On June 6-7, the Inter-American Development Bank is hosting the second International BASE Forum in Medellin, Colombia. The conference is being organized by IDB’s Opportunities for the Majority (OMJ). The forum, much like OMJ, will focus on the dynamic world of business models that engage with the base of the pyramid — the poor and low-income populations that used to be largely underserved by the corporate world, but are increasingly seen by the private sector as having enormous untapped potential as consumers and actors. I recently sat down with OMJ manager Luiz Ros to learn more about the event.
Elizabeth Terry: What kind of participants do you expect to attend the BASE Forum?
Luiz Ros (Pictured left): We’re probably going to have over a thousand people in Colombia for an exclusive discussion of how to find ways to do business with the base of the pyramid. Of course business executives are going to be an important part of the crowd, but we are also expecting government representatives, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, and this whole emerging sector of impact investors. The IDB has the convening power to make this a unique opportunity to have a truly regional forum. We have seen private sector interest growing in this space—large companies, small and medium enterprises—beginning to do this more from a core business perspective, thinking about, “How can I grow, how can I innovate, serving these markets?” So we will have cutting edge information, new models, civil society, government, private sector, all together, thinking about how to collaborate and come up with a value proposition for the base of the pyramid in the region.
ET: Who are some of the speakers and what are some of the topics that will be featured?
LR: As of now we have confirmed three keynote speakers. One is Stuart Hart, who with the late C.K. Prahalad authored the seminal 2002 article “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” and he has tremendous experience working with large corporates. We also have Iqbal Quadir from the MIT Legatum Center, founder of Grameen Phone, so I think it’s going to be quite interesting to have his perspective on using the base of the pyramid as a market for innovation. And then we have Deepa Prahalad , daughter of C.K. Prahalad, and she has been looking at things more from a design and innovation perspective, which I think adds a new spin, it’s not just the traditional business conversation.
Also, a lot of marketing research groups are beginning to bring data together. I was just looking at a document that came out in Brazil called “Data Favela” (Slum Data). In Brazil, there are 12 million people living in favelas, a population that would be the 5th largest state in Brazil, so you’re talking about a market of $25 billion a year. The Data Favela team will be at the Forum, and so what we want is to bring not only the private sector but also those providing information and tools. This is an ecosystem that is going to support business in this space.
ET: Why did you decide to hold the conference in Medellin this year?
LR: Colombia is going through an amazing moment, growing and developing quite fast. Medellin was recently selected by the Urban Land Institute, Citi and the Wall Street Journal Magazine as the Innovative City of the Year. And so this cutting edge conversation should happen in a city that is really promoting a lot of innovation. Medellin has gone through a profound transformation in the last decade. There is an amazing “compromiso social” between companies and the community, and you feel such a strong commitment to the social dimension of development. The private sector seems to want to have a greater impact on the region because they all suffered so much in the past with all the drug trafficking and everything. So the social unrest created this movement to embrace the city. There is a tremendous alignment between the public and private sectors, they support each other, there is a common agenda that’s very rare to find. And it is happening all over Colombia, at the different levels – municipality, state, federal –so we thought that Colombia is uniquely positioned to host the event.
ET: You and OMJ have been working on these kinds of projects for about 6 years now. How have you seen the landscape change in the region over that time?
LR: When we all first started in this conversation, people could not relate to the concept because we had no examples in our portfolio. They would relate us to microfinance or to philanthropy or to corporate social responsibility. When you look at Opportunities for the Majority today, we have 43 operations right now in 18 countries—large economies, small economies, large corporates, small and medium enterprises, investment funds, so it’s quite diverse. What’s fascinating to see is that I think the whole region has matured tremendously, to a point where you see an industry forming and an ecosystem beginning to emerge. Not just financial institutions, but also corporates and investment funds looking at this from a core business perspective rather than a social responsibility point of view. We have many challenges ahead of us, particularly when it comes to scale, but it’s a major leap from where we were five or six years ago in terms of people understanding what doing business with the base of the pyramid is. Two years ago at the first BASE Forum in Sao Paolo, the director of social business for Coca-Cola in Brazil said to me, “My goodness, I thought this was an academic exercise! How did you bring 800 people, business executives, to come discuss these kinds of things?” I think it’s really mind boggling.
And it is important to keep in mind that all this only happens if there is growth. If you look at the 1980s, when Latin America had a “lost decade,” even if businesses wanted to target the base of the pyramid, there was no purchasing power there, no growth, no migration, no perspective. This kind of conversation can only happen in an environment of growth and economic development. And this is what Latin America is facing right now. There is growth in Colombia, Peru, Brazil, in many other countries. There is purchasing power. So it’s interesting because yes, this is all cool, but it can only happen in an environment where there is growth, there is hope, there are new perspectives. People at the base of the pyramid want to advance in education, they want better health, to improve their homes, and so it is a very positive context that creates the possibility for businesses to look at them from a perspective of business growth and innovation.
Registration for the BASE Forum is now open.
This post was originally published on the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF)'s blog.
Elizabeth Terry is with the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), which supports economic growth and poverty reduction in Latin America and the Caribbean through encouraging increased private investment and advancing private sector development.