November 18, 2004
Book Review--The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits
by William Baue
C. K. Prahalad seeks to solve global poverty by turning the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid
from victims of globalization into its beneficiaries through consumerism.
In 1952, Nazi concentration camp survivor Samuel Klein settled in Brazil and established an
innovative and insightful business model: instead of serving wealthy clients, he catered to the
poor, whose sheer numbers made up for their limited financial means. Over the past half-century
Mr. Klein's home furnishings company, Casas Bahia, has become the largest retail chain in Brazil by
offering direct financing to poor customers, who now make up 84 percent of the country's
As with microfinance, Casas Bahia charges interest slightly higher than
market rates to compensate for customers' limited or poor credit histories. This represents a
preferable alternative to the so-called "poverty penalty"--for example when local lenders (known as
"coyotes") are able to charge 300- to 600-percent interest rates because the poor lack access to
more reasonable terms.
Mr. Klein's Casas Bahia exemplifies the case University of
Michigan Business Professor C. K. Prahalad makes in his book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the
Pyramid. The top of the socioeconomic pyramid, which most companies market to, is inhabited by
relatively few (75 to 100 million people) compared to the bottom of the pyramid (BOP), which is
inhabited by four billion people who live on less than $2 a day. Instead of solving poverty
through philanthropy, which can disempower the poor, Mr. Prahalad proposes alleviating poverty
through "inclusive capitalism" that bootstraps the BOP upward through consumerism.
According to Mr. Prahalad, the current economic structure creates a lose-lose situation for the
BOP and companies alike, as the former are systematically trapped in poverty that prevents the
latter from capitalizing on the sizeable (to say the least) market. He proposes transforming this
into a win-win situation by removing the structural obstacles inhibiting the poor (such as coyotes,
which exemplify the "poverty penalty") from benefiting from economic growth. The book thus mixes
liberation theology with market economics.
"If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or
as a burden and start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious
consumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up," Mr. Prahalad states.
is divided into three sections: the first outlines Mr. Prahalad's BOP theories; the second provides
12 extensive case studies; the third presents specifics from these case studies via video clips
contained on an accompanying compact disc. This last section seeks to document how the poor
themselves feel about BOP economics.
The challenges inherent in implementing BOP
economics are daunting. For example, companies cannot simply apply top-of-the-pyramid marketing
and distributing strategies, but rather must incorporate completely new tactics to reach the BOP.
Moreover, companies must also collaborate much more extensively with governments, nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs), and BOP consumers themselves than with top-of-the-pyramid markets.
Mr. Prahalad cites examples demonstrating how solving such challenges can introduce new
business models that eclipse the profitability of traditional models, but he remains somewhat vague
in addressing some of the challenges. For example, he sings praises for the development of
single-serve packaging, which caters to (and capitalizes on) BOP consumers' day-to-day cash flow
patterns. While he acknowledges the environmental havoc that such packaging creates, he is at a
loss when it comes to proposing solutions to this problem.
"More than 13 billion
single-serve packages are sold annually in India and this trend is growing rapidly," Mr. Prahalad
states. "MