The Base of the Pyramid: An Overview of the Concept

By Xavier Forneris.

Yesterday, I wrote on a competition co-sponsored by IFC and the G20 on doing business at the “Base of the Pyramid”, or BoP. Some of you may wonder what is the base of the pyramid and if my eclecticism has now led me into Egyptian archeology.

The Base of the Pyramid –some call it the “Bottom of the Pyramid” but I prefer the term ‘base’-, or BoP, is simply used to describe the very large segment of the population who lives (or survives) on a low income. If we organize the world’s population according to income levels, it takes a pyramid shape, with few people at the top of the pyramid (mostly living in developed economies) and a majority of people at its base (mostly living in developing economies), as represented here:

There is no consensus on how many people live at the BoP because economists, governments and development institutions define poverty in different ways. Depending on whether one places (rather arbitrarily) the poverty line below $1 a day, $2 a day, or $10 a day, the BoP will include more or fewer people.

A 2005 World Resources Institute (WRI)/International Finance Corporation (IFC) study estimated the BoP population at about 4 billion people by defining the BOP population segment as those with annual incomes up to $3000 per capita per year (2002 PPP).

But whether it’s 3, 4 or 5 billion people, everyone agrees that the BoP hosts a very large population, mostly residing in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

The term is not new. According to wikipedia the term was used by President Franklin Roosevelt in a 1932 radio address during which he stated:

These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power…that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

The term resurfaced at the end of the 1990s when two professors of management and corporate strategy, the late C.K. Prahalad (Michigan’s Ross School of Business) and Stuart Hart (then with the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School) published what is viewed as the first paper on the BoP: ”Strategies for the Bottom of the Pyramid: Creating Sustainable Development” (1999). Prahalad (who is known for his HBR paper on “The Core Competence of the Corporation” co-authored with Gary Hamel) and Hart are often considered the “fathers” of the BoP theory and essentially wrote about the BoP as a new strategy for multinational companies.

Before them, many development economists focused on the same socio-economic segment, without using the term BoP. For instance, when Hernando de Soto, the famous Peruvian economist (not to be confused with the Spanish conquistador!), wrote about “dead capital”, i.e., the $10 trillion in informal assets that are in the hands of the world’s poor (e.g., land without legal property titles) but cannot be mobilized to borrow money from financial institutions, he was concerned with the lowest echelon of the global socio-economic pyramid. And when Muhammad Yunus pioneered micro-credit with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh around 1983, what was he trying to do if not expand access to credit for people at the base of the pyramid?

As a concept, the BoP has gained traction with both the business and development communities over the past decade.

Multinational corporations which for a long time have been focusing on the middle and the top of the pyramid, i.e., people who could afford buying their products and services, are seeking new markets in a context of global economic crisis and this quest led them to pay attention to the BoP. What is interesting is that they are not only looking at the BoP as a source of new customers but also as a source of supply, partnership, and innovation. This is part of the notion of “inclusive business” (IB) which I will address in a forthcoming post.

And development economists and institutions whose primary concern is poverty alleviation are also very interested in the BoP approach for they have been looking for ways to offer targeted support to those at the base of the pyramid, the ‘poorest of the poor’.

The BoP as a framework thus offers a unique opportunity for these two worlds (the private sector, on the one hand, and development institutions, on the other) to collaborate and search for solutions to their respective challenges.

When I was introduced to the BoP concept in 2009 during a seminar given to our MBA class at UNC by prof. Ted London (University of Michigan’s Ross Business School), I was struck by how he summarized the key challenge for he private sector and development instiutions in one sentence:

How can business motivations for growth and profits be aligned with the development’s community’s effort to alleviate poverty?

I let you reflect on this question. In addition to further explaining the concept of Inclusive Business, I’ll prepare a list of ‘must-reads’ for those of you who are interested in further exploring the concept of BoP.

Sources:

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