[this short essay (long blog post) is inspired by and related to this video. You can engage one without the other, but they go together.]
Part 1: The bottom is important.
Almost a third of the world’s population earns $2.50 or less a day. The enormity of this disparity takes my breath away, but there’s an interesting flip side to it: That’s a market of more than five billion dollars a day. Add the next segment ($5 a day) and it’s easy to see that every single day, the poorest people in the world spend more than ten billion dollars to live their lives.
Most of that money is spent on traditional items purchased in traditional ways. Kerosene. Rice. Basic medicines if you can afford them or if death is the only alternative. And almost all of these purchases are inefficient. There’s lack of information, high costs because of a lack of choice, and most of all, a lack of innovation.
There are two significant impacts here: first, the inefficiency is a tax on the people who can least afford it. Second, the side effects of poor products are dangerous. Kerosene kills, and so does dirty water.
Part 2: The bottom is an opportunity (for both buyer or seller).
If a business can offer a better product, one that’s more efficient, provides better information, increases productivity, is safer, cleaner, faster or otherwise improved, it has the ability to change the world.
Change the world? Sure. Because capitalism and markets scale. If you can make money selling someone a safer item, you’ll make more. And more. Until you’ve sold all you can. At the same time, you’ve enriched the purchaser, who bought something of her own free will because it made things better.
Not only that, but engaging in the marketplace empowers the purchaser. If you’ve got a wagon full of rice as food aid, you can just dump it in the town square and drive away. You have all the power. But if you have
to sell something in order to succeed, it moves the power from the seller to buyer. Quality and service and engagement have to continually improve or the buyer moves on.
The cell phone, for example, has revolutionized the life of billions in the developing world. If you have a cell phone, you can determine the best price for the wheat you want to sell. You can find out if the part for your tractor has come in without spending two days to walk to town to find out. And you can be alerted to weather… etc. Productivity booms. There’s no way the cell phone could have taken off as quickly or efficently as a form of aid, but once someone started engaging with this market, the volume was so huge it just scaled. And the market now competes to be ever more efficient.
Part 3: It’s not as easy as it looks
And here’s the kicker: If you’re a tenth-generation subsistence farmer, your point of view is different from someone working in an R & D lab in Palo Alto. The Moral Economy of the Peasant makes this argument quite clearly. Imagine standing in water up to your chin. The only thing you’re prepared to focus on is whether or not the water is going to rise four more inches. Your penchant for risk is close to zero. One mistake and the game is over.
As a result, it’s extremely difficult to sell innovation to this consumer. The line around the block to get into the Apple store is just an insane concept in this community. A promise from a marketer is meaningless, because the marketer isn’t part of the town, the marketer will move away, the marketer is, of course, a liar.