governments.

In the United States, microlending has also taken root over the past decade in poor urban neighborhoods. For example, the ShoreBank Corporation, formerly South Shore Bank, has demonstrated the profitability of banking for the poor in Chicago’s troubled South Side. Project Enterprise, a Grameen-like program based in New York City, is aimed at minority entrepreneurs.

Several multinational banks are beginning to offer microbanking services in developing countries. Citigroup, for instance, is experimenting in Bangalore, India, with 24/7 services for customers with as little as a $25 on deposit. Initial results are very positive.

Shaping Aspirations
Sustainable product innovations initiated in Tier 4, and promoted through consumer education, will not only positively influence the choices of people at the bottom of the pyramid, but may ultimately reshape the way Americans and others in Tier 1 live. Indeed, in 20 years, we may look back to see that Tier 4 provided the early market pull for disruptive technologies that replaced unsustainable technologies in developed countries and advanced the fortunes of MNCs with foresight.

For example, Unilever’s HLL subsidiary has tackled the lack of practical, inexpensive, low-energy-consuming refrigeration in India. HLL’s laboratories developed a radically different approach to refrigeration that allows ice cream to be transported across the country in standard nonrefrigerated trucks. The system allows quantum reductions in electricity use and makes dangerous and polluting refrigerants unnecessary. As a bonus, the new system is cheaper to build and use.

Electricity, water, refrigeration, and many other essential services are all opportunities in developing countries. A U.S.-based NGO, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), has creatively adapted technology and applied microcredit financing to bring electrical service to people in remote villages in Africa and Asia who otherwise would spend money to burn hazardous kerosene, candles, wood, or dung for their light and cooking. SELF’s rural electrification system is based on small-scale on-site power generation using renewable resources. A revolving loan fund gives villagers the financial means to operate these electrical systems themselves, also creating jobs. Since its founding in 1990, SELF has launched projects in China, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, and the Solomon Islands.

 
 
 
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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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