Shanti Mahajan

NexThought Monday – An Unlikely Development Ally: Sizing the BoP market for low-power television

“In rural areas, after dark, it gets really boring.”Abhijit Banerjee, speaking at the 2012 Bandra Literature Festival

Ask a development professional about the needs of people at the base-of-the-pyramid (BoP), and you’ll probably hear the usual suspects: food, clean water, electricity, and healthcare. It’s unlikely that television or other forms of entertainment would be included on their list – yet research indicates that, after basic needs have been met, access to television can empower the BoP on a number of fronts.

As part of a Dalberg team, I recently worked with the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the Global Lighting and Energy Access Partnership (Global LEAP) to assess the off-grid market opportunity for low-power televisions in Asia and Africa. Our research found that entertainment sources, particularly televisions, typically fall towards the top of BoP consumers’ wish lists – even among those living without reliable access to electricity.

This desire for television access can spur positive shifts in the BoP market for clean and efficient energy sources (see more in a recent TEDx talk by Asia Director Gaurav Gupta). Moreover, broader access to entertainment made possible through low-power televisions can also act as a catalyst for social change.

Television increases information availability and exposes viewers to different ways of life. In rural areas, television is often the primary means through which households get information about life beyond their village. It’s true that humans do not need entertainment for physical survival. But televised content of all types – from news to soap operas – can promote increased awareness of health, gender, and other development issues and spur changes in attitudes and behavior.

In particular, exposure to television content can inspire female empowerment in developing communities. For example, research in Ethiopia indicates that avid fans of the soap operas Yeken Kignet and Dhimbibba, which feature women seeking out HIV/AIDS testing, demonstrate higher demand for contraceptives and HIV/AIDS testing services. Regular viewers of the South African television series Soul City, which focuses on HIV awareness and discouraging violence against women, are reportedly four times more likely to use condoms than non-viewers. A University of Chicago study in rural India finds a strong link between access to cable television and female empowerment, notably via decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and preference for sons. Studies in Bangladesh and Afghanistan found similar associations between access to television and improved awareness of women’s rights.

My team’s analysis for CLASP and Global LEAP concluded that nearly 20 million off-grid base of the pyramid households in Asia and Africa can afford low-power televisions at today’s prices. As incomes rise and technology prices fall, this market will expand. At Dalberg, we seek to help clients work towards tangible, developmentally-sound results across disciplines. While television is not the most conventional vehicle, evidence suggests that it can be a surprising ally in working to achieve development goals.

A catalyst for social change, environmentally sound, and a good way to kill time after dark? I’ll buy that.

Shanti Mahajan is a consultant in Dalberg’s Mumbai office. This blog also appeared on the Dalberg blog.

? Related: Changing Our Priorities: When we don’t actually want what we ‘need’

? Good show! How an NGO convinced commercial TV to serve the poor

Base of the Pyramid