Cheryl Heller

NextThought Monday: Helping the BoP Design its Own Way Out of Poverty

Daniel Altman is an economist, writer and teacher with a deep commitment to international development. He’s had a revelation about the power of consumer products to create markets from the inside out, and he’s doing something about it.

Emerging Design Centers (EDCs) is a for-profit enterprise that puts cutting-edge design tools in the hands of the poor. With a small amount of expert training, people in base-of-the-pyramid communities will be able to design new products for themselves. These products will be sold in markets with similar demands around the world, with a substantial share of the profits returning to the people who design them and their communities.

The most powerful ideas seem obvious once somebody thinks of them. This idea arose from a few self-evident truths: consumer products are central to a consumer economy; no one is better equipped to create products than the people who need them; and making things where they will be sold helps make the supply chain efficient. Altman’s new enterprise is adding to these truths the critical missing elements needed to help new markets emerge – design and education. His partner in this venture is MAYA Design, Inc, an innovative design firm that has experience bringing design tools to poor communities in the United States.

When fully operational, design centers will be set up in base-of-the-pyramid communities around the world, equipped with the tools to create their ideas, and networked with each other to share best practices. On-site trainers will identify the best product designs, and take them to central headquarters, where production technology will be refined. The intellectual property will be protected on those items with the most promise, and the products will then be sold.

The goal of EDCs is to benefit the people who buy these products, the people who manufacture them, the designers, and the investors. In addition, EDCs should l generate the intangible benefits of satisfaction among people who can follow through on their ideas, pride in local designers, and a sense of ownership.

Altman believes this new venture is going to have a massively disruptive and positive effect. “We’re already seeing some products jump from poor markets to rich markets. Why would you pay hundreds of dollars for an expensive medical diagnostic in the United States, when someone in Ghana has developed one that works just as well for ten dollars? Clearly, the potential to shift revenue from rich countries to poor communities is huge. But I think EDCs will have an even more profound impact. We’re going to network our design centers so that they can share insights and techniques, and I expect that we’ll uncover some new design principles from communities that have resided outside the design mainstream until now. I also think businesses will have to take note of the depth of untapped design talent in base-of-the-pyramid communities, because they’ll be competing with it.”

The plan is to recruit investors to launch EDCs, to scout markets and sites for the design centers, and then gradually bring staff and equipment to areas where people are excited about the concept.

Currently, Altman and his partners are recruiting investors who are interested in a long-term opportunity, since it will be several years before products hit local or international markets. At the same time, they are looking for people who might like to join the design center teams, and community leaders who would like to host design centers.

For everyone involved, it’s going to be an exciting adventure.

Impact Assessment
Base of the Pyramid, incubators, product design