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The Market at the Bottom of the Pyramid

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In this introduction to his book, C.K. Prahalad explains that typical pictures of poverty mask the fact that the very poor represent resilient entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers. What is needed is a better approach to help the poor, an approach that involves partnering with them to innovate and achieve sustainable win–win scenarios where the poor are actively engaged and, at the same time, the companies providing products and services to them are profitable.
This chapter is from the book

Turn on your television and you will see calls for money to help the world’s 4 billion poor—people who live on far less than $2 a day. In fact, the cry is so constant and the need so chronic that the tendency for many people is to tune out these images and the message. Even those who do hear and heed the cry are limited in what they can accomplish. For more than 50 years, the World Bank, donor nations, various aid agencies, national governments, and, lately, civil society organizations have all fought the good fight, but have not eradicated poverty. The adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by the United Nations only underscores that reality; as we enter the 21st century, poverty—and the disenfranchisement that accompanies it—remains one of the world’s most daunting problems.

The purpose of this book is to change that familiar image on TV. It is to illustrate that the typical pictures of poverty mask the fact that the very poor represent resilient entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers. What is needed is a better approach to help the poor, an approach that involves partnering with them to innovate and achieve sustainable win–win scenarios where the poor are actively engaged and, at the same time, the companies providing products and services to them are profitable. This collaboration between the poor, civil society organizations, governments, and large firms can create the largest and fastest-growing markets in the world. Large-scale and wide-spread entrepreneurship is at the heart of the solution to poverty. Such an approach exists and has, in several instances, gone well past the idea stage as private enterprises, both large and small, have begun to successfully build markets at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) as a way of eradicating poverty.

The economic pyramid of the world is shown in Figure 1.1. As we can see, more than 4 billion constitute the BOP. These are the people who are the subject matter of this book.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1 The economic pyramid.

Source: C.K. Prahalad and Stuart Hart, 2002. The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, strategy+business, Issue 26, 2002. Reprinted with permission from strategy+business, the award-winning management quarterly published by Booz Allen Hamilton. www.strategybusiness.com.


The distribution of wealth and the capacity to generate incomes in the world can be captured in the form of an economic pyramid. At the top of the pyramid are the wealthy, with numerous opportunities for generating high levels of income. More than 4 billion people live at the BOP on less than $2 per day. They are the subject matter of this book.

As you turn these pages, you will discover companies fighting disease with educational campaigns and innovative products. There are organizations helping the handicapped walk and helping subsistence farmers check commodity prices and connect with the rest of the world. There are banks adapting to the financial needs of the poor, power companies reaching out to meet energy needs, and construction companies doing what they can to house the poor in affordable ways that allow for pride. There are chains of stores tailored to understand the needs of the poor and to make products available to them.

The strength of these innovative approaches, as you will come to appreciate, is that they tend to create opportunities for the poor by offering them choices and encouraging self-esteem. Entrepreneurial solutions such as these place a minimal financial burden on the developing countries in which they occur.

To begin to understand how all of this is remotely possible, we need to start with some basic assumptions:

  • First, while cases certainly can be found of large firms and multinational corporations (MNCs) that may have undermined the efforts of the poor to build their livelihoods, the greatest harm they might have done to the poor is to ignore them altogether. The poor cannot participate in the benefits of globalization without an active engagement and without access to products and services that represent global quality standards. They need to be exposed to the range and variety of opportunities that inclusive globalization can provide. The poor represent a “latent market” for goods and services. Active engagement of private enterprises at the BOP is a critical element in creating inclusive capitalism, as private-sector competition for this market fosters attention to the poor as consumers. It creates choices for them. They do not have to depend only on what is available in their villages. If large firms approach this market with the BOP consumers’ interests at heart, it can also lead to significant growth and profits for them. These characteristics of a market economy, new to the BOP, can facilitate dramatic change at the BOP. Free and transparent private-sector competition, unlike local village and shanty-town monopolies controlled by local slum lords, can transform the “poor” into consumers (as we illustrate with examples). Poverty alleviation can become a business development task shared among the large private sector firms and local BOP entrepreneurs.
  • Second, the BOP, as a market, provides a new growth opportunity for the private sector and a forum for innovations. Old and tired solutions cannot create markets at the BOP.
  • Third, BOP markets must become an integral part of the work of the private sector. They must become part of the firms’ core businesses; they cannot merely be relegated to the realm of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Successfully creating BOP markets involves change in the functioning of MNCs as much as it changes the functioning of developing countries. BOP markets must become integral to the success of the firm to command senior management attention and sustained resource allocation.

There is significant untapped opportunity for value creation (for BOP consumers, shareholders, and employees) that is latent in the BOP market. These markets have remained “invisible” for too long.

It is natural for you to ask this: If all of this is so obvious, why has this not yet occurred?

The Power of Dominant Logic

All of us are prisoners of our own socialization. The lenses through which we perceive the world are colored by our own ideology, experiences, and established management practices. Each one of the groups that is focusing on poverty alleviation—the World Bank, rich countries providing aid, charitable organizations, national governments, and the private sector—is conditioned by its own dominant logic. Let us, for example, examine the dominant logic of each group as it approaches the task of eradicating poverty.

