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The Nature of the Bottom-of-the-Pyramid Market

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A common assumption is that the poor have no purchasing power and, therefore, do not represent a viable market. C.K. Prahalad refutes this assumption and goes on to show that markets "at the bottom of the pyramid" are accessible, brand-conscious, connected, and eager for advanced technology.
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The nature of the BOP market has characteristics that are distinct. We outline some of the critical dimensions that define this market. These characteristics must be incorporated into our thinking as we approach the BOP.

There Is Money at the BOP

The dominant assumption is that the poor have no purchasing power and, therefore, do not represent a viable market.

Let us start with the aggregate purchasing power in developing countries where most of the BOP market exists. Developing countries offer tremendous growth opportunities. Within these markets, the BOP represents a major opportunity. Take China as an example. With a population of 1.2 billion and an average per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of U.S. $1,000, China currently represents a $1.2 trillion economy. However, the U.S. dollar equivalent is not a good measure of the demand for goods and services produced and consumed in China. If we convert the GDP-based figure into its dollar purchasing power parity (PPP), China is already a $5.0 trillion economy, making it the second largest economy behind the United States in PPP terms. Similarly, the Indian economy is worth about $3.0 trillion in PPP terms. If we take nine countries—China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa, and Thailand—collectively they are home to about 3 billion people, representing 70 percent of the developing world population. In PPP terms, this group’s GDP is $12.5 trillion, which represents 90 percent of the developing world. It is larger than the GDP of Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy combined. This is not a market to be ignored.

Now, consider the BOP within the broad developing country opportunity. The dominant assumption is that the poor do not have money to spend and, therefore, are not a viable market. Certainly, the buying power for those earning less than U.S. $2 per day cannot be compared with the purchasing power of individuals in the developed nations. However, by virtue of their numbers, the poor represent a significant latent purchasing power that must be unlocked. For example, all too often, the poor tend to reside in high-cost ecosystems even within developing countries. In the shanty town of Dharavi, outside Mumbai, India, the poor pay a premium for everything from rice to credit. Compare the cost of everyday items of consumption between Dharavi and Warden Road (now redesignated B. Desai Road), a higher-income neighborhood in Mumbai. The poverty penalty in Dharavi can be as high as 5 to 25 times what the rich pay for the same services (see Table 1.2). Research indicates that this poverty penalty is universal, although the magnitude differs by country. The poverty penalty is the result of local monopolies, inadequate access, poor distribution, and strong traditional intermediaries. Large-scale private-sector businesses can “unlock this poverty penalty.” For example, the poor in Dharavi pay 600 to 1,000 percent interest for credit from local moneylenders. A bank with access to this market can do well for itself by offering credit at 25 percent. Although 25 percent interest might look excessive to a casual observer, from the point of view of the BOP consumer, access to a bank decreases the cost of credit from 600 percent to 25 percent. The BOP consumer is focused on the difference between the local moneylender rates and the rates that a commercial bank would charge. The bank can make a reasonable profit after adjusting for risk (10 percent over its traditional, top-of-the-pyramid customers). We argue later that the BOP consumers do not represent higher risk.

Table 1.2  The Poor and High-Cost Economic Ecosystems



Warden Road

Poverty Premium

Credit (annual interest)




Municipal grade water (per cubic meter)




Phone call (per minute)




Diarrhea medication




Rice (per kg)




Source: Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review. “The Poor and High Cost Economics Ecosystems.” From “Serving the World’s Poor Profitably” by C.K. Prahalad and Allen Hammond, September 2002. Copyright ” 2002 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, all rights reserved.

These cost disparities between BOP consumers and the rich in the same economy can be explained only by the fact that the poverty penalty at the BOP is a result of inefficiencies in access to distribution and the role of the local intermediaries. These problems can easily be cured if the organized private sector decides to serve the BOP. The organized sector brings with it the scale, scope of operations, and management know-how that can lead to efficiencies for itself and its potential consumers.

