The efficacy – and appropriateness – of monetizing the poor may be questionable for some. Reality and research, however, suggest that enabling the poor to make the economic and psychic step up from merely subsisting has transformative benefits. These authors have conducted extensive research on how helping the poor make the move up ought to be done and how the benefits of such a move underpin change that lasts.
The world today is divided into “have’s” and “have not’s.” Recently however, businesses have begun to focus on providing market solutions for the world’s poor. There is now a significant movement in business practice and research toward monetizing these potential markets, as chronicled in the Base-of-the-Pyramid literature (Prahalad, 2005). This article will present an alternative but complementary micro-level perspective of consumers, small business owners or entrepreneurs, and marketplace behaviors. This perspective aims to understand and enable the subsistence marketplaces (Viswanathan and Rosa, 2007) of the world to move toward becoming sustainable marketplaces – a critical goal for business and humanity. Following a brief discussion of the state of the art in business approaches to poverty alleviation, this article will present the rationale for the sustainable marketplaces perspective, outline research, educational, and social initiatives that have emerged from taking this perspective, and discuss implications for businesses that aim to take leadership in poverty alleviation.
The Base of the Pyramid (BoP) approach
Emerging research is beginning to bring to light business innovations aimed at the poorer citizens of the world – the roughly 4 billion people living on less than $2 a day, those who are commonly referred to as constituting the bottom of the pyramid (Prahalad, 2005; Wankel, 2008) or as subsistence marketplaces (Viswanathan and Rosa, 2007). This research trend has been largely inspired by the ground-breaking ideas espoused in the BoP approach to business and poverty alleviation (Prahalad and Hart, 2002; Hart and Christensen, 2002), whose core premise is that the large numbers of individuals living in poverty in developing and emerging markets present new, unprecedented market opportunities for businesses around the world. Faced with intense competition and customer saturation in developed markets, businesses could generate profits through developing new product and market innovations that also help alleviate poverty, and provide market access to the vast numbers of poor. The literature has called for research and practice that help enhance the poor’s capacity to consume, their dignity and range of choices, and facilitates the development of new goods and services that are inclusive and build trust between buyers and sellers (Prahalad, 2005).
The BoP literature has helped envision a meaningful role for business in poverty alleviation. It represents a counter-intuitive response to status quo thinking that solutions to this problem lie exclusively in the realm of non-commercial interventions. It includes rich case studies that highlight the role of innovative business and social-enterprise experiments on the ground over many decades in that lead to this intellectual movement (BoP). It has brought much needed attention to the contexts of poverty, heretofore absent in any sustained manner in the business literature. Such intellectual momentum is critical, in turn, for creating momentum for larger change in business practice, education, and research.
However, the literature must now be supplemented by additional research that seeks answers to a range of difficult but necessary questions. At the broadest level, perhaps the most relevant question is one of how, rather than whether, businesses can play a role in poverty alleviation. For instance, critics continue to point to the vulnerabilities of the poor, and question their role as market segments for products from the global supply chain (Karnani, 2006). On the other hand, supporters reiterate the poor’s market readiness by focusing on strengths (e.g. entrepreneurial spirit). However, business research, education, and practice have to move beyond these debates and investigate how business can contribute most effectively. To do so will require a nuanced understanding of both the strengths and vulnerabilities of the poor, rather than either of them in isolation. In this regard, there is also a need for a nuanced understanding of the similarities and differences between various subsistence contexts around the world, rather than the assumption of a uniform character for all of them (e.g. brand aspirations and technology receptivity of the poor). For example, some countries/economies are embedded in larger climates of conflict and repression, some in climate severity, and some in chronic apathy. Thus, the reasons for poverty differ greatly. Global, brand-driven businesses cannot realistically approach and solve all these situations in the same manner.
Whereas the BoP perspective makes it clear that poor economies have merits as new consumer markets for enterprising global corporations, there is a need to understand them as contexts with pre-existing traditions of vibrant marketplace activity. Such understanding would appropriately change business’ focus from being the productive agent, the creator of value, and other traditional, self-centered connotations, to a humbler focus on ‘co-creating value’ (Sheth and Uslay, 2007).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, market engagement with the poor has to be achieved in socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable ways; thus, the challenge of sustainability must be squarely addressed. Progress through merely mimicking consumption behaviors of those at higher levels of the income pyramid represents a drastic threat to the already unsustainable conditions on the planet. Figure 1 depicts the need for the processes of consumption and wealth creation aimed at improving the lives of the poor to unfold through pathways leading to sustainability.
