Rob Katz

Exciting Times in the Base of the Pyramid Movement

Endeavor LogoIt has been an exciting week in the “base of the pyramid” (BOP) world, at least from my vantage point.? From mainstream media coverage of key BOP issues to off-the-radar developments in organizations like Endeavor and Acumen Fund, a lot is going on.? A brief wrap-up:

On Sunday, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman weighed in on India’s low-cost car debate.? His column – which Ethan Arpi and I reviewed on Tuesday – demonstrates how the environmental pressures business will face when operating in low-income markets.? Irresponsible product development, distribution and marketing (however unintentional) can threaten firms’ right to operate in these greenfield markets, losing BOP trust before they know it.? Even more, companies whose products and services turn environmental risk into business opportunity (think distributed energy or water) are poised to succeed as never before in markets like India.Acumen Fund logoOn Wednesday, I traveled to New York to meet with some truly world-changing individuals: the 2008 class of Acumen Fund Fellows.? This group of seven was selected from more than 500 applicants – a 1.4% acceptance rate.? To better understand the scale here, Harvard’s acceptance rate for its newest class was a comparatively generous 9%.

I spent two hours with the Fellows, discussing base of the pyramid concepts, trends, research, definitions and communications.? I was excited to learn that the Fellows will have a blog this year, and that each is going into the field with a video camera.? (Side note: Check out Jocelyn Wyatt’s excellent blog posts from her time as an Acumen Fund Fellow last year.)? Remember these names (I’ve listed the companies they’re working for as well as where they’re heading):

  • Jawad Aslam (Pakistan – Saiban)
  • Catherine Casey (Kenya – SHEF)
  • Tricia Morente (India – Lifespring)
  • Wangari Muchoki (Pakistan – Kashf)
  • John Tucker (India – Scojo)
  • Chris Walker (India – 1298)
  • Jon Yates (Kenya – Jamii Bora)

The Fellows complete their training in a few days and will be overseas for the next 9-12 months.? I hope to feature updates from their blog here on NextBillion regularly, so stay tuned.

After meeting with the Fellows, I headed downtown for an event hosted by Endeavor.? For the past ten years, Endeavor has identified and supported scores of high-impact entrepreneurs across the world.? I was lucky to meet two such entrepreneurs on Wednesday: Fatih Isbecer and Luis Alexandre Chicani.?

Fatih is from Istanbul, where he and his small company, Pozitron, develop advanced mobile phone banking software.? Their recent release has been adopted by the largest bank in Turkey, allowing customers to transfer money, trade stocks, pay bills and check balances from anywhere in the world (Fatih proved it – he logged into his account from the Financial District as I watched, open-mouthed.)? It will be interesting to see how Pozitron’s software can be adopted by the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor as CGAP looks to develop mobile phone banking programs for the BOP.

Luis Chicani, meanwhile, is a dentist from Sao Paolo.? One of the first Endeavor entrepreneurs, Luis developed and sold some of the first dental insurance policies in Brazil.? He succeeded in large part by targeting policies to the needs and demands of BOP consumers.? Luis is an example of Endeavor’s success – he recently donated 2% of his net profits back to Endeavor Brazil, demonstrating the sustainability of business-driven models.? When was the last time a USAID client donated a percentage of the profits back to the US Government?? (Answer: never.)

Finally, rounding out the week, base of the pyramid theory got a major boost when C.K. Prahalad, co-author of the original Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid article, was named the world’s leading business guru in a biennial survey.? After Prahalad, the survey named Bill Gates, Alan Greenspan and Michael Porter as the next-most-influential gurus.? Pretty fine company.? (Full disclosure: C.K. Prahalad is a member of the Board of Directors of World Resources Institute, which powers

While this week was energizing and encouraging from my vantage point inside the base of the pyramid world, it isn’t necessarily unique.? More and more, business and governments are understanding that serving low-income markets using for-profit strategies is a win-win.? What really made my week was meeting with the Acumen Fund Fellows and talking to Endeavor entrepreneurs – representing the true front lines of the BOP movement.

Next week (or over the weekend) – a review of the latest issue of Innovations, as well as a post on Social Marketing.