The inclusive economy
There are billions of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid who are excluded from the benefits of the economy. They can’t afford healthy food, clean water, electricity or an education that could help improve their condition.
But although these people at the bottom of the pyramid have very little money, there are many ways in which businesses can provide them with solutions. However, this requires companies to operate with a different mindset and think very differently about the products and services they create.
It’s not just about money
The inclusive economy isn’t just about money, but spans the much broader challenge of finding a positive intersection where the commercial imperatives of businesses can address the issue of reducing poverty.
The objective – admittedly ambitious– is to construct new market solutions that meet the requirements of creating shared value, i.e. for both the company and for society.
Doing business and working for the benefit of society are not necessarily incompatible: with appropriate business models, companies can reach people effectively and take advantage of considerable market opportunities, while at the same time meeting core needs. Companies that target and serve the bottom of the pyramid are not charities. They develop practical solutions that they make available at the lowest possible price. In addition to the fact that marketing these products or services generates the revenue needed for the business to continue to operate, requiring a financial contribution, however small, from people from the poorest segments of the population ensures that the product or service offered actually meets an essential need.
In companies in the rich parts of the world, engineers and designers typically work hard to invent new features that can convince consumers who already have most of what they need to replace existing products with an improved model. It's an innovation focused on features and functionalities that are just nice to have.
In contrast, frugal innovation is about creating basic solutions that can overcome scarcity and make their benefits available to those who don’t have them. Frugal solutions are cheaper, because they offer exactly what the consumers need to have – and no more.
In India there is word for this type of innovation – it’s called “Jugaad”. Roughly, this can be translated as “making do with what you have”.
Simply because solutions are low cost and frugal doesn’t mean they can’t be based on advanced technology and be of good quality. Solar panels and low-power LED lighting can bring the benefits of electricity to even the most remote regions. Surprisingly, many people who lack basic sanitation or infrastructure, nevertheless have mobile phones, and this makes it possible to deliver information, health care services or education to them. Mobile banking services, like M-PESA in East Africa, today make safe banking available to anyone with a mobile phone.
Even free services can be world class. Many of the world’s leading universities make complete course materials and videos of lectures with their best professors available online for free. Using websites like Khan academy or Coursera, anyone with an computer, an Internet connection and the will to learn can in effect study at the highest level.
There are poor people in the rich world, too
The inclusive economy is not just aimed at the developing world. There is clearly also a great need for more inclusive solutions in the developed world as well. Microcredit, was originally created by Grameen bank to offer small loans to women in Bangladesh. But even in Europe and the United States—a country where 80 million citizens are unbanked or under-banked—microcredit is used to enable people to start a business and escape poverty.
Looking ahead, it is likely that many other affordable solutions which were initially developed to serve consumers in the developing world will turn out to be attractive for many people who live in the rich world, but are actually too poor to be fully included in the formal economic system.