Understanding subsistence marketplaces
Our approach to understanding subsistence marketplaces is bottom-up, examining consumer, seller, and marketplace behaviors as the starting point (Viswanathan, 2007; Viswanathan and Rosa, 2007). This complements macro-level economic and mid-level business strategy approaches by providing a deeper understanding of behavioral fundamentals that underlie the economic transactions and marketplace interactions of the poor. We believe that such a behavioral perspective is central to further development in this area, and that detailed understanding at this level is essential for developing effective business models and technological innovations for these marketplaces.
A brief discussion of terminology is relevant here. “Subsistence” connotes a state of being resource-poor, barely having sufficient resources for day-to-day living (Viswanathan and Rosa, 2007). Yet, there is the possibility of richness in other dimensions, such as being “network-rich” through social relations. The term is intended to be descriptive but not patronizing. Likewise, “marketplaces” signifies that these contexts often have rich, culture-specific, pre-existing traditions of economic exchanges, regardless of being acknowledged or ignored by wealthier economies (Viswanathan and Rosa, 2007). The choice of the term “subsistence marketplaces,” also reflects the spirit of this work, which is a desire to understand these marketplaces in their own right, and to view them not just as markets to sell to, but as individuals, communities, consumers, entrepreneurs, and markets to learn from.
Research on subsistence marketplaces
This brief discussion is intended to illustrate our ongoing research on subsistence marketplaces (details can be found at http://www.business.illinois.edu/subsistence). Our research began more than a decade ago by seeking to understand marketplace behaviors of individuals living across literacy and resource barriers. Beginning in 1997, we studied low-literate, low-income consumers in the U.S. as a starting point (Ritson and Viswanathan, 1999; Viswanathan et al., 2005; Viswanathan and Gau, 2005; Viswanathan et al., 2009). This research helped highlight some unique socio-cognitive characteristics of such consumers (please see Viswanathan et al., 2005). For example, we found that these consumers engage in concrete thinking – the tendency to process single pieces of information, such as price, while finding it difficult to derive higher-level abstractions (e.g. considering price and package size jointly). Another characteristic is pictographic thinking — viewing brand names and prices as images in a scene rather than as symbols to be read and interpreted, and visualizing desired product quantities or even “counting” dollar totals by picturing them rather than using available symbolic information. We also found that the social stigma of being barely literate heavily influenced purchase decision-making (e.g. giving up on functional but complex attributes to avoid the embarrassment of exposing their low literacy to a retailer).
This research provided psychological perspective about consumption in a low-literate, low-income context in an advanced economy. We then conducted research in India to explore a complementary sociological perspective in marketplaces characterized by widespread poverty. To do this, we studied the marketplace interactions between consumers and small business owners who lived at mere subsistence levels. A key finding was the existence of pervasive and highly social one-on-one relationships among interdependent consumers and sellers (Viswanathan, 2007). As a result of shared experiences of the same trials and tribulations of subsistence living, consumer-seller relationships extended well beyond their marketplace roles.
For consumers, the one-to-one interactional style of the marketplace appears necessary to cope with the consumption challenges thrown up by severe economic and socio-cognitive constraints. As these constraints impose individual shortcomings in marketplace proficiency, consumer coping mechanisms often include fostering a buyer-seller relationship that goes beyond the economic sphere. Indeed, these one-to-one marketplaces for the poor in India, as we encountered in our research, appear to afford some unique advantages that can enhance consumer and seller coping ability, when compared to circumstances faced by the poor in some advanced economies. Although resource-poor, these communities can be network-rich, and although lacking formal literacy, consumers can gradually develop a socially embedded form of marketplace literacy. On the other hand, the relationships prevalent in such a marketplace can sometimes be hierarchical, un-democratic, and even abusive. From a theoretical standpoint, one-to-one interactions contribute to the creation of social capital. There is growing empirical evidence that social capital can contribute to sustainable development of economies (Dasgupta and Serageldin, 2000).
