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


The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

For MNCs, the best approach is to marry local capabilities and market knowledge with global best practices. But whether an initiative involves an MNC entering Tier 4 or an entrepreneur from Tier 4, the development principles remain the same: New business models must not disrupt the cultures and lifestyles of local people. An effective combination of local and global knowledge is needed, not a replication of the Western system.

The development of India’s milk industry has many lessons for MNCs. The transformation began around 1946, when the Khira District Milk Cooperative, located in the state of Gujarat, set up its own processing plant under the leadership of Verghese Kurien and created the brand Amul, today one of the most recognized in the country.

Unlike the large industrial dairy farms of the West, in India, milk originates in many small villages. Villagers may own only two to three buffaloes or cows each and bring their milk twice a day to the village collection center. They are paid every day for the milk they deliver, based on fat content and volume. Refrigerated vans transport the milk to central processing plants, where it is pasteurized. Railroad cars then transport the milk to major urban centers.

The entire value chain is carefully managed, from the village-based milk production to the world-scale processing facilities. The Khira District cooperative provides such services to the farmers as veterinary care and cattle feed. The cooperative also manages the distribution of pasteurized milk, milk powder, butter, cheese, baby food, and other products. The uniqueness of the Amul cooperative is its blending of decentralized origination with the efficiencies of a modern processing and distribution infrastructure. As a result, previously marginal village farmers are earning steady incomes and being transformed into active market participants.

Twenty years ago, milk was in short supply in India. Today, India is the world’s largest producer of milk. According to India’s National Dairy Development Board, the country’s dairy cooperative network now claims 10.7 million individual farmer member–owners, covers 96,000 village-level societies, includes 170 milk-producer unions, and operates in more than 285 districts. Milk production has increased 4.7 percent per year since 1974. The per capita availability of milk in India has grown from 107 grams to 213 grams per day in 20 years.

Putting It All Together
Creating buying power, shaping aspirations, improving access, and tailoring local solutions — the four elements of the commercial infrastructure for the bottom of the pyramid are intertwined. Innovation in one leverages innovation in the others. Corporations are only one of the actors; MNCs must work together with NGOs, local and state governments, and communities.

Yet someone must take the lead to make this revolution happen. The question is, Why should it be MNCs?

Even if multinational managers are emotionally persuaded, it is not obvious that large corporations have real advantages over small, local organizations. MNCs may never be able to beat the cost or responsiveness of village entrepreneurs. Indeed, empowering local entrepreneurs and enterprises is key to developing Tier 4 markets. Still, there are several compelling reasons for MNCs to embark on this course:

• Resources. Building a complex commercial infrastructure for the bottom of the pyramid is a resource- and management-intensive task. Developing environmentally sustainable products and services requires significant research. Distribution channels and communication networks are expensive to develop and sustain. Few local entrepreneurs have the managerial or technological resources to create this infrastructure.

• Leverage. MNCs can transfer knowledge from one market to another — from China to Brazil or India — as Avon, Unilever, Citigroup, and others have demonstrated. Although practices and products have to be customized to serve local needs, MNCs, with their unique global knowledge base, have an advantage that is not easily accessible to local entrepreneurs.

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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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