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Becoming Indigenous

The Monsanto experience holds an important lesson: If corporate sustainability strategies are narrowly construed, they will fall seriously short. It is not enough to develop revolutionary technology with the potential to leapfrog currently unsustainable methods. Antiglobalization demonstrators have made it apparent that if corporate expansion is seen to endanger local autonomy, it will encounter vigorous resistance. Multinationals seeking new growth strategies to satisfy shareholders increasingly hear concerns from many quarters about consumer monoculture, labor rights, and cultural hegemony. As long as multinational corporations persist in being outsiders—alien to both the cultures and the ecosystems within which they do business—it will be difficult for them to realize their full commercial, let alone social, potential.

Today corporations are being challenged to rethink global strategies in which one-size-fits-all products are produced for the global market using world-scale production facilities and supply chains. Even so-called locally responsive strategies are often little more than pre-existing corporate solutions tailored to "fit" local markets: Technologies are frequently transferred from the corporate lab and applied in unfamiliar cultural and environmental settings; unmet needs in new markets are identified through demographic (secondary) data. The result is stillborn products and inappropriate business models that fail to effectively address real needs. As GE CEO Jeff Immelt recently noted, existing large corporations will be pre-empted by more nimble local players from the developing world unless they learn how to innovate from the ground up—what he calls "reverse innovation."38

Indeed, in response to the failure of traditional development assistance and large corporations' inability to effectively address the needs of the poor, "social entrepreneurship" has burst onto the scene.39 Rather than innovating from within existing institutions, this new breed of change agent seeks to launch new enterprises that address directly the problems of poverty, inequity, and unsustainability. Led by organizations such as Ashoka and Grameen Bank, there are now thousands of such fledgling enterprises around the world, each seeking to develop the new strategies and business models needed to catalyze social change.

The past decade has also seen the emergence of a new brand of financier—the "patient capitalist." Patient capitalists are not aid agencies or large corporations, but rather groups of investors and intermediaries focused on supporting small, high-impact entrepreneurs on the ground. This emerging sector includes groups such as the Acumen Fund, E+Co, Root Capital, Grassroots Business Fund, Intellicap, Microvest, New Ventures, and Technoserve. Taken together with the rapidly growing social investing, clean tech investing, and microfinance sectors, we are witnessing the birth of an entirely new industry—impact investing. Indeed, at the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative, the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) was announced as a vehicle for accelerating the development of this new financial sector.

Clearly then, the next challenge for large corporations will be learning how to become "indigenous" to the places in which they operate (see Exhibit 1.2). Doing so will require that they first widen the corporate bandwidth by admitting voices that have, up to now, been excluded; this means becoming radically transactive rather than just radically transparent. It will also entail the development of new "native" capabilities that enable a company to develop fully contextualized solutions to real problems in ways that respect local culture and natural diversity. When combined with multinational corporation's (MNC) ability to provide technical resources, investment, and global learning, native capability can enable companies to become truly embedded in the local context. It was with this realization that I embarked on a new professional challenge in 2003, having accepted the Samuel C. Johnson Chair in Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management. Our initiative at Cornell has spawned a new effort, the Base of the Pyramid Protocol, which seeks to develop a practical approach for becoming indigenous.

Exhibit 1.2

Exhibit 1.2 Indigenous Enterprise: The Next Sustainability Challenge

Unilever's Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Lever Limited (recently changed to Hindustan Unilever Limited), provides an interesting glimpse of the development of native capabilities in its efforts to pioneer new markets among the rural poor.40 Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) requires all employees in India to spend six weeks living in rural villages, actively seeks local consumer insights and preferences as it develops new products, and sources raw materials almost exclusively from local producers. The company also created an R&D center in rural India focused specifically on technology and product development to serve the needs of the poor. HLL uses a wide variety of local partners to distribute its products and also supports the efforts of these partners to build local capabilities. In addition, HLL provides opportunities and training to local entrepreneurs and actively experiments with new types of distribution, such as selling via local product demonstrations and village street theaters.

By developing local understanding, building local capacity, and encouraging a creative and flexible market development process, HLL has been able to generate substantial revenue and profits from operating in low-income markets. Today more than half of HLL's revenue comes from customers at the base of the economic pyramid. Using the approach to product development, marketing, and distribution pioneered in rural India, Unilever has also been able to leverage a rapidly growing and profitable business focused on low-income markets in other parts of the developing world. Not surprisingly, Unilever has encountered challenges and bumps in the road in its journey to reach the base of the pyramid; these are discussed in later chapters. Importantly, however, through its strategy, the company has created tens of thousands of jobs, improved hygiene and quality of life for millions, and become a partner in development with the poor themselves.

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