Another unique aspect of the low-income marketplaces in India that we studied was that consumption and entrepreneurship were inseparable marketplace activities. In effect, many individuals play the role of consumers, as well as that of sellers running micro-enterprises to make a living; it is an integral part of their economic struggle to survive. Consumers and sellers share adverse circumstances, and learn from each other’s role in the marketplace from first-hand experience.
Our research also highlighted a number of deep tensions that characterize subsistence contexts – such as those between a naturally occurring predisposition to conserve [please see Gadgil and Guha (1996) for a discussion of the “environmentalism of the poor” in India], and the compelling need to consume natural resources to survive in the short term (e.g. using firewood for cooking). This tension creates a sustainability dilemma, which, as we mentioned earlier, is a critical topic that must be addressed by business approaches for subsistence marketplaces.
From subsistence to sustainability: The sustainable marketplaces perspective
Poverty alleviation efforts that perpetuate passive consumption patterns among the poor, a risk that appears very real if businesses adopt a narrow, markets view, would greatly magnify the negative ecological effects of already unsustainable production (e.g. pollution) and consumption practices (e.g. hyper-consumption). Therefore, there is a critical need for a perspective that allows businesses to understand and enable subsistence marketplaces to move toward being ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable marketplaces.1
As we mentioned earlier, acknowledging and learning from the marketplace traditions of the poor, i.e. taking a marketplaces view, suggests a ‘participant’ role for external businesses, allowing them to become truly socially embedded enterprises. It recognizes the vital role of local communities in eliminating poverty while sustaining local cultures and traditions, and emphasizes the role of local entrepreneurs in implementing business processes that are environmentally sustainable locally (e.g. Wheeler, et.al. 2005). This view, motivated by our research learning, which we call the sustainable marketplaces perspective, is thus a community-oriented and entrepreneurially-driven perspective of alleviating poverty in locally sustainable ways that also affords ample room for relatively large businesses to contribute by leveraging their considerable resources and capabilities, and achieve profitability.
We highlight below, some of the synergistic research, educational, and social initiatives that illustrate our sustainable marketplaces perspective. Although we primarily discuss our own work that reflects our journey in this domain, our insights build on substantial previous research in disciplines ranging from anthropology to social work, many of which have already highlighted issues that fit the perspective we have proposed here and provide valuable theoretical, substantive, and methodological insights. Our perspective emphasizes the need for a sustained marketplace orientation that leads to workable insights for business practitioners.
Initiatives in the sustainable marketplaces perspective
As illustrated in our brief description of subsistence marketplaces, our research projects based on this perspective span a number of issues in consumption [e.g., coping strategies, memory, and decision-making, Viswanathan et al., 2009 a and b), entrepreneurship [e.g., adaptive capability of small enterprises (Viswanathan et al, 2008 a and b)], management [e.g., marketing (Ritchie and Sridharan, 2007; Sridharan and Viswanathan, 2008; Viswanathan et al., 2008c; Viswanathan et al., 2008d), the need for a sustainable market orientation that internalizes social good (Viswanathan et al., 2007; Viswanathan et al., 2009c)] and research methods (Viswanathan et al., 2008e). An edited volume based on a conference in 2006 on this topic (Rosa and Viswanathan, 2007) provides a compilation of several research findings in this domain, as will a special issue of the Journal of Business Research based on a second conference on the same topic, conducted in 2008.
