Josh Cleveland

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

In their 2012 report on safe drinking water technology, PATH tells us that even in communities with highly contaminated water, purifiers are not on the top of base of the pyramid consumers’ shopping lists. Not even close. They’re behind fans, pressure cookers, mobile phones, and bicycles. From my experience, unless suggested, water purifiers often don’t show up in the list at all. And then, I’ve found it’s mentioned only hesitantly, with a sheepish smile.

So what is at the top of that list?

Entertainment. Festivals. Weddings. TV. Alcohol (demonstrated by spending, not surveys). Indeed, as Blue Energy found, the largest impact of charitably bringing electricity to a new locale is the rapid spread of household TV sets.

Where are the things we tell people they ‘need’ on their list of priorities?

About in the same spot they would show up on a list of someone living in the U.S. or U.K. Ask one of the 8 million young Americans without health insurance why they are unwilling to spend on preventative health care. Their answer might not be much different than what you’d find in a rural Indian village.

This is a problem if you’re in the business of serving these markets with something they don’t know they need nor particularly want. (It seems odd that the ‘business’ even exists at all when described that way in fact. But it’s what most who work in ‘international development’ do.) Yet encouragingly, we’re seeing more organizations spending less time on the tired “it’s good for you, why don’t you understand?” approaches. The age-old question – how might we deliver a product or service that people “need” and want? – is being answered in new and interesting ways.

Good design

The first trend in development that brings cause to rejoice is good design. Oodles of solid materials now exist to help design a product or service to fit consumers. IDEO’s human centered design toolkit provides a fantastic starting point. Unilever’s own Five Levers of Change approach is ideal for examining a particular behaviour (like hand washing after using the toilet). Products like the Water Wheel by Wello, the Clean Team sanitary service, Brian Wansink’s redesign of the university lunch-line, or India’s new national ID system all embody principles of good design to create social impact.

In that same vein, if consumers’ spending habits tell us they care more about entertainment than sanitation or clean water – why not deliver both? An interesting but important addition to Coca-Cola’s kiosk program designed with Dean Kamen’s firm DEKA is a TV. Not generally thought of as essential to delivering clean water, the TV provides a reason to come to the kiosk in the first place. Water alone, it seems, is not always a good enough reason to make the walk to purchase something I “need.” (Might the TV be stolen or damaged? It’s quite likely. But if it is, you can bet that any redesigned kiosk center would have an entertainment component as well.) Ecotact Limited’s approach to the toilet as a “social hub” is another example of building something people want into a service they “need”.

Good design for the end user, around their motivations, habits, and desires is a move in the right direction. But some organizations take a step even further.

Forgetting ‘needs’ and focusing on barriers

What if we forget about what we think the poor “need” altogether? Microfinance brings this to our attention in a big way. Aid agencies in Washington, D.C. cannot dictate what I “need” when I take out a microloan. The focus is on dismantling a barrier and allowing the poor to decide what to do next.

Other organizations have taken up this approach to dismantling barriers. For example, One Acre Fund contributes dramatically to development in the Sub-Saharan African communities where they operate. Yet their focus is only peripherally on “needs” like clean water, access to nutritious food, or health care – although they enable progress on all of these and more. Instead, the team designed the organization around a very basic insight on why people are poor: They need more money. One Acre Fund helps farmers double their incomes by improving their operations. Instead of looking single-mindedly at delivering a product or service I “need,” why not deliver something I clearly want and then give me the choice about what to do next? (Admittedly, scalable approaches to generating income for the BoP are few and far between (most large-scale projects aim at slightly higher income/experience levels). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be developing more. Check out Sateen Sheth’s recent series on NextBillion for more insights.)

If we follow each of these trends to their logical conclusion, the future brings more effective solutions. Fewer bednets used as wedding decorations, fewer efficient cookstoves turned into flower pots, less things that the poor “need.” More programs and organizations designed to dismantle a particular barrier to income generation and then get out of the way.

And maybe we will find a lot more TVs in interesting places.

This post reflects the author’s views alone and does not necessarily represent Unilever’s strategies, positions, or opinions.

Base of the Pyramid, product design