BRINQ is the home of entrepreneur and product designer Patrick Donohue, whose work focuses on high impact startups and products.
Base of the Samosa - What's in a name?
There's nothing like a room full of blank stares to tell you that you have just used the wrong word, nobody there knows what you're talking about and you need to adapt, but what do you do when that word is at the heart of what you do? When that glazed-eye-inducing offender is printed all over your business cards?
Erik, Kabi, Edwin and I are in a meeting hall in Kibera, a shanty town in Nairobi, Kenya which, with an estimated one million people, is one of Africa's, if not the world's, largest slums. We're running the second of four community engagement workshops in which we are preparing local community groups, entrepreneurs and social enterprises, on how to best approach and prepare for a partnership with multinational companies; in this case, how to partner with our main corporate sponsor, SC Johnson. This is what we do, we bring people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse resources together, "a creative collision of world views", to create new market opportunities for multinationals and locally grown businesses for poor communities via a process of "mutual value creation". Buzz phrase laden work, yes, but it's actually all been going quite well so far, except that now our community partners are stuck on our name. Behind us, on a brown flip chart taped to the wall, is drawn a large three sided figure, a triangle really, with the words "Base of the Pyramid" written on top, or BoP for short. That's us.
A brave hand ventures forth, "Do you mean like a samosa?" For those not in the know, a samosa is a triangle shaped pastry of Indian or Persian origin, stuffed with a delightful filling of meat or vegetables. You can find samosas being fried and sold fresh on the mud tracks, pathways, and streets of Kibera; one of the tasty treats will set you back only about 5 shillings (7 cents).
"Yes!" we say with a smile, thankful for a local translation, "The pyramid is like a samosa! The rich people are up top, that's where most companies traditionally focus, but down below here in the base are some 4 billion people, a whole world that's been "
There's another hand up in the air now. "Tafadhali", we prompt, "please."
"Why should people at the top of the samosa get everything," one man asks, "when all the meat is at the bottom?" There are a few murmurs of agreement from the crowd, so the man continues, "And why a samosa? A chapati would be better, that way everyone is the same!" This time there are cheers. A chapati is a flat round fried bread, kind of like an Indian version of a Mexican tortilla, and like samosas, chapatis can be found fresh and hot all throughout Kibera. I love chapati, but I'm too much of a free market fan to buy into the idea of it as a symbol of world commerce, nor do I think it's an accurate representation of how the world really is.
Another man speaks up, "Can't we just turn the samosa upside down?"
"Yes," he explains, "turn it upside down, then all the rich people are on the bottom and we can force them up to the top!"
"I've been wondering," Salim Mohamed asks me one day, "What do you think of the phrase, Base of the Pyramid?" The question is asked in a way that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the chosen descriptor for our work. Salim is the program manager for Carolina for Kibera (CFK), an incredible organization in Kibera whose offices we've been using as our base camp and which has acted as our gateway into the community. Salim's question about the BoP comes in the middle of a conversation about the G8 meeting in Scotland and the resulting attention the Western media is pouring on Africa. Most often mentioned in the news are the calls for the doubling of donor aid to Africa and the unconditional cancellation of 100% of Africa's debt. Also covered by the media are the Live 8 concerts, a massive series of shows throughout the Western world designed to "raise awareness" about poverty in Africa. They're tied in somehow with the "Make Poverty History" campaign, of which Salim is also skeptical, "Haven't we already spent 50 years making poverty part of our history?" Salim asks, "and what is poverty any ways? Is it just one person having more money than someone else, how can you get rid of that?"
True, Salim is intimately familiar with the problems of poverty in his community, CFK's four major programs grasp and wrestle with such issues in Kibera directly, every day, but there's the difference, the direct contact, feeling the texture of poverty, living amongst it, working with it. Think of the Japanese martial art Jujitsu, where you engage with your opponent, body to body, skin to skin, tying your motion to his motion, until flip, you shift, you turn, and you channel your opponent's force in a new direction, a new way. Now think instead of just dropping a nuclear bomb on your foe. Which has the worse effect? Sure your opponent may be dead, but how much worse was the curse than the cure?
As Salim and many others here have helped us learn, painfully at times, the problem with the term Base of the Pyramid is that it is an income base classification, you can use it to segment your population, to find underserved markets or opportunities, but the dangerous tendency is that by selecting a group by income, you then define them solely by income. You fall into the trap of defining them based on what they lack, rather than what they have, and it's what they have that can be built upon.
"My God," we hear so often, "how can these people get by on less than a dollar a day?" It's a fair question, an important one even, but it needs to be asked in a way where you expect, and are willing to accept, an answer, i.e. this is how they do it. It's too quick to say that a dollar a day is too little, and even quicker to just say that the answer is more dollars sent from afar, or even more dollars generated locally. Look at Taka ni Pato (trash is cash), a program run by CFK in Kibera and funded by the Ford Foundation. The project enables youth self help groups in Kibera to turn the community's trash into a source of income, yet CFK has quickly learned that too much cash flowing too quickly could kill the very groups they are seeking to uplift, the groups that are now providing a much needed service to the community. Just because a group has increased income, perhaps for the first time any income at all, doesn't mean that the group is ready to do something productive with that income. Are they mature enough to handle it? Do they have the transparency necessary to keep money issues from tearing the group apart? Do they have plans for tomorrow so they don't spend it frivolously today? As Ibrahim Sakuda of Faulu Kenya reminds us, "As more income comes in, groups need time and help to broaden their vision beyond what they currently do."
Raising income is critical in the Base of the Pyramid, but here in Kenya we're discovering that income alone won't create the change we seek: to improve the quality of people's lives and to create sustainable markets for economic growth. There are other issues that need to be wrestled with, intimately, closely, patiently, while we also seek to raise incomes. Base of the Pyramid may be an income based classification, it may be how we describe what we do, but it need not be our sole focus, we don't need to be defined by what we call our work, because rich or poor, who really wants to be defined just by how much money you make? Besides, if we define our pyramid differently, say on strength of community, on how many of your neighbors you know, or on the size of children's smiles, who might be in the Base of the Samosa then?