Saurabh Lall

Multiple Facets of the Pyramid: Defining the BoP

Last year, I had the good fortune to participate in the Oikos UNDP Young Scholars Academy in the beautiful Swiss town of Appenzell. The event brought together 15 PhD students studying the BoP phenomenon to discuss the emerging ideas in the space, pushing the relatively sparse academic literature on the subject forward.

Of the many themes that emerged from the academy, one in particular stands out – the growing recognition that the BoP phenomenon is multi-layered and complex, and any study of low income groups is inherently inter-disciplinary. The problems of the poor are complex, and must be looked at through many lenses. We have gotten used to referring to the BoP as a low income market, but the reality is far more complex.

I am starting to question how we define the base of the pyramid. We use income and expenditure levels to define the BoP because they are the main variables relevant to market based approaches, and they provide a simple denominator that is easy to understand. However, the ’pyramid’ itself is not two-dimensional, but three-dimensional, with many facets. So what happens when we start looking at some of the other facets of the pyramid?

A few years ago, I was conducting household surveys on water and sanitation programs in rural India. The Indian government had started several programs to develop community level water systems, and household toilets in villages, and I was part of a team hired to monitor the progress on the ground. Travelling across 20 villages in the state of Haryana, I went from house to house, asking people where they got their water from, how long it took them to collect water, and their perceptions about the water quality. While traditional caste hierarchies don’t matter much in India’s cities, there is still considerable discrimination in many rural areas. And many families I spoke to, while not much poorer than their neighbors, faced considerable discrimination in access to water and other basic services because of their caste. Here, it was caste, rather than income, that defined who was at the ’base of the pyramid’.

In India, and in most developing countries, income is just one variable in the poverty equation. Gender, education, caste, politics and other social barriers make up different facets of this pyramid – what Amartya Sen refers to as ’unfreedoms’. In his book, ’Development as Freedom’, Sen argues that “development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy”, and not only measured in economic terms like GDP and incomes.

But why should BoP practitioners concern themselves about social issues? To me, it’s about solving the ’last mile problem’. As Sendhil Mullainathan explains in this excellent TED talk, we can develop technologies to help the poor, we can even figure out how to get it to them – but we need to dig deeper and really understand how people think to push these solutions across the last mile. We have to understand all dimensions of the pyramid and the problems people face, to be able to scale up BoP solutions. Perhaps it’s time to broaden our definition of the BoP – to recognize that the BoP approach is not only about making products cheap and available to the poor, but understanding poverty in all its dimensions.