Rob Katz

Why the BoP Conference Was Worth It

BoPConf2007I’m back in DC after three very full days at the Business With Four Billion BoP conference in Michigan. First of all, let me assure you that I’ll have session summaries written and posted as soon as possible – in the mean time, be sure to check out Nicole Goldin’s live-blogging over at Changing the Pyramid. You can also check out some PowerPoints and perhaps even archived video/audio of plenary speakers at the BoP2007 web site.

In the mean time, I want to tell a short story that I hope will illustrate why this conference was important for those of us who live and breathe BoP.One of the reasons I enjoy traveling for work is down time in airports. Combine a little down time with the complimentary newspaper that most business hotels provide, and you’ve got a great way to spend a few hours. Yesterday was no exception: I picked up a copy of The New York Times at my hotel in the morning, and by 3:00, I was at my gate, leafing through the front section.

Soon after, I opened up the Science Times. The lead article was the second in a two-part series on pallative care in the developing world – a definite issue for those of us working on healthcare models for low-income consumers. I found myself thinking back to Al Hammond’s plenary speech on Sunday night, when he showed data from The Next 4 Billion: Market Size and Business Strategy at the Base of the Pyramid on health spending in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone Health

The data demonstrate that even the poorest segments of the BoP spend at least six percent of their household income on healthcare – up to $30 PPP per year for someone making $500 PPP annually. Ironically, I opened up the Times on Monday, and there’s an article on Sierra Leone’s total lack of access to morphine – no one is willing to sell morphine after child soldiers were doped up on opiates during the recent civil war – talk about a broken market. Lesson here: government policy remains crucial, especially in the health, water, and energy sectors.

Below and to the left, I found a feature on Amy Smith’s International Development Design Summit entitled Low Technologies, High Aims. We’ve profiled Dr. Smith before – she’s the MacArthur “genius” whose design for the BoP class is probably the hardest to gain entry to at MIT.

In any case, I devoured the article quickly, reading about how designers from all over the world came to MIT to collaborate with engineers and business school students to develop low-cost, appropriate technologies that can be produced, marketed, and sold in the BoP. Once I finished the article (kudos to Andrew Revkin for his excellent reportage), I looked up and immediately saw Jocelyn Wyatt approaching.

How ironic. If her name isn’t already familiar, it should be. After spending 5 years in DC working for Chemonics International, Jocelyn moved to India and served as the Country Director for Scojo there. She then returned to the US and earned her MBA from Thunderbird, after which she became an Acumen Fund Fellow (of 600 applicants, she is one of only 8 selected). She spent her Fellowship working with one of Acumen Fund’s investments in Kenya, Advanced Bio-Extracts. Now back from Kenya, Jocelyn has accepted a position with a leading global design firm, IDEO.

(How’s THAT for a cool resume?)

In any case, I looked up from my paper – having just finished an article about business, technology, and design – to see a woman whose life’s work has been at the intersection of all three. I had known of Jocelyn, and had read her blog posts on the Acumen Fund blog – but we met for the first time at the conference. We chatted for a bit, and I handed her the paper, pointing to the article. She smiled in appreciation.

This is what the BoP space is all about – making connections to advance the field, whether through the sharing of ideas or the creation of new partnerships. This is one of many anecdotes I could share about the BoP conference, and I hope to do just that in the coming days as I go through my notes and write up summaries of the panels I attended.

Finally, a big thank-you to Ted London of the William Davidson Institute for organizing the event; Bob Kennedy of WDI for mentioning in his closing plenary (!); Mark Milstein for inviting me to moderate a panel discussion; Erica Allen for all her support throughout; and Susan Svoboda and her entire team for making the proceedings go smoothly.

More to come — stay tuned.