Derek Newberry

In Kerala, Giving New Meaning to “Give a Man a Fish….”

The old expression goes “Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.” An article from the latest issue of the Economist seems to imply that we could add a BoP twist to update this saying – something like “Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Sell him a cellular phone and you will give him the ability to sustain long-term income by efficiently marketing his fish at the highest price in the location where they are in greatest demand, simultaneously saving resources by ensuring no fish markets get oversaturated.”

Or something along those lines, I won’t deign to mangle Chinese proverbs any further. The article itself centered around a study conducted by Robert Jensen on Kerala fishermen, who had to constantly deal with distorted pricing because they had no way of knowing in advance where to sell their catches – ie knowing which markets gave the best price, which were already saturated – with a resulting deadweight loss of 5-8%, the amount of fish that would get thrown away on a daily basis.

That is, until cellular technology became widely available. All of a sudden, fishermen were able to call associates while at sea to determine which market they should head to, bringing local consumer prices for fish to a lower equilibrium over time while raising profits for fishers and bringing waste down to virtually zero.

This technological solution is reminiscent of the ITC E-Choupals we have blogged about before, which allow Indian grain farmers to know before heading to market what prices they can expect, where there is the highest demand, and other vital information to increase the efficiency of their operations. As an interesting sidenote, one of the enterprises in the New Ventures project portfolio, Sumaya HMX, has begun providing its energy efficient climate control products for the kiosks where E-Choupals operate, helping ITC reach its ambitious carbon emissions reductions targets. Small world, and this shows where the edges between the realm of the BoP and the ?green’ start to blur.

I suppose the final point to me is that I am always happy to see concrete stories like that of the E-Choupals and Kerala cell phones because the BoP spectrum is so large that it can often feel vague and nebulous when solutions that work in the real world have to necessarily be very circumstantially specific.

Here we see two separate examples of consumer electronics visibly generating economic and even environmental benefits for everyone involved. This turns the old phrase on its head – “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” It seems like cell phones and computers are allowing rural producers to have their cake at lower operating costs while…. Okay you get the point. Happy reading, and thanks to Rob Katz for passing along the Economist article.