Whereas previous work on empowering the poor through market forces has focused on two key elements – financial resources (e.g., micro-financing) and market access, our research findings led us to focus on a third key element – marketplace literacy. Accordingly, and in concert with starting a social enterprise, the Marketplace Literacy Project (www.marketplaceliteracy.org), we developed a consumer and entrepreneurial literacy program in India (Viswanathan et al., 2008a and 2008b; Viswanathan et al., 2009d). We have offered it for over five years now, with the program presently being scaled up through collaborations with large organizations. This program teaches the know-why or an understanding of why marketplaces function the way they do, and uses this as a basis to teach the know-how of being an informed consumer or business owner. This program also remains rooted in the life circumstances, marketplace interactions, vulnerabilities and strengths of individuals living in subsistence. As a result, despite the difficulties of abstract thinking that most participants experience, we enable a deeper understanding of marketplaces by leveraging the social skills they bring to the program and relating educational content back to their lived experiences. The program assumes that the audience cannot read or write, and uses such means as pictorial stimuli, role-playing, simulated shopping interactions, and small group discussions. We have found that such a program can empower individuals to participate in the marketplace more effectively through enhanced skills, greater awareness of rights, and increased self-confidence. Businesses can impart similar education for subsistence entrepreneurs who participate in their value chains and subsistence consumers who are potential buyers of their products and create win-win scenarios. The process we used to design the program, namely emphasizing a socially embedded form of marketplace literacy, is also noteworthy. It was based on a mindset of mutual learning that took into account both the strengths and vulnerabilities of subsistence marketplaces. We combined grounded research on existing marketplace traditions with broader insights from business education, and experience and expertise at the local level, through a team of individuals from the subsistence contexts we studied.
Our research findings also stimulated the development of specialized courses for the university business school curriculum in the U.S. (currently in place at the University of Illinois). One example is a year-long course on Sustainable Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces, cross-taught by business and engineering faculty (Viswanathan et al., 2009e). Students in business, engineering, and industrial design, understand subsistence marketplaces through coursework and immersion in these contexts and through emersion of business, engineering, and design principles, generating concepts, building them to workable prototypes, and developing business plans. A second example is a 5-week module in a Business 101 course required for all incoming undergraduate students. These courses emphasize the bottom-up approach of understanding life circumstances of poverty as the basis for designing sustainable business solutions. Another course on sustainable marketing enterprises emphasizes using insights from subsistence contexts as a starting point for creating products that meet the triple bottom line for advanced economies, reflecting that learning from subsistence marketplaces can benefit all marketplaces.
Business implications of the sustainable marketplaces perspective
The intersection of sustainability and subsistence presents a challenge for business research and practice. A key implication for businesses arising from our research is the need for business to understand the role of sustainable consumption and production among the poor, specifically at the micro level of human behavior [please see Prahalad (2005) for a description of what is now a large plastic recycling business, initiated entirely by the slum dwellers of Dharavi, India]. However, to facilitate and accelerate such environmentalism among the poor (Gadgil and Guha, 1996), businesses must understand and find ways to resolve the fundamental tension that they face, between two compelling needs; the need to conserve (arising out of scarcity) and the need to consume (aimed at survival).
The mandate in the sustainability dimension parallels the larger need for businesses to commit to understanding the behavioral implications of poverty in general, if they are to engage subsistence marketplaces in business relationships. We have observed in our research that poverty imposes multifaceted consumption constraints but also induces resilient strengths among the poor, which, if recognized and enhanced by firms, can produce win-win outcomes. Low literacy causes difficulty with abstractions and deepens the short-term orientation, but can lead to the development of other useful, native skills (e.g. social learning skills). Very low incomes perpetuate a short-term orientation but also engender an undying entrepreneurial spirit. Successful business examples will reflect a nuanced understanding of both vulnerabilities and strengths. For example, ITC Ltd’s Agri Business division in India focused on the substantial role of risk in farmers’ lives and, recognizing the need to enable them to effectively manage risk, introduced a successful marketplace solution, the e-choupal (Prahalad, 2005).
The same argument can be reversed by proposing a note of caution to understand weaknesses about specific market solutions that are not based on a full understanding of existing marketplaces and unique aspects of distinctly different subsistence contexts. For instance, although there are numerous examples of success stories of microenterprises made possible by the microcredit revolution (Smith and Thurman, 2007), there must be an awareness of the limits to entrepreneurial possibilities in particular contexts, or at least the impediments that apply. Our research shows that very low levels of literacy can sometimes have a limiting effect on individual capacity to envision and execute entrepreneurial activity, and the multifaceted nature of deprivation often causes psychological effects that trap people in a cycle of subsistence living. Therefore, microcredit solutions must be designed using a mutual learning perspective with a deep understanding of preexisting marketplaces, while addressing impediments such as a lack of marketplace literacy that could lead to failed microenterprises and consequent cycles of debt.
