The Base of the Pyramid Promise
Building Businesses with Impact and Scale
Ted London

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Introduction

In 1989, a young man traveled to Malawi in hopes of making an impact.

More specifically, he wanted to use the power of business to help address social issues. An engineer and MBA by training, he had grown disillusioned with his professional activities—first as a design engineer and then as a senior consultant focused on business valuation. So he set off for Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer, tasked with providing useful advice to micro-, small-, and medium-scale enterprises. These were businesses run by some of the poorest people in the world. Certainly, helping build those businesses would improve people’s lives and make the impact he hoped for.

Two years into that experience—in late 1991—the young man was riding his motorcycle between the large towns of Mulanje and Blantyre in Malawi’s southern region. Rolling through the lush countryside, with bright green tea plantations pushing up against the bases of the surrounding hills, he was thinking about both his greatest successes and his biggest disappointments. The Peace Corps had always stressed that its volunteers would learn more than they would teach. That was certainly true in his case: He had learned an enormous amount.

But that doesn’t quite capture it, the young man thought. In his experience, the most productive outcomes seemed to arise when people moved beyond “sharing from the bottom up” or “teaching from the top down.” The powerful, enduring successes in working with local entrepreneurs came when nobody was the teacher and everybody was the learner. In those cases, neither party assumed they were the main source of the answer. The emphasis shifted to co-creation, innovation, and integration—that is, collaboratively building something that didn’t exist before.

Without even realizing it, he had adopted a new mind-set. During those two years in Malawi, he had found the local people extraordinarily friendly, caring, and generous—a fact that he and his non-Malawian colleagues often reflected on. This wasn’t unexpected; after all, Malawi was known as the “warm heart of Africa.” More unexpected, although in retrospect it really shouldn’t have been, was that these Malawian entrepreneurs were very smart and very creative. He had never thought of the poor in that way. (He had noticed too that increasingly, he was having trouble using the word poor to describe his local colleagues.) He had come to give good advice—to use his business training to help them and tell them what they should do. But they didn’t necessarily need him to tell them what to do. Sure, a little training in marketing, costing, or cash flow could help. But, he thought again to himself, the biggest impacts came through jointly innovating to create solutions that neither could have come up with or implemented on their own.

Why hadn’t anyone told him that?

Focusing on the road in front of him, the young man saw what looked like a small cloud just ahead. His first thought was that it might be smoke from a small fire or perhaps a localized cloudburst—a minor obstacle on the road to Blantyre. In any case, there wasn’t any way to avoid it. As he reached the edge of the cloud, things began thumping against his helmet and chest. Looking down, he suddenly realized what was going on. Crawling around on the seat and gas tank cover, right between his legs, was a fast-growing pile of stunned bees—presumably very angry bees. At 80 kilometers an hour, he had driven directly into a swarm.

Thinking fast, heart pounding, he tried something he had never done before. He stepped high up on the pegs, leaving only his toes and his hands on the bike, and gunned the engine as he yanked the handlebar to the right. The bike swerved, and he barely avoided running into the ditch on the side of the road, but the maneuver succeeded in getting the angry ball of bees to slide off the bike and onto the road. Heart still thumping away, he accelerated again, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the bees.

Once safely in Blantyre, he began to think more about the swarming African bees and how his experience on the road represented an analogy for his time in Malawi. Some of the obstacles he had faced in his efforts to create enterprises with greater impact were expected. Others, like the bees, were totally unanticipated. In dealing with both the expected and the unexpected, however, the most enduring solutions grew out of a collaborative model grounded in mutual respect and patience that valued co-creation, patience, and a deep understanding of impact. It occurred to him that these insights, and the details that lay behind them, might serve as a useful guide to those who came down this same road after him. The problem was that he hadn’t written any of his observations down. They resided only in his head.

As you may have guessed, that young man was me. Over the next two decades and across some eighty countries, I lived through varying versions of that same story of jointly overcoming obstacles—without the bees, luckily—to achieve social impact. The same lessons for enterprise success cropped up again and again. And still there was no road map that captured the mindsets, capabilities, and tools required to use business to tackle some of the most daunting social issues facing our global society. Indeed, most of the prescriptions that I came across for doing business in low-income markets seemed to rely on the usual set of suspects, practices, and expectations that were primarily drawn from experiences in the developed world. To my mind, they were based on the wrong assumptions, lacked adequate respect for the poor, and failed to embrace what was right in the local context.

In 1999, after working in Africa, Asia, and the United States in both the business and nonprofit worlds, I returned to academia. I wanted to think harder about two things that continued to drive me. First, I needed to better understand how to use the power of business to address social challenges. And second, I wanted to create academically rigorous and practically useful tools and frameworks—a road map, if you will—that would help others who found themselves traveling on the same journey I had been on for the past decade.

