BOP Report(Bottom of the Pyramid)

8. Improving Access

Because Tier 4 communities are often physically and economically isolated, better distribution systems and communication links are essential to development of the bottom of the pyramid. Few of the large emerging-market countries have distribution systems that reach more than half of the population. (Hence the continued dependence of the poorest consumers on local products and services and moneylenders.) As a consequence, few MNCs have designed their distribution systems to cater to the needs of poor rural customers.

Creative local companies, however, lead the way in effective rural distribution. In India, for instance, Arvind Mills has introduced an entirely new delivery system for blue jeans. Arvind, the world’s fifth-largest denim manufacturer, found Indian domestic denim sales limited. At $40 to $60 a pair, the jeans were not affordable to the masses, and the existing distribution system reached only a few towns and villages. So Arvind introduced “Ruf & Tuf” jeans — a ready-to-make kit of jeans components (denim, zipper, rivets, and a patch) priced at about $6. Kits were distributed through a network of thousands of local tailors, many in small rural towns and villages, whose self-interest motivated them to market the kits extensively. Ruf & Tuf jeans are now the largest-selling jeans in India, easily surpassing Levi’s and other brands from the U.S. and Europe.

MNCs can also play a role in distributing the products of Tier 4 enterprises in Tier 1 markets, giving bottom-of-the-pyramid enterprises their first links to international markets. Indeed, it is possible through partnerships to leverage traditional knowledge bases to produce more sustainable, and in some cases superior, products for consumption by Tier 1 customers.

Anita Roddick, CEO of The Body Shop International PLC, demonstrated the power of this strategy in the early 1990s through her company’s “trade not aid” program of sourcing local raw material and products from indigenous people.

More recently, the Starbucks Corporation, in cooperation with Conservation International, has pioneered a program to source coffee directly from farmers in the Chiapas region of Mexico. These farms grow coffee beans organically, using shade, which preserves songbird habitat. Starbucks markets the product to U.S. consumers as a high-quality, premium coffee; the Mexican farmers benefit economically from the sourcing arrangement, which eliminates intermediaries from the business model. This direct relationship also improves the local farmers’ understanding and knowledge of the Tier 1 market and its customer expectations.

Information poverty may be the single biggest roadblock to sustainable development. More than half of humanity has yet to make a single phone call. However, where telephones and Internet connections do exist, for the first time in history, it is possible to imagine a single, interconnected market uniting the world’s rich and poor in the quest for truly sustainable economic development. The process could transform the “digital divide” into a “digital dividend.”

Ten years ago, Sam Pitroda, currently chairman and CEO of London-based Worldtel Ltd., a company created by a telecommunications union to fund telecom development in emerging markets, came to India with the idea of “rural telephones.” His original concept was to have a community telephone, operated by an entrepreneur (usually a woman) who charged a fee for the use of the telephone and kept a percentage as wages for maintaining the telephone. Today, from most parts of India, it is possible to call anyone in the world.

Other entrepreneurs have introduced fax services, and some are experimenting with low-cost e-mail and Internet access. These communication links have dramatically altered the way villages function and how they are connected to the rest of the country and the world. With the emergence of global broadband connections, opportunities for information-based business in Tier 4 will expand significantly.

New ventures such as CorDECT in India and Celnicos Communications in Latin America are developing information technology and business models suited to the particular requirements of the bottom of the pyramid. Through shared-access models (e.g., Internet kiosks), wireless infrastructure, and focused technology development, companies are dramatically reducing the cost of being connected. For example, voice and data connectivity typically costs companies $850 to $2,800 per line in the developed world; CorDECT has reduced this cost to less than $400 per line, with a goal of $100 per line, which would bring telecommunications within reach of virtually everyone in the developing world.

Recognising an enormous business and development opportunity, Hewlett-Packard Company has articulated a vision of “world e-inclusion,” with a focus on providing technology, products, and services appropriate to the needs of the world’s poor. As part of this strategy, HP has entered into a venture with the MIT Media Lab and the Foundation for Sustainable Development of Costa Rica — led by former President Jose Maria Figueres Olsen — to develop and implement “telecenters” for villages in remote areas. These digital town centres provide modern information technology equipment with a high-speed Internet connection at a price that is affordable, through credit vehicles, at the village level.

Bringing such technology to villages in Tier 4 makes possible a number of applications, including tele-education, telemedicine, microbanking, agricultural extension services, and environmental monitoring, all of which help to spur microenterprise, economic development, and access to world markets. This project, named Lincos, is expected to spread from today’s pilot sites in Central America and the Caribbean to Asia, Africa, and Central Europe.

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