Physics of Poverty series by Dr. Tara Thiagarajan, Chairperson, Madura Microfinance Ltd.Over the last ten years, with the publishing of CK Prahalad’s book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid and with inclusion gaining ground as a national buzz word, companies have been looking in larger numbers at rural markets for all sorts of products. Yet for every success in rural India, the marketplace is littered with many, many failures. What has been the problem?
From my vantage point inside a company that operates predominantly in villages, I have a first-hand view. Not a week goes by when we are not introduced to a company with a product opportunity that they would like us to help them market in rural areas. It is an innovative product they tell us, specifically designed to solve a problem, meet an urgent need. And it is affordable. Shouldn’t that be enough? People from the villages should flock to it.
Obviously, we presume, when money is scarce, it becomes the defining factor. Poor people need something low cost that ‘fixes’ an aspect of their problem of poverty. After all, wasn’t Maslow right when he so elegantly constructed his hierarchy of needs? When you are poor, your entire focus is around tending to your basic physiological needs for food, clothing and shelter, followed by your needs for health and safety. Until you have fulfilled these, you can’t move on to greater pursuits or aspirations.
Five years ago I believed that. After all, I had firsthand experience to know so. On a trip in west Africa from Dakar to Timbuktu by road I had eaten millet sauce and rice for weeks and been stranded on the roadside without food as our van driver vanished for 36 hours on foot to fetch a bucket of muddy water for the radiator. There was nothing anywhere in sight but an old lady selling a bitter root. I could think of nothing but food. Nothing mattered more than getting food. It consumed me completely. I had crashed to the bottom of the hierarchy of needs.
Now, after five years of working in rural India, I know better (and it is not surprising that Maslow has never been proved right). There is the young man who would rather skip dinner so he can afford a cinema ticket. After all, what is life without some song and dance? The woman who takes in and raises orphans, even though she has so little herself. After all, what is a life without love and compassion? The couple that would rather wait and save for three years to afford the ‘right’ kind of floor tiles than construct with the low cost kind. After all, it still has to look good and it matters a lot what the neighbours think. And then there are some of our microfinance borrowers who choose to work in our part time field jobs because they feel it gives them a sense of fulfilment. After all, it matters what job you do and how you feel about it. Ask any of these folk to tell you about themselves and they certainly won’t begin with their income. They will define themselves in terms of their unique hopes and dreams, their personalities, preferences and lifestyle.
And yet even as marketers segment away the urban population by lifestyle, preferences, and a host of psychographic and social characteristics, rural folk are defined entirely by their poverty - all 700 million of them. They are simply ‘the bottom of the pyramid’ or ‘BoP’ as it has become fashionable to call them (It’s not a pyramid, but that’s a different story). Price is important. But to the marketer who recognizes their humanity - the breadth of their dreams and aspirations, of their interests, lifestyles, behaviours, habits and psychographic characteristics, there will be success. You cannot simply brand by poverty.
And in retrospect, thinking back to my days in West Africa, I remember that all it took was a few dusty packs of Nutella in a small shop, packaged over ten years ago to make me forget about food and begin dreaming again.