It was at the University of North Carolina where I first met Stuart Hart, who became my friend, colleague, and advisor. He was one of the few academics in a business school context who was thinking about the important role that profitable, scalable enterprises could play in alleviating poverty. The first major article on the topic, by Stu and C. K. Prahalad, came out in 2002.1 The idea of there being a “fortune at the base of the pyramid" (generally contracted as BoP) was just taking hold. At that stage, the objective was more motivational than operational: more on why managers should get involved with in BoP markets and less on how they should do it.

In 2005, I accepted a position at the University of Michigan. That is where I first had a chance to interact with Prahalad, a deeply stimulating and motivating experience. He was committed to developing approaches that either catalyzed or facilitated action. Both Stu and C.K. were instrumental in creating awareness of and knowledge about the base-of-pyramid (BoP) domain and in shaping how I chose to make my own contributions.2

This book grows directly out of that work. It is about creating enterprises that thrive in BoP markets; about creating sustainable, scalable ventures that generate substantial impact on the poor.

There’s that word again. As you read this book, you’ll find that I try to choose my words carefully. Poor is not necessarily inaccurate, insofar as it describes someone who doesn’t have many assets. But in the context of the BoP in the developing world, it is generally loaded with all kinds of baggage and implies all sorts of other deficits that may or not pertain, so I try and avoid it. I similarly try to avoid talking about things happening “at” the base of the pyramid, as if it were a place that one could walk up to and knock on the door. There is no such place—and there’s a real risk in objectifying people in this way. The base of the pyramid is an aggregation of many different kinds of individuals and groups who represent potential markets for goods or services. As I stress throughout this book, these markets are not found at the BoP; rather, they are created with the BoP.

Interest in creating impact enterprises for BoP markets has increased dramatically in the past decade. There’s a growing portfolio of these enterprises, and a growing number of entrepreneurial leaders seeking to craft more of them. This interest transcends, and blends, industries: energy, sanitation, health care, agriculture, technology, and consumer goods, to name a few. Equally, this interest transcends institutions: Company leaders, entrepreneurs, nonprofit managers, development professionals, and government officials all see great promise in investing in impact enterprise development in BoP markets. The lessons and frameworks in this book apply across these industries and institutions. I have found strategies and models that can guide the development of these enterprises.3 My goal in the chapters that follow is to create standardized frameworks that enterprise leaders can customize to respond to the specific contexts and circumstances they face.

The debate around BoP focus has also changed substantially over time.4 The focus is no longer, Should we be doing this? Today that debate is over. Business is and will continue to serve the BoP. Furthermore, most business leaders don’t need motivational stories encouraging them to consider BoP markets. Nor do development community professionals need to be convinced of the potential poverty alleviation benefits of BoP impact enterprises. Rather, the focus has moved on to, How can we do this better?

Yet despite this steady growth in interest and investment, enterprise performance to date has been mixed. We know that success is certainly possible, as the cell phone revolution in emerging markets has shown.5 Yet many of these new BoP impact enterprises are not as good as we want them to be—or as good as they have been represented to the world—and few of them have yet achieved the necessary scale to which we aspire. We need more BoP impact enterprises that are sustainable at scale.

So what is to be done? How can we help the next generation of successful enterprises emerge? How can we build more sustainable, scalable enterprises with impact?

What’s urgently needed now are managerially friendly tools, frameworks, and guidelines that can help move BoP impact enterprises forward: away from wishful thinking and hyperbole to practical, hands-on advice for for-profit, nonprofit, and development sector leaders who want to build enterprises that can generate sufficient profits while also having substantial poverty alleviation impacts.

Until now, no such integrated set of tools and strategies has existed. In its absence, all too many entrepreneurs and enterprise leaders are making the same mistakes as those who have gone before them—continually reinventing the wrong version of the wheel, if you will—thereby limiting their impact, scalability, and profitability and wasting precious time, money, and talent.

Since 1989, I have lived in, worked with, and studied BoP markets and impact enterprises, including engagements with dozens of leadership teams across the globe. Through this work, I have found that three key components must be correctly implemented and integrated to build enterprises with impact. I have translated that discovery into specific and actionable recommendations and frameworks for creating, sustaining, and scaling BoP impact enterprises.

My approach has three cornerstones:

Leveraging customizable tools, frameworks, and strategies to enhance enterprise development. The unprecedented wave of interest in and flow of resources into BoP impact enterprises in recent years has generated a wealth of information to use to examine what works—and what doesn’t—in this unique and challenging market environment.6 We need a rich and detailed understanding of key enterprise activities as they move through the development process and a set of manager-friendly tools and frameworks based on that understanding.

For example, what should enterprises do to set themselves up for success? How do we design with scale in mind from the beginning? Why do so many enterprises never move beyond the pilot stage, and what can be done about that? What constitutes competitive advantage, and what capabilities are needed to achieve scale in BoP markets? Based on the lessons learned, how can we build businesses that are likely to succeed and flourish in BoP markets?

Creating value with the BoP by truly understanding the poverty alleviation opportunity. The number one lesson taught in business school is that businesses must create value for those they seek to serve. In other words, building viable enterprises that will have an impact requires a deep understanding of how to assess and enhance impact. Yet enterprise leaders operating in BoP markets frequently ignore or poorly execute this lesson, all too often with perilous consequences for the success of their venture. Without a clear appreciation of the value proposition the enterprise offers, enterprises struggle to build viable business models. Lacking a deep understanding of the value that the BoP actually wants and how this can change over time, enterprise leaders have no basis for improving their business model.

Enterprise leaders must be able to answer the following questions: What is our value proposition, and how much and what type of value are we creating for the BoP? How can we understand and enhance our poverty alleviation impacts, especially if (as we will see in subsequent chapters) poverty has multiple dimensions? How do we know if we have been successful in value creation, and how do we keep learning and delivering more value?

Understanding how to establish an ecosystem of partners to sustain those enterprises. When operating in BoP markets, enterprise leaders must not only focus on building their ventures and creating through understanding their poverty alleviation opportunity. They must also actively engage in establishing a network of partners to support their efforts. That means finding partners willing to invest in the enterprise and creating the markets around them. In the developed world, we take the business environment for granted. We assume that we don’t have to think much about the institutions, infrastructure, and shared resources that make the market environment flourish. But this simply isn’t true in BoP markets. BoP impact enterprises primarily operate in a context where platforms, channels, and information flows are often lacking.

The savvy BoP impact enterprise leader therefore must keep one eye on the business and the other on the surrounding environment. In addition to seeking support in building the enterprise, how can he or she create a robust set of cross-sector collaborations that can also fill the gaps in the market environment? Who makes up that ecosystem of partners? How does an enterprise build and maintain a targeted portfolio of partners? How should a partnership ecosystem evolve over time to maximize effectiveness?

I argue that for BoP impact enterprises to succeed, each of these cornerstones must be considered and effectively addressed. Indeed, these three cornerstones are mutually reinforcing—and, in fact, they are inseparable.

In the chapters that follow, I intersperse description and prescription, with an emphasis on the latter. In other words, what’s the problem, and how can we solve it? What’s the opportunity, and how can we pursue it?

This is the road map that I contemplated on that long-ago ride from Mulanje to Blantyre. It is my prescription for building enterprises with impact and scale for the benefit of all. I am grateful to the bees for helping me along on this journey.

Notes

1. C. K. Prahalad and S. L. Hart, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” Strategy + Business 26 (First Quarter 2002): 2–14.

2. With the notable exception of the beginning of this Preface—featuring motorcycles and bees—most of this book is not about me, but about things I have learned. For more about me, see my websites at the William Davidson Institute: http://wdi.umich.edu/about/people/staff-bios/ted-london and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan: http://www.bus.umich.edu/FacultyBios/FacultyBio.asp?id=000704346.

3. Michael Porter’s five forces model (and similar strategy-oriented models) applies generically across a wide range of enterprises. My effort here is to lay out similarly generic tools and frameworks that have relevance across the diversity of BoP impact enterprise and allow for customization as appropriate. See, for example, Porter’s Competitive Strategy (New York: Free Press, 1980).

4. Fortunately, we seem to be past the stage of speculating as to whether the fortune at the base of the pyramid is a mirage. But to explore that point of view, see A. Karnani, “Misfortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” Greener Management International 51 (2007): 99–110. See also A. K. Jaiswal, “The Fortune at the Bottom or the Middle of the Pyramid?” Innovations 3 (2008): 85–100.

5. See, for example, T. London and S. G. Kennedy, “Movirtu’s Cloud Phone Service: Funding a Base-of-the-Pyramid Venture,” case 1–429–162 (Ann Arbor: GlobaLens Case Publishing, William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan, 2012). Harvard Business Review (October 2012) ran an interesting retrospective article by Celtel founder Mo Ibrahim: “Celtel’s Founder on Building a Business on the World’s Poorest Continent,” 41–44, summarized at http://hbr.org/2012/10/celtels-founder-on-building-a-business-on-the-worlds-poorest-continent/ar/1.

6. See, for example, Commission on the Private Sector and Development, Unleashing Entrepreneurship: Making Business Work for the Poor (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2004). See also Growing Inclusive Markets Initiative, Creating Value for All: Strategies for Doing Business with the Poor (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2008). And finally, see World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Doing Business with the Poor: A Field Guide (Geneva, Switzerland: WBCSD, 2004).