Also important to businesses is the need to understand the complex relationship between consumption and entrepreneurship in subsistence contexts. As noted, consumption and entrepreneurship are inseparable marketplace activities, with consumers and sellers sharing adverse circumstances and learning from each other, and with a significant proportion of consumers also operating as micro entrepreneurs. Thus, businesses need to move beyond the conventional question of whether the BoP contains attractive consumer versus supplier markets to gain nuanced understanding of the interplay between consumption and entrepreneurship.
Businesses may also need to follow some new rules of engagement in general. A key element is the adoption of a philosophy of give and take and a mindset of mutual learning, where subsistence contexts are viewed as more than markets, but as consumers, sellers, and marketplaces to learn from. A second element is a partnership orientation. In subsistence marketplaces, relative to non-subsistence contexts, social capital is a bigger driver of success than financial or human capital. Thus, relationships and partnerships can solve problems that money and labor cannot. In an equal partnership, developed markets can contribute resources and technology, while subsistence marketplaces can contribute productivity and innovation; the former can impart wealth creation principles, while the latter can impart sustainability principles. Such symbiotic relationships are likely to be critical for success. Another key is to operate in a manner that allows for the production and consumption of value to be linked. In the industrialized economy, value is typically produced in factories and consumed in homes. In contrast, subsistence marketplaces are geared for individualized production and distribution processes, and offer vast opportunities for local value consumption.
These new rules of engagement might require businesses to adapt their structures, systems, policies, and cultures in order to effectively engage subsistence contexts. For instance, they may have to pursue a large number of ‘distributed relationships’ rather than a small number of relationships with ‘centralized control.’ Some of our research findings lead us to conclude that firms would benefit from taking a decentralized approach to organizing their marketing activities in subsistence contexts. In addition to increasing business value, because productivity in these contexts is largely driven by human craft, a decentralized approach allows for the sustainability of the local economy and culture. Businesses may also need to adopt an orientation whereby individual and community welfare become integral metrics for measuring the effectiveness of business processes.
Overall, the sustainable marketplaces perspective we have outlined in this article should be distinguished from a business-as-usual markets approach, i.e. the conventional business quest for parallel markets among the poor for existing or modified products. The conventional paradigm is a key cause of the ongoing debate of whether business can play a role in the poverty alleviation process, mainly because it generates polarizing arguments that cite a fundamental lack of buying power in subsistence contexts versus their immense size and potential as new markets, and presupposes that businesses have the right solutions. In contrast, the sustainable marketplaces perspective will require businesses to acquire a deep understanding of marketplace behaviors and sustainability practices of the poor, and engage in conversations with them on an equal plane. Marketplace research conducted with this egalitarian and learning mindset can allow firms to develop sustainable marketplace solutions from the ground up, solutions that genuinely alleviate the constraints of poverty and enhance quality of life. Thus, this perspective addresses the question of how business can meaningfully participate in the poverty alleviation process, rather than if they can. In this regard, the central question for businesses is not whether subsistence contexts represent markets for their products. Rather, it is the more nuanced question of how they can provide solutions that fit within the rich context of existing marketplace dynamics characterized by myriad influences from diverse sectors of society, and how they can enable such marketplaces to be ecologically and socially sustainable while also generating profit for the business. This perspective is not confined to small and medium enterprises that may more easily embed themselves in subsistence contexts. It is equally relevant for large business. For instance, some of the most useful technology and advanced medicine that are helping the poor around the world modernize and fight disease, are being provided by large businesses. Our suggested approach will strengthen this endeavour by enhancing managerial understanding about how to maintain a balance between what is taken out and what is put back into communities, while conducting all activities in an economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable way.