The poor also spend their earnings in ways that reflect a different set of priorities. For example, they might not spend disposable income on sanitation, clean running water, and better homes but will spend it on items traditionally considered luxuries. Without legal title to land, these residents are unlikely to invest in improving their living quarters, much less the public facilities surrounding their homes. For example, in Dharavi, 85 percent of the households own a television set, 75 percent own a pressure cooker and blender, 56 percent own a gas stove, and 21 percent have telephones. In Bangladesh, women entrepreneurs with cell phones, which they rent out by the minute to other villagers, do a brisk business. It is estimated that the poor in Bangladesh spend as much as 7 percent of their income on connectivity.

Access to BOP Markets

The dominant assumption is that distribution access to the BOP markets is difficult and, therefore, represents a major impediment for the participation of large firms and MNCs.

Urban areas have become a magnet for the poor. By 2015, there will be more than 225 cities in Africa, 903 in Asia, and 225 in Latin America. More than 368 cities in the developing world will have more than 1 million people in each. There will be at least 23 cities with more than 10 million residents. Collectively, these cities will account for about 1.5 to 2.0 billion people. More than 35 to 40 percent of these urban concentrations will be composed of BOP consumers. The density of these settlements—about 15,000 people per hectare—will allow for intense distribution opportunities.

The rural poor represent a different problem. Access to distribution in rural markets continues to be problematic. Most of the rural markets are also inaccessible to audio and television signals and are often designated as “media dark.” Therefore, the rural poor are not only denied access to products and services, but also to knowledge about what is available and how to use it. The spread of wireless connectivity among the poor might help reduce this problem. The ability to download movie and audio clips on wireless devices might allow firms to access traditionally “media dark” areas and provide consumers in these locations with newfound access to information about products and services. However, this is still an evolving phenomenon restricted to a few countries.

The BOP does not lend itself to a single distribution solution. Urban concentrations represent a problem distinct from that of the distribution access to dispersed rural communities. Worldwide, the cost of reach per consumer can vary significantly across countries. A wide variety of experiments are underway in these markets to find efficient methods of distributing goods and services. One such experiment, Project Shakti at Hindustan Lever Ltd. (HLL) in India, is a case in point. HLL created a direct distribution network in hard-to-reach locales (markets without distribution coverage through traditional distributors and dealers). HLL selected entrepreneurial women from these villages and trained them to become distributors, providing education, advice, and access to products to their villages. These village women entrepreneurs, called Shakti Amma (“empowered mother”), have unique knowledge about what the village needs and which products are in demand. They earn between Rs. 3,000 and 7,000 per month (U.S. $60–$150) and, therefore, create a new capacity to consume for themselves and their families. More important, these entrepreneurial women are increasingly becoming the educators and access points for the rural BOP consumers in their communities. This approach is not new. Avon is one of the largest cosmetics operations in Brazil and has used a similar approach by leveraging more than 800,000 “Avon ladies” as distributors to reach even the most remote regions of Amazonia.1

The BOP Markets Are Brand-Conscious

The dominant assumption is that the poor are not brand-conscious. On the contrary, the poor are very brand-conscious. They are also extremely value-conscious by necessity.

The experience of Casas Bahia in Brazil and Elektra in Mexico—two of the largest retailers of consumer durables, such as televisions, washing machines, radios, and other appliances—suggests that the BOP markets are very brand-conscious. Brand consciousness among the poor is universal. In a way, brand consciousness should not be a surprise. An aspiration to a new and different quality of life is the dream of everyone, including those at the BOP. Therefore, aspirational brands are critical for BOP consumers. However, BOP consumers are value buyers. They expect great quality at prices they can afford. The challenge to large firms is to make aspirational products affordable to BOP consumers. These consumers represent a new challenge for managers with increased pressure on costs of development, manufacturing, and distribution. As a result, BOP markets will force a new level of efficiency in the MNCs, as we demonstrate in Chapter 2, “Products and Services for the BOP.”

