Francisco Noguera

Guest Post: “Imagine the Base of the Pyramid Using Social Networks”

NerenbergGuest blogger Jenara Nerenberg is the Founder of BOP Source. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard University and lives in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she is a Columnist for a national business magazine and a Consultant on new media marketing.

Jenara was a Consultant to the Harvard Center for Health Communication and worked on cause-related marketing at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, bringing together leaders from YouthAIDS, MTV, and the academic community.

By Jenara Nerenberg

Manuel Bueno recently wrote a post about the need to go beyond basic needs business strategies to a more holistic approach when engaging the BoP in business. I thought I would take this idea up in the context of my own field, new media marketing. Below is what I think should be the marketing component of the next wave of economic and social value-driven businesses at the base of the pyramid, an area that I am currently working on at BOP Source.

Imagine the BoP using social networks. Think entrepreneurs, members of microfinance self-help groups, and villagers in remote areas of Nepal or Mongolia. Imagine listening to buzzing conversations of micro-entrepreneurs about their products, challenges, needs, ideas, and desires for collaboration.

Imagine an entrepreneur in the middle of her village who is literate with her elementary school education and who is now the chief ethnographer of her community, appointed by Nokia, Danone, Unilever, or any other large MNC. Her title signifies the new wave of consumer research in base of the pyramid markets and she is corresponding with the Marketing Department abroad via cell phones, relying on her video and voice recordings of interviews, focus groups, and other research. She has a well-paying job and is giving MNC’s the best, most accurate and thorough insights into her communities’ lifestyles, behaviours, customs, needs and wants through mobile technology.

She is engaged in a two-way conversation, with her reality becoming better known to the outside and corporate world, and her corporate partners are dedicated to designing products that better serve her and her communities’ needs. Beyond just her, the company is also invested in cell phones for the whole village and has decided to invest in literacy and ICT learning, not only for the benefit of the community, but also for the company to better communicate with the villagers, learn about them, study them, and ultimately engage in business with them.

My depiction is not happening yet, but it should be. Marketing to the BoP is an undeveloped practice and is hence ripe for a drastic shift from traditional marketing to a new media marketing protocol, one that creates significant social value for the BoP and not just the companies involved. There is no reason why new media technologies and tools, such as social networks, should remain solely an enjoyment of more developed markets. Social networks can be used by the BoP to communicate and collaborate with each other and for marketers to study, understand, and better serve the BoP.

Questions about feasibility naturally arise, but consider the hundreds of ICT Centers that allow for computer and internet access among the BoP (see for a worldwide directory), the high penetration of mobile phones among the BoP (See chapter 3 of the The Next 4 Billion), and the innovative approaches to rural internet connectivity used by organizations around the world (see Al Hammond’s piece on Vietnam and United Villages’ First Mile Solutions).?

According to the World Resources Institute report, The Next 4 Billion, the market size for Information Communications Technology at the base of the pyramid is $51.4 billion. In China alone, 239 million people are expected to access the internet by cell phone by 2011, according to an article on CNET. Ethan Zuckerman, of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, summarizes the mobile trend in a 2007 post:

“In China in 2005, there were 350 million mobile phone users, and 100 million Internet users. In sub-Saharan Africa in 2004, there were 52 million mobile phone?users and approximately 5 to 8 million Internet users. While analysts in the North talk about users receiving information on three screens – the computer, the television, and the mobile – users in the South are usually looking at two screens, and users in rural areas of the South are looking at one: a mobile phone that might be shared by all the residents of a village.”

The internet is coming to the BoP and we must think ahead of radical innovations in new media that will better serve the BoP and maximize opportunities for economic upliftment, public-private partnerships, and overall development of local BoP communities.

If we are to go beyond basic needs business strategies, we must constantly think competitively about the future and dare to put modern innovations in the hands of those markets considered less “developed.” Now is as good a time as ever to start collaborating amongst ourselves and with the BoP about how to best utilize the many gifts that mobile internet connectivity brings.