Virginia Barreiro

Cornell Global Forum: BoP Inclusion Meets Environmental Sustainability

Last week, coming out of a 2 ½ day conference on “The Great Convergence” – the intersection of clean technology and business development at the Base of the Pyramid- I thought I would be fairly exhausted. After all, the agenda was merciless, with 8am starts and 9:30pm finishes, sprinkled with “speed dating” and intensive task forces to come up implementation strategies. But I was not. Rather, I felt energized and enthusiastic about what appears to be a certain maturation or “coming of age” of the space.

First, the overall emphasis of the event – the idea that we absolutely cannot achieve inclusion of the BoP if we don’t consider how to do so with environmental sustainability, and vice-versa, was incredibly refreshing. Although several groups have already been active in this space for some years, like E+Co and WRI’s New Ventures, this idea does remain a fairly minority view with the majority of efforts around social inclusion and the BoP broadly emphasizing economic development that does not focus specifically on sustainable resource use and many of the clean technology initiatives focusing on top of the pyramid markets in developed countries.

Second, I welcomed the explicit outcome-oriented agenda. The two days focused on break out task teams that focused on specific topics such as water, distributed energy, and biomaterials. The 100 or so participants were all pre-divided into 11 such task teams and asked to work together to develop a plan for driving convergence in those areas.

I was assigned to the biomaterials task team. When my team first met I was relieved to see that no one really knew what was meant by “biomaterials” but also relieved to see that it didn’t matter. Rather than spend time on a long philosophical discussion of what is and what is not a biomaterial, we quickly agreed to focus on pragmatic conversations to identify how biomaterials were relevant to our own individual or organization’s pursuits and how biomaterials could drive “the great convergence”. Broadly, we considered biomaterials inputs to a production process that could emphasize a cradle-to-cradle approach.

The task team consisted of MNCs, NGOs, entrepreneurs, scientists, financiers and academia and, surprisingly, after two long days of conversations, we came up with a plan. Very generally speaking, the plan focuses on market creation for biomaterials that includes the engagement of the BoP as producers, entrepreneurs and distributors and emphasizes recycled products, closed loop production, and technology innovation.

I am truly amazed by the commitment of all parties involved to really give this an honest try. We have identified a product sector (poly-materials) and a country of initial focus – Brazil. This initial step of putting together a workplan will kick off in two weeks in Brazil and we hope to leverage existing activities there, such as those of the IADB’s Opportunities for the Majority initiative and the work of AVINA and FUNDES. We will also be documenting our trials and errors from day one to facilitate replication in other areas or sectors, if we are successful.

Like our task team, 10 other groups will hopefully also be following up with implementation strategies that drive social inclusion, improve the quality of life of the 4 billion at the base of the economic pyramid and promote disruptive technologies to change the development trajectory we are currently on. Surely not all of us will be successful, but the emphasis on partnership and pragmatic solutions to move the needle on the global poverty and environmental degradation is a huge step forward for the sector.