The BOP Market Is Connected

Contrary to the popular view, BOP consumers are getting connected and networked. They are rapidly exploiting the benefits of information networks.

The spread of wireless devices among the poor is proof of a market at the BOP. For example, by the end of 2003, China had an installed base of 250 million cell phones. India had an installed base of approximately 30 million. The Indian market is growing at about 1.5 million handsets per month and reached 100 million handsets by 2005. Brazil already had 35 to 40 million. Both the current market size and the growth rates suggest that the BOP market is a critical factor in worldwide wireless growth. Telecommunications providers have made it easier for BOP consumers to purchase handsets and service through prepaid cards. The proliferation of wireless devices among the poor is universal, from Grameen Phone in Bangladesh to Telefonica in Brazil. Further, the availability of PCs in kiosks at a low price per hour and the opportunity to videoconference using PCs are adding to the intensity of connectivity among those at the BOP. The net result is an unprecedented ability of BOP consumers to communicate with each other in several countries. The technology of wireless and PC connectivity allows the BOP population to actively engage in a dialogue with each other, with the firms from which they want to purchase goods and services, and with the politicians who represent them.

Connectivity also allows the BOP consumers to establish new patterns of communication away from their villages. With cell phones and TV, the BOP consumer has unprecedented access to information and opportunities to engage in a dialogue with the larger community. As a result, word of mouth among BOP consumers is becoming a potent force for assessing product quality, prices, and options available to them. The spread of good bargains and bad news can be rapid. For example, in India, it appears that some consumers found worms in chocolates sold by Cadbury, a large and very successful MNC. Ten years ago, this would have been a nonevent, but with access to multiple and fiercely competitive TV channels, wireless, and Internet, the news spread so rapidly across India that not just managers within Cadbury but all managers involved in the “fast-moving consumer goods” industry were surprised and worried.2

BOP Consumers Accept Advanced Technology Readily

Contrary to popular belief, the BOP consumers accept advanced technology readily.

The spread of wireless devices, PC kiosks, and personal digital assistants (PDAs) at the BOP has surprised many a manager and researcher. For example, ITC, an Indian conglomerate, decided to connect Indian farmers with PCs in their villages. The ITC e-Choupal (literally, “village meeting place”) allowed the farmers to check prices not only in the local auction houses (called mandis), but also prices of soybean futures at the Chicago Board of Trade. The e-Choupal network allowed the farmers access to information that allowed them to make decisions about how much to sell and when, thus improving their margins. Similarly, women entrepreneurs in southern India, given a PC kiosk in their villages, have learned to videoconference among themselves, across villages on all kinds of issues, from the cost of loans from various banks to the lives of their grandchildren in the United States.3 Chat rooms are full of activity that none of us could have imagined. Most interestingly, in Kerala, India, fishermen in traditional fishing boats, after a day of productive work, sell their catch to the highest bidders, using their cell phones to contact multiple possible landing sites along the Kerala coast. The simple boats, called catamarans, have not changed, but the entire process of pricing the catch and knowing how to sell based on reliable information has totally changed lives at the BOP.4 The BOP consumers are more willing to adopt new technologies because they have nothing to forget. Moving to wireless from nothing is easier than moving to wireless from a strong tradition of efficient and ubiquitous landlines.


  1. Helen Cha, Polly Cline, Lilly Liu, Carrie Meek, and Michelle Villagomez. "Direct Selling and Economic Empowerment in Brazil: The Case of Avon." Edited by Anuradha Dayal-Gulati, Kellogg School of Management, 2003.
  2. Syed Firdaus Ashraf. "Worms Found in Chocolate Packet," http://www.rediff.com, October 3, 2003.
  3. See multiparty videoconferencing, www.n-Logue.com.
  4. Saritha Rai. "In Rural India, a Passage to Wirelessness." The New York Times, August 4, 2001.

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