Finally, it is pertinent for businesses to note that the impetus for creating sustainable marketplaces raises the question: “What needs to be sustained?” and even more broadly, “What is sustainability?” Our micro-level behavioral focus is well-suited to understanding sustainability from the perspectives of consumers and sellers living in subsistence. As a result, our research learning and the consequent social and educational initiatives reflect a local, community-based view of sustainability. A key implication is that, whereas a market-based perspective of sustainability tends to emphasize the economic dimension and to a lesser extent, the macro-level environmental and societal dimensions, a perspective based on a ground-level understanding allows the micro-level economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability to emerge. For instance, our observations have revealed to us the considerable importance placed by subsistence populations on sustaining local economies, cultures, and traditions, in addition to environmental issues. Ensuring such a multi-faceted sustainability cannot be the sole preserve of business. We believe that an optimal combination of governmental initiatives, social enterprises, business efforts, and local enterprises is required to enable subsistence marketplaces to progress toward becoming sustainable marketplaces.
Limitations and caveats
Although sustainability is a logical idea that should be included in business thinking, it needs to be kept in mind that the amount of ecological degradation we are now confronted with may not be fully reversible. Similar to the population problem, we are merely in the phase of reducing the acceleration of degradation. Sustainability practices grouped under the rubric of the typical, centralized, industrialized production and distribution may not be sufficient to address this issue. Every single business process may have to be made inherently sustainable. The proposed sustainable marketplaces paradigm can allow businesses to aspire toward such a goal by perhaps extensively decentralizing their core business activities and even moving them beyond the boundaries of the firm. Lessons learned through these activities may, in turn, benefit all marketplaces in collectively facing the challenges of unsustainable consumption and production.
We should also note that many elements of our perspective are reflected in the long-standing efforts of exemplary social enterprises and businesses that have been working in this domain (e.g., enabling access to markets for subsistence entrepreneurs, financing for community based enterprises, sustainable development) and the academic literature in these areas (e.g., literature on indigenous entrepreneurship). Similarly, the BOP 2.0 Protocol (Simanis and Hart, 2008) is consistent with a number of elements of our approach, such as in co-creating entrepreneurs and businesses; there is much convergence on a number of key issues. In terms of the basic research that forms the foundation of our approach, as noted, a number of disciplines such as sociology and anthropology have examined impoverished communities and provided valuable insights. Unique to our approach is a sustained focus on the marketplace dimension of poverty. Our intent is not to claim an entirely new approach as much as to outline our own experiences of over more than a decade, and to synthesize some key insights into a perspective that emphasizes a ground-level focus on buyer, seller, and marketplace behavior. Our intent is also not to polarize alternative approaches. Rather, we see much more agreement than disagreement with other approaches and our goal is, partially, to articulate nuanced differences and highlight synergies.
An understanding of subsistence marketplaces and efforts to facilitate their progress toward becoming sustainable marketplaces can impart lessons of sustainable wealth creation for all markets (Figure 1). Our research initiatives clearly indicate that such understanding will need to occur at the level of cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors of micro entrepreneurs as well as the consumers they serve. Solutions based on a deep micro-level understanding of existing marketplace dynamics can be economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable while being customized to distinct subsistence contexts. This has implications for newer businesses elements, such as incorporating ecological considerations into value chains, creating partnerships between larger businesses and micro entrepreneurs, and developing entrepreneurial education. In closing, the sustainable marketplaces perspective presented in this article complements existing business approaches to poverty alleviation (e.g. BOP), and highlights the role that social enterprises, government and businesses can play in addressing poverty and sustainability in a harmonized manner. Importantly, it emphasizes a micro-level approach through an understanding of buyer, seller, and marketplace behavior. We believe that business research, education, and practice that are aligned with this perspective can enable subsistence marketplaces to move toward becoming sustainable marketplaces.
We acknowledge the support and involvement of several non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations and commercial enterprises in South India, and the invaluable assistance of S. Gajendiran and R. Venkatesan, who have been core members of our research team. This research was supported by several grants. We acknowledge the financial support of the Centre for International Business Education and Research at the University of Illinois, which is funded by the United States Department of Education (P220A60003-98, P220A020011 and P220A060028). We acknowledge financial support from the Department of Business Administration, the College of Business and the Campus Research Board at the University of Illinois. We also acknowledge financial support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (R3414A05).
Figure 1: From Subsistence Marketplaces To Sustainable Marketplaces
1 We use sustainability in the broadest sense of the word to capture social and ecological in addition to economic aspects (Marshall and Toffel, 2005).
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