Manuel Bueno

Understanding the BoP Community as a Social Movement

The BoP community has come a long way since the initial publication of “Strategies for the Bottom of the Pyramid: Creating Sustainable Development” by Prahalad and Hart in 1999 which jumpstarted the BoP idea. Since then, many people have joined the movement, new businesses have been started and increasing resources have been devoted to this approach. Along the way, many of these startups have failed and an increasing amount of research has accumulated, much of it citing the lessons learned both from successes and failures and pointing out ways to fix problems that had before been deemed unsolvable.

The blossoming of this community has financially and morally empowered many entrepreneurs to take into account developing countries as a business opportunity and to discover radical innovations which are cumulatively leaving a mark in the development arena. It is very important to remark that the BoP community as a social movement has offered the chance for such radical innovations to happen and be acknowledged by both development and business experts. The BoP community has literally fertilized the ground allowing these discoveries to happen. However, to better understand the BoP community as a social movement as well as to pinpoint the tasks still pending, it may be worthy to put it in perspective with other social movements which have also created or destroyed markets.

The impact of social movements has been studied for several years by organizational theorists as a way of understanding how they may create opportunities for businesses. One of the most important scholars in this field is Hayagreeva Rao, a professor at Stanford University who some months ago published “Market Rebels”. Written in an easy style, he summarizes around a decade of work about how social movements are more often than not decisive factors in the success of particular innovations.

For instance, Rao explains how cars became part of American culture in spite of claims that “you can’t get people to sit on an explosion” mostly thanks to a powered-up social movement willing to prepare the ground for automobiles. He also takes into account other examples such as the rise of microbrewing (the US jumped from having 43 breweries in 1983 to more than 1400 in 2000), the surge of different forms of shareholder activism against big corporations or how the anti-biotechnology movement prevented German pharmaceutical companies from commercializing biotechnology products.

The findings explained in Rao’s book are relevant for us, because as a social movement, we also have our agenda: advancing and refining business-based approaches to tackling poverty problems. Rao argues that for a social movement to be successful in shaping market behavior it firstly needs to articulate a hot cause that will arouse emotion and then rely on cool mobilization that will signal the identity of the community members and sustain their commitment.

A hot cause is the starting point for a social movement. It is often, but not always, initiated by a “lightning rod” issue that mobilizes people’s passions and engenders new beliefs. Such hot causes promote change through the feelings they stir in us. These may be positive or negative and reciprocal or not. For example, we may feel proud in belonging to a social community (positive and reciprocal) and feel angry at someone else’s behavior (negative and non reciprocal). Within the BoP community such hot causes are often expressed through case studies that show that change is possible and allow people to introduce themselves to the social group. Some of these case studies have become classics such as those related with Cemex, Hindustan Lever, Casa Bahia, ITC Choupal or Aravind Eye Care Hospitals.

Cool mobilization directs the heat generated by hot causes into promoting new behaviors, creating social experiences and affirming new concepts, identities and/or commitments. The new experiences are improvisational and created by the community itself. These communities help sustain the commitment of the group and allow every individual to realize their collective identities. In this line, our website, NextBillion, is a phenomenal tool for such cool mobilization. University courses and business plan contests represent other important means for cool mobilizations in the BoP community, because they allow the participation of the audience in creating such a community of feeling.

Together, hot causes and cool mobilizations power the collective actions in social movements. In my opinion, the BoP social movement has already moved past generating hot causes and is now going through a cool mobilization to better direct all the heat generated. Such heat is now enormous and unless we all involved figure out ways of directing it, we risk losing this fabulous chance and instead seeing the enthusiasm fizzle out. Witness for instance, the enormous appetite for job openings (even for unpaid internships) within this sector. Late sociologist Charles Tilly outlines four main organizing principles to sustain social movements at the cool mobilization stage:

  • Improving the sense of collective identity and the self-worth of participants.

  • Creating a feeling of group unity by fostering feelings of solidarity and community.

  • Involving large numbers of people to display the potency of the social movement.

  • Eliciting commitment from the participants by making them actors in the movement.

These principles should guide the future activities of the BoP community in order to consolidate what has been won and to amplify the legitimacy of business approaches in solving poverty. In my previous post I proposed randomized experiments as a necessary method more akin to an increasingly mature and sophisticated community which requires better quantification of the social profits generated by BoP businesses. In addition to a renewal in our research methodology it is pivotal that all of us involved in this community find a way to direct this flame, so that the change we have started is sustained and amplified in the next years. It is now our responsibility to engage in cool mobilization techniques to keep the flame burning and get as many people as possible actively involved in the BoP social movement.