The caring conundrum – beyond badges for social enterprise

save the earthGreen not working? Try chocolate...

At a loss for how to explain what I do for a living, my sister once described my work as “something to do with pyramid schemes and poor people.” I can laugh at it now (the base of the pyramid is an awful phrase for a number of reasons), but the incident highlights how contradictory most people find the combination of capitalism and doing good for the world.

Even when familiar with enterprises that use “capitalism for good”, most people generally call to mind a class of companies that fill a small, though often profitable, niche of eco- or socially-conscious consumers. By in large, growth in those markets is defined by how much you can make people care (about the planet, about people, about pandas).

Green badge: Do Good, Buy Now!

There’s another class of companies, however, who may use green means, but who don’t rely on consumer sentiment about society or the environment to sell their stuff. Among these are many of the companies I have worked with in recent years, where the name of the game has been catalyzing massive new markets, primarily in the so-called base of the economic pyramid. While they used inclusive means to serve poor communities, these companies’ goals were those of growth-seeking, profit-oriented enterprises.

Creating markets for the base of the pyramid

Creating markets for soy protein in Andhra Pradesh, India

Where was the market for Solae's protein in rural India? It needed to be created.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published an article by my colleague Erik Simanis about our work developing new markets in the base of the world's income pyramid. Erik is a pioneer in business development methodologies for the BoP.

The Base of the Pyramid is not actually a market. True, those billions of low-income people have a lot in common. But they don't have two of the vital characteristics you need to have a consumer market. They haven't been conditioned to think that the products being offered are something one would even buy. And they haven't adapted their behaviors and budgets to fit the products into their lives. A consumer market is nothing less than a lifestyle built around a product.

Erik uses a range of examples including bottled water in the U.S., P&G's PUR water cleaning powder, KickStart's MoneyMaker pump, and our own work with Solae in India to demonstrate that companies should think twice before assuming a market for their products exists, even if those products are well designed. And if a market doesn't exist then traditional market entry approaches - the kind that most companies use and most managers are taught - are largely ineffective. Instead, companies need to learn to create markets.

Since the first BoP Protocol pilot in 2005, our work has focused more and more on the challenges of creating new markets and building the enterprises that enable them. Over the years, we have learned a number of hard, but handy, lessons. Three of those lessons are described below.

BoP Book Discussions

"All learning integrates thinking and doing. All learning is about how we interact in the world and the types of capacities that develop from our interactions." - Presence, Peter Senge et al

Book discussion in the Amazon

A book discussion in the Amazon

One of the benefits of working in the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) has been the opportunity to take deep dives into experiences that were once totally foreign to me. Another benefit has been the long travel times between and across continents; plane flights, bus rides, and boat trips where I can immerse myself in books and articles covering a wide range of topics. [It's a sad fact that in these information-at-the-speed-of-thought days I actually have to be unplugged and forced to sit down before I pick up a good book!] Over the past several years both those benefits have twirled around my head ... like a pair of ballroom dancers continuously exchanging leading and following roles. I've never had a learning experience like my work in the BoP: this combination of thinking & doing and the knowledge that both have created.

Preserving the local soil - Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice

“Every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down.” - Mark J. Plotkin, PhD

Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice

The old caboclo woman stopped abruptly in her explanation of the plant in her hand and stared to the back of our group, at the tall, sun-browned, shirtless man who had just stepped into her garden.  “Ele é índio?” the old midwife asked excitedly, “ele entende muito de plantas, ervas, remédios?!” The newcomer had been just about to snap a photo of the scene but the force of old woman's reaction startled him into almost dropping his camera. He turned to my girlfriend Amber and I with a confused look, “What did she just say?” 

I chuckled out loud and translated for him while Amber explained to the old woman that no, our friend Kenny was neither a “native” nor from the jungle, that he was originally from Hong Kong and - as an energy trader on Wall Street – Kenny’s particular knowledge of stocks and plants probably wasn’t quite what the old woman was hoping for. The midwife’s mistake was easy enough to understand though: a dark brown, muscular man with long raven-black hair, Kenny looked like a piece of history stepping out of the jungle. In fact, most of the people we had met during our weeklong tour of riverside communities had made the same mistake about Kenny’s heritage.  What surprised me instead about the old midwife’s reaction was that even though practically a medicine woman herself - born and raised in the Amazon - she still seemed desperate to pump an outsider for his knowledge of local plants and medicines.