Consider, for instance, the politicians and bureaucrats in India, one of the largest countries with a significant portion of the world’s poor. India is home to more than 400 million people who qualify as being very poor. The policies of the government for the first 45 years since independence from Great Britain in 1947 were based on a set of basic assumptions. Independent India started with a deep suspicion of the private sector. The country’s interaction with the East India Company and colonialism played a major part in creating this mindset. The experience with the indigenous private sector was not very positive, either. The private sector was deemed exploitative of the poor. This suspicion was coupled with an enormous confidence in the government machinery to do what is “right and moral.” For example, the government of India initiated a series of large industrial projects in the public sector (owned by the Indian government) in a wide variety of industries, from steel to food distribution and global trading in essential commodities. India’s general suspicion of the private sector led to controls over its size and expansion. Some sectors of economic activity were reserved for small-scale industries. In textiles, for example, the “hand loom sector” dominated by small firms was given preference. There was no credible voice in public policy for nurturing market-based ecosystems that included the large and the small in a symbiotic relationship. The thinking was cleanly divided among the public sector (mostly large firms with significant capital outlay as in steel), the private sector with large firms strictly controlled by the government through a system of licenses, and a small-scale sector. The focus of public policy was on distributive justice over wealth creation. Because of the disparities in wealth and the preponderance of the poor, the government thought its first priority must be policies that “equalized” wealth distribution. Taxation, limits on salaries of top managers, and other such measures were instituted to ensure distributive justice. The discussion further polarized around the somewhat contrived concepts of rural poor and urban rich. The assumption was that the rural population was primarily poor and the urban population was relatively rich. However, the data increasingly does not support this distinction. There are as many rural rich as there are urban poor. Poverty knows no such boundaries. In the developing world, more than one-third of the urban population lives in shanty towns and slums. These traditional views reflect the philosophy behind actions taken by bureaucrats and politicians. During the last decade, a slow but discernable transition has been taking place from the traditional to a more market-based outlook.

This much-needed and desirable transition is in its infancy. The dominant logic, built over 45 years, is difficult to give up for individuals, political parties, and sections of the bureaucracy. This is the reason why politicians and bureaucrats appear to be vacillating in their positions. Most thinking people know where they have to go, but letting go of their beliefs and abandoning their “zones of comfort” and familiarity are not easy. We also believe that it is equally difficult for a whole generation of BOP consumers to give up their dependence on governmental subsidies.

We have explicitly focused on ideology and policy and not on the quality of implementation of projects focused on the poor, be it building roads and dams or providing basic education and health care. The distinct role of corruption, which seems so endemic to developing countries in general, deserves separate treatment (see Chapter 5, “Reducing Corruption: Transaction Governance Capacity”).

Private-sector businesses, especially MNCs (and large local firms that emulate their MNC competitors), also suffer from a deeply etched dominant logic of their own, which restricts their ability to see a vibrant market opportunity at the BOP. For example, it is common in MNCs to have the assumptions outlined in Table 1.1. These assumptions dictate decision and resource allocation processes for developing countries and BOP markets in particular.

Table 1.1. The Dominant Logic of MNCs as It Relates to BOP



The poor are not our target customers; they cannot afford our products or services.

Our cost structure is a given; with our cost structure, we cannot serve the BOP markets.

The poor do not have use for products sold in developed countries.

We are committed to a form over functionality. The poor might need sanitation, but can’t afford detergents in formats we offer. Therefore, there is no market in the BOP.

Only developed countries appreciate and pay for technological innovations.

The BOP does not need advanced technology solutions; they will not pay for them. Therefore, the BOP cannot be a source of innovations.

The BOP market is not critical for long-term growth and vitality of MNCs.

BOP markets are at best an attractive distraction.

Intellectual excitement is in developed markets; it is very hard to recruit managers for BOP markets.

We cannot assign our best people to work on market development in BOP markets.

Adapted from C.K. Prahalad and Stuart Hart, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, strategy+business, Issue 26, 2002. Reprinted with permission from strategy+business, the award-winning management quarterly published by Booz Allen Hamilton. www.strategy-business.com.

These and other implicit assumptions surface in every discussion of BOP markets with managers in MNCs and those in large domestic firms in developing countries that fashion their management practices after those at successful MNCs. These biases are hard to eradicate in large firms. Although the dominant logic and its implications are clear, it is our goal in this book to challenge and provide counterpoints. For example, BOP markets enable firms to challenge their perspectives on cost. We will show that a 10 to 200 times advantage (compared to the cost structures that are oriented to the top of the pyramid markets) is possible if firms innovate from the BOP up and do not follow the traditional practice of serving the BOP markets by making minor changes to the products created for the top of the pyramid.

Most charitable organizations also believe that the private sector is greedy and uncaring and that corporations cannot be trusted with the problems of poverty alleviation. From this perspective, profit motive and poverty alleviation do not mix easily or well. Aid agencies have come full circle in their own thinking. From aid focused on large infrastructure projects and public spending on education and health, they are also moving toward a belief that private-sector involvement is a crucial ingredient to poverty alleviation.

Historically, governments, aid agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), large firms, and the organized (formal and legal as opposed to extralegal) business sector all seem to have reached an implicit agreement: Market-based solutions cannot lead to poverty reduction and economic development. As shown in Figure 1.2, the dominant logic of each group restricts its ability to see the market opportunities at the BOP. The dominant logic of each group is different, but the conclusions are similar. During the last decade, each group has been searching for ways out of this self-imposed intellectual trap. To eradicate poverty, we have to break this implicit compact through a BOP-oriented involvement of the private sector.

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2 The influence of dominant logic.

We have to change our long-held beliefs about the BOP—our genetic code, if you will. The barrier that each group has to cross is different, but difficult nonetheless. However, after we cross the intellectual barrier, the opportunities become obvious. The BOP market also represents a major engine of growth and global trade, as we illustrate in our subsequent stories of MNCs and private firms from around the world.

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