Madhu Viswanathan

Subsistence Marketplaces at the University of Illinois

Madhu Viswanathan is Professor of Business Administration at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he has been on the faculty since 1990. He earned a B. Tech in Mechanical Engineering (Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, India, 1985), and a PhD in Marketing (University of Minnesota, 1990). His research programs are in two areas; measurement and research methodology, and literacy, poverty, and subsistence marketplace behaviors. He has authored books in both areas: Measurement Error and Research Design, and Enabling Consumer and Entrepreneurial Literacy in Subsistence Marketplaces. He directs the Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative and founded and directs the Marketplace Literacy Project.

Our path to bringing the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) or subsistence marketplaces into the classroom begins with a year-long, interdisciplinary graduate level course entitled Sustainable Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces. Starting with an application process for students from across campus in the spring semester of the preceding academic year, we form a multidisciplinary class consisting of students from business, engineering and industrial design , education, medicine, and communications. Philosophically, we take a bottom-up orientation, beginning with the life circumstances of people living in poverty and the need to learn from preexisting subsistence marketplaces in order to design solutions.

The course begins with virtual immersion in subsistence through a poverty simulation, which consists of analysis of interviews, images, and videos. Students use such analysis to develop models of poverty, of its interconnections with the local environment, and of needs, products, and markets. The next stage of emersion involves examining business, engineering, and design concepts learned in resource-rich contexts and their customization to subsistence contexts, through such means as analysis of cases. By now, student groups are formed that combine business, technical, and design skills, who then work with social or commercial enterprises on projects. Idea generation and screening is followed by a market research plan and then an international immersion experience in South India over the winter break.

The immersion experience enables broader understanding as well as focused market research – through observations and interviews of subsistence consumers and entrepreneurs and interactions with commercial and social enterprises and educational institutions working in this space. The entire spectrum of an emerging economy provides a life-changing experience (my students’ words). Students connect the dots for themselves across the world in ways we cannot do in the classroom. Students return to generate a set of detailed concepts, select one, and develop a prototype and a comprehensive business plan.

We have since created a five-week module for all (approximately 600) first semester undergraduates on the same topic, that begins with understanding subsistence marketplaces, continues with a sustainable product idea to serve a need, and ends with a short business plan. We have also developed general courses on sustainability for first year MBAs and for junior/senior undergraduates, although our path has been distinct – in beginning with subsistence marketplaces where environmental and poverty-related issues are intertwined and which provides a challenging context to envision solutions. We, thus, offer, early exposure and later integrative learning experiences on the topic of sustainability at undergraduate and graduate levels, with a unique emphasis on the BoP or subsistence marketplaces. Our website has detailed video and other content and aims to share our experiences to make such teaching endeavors somewhat easier for others.