BoP Interview at WDI

About a year ago Ted London, Director of the Base of the Pyramid research initiative at the William Davidson Institute (WDI), kindly asked me to come out to the University of Michigan Business School to do a guest lecture in his MBA class Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid. Ted was previously a professor and Director of the BoP Learning Lab at UNC while I was a student there and we had worked together on project to explore innovative business models for renewable energy technologies in the BoP. During my visit to Michigan - which also included a guest lecture for Mike Gordon's Social Enterprise: Innovation in the Information Society course - Ted also interviewed me about my experiences working in the BoP and with the BoP Protocol in Kenya.

Belated Postcards from India and Brazil

Everyone knows what it's like… you've got stack of postcards, a head full of great experiences and even with all your best intentions, you just get too caught up in what you're doing to write it all down and pop them in the mail.

Well writing posts can be the same way, so here's a belated summary of the last six months in India and Brazil.

Exceptional Lives - Pilgrimages about People

I've often said that one of the greatest joys of my work is the exceptional people that I get to meet and to develop friendships with. Whether or not it's Salim Mohamed and Sammy Gitau in Kenya, Murali Ramisetti in India, or Theresa Williamson in Brazil, I have been blessed to know so many people who are busy painting their visions of a better world into reality. So I've often wondered, "What it would be like to just go on a pilgrimage to find and learn from such people?"

Kibera Nights

Patrick in KiberaBy Patrick Donohue, August 2005

"In Nairobi, stay away from the shanty towns, especially at night."

The door closes, Kibera opens, and East Africa's largest shantytown swallows us into the night. It's dark near Edwin's place, a sight sapping blackness that is darker with the knowledge of the trenches and trips that lie ahead, a misstep can send you rolling down make shift steps to soak in the flowing runoff, Kibera's sewage system. Edwin can see well enough in the dark and navigates the pitfalls without hesitation; I make a joke about mzungu eyes and then switch on my torch. I notice as we walk that the only other people using torches are the mzee, the old men or women. We walk through small alleys and walkways, passing row after row of mud houses with radios blaring, stray light seeping through cracks around the doors and below the roofs. I can't shake the feeling that I'm walking across somebody's front porch but I soon realize that's exactly what we're doing.

Patrick off to play again - BoP Protocol in India

This weekend I'm heading out to join another Base of the Pyramid Protocol project, the second ever actually, this time working with the Solae Company in India. You may recall that the first implementation of the BoP Protocol was last year with SC Johnson in Kenya, of which you can see many past articles here on The Solae Protocol project is via a partnership between Solae, Cornell University, and Enterprise for a Sustainable World (ESW). ESW has hired me to join up with Protocol co-director Erik Simanis and BoP consultant Tatiana Thieme (both who I worked with on the Kenya Protocol pilot) to facilitate Solae's implementation in low income communities in Mumbai and Hyderabad.

This will be my first trip to India, and besides being personally excited for the experience, I believe the project will be a great boon for the continuing development of the Protocol. Not only are the target region and sponsoring company quite different than the last time around, but the structure of the project itself is an evolution of what we did in Kenya… most significant is the inclusion of local professionals and students on the core Protocol team.

I'll be reporting from the field every chance I get, both here and on other upcoming sites I'll be listing links to.

And of course, I'll always be on the look out for cool innovations and toys too!

Inspirations: and

Things have been pretty quiet around the BRINQ Workshop, only a few posts in the last six months, so what have we been up to?

Well, besides trying to get things started in Brazil again, I've been doing a lot of work for other folks, most particularly Enterprise for a Sustainable World (ESW), a new organization started up by Cornell University professor and Sustainability guru Stuart Hart, whose book "Capitalism at the Crossroads" we covered here before.

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