If you wanted to design a product for the Indian market, where would you begin? Do you even know what products are needed? Do you know how to give your product value in the multi-faceted culture of the sub-continent? Do you know how much of that market has electricity, running water, or other infrastructure that might be needed in order to use your product?
The answers are probably no, no, no, and no.
That’s why companies such as the Tata Group, an Indian corporation that strives to be socially responsible, are the ones coming up with products that fill the social and consumer needs of that huge market. Tata was able to combine lack of electricity, polluted water, poverty, and natural materials into a low-cost water purification system that uses ash from rice to purify water.
Yes, Tata will make money but it will also solve a social ill as it does so. That’s a lot of what tapping that “bottom billion” market is about: the triple bottom line.
And it’s why companies like Hewlett Packard has research centers in seven countries, including India. As Prith Banerjee, director of HP labs says, you have to be in India to see the restrictions and potential of that billion-person market. It’s about adding value but you can’t know what will be valuable unless you really understand the market.
The Grameen Bank provides loans through community groups that are committed not only to good business but to 16 principles that include such things as sending children to school, repairing one’s house, drinking only clean water, and building latrines. Obviously, investment money isn’t the only thing needed to make communities viable. But you have to be there to “get” that.
While rooting through the market demands, possibilities, and limitations, Tata, HP, and Grameen have had to accept and respect the culture that they aim to dramatically change. A paradox, isn’t it? Embrace it so you can change it.
As to those questions I first asked, take out the word “Indian,” and you have a list of questions you should answer before starting any enterprise, whether aimed at the bottom billion of India or at middle America.
Or the bottom millions of America? Are we doing the right things to figure out what they need, will value, and what will improve their lives?
Hats off to the social entrepreneurs who are already solving social problems in the United States and elsewhere! Are you one of those companies using capitalism to solve hunger, poverty, and education problems? Or, do you follow a company that is doing so? Tell us how!
Image: © Tata Group, 2005 ad campaign