Yesterday I wrote about the shortcomings of Prahalad’s book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. We left with the question of whether there was even a market to discuss. Several factors make it difficult to estimate disposable income at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP). Even if it is not a fortune, there is likely much more than a nickel a day of disposable income amongst the world’s 4 billion poor.
Most people in extreme poverty live in rural areas and derive much of their diet from subsistence farming. This means that relatively little of their income is spent of food. In family or tribe-oriented societies, there is also an income smoothing effect. Kinship networks, for example, mean that if one person in a family has a high-paying position in the government, many in the family will benefit. In addition, income such as flows from non-governmental aid, international transfers from foreign nationals living abroad, and the grey economy may be under-reported in GNP figures.
In response to Karnani’s paper, the WRI’s NextBillion.net noted that:
BOP households collectively spend money, lots of it, on a wide variety of goods and services, and are clearly willing to pay for services such as connectivity, clean water, financial services, energy, health care, and education for their children, as well as food, housing, and consumer goods. The BOP is already an economic actor, not just a passive, dependent group, and its collective actions define a market.
So there let’s assume that there is indeed a market of billions at the bottom of the pyramid. Should companies try to reach it? Karnani cautions that viewing the BOP as a vast market of micro-consumers is “potentially a dangerous delusion.” Let’s look more closely at his argument.
Distribution and Economies of Scale
Concerned about the apparent gullibility of multinational corporations (MNCs), Karnani warns that:
“Not only is the BOP market quite small, it is unlikely to be very profitable, especially for a large company. The costs of serving the markets at the bottom of the pyramid are very high…. This increases distribution and marketing costs and makes it difficult to exploit economies of scale. Weak infrastructure (transportation, communication, media, and legal) further increases cost of doing business.”
Two words: Coke and Guinness. Both have very deep penetration in West Africa. Granted these are not going to improve the health and well-being of the BOP (though Guinness bottles do read, “Guinness is Good for You“). Somehow these MNCs have overcome the challenge of distributing and marketing their products across a large geographic area.
Regardless of infrastructure and marketing costs, the market will help align buyers and sellers if the price is right for each.
Reducing Prices at the Bottom of the Pyramid
Prahalad’s thesis hinges on the idea that attracting more competition to the BOP will drive down product prices, thus freeing up their disposable income for other purchases. This is basically how Wal-Mart has made low-income Americans feel richer even as real income has stagnated over the last decade. But Karnani takes issue with Prahalad’s assertion that the private sector can deliver high quality goods to the world’s desperately poor at competitive prices:
“There are only three ways to reduce prices: 1) reduce profits, 2) reduce costs without reducing quality, and 3) reduce costs by reducing quality…. the only realistic way to reduce price is to reduce cost. The BOP proposition is adamant that we should not reduce quality in this process.
“Unless all the current producers are grossly inefficient, the only way to reduce cost… without reducing quality will always require a significant improvement in technology. Good examples of this are found in the areas of computers, telecommunications and various electronic products. It is difficult to find examples of such dramatic cost reduction in other product categories. It is not surprising that the BOP proposition repeatedly uses these same examples. We should also note that the ultimate impact on the real income of the poor due to these major price reductions is quite low because the poor spend only a small part of their income on such electronic products. The poor spend over 80% of their income on food, clothing and fuel – products that have not benefited from such dramatic technological changes in a long time.”
Let’s evaluate that last statement and have a look at how technology might help deliver improved food, clothing, fuel, and public health.
Food: There are constant improvements in pest-resistant crops, hybrid seeds, or high volume animal husbandry. Many famers in Africa still till individual family farms by hand. Certainly technology could help them improve efficiency which would lead to lower prices.
And technology improvements in computers and telecommunications do not exist in a vacuum. There are numerous positive spillover effects that affect the BOP as producers. The Washington Post recently reported that cell phones in Congo have enabled farmers and fishermen to “…use text messaging to check market prices, eliminating middlemen and increasing profits — and preventing long trips to the market on days it is canceled.” So a technology unrelated to agriculture has helped farmers saved on input prices (transport to the market on days when it’s canceled) and output prices.
Clothes: Apparel prices have tumbled over the past decade. Much of this is due to reduced quotas on Chinese apparel imports in the U.S. and Europe. Thus, the assertion that “the only way to reduce cost… without reducing quality will always require a significant improvement in technology” is inaccurate. Clothing prices have dropped as a result of trade policy, not an improvement in technology. This does have a trickle-down effect for the world’s poor.
Fuel: Fuel has indeed become more expensive. Women have to scavenge farther for firewood. Oil prices lead Nigerians into the deadly practice of siphoning off crude oil from pipelines running through their villages. But technology can improve access to energy sources. Military applications such as SkyBuilt mobile solar power could find a market at the BOP helping medical centers or providing a short term power source for harvesting and processing crops.
Public Health: As patents expire on novel drugs, cheaper generic drugs will enter these markets. Playpump is an innovative approach to water delivery. LifeStraw promises to exploit economies of scale in order to drive down prices for its personal water filtration device.
Technology: Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about an American entrepreneur, Greg Wyler, who was building an Internet infrastructure in Rwanda. The focus of Terracom is to first focus on market access, then profits. Mr. Wyler might disagree with Karanani’s ideas about providing a quality product at reasonable prices for the poor. He is quoted as saying, “We’re on a mission here to see what happens when we drive prices down and quality up.”
And lest you think that Rwanda is an obvious market for an outside investor, have a look at the graph at the right.
As WRI writes in response to Karnani’s critique:
The pertinent development question is whether the BOP is well served by the present (often informal) markets, and whether there are unmet needs that could be better served by more competitive markets and broader participation by the legitimate private sector.
I believe that private sector innovation help can drive prices lower, maintain or increase quality, and help deliver goods that result in better livelihoods for those at the bottom of the pyramid. But what if multinationals start marketing products that the poor don’t need? Are BOP consumers rational economic actors? Or is Karnani correct when he says that, “The problem is that the poor often make choices that are not in their own self interest.”
More on that soon…