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Thursday, May 1, 2008

God at the Base of the Pyramid?

By Moses Lee

PrayerA key concept when operating a business at the base of the pyramid, or in any place for that matter, is contextualization. And by contextualization I mean a deep understanding and embrace of local culture. A simple example of contextualization in business can be observed by comparing the McDonald's menus in Asia and the United States. For instance, it would be impossible to find any McDonald's in the state of Michigan serving a curry burger. Why? Because people in the state of Michigan don't have a taste for curry burgers and wouldn't buy the product. Indeed, it is critical that businesses be aware of local patterns of human behavior ? such as lifestyles, tastes, and social involvement ? and develop products and services that suit these behaviors.

What I have mentioned thus far is nothing new and probably very elementary to the NextBillion community. However, I would like to suggest that we have left out of the conversation a very important component of culture: religion. It is a subject that is very polarizing and often taboo to discuss in business. But it is important to bring up because religion is very important to people in the communities that we in the NextBillion community are trying to serve.

Recently, this dawned upon me as I listened to a presentation by some MBA students from the Ross School of Business on improving the penetration of insecticide treated nets in Ghana. One recommendation that particularly jumped out at me was the following: leverage the church's influence. The presenters noted that in Ghana, Christianity is widely practiced, and as a result, the church is a very powerful and influential social institution.

I noticed that most in the room listening to this recommendation, including myself, appeared to have immediate reservations about this recommendation. But why? Perhaps it is because we in the West have been conditioned to separate business from faith. Or perhaps at a deeper level, it is due to relativism that pervades our culture when it comes to faith: what's right for you is right for you, and what's right for me is right for me.Despite this, the fact of the matter is that religion plays a huge role at the BoP. Let's take for example Christianity in Africa. Though the faith has been dwindling in Europe and North America, it is exploding in Africa and Asia, regions of the world where there is a substantial BoP population. In Africa alone, there are approximately 380 million Christians, an unbelievable number considering that there were only 9 million Christians in Africa at the turn of the century.

Nicholas Kristof wrote a op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled, "Where Faith Thrives," and made the following observations on faith in Africa:
One of the most important trends reshaping the world is the decline of Christianity in Europe and its rise in Africa and other parts of the developing world, including Asia and Latin America. I stopped at a village last Sunday morning here in Zimbabwe - and found not a single person to interview, for everyone had hiked off to church a dozen miles away. And then I dropped by a grocery store with a grim selection of the cheapest daily necessities - and huge multicolored chocolate Easter eggs. So where faith is easy, it is fading; where it's a challenge, it thrives. "When people are in difficulties, they want to cling to something," said the Rev. Johnson Makoti, a Pentecostal minister in Zimbabwe who drives a car plastered with Jesus bumper stickers. "The only solution people here can believe in is Jesus Christ."
If faith is such an important part of the social structure at the BoP, the question that inevitably arises: Should a BoP enterprise involve or partner with religious institutions? And if so, how should BoP capacity builders (i.e. funders, supporters) from the West respond?

This follow-up question is very important because many large aid organizations and foundations from the West would find it very difficult to support an enterprise that incorporates religion. But should this be the case?

These are indeed weighty questions, but they are necessary to raise as the BoP movement continues to grow and mature.
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