BOP Report(Bottom of the Pyramid)

2. Bop in Brief

“We cannot escape the fundamental question: Whom and what is business for? The answer once seemed clear, but no longer. The terms of business have changed.” —Charles Handy

“Like the tip of an iceberg, the opportunity remains invisible to the corporate world.” —C. K. Prahalad and Stuart Hart

With the end of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union and its allies, as well as China, India, and Latin America, opened their closed markets to foreign investment in a cascading fashion. Although this significant economic and social transformation has offered vast new growth opportunities for multinational corporations (MNCs), its promise has yet to be realised.

First, the prospect of millions of “middle-class” consumers in developing countries, clamouring for products from MNCs, was oversold. To make matters worse, the Asian and Latin American financial crises have greatly diminished the attractiveness of emerging markets. As a consequence, many MNCs worldwide slowed investments and began to rethink risk–reward structures for these markets. This retreat became even more pronounced in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States as well as that of the worldwide recession.

The lacklustre nature of most MNCs’ emerging-market strategies over the past decade does not change the magnitude of the opportunity, which is in reality much larger than previously thought. The real source of market promise is not the wealthy few in the developing world, or even the emerging middle-income consumers: It is the billions of aspiring poor who are joining the market economy for the first time.

This is a time for MNCs to look at globalisation strategies through a new lens of inclusive capitalism. For companies with the resources and persistence to compete at the bottom of the world economic pyramid, the prospective rewards include growth, profits, and incalculable contributions to humankind. Countries that still don’t have the modern infrastructure or products to meet basic human needs are an ideal testing ground for developing environmentally sustainable technologies and products for the entire world.

Furthermore, MNC investment at “the bottom of the pyramid” means lifting billions of people out of poverty and desperation, averting the social decay, political chaos, terrorism, and environmental meltdown that is certain to continue if the gap between rich and poor countries continues to widen.

Doing business with the world’s 4 billion poorest people — two-thirds of the world’s population — will require radical innovations in technology and business models. It will require MNCs to re-evaluate price–performance relationships for products and services. It will demand a new level of capital efficiency and new ways of measuring financial success. Companies will be forced to transform their understanding of scale, from a “bigger is better” ideal to an ideal of highly distributed small-scale operations married to world-scale capabilities.

In short, the poorest populations raise a new managerial challenge for the world’s wealthiest companies: selling to the poor and helping them improve their lives by producing and distributing products and services in culturally sensitive, environmentally sustainable, and economically profitable ways.

The BOP concept champions new thinking and new ways of doing business in the world’s poor markets. While this high-level aspiration is not necessarily new, the current concept, also known as B24B (business-to-4-billion), was coined by influential business academics Prahalad and Hart in a working paper, which developed into a series of important and well-cited articles.

Important among these are: The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan, Capitalism at the Crossroads by Stuart L. Hart of Cornell University and the first empirical article, Reinventing strategies for emerging markets: Beyond the transnational model, by Ted London of the University of Michigan and Hart. London has also developed a working paper, commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme, that explores the contributions of the BoP literature to the poverty alleviation domain.