Lessons from working with Social Enterprises

Aisle Manager at Nakumatt

By the end of my most recent project, I was convinced that the label “Bottom of the Pyramid” (or Base of the Pyramid) also known as “the BoP” was one of the biggest barriers for organizations seeking to serve these emerging consumer markets in the informal economies of the developing world.

The alternative long and descriptive sentence is not as snappy as the BoP and I struggle with this everyday as I try to capture the characteristics and qualities of this market. But the problem with the label is that it has come to be closely associated with poverty alleviation rather than an emerging market opportunity, and thus gets loaded with the detritus of the aid and development industry. If you are to be a sustainable business, you need to generate revenue if not make a little profit and for that you need to consider your target audience as your customer, not your beneficiary.

The peculiarities of social enterprises seeking to serve the poor include the existential struggle between doing good and good business. But the emphasis on the BoP as the poor, the underserved and overlooked (by myself included) diverts us from taking them seriously as financially shrewd even if economically challenged customers in their own right. We barely know where they shop and why, how they make their decisions to purchase and how they plan to pay for them, in fact there’s little or no serious consumer research on these segments of the population. No wonder if they are not considered serious consumers to be wooed and won over like any other.

“Should we be profiting from the poor?” ask a plethora of well intentioned articles when those who do business with each other in the informal, cash based economies have no such compunction when doubling the price of kerosene as a premium for the convenience of transporting it 10km closer to their customers.

If we took away this well meaning yet now increasingly problematic label (with all the associations of poverty and helplessness), we’d perceive a diverse group of people with varying needs, aspirations, cash flows and consumption habits. We’d be segmenting them with the same rigour of a Unilever or attempting to reach them wherever they shop like Coca Cola. We would not be sitting around measuring impact of the soda or wondering how to scale. I’m going to wrestle with this wicked problem further but in the meantime, here are some collected thoughts from my observations in field recently:

Questioning the value of the term Base or Bottom of the Pyramid aka the BoP
But why aren’t they buying my fantastic life saving product?
Assessing social impact vs financial sustainability for Base of Pyramid business models
Why so much “BoP” marketing fails in the developing world

 

Social enterprises and the target audience for their value propositions
What does it mean when Chinese manufacturers enter the social enterprise space?
Systems thinking and the mobile for economic impact and wealth creation
Raising some concerns about urban user research insights being applied to design for rural markets

 
Navigating the African market opportunity
Caution: The emerging African market PDF stampede
Cracking the informal markets in Sub Saharan Africa: the need for strategic improvisation
Insights from the South African low income market (BoP) opportunity
The ingenuity economy: grassroots social enterprises abound

 

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