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.
The next challenge will thus be for corporations 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 Indigenous Enterprise: The Next Sustainability Challenge
Unilever's Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), provides an interesting glimpse of the development of native capabilities in its efforts to pioneer new markets among the rural poor.33 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 entry process, HLL has been able to generate substantial revenues and profits from operating in low-income markets. Today more than half of HLL's revenues come 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. Even more important, through its new strategy, HLL has created tens of thousands of jobs, improved hygiene and quality of life, and become a partner in development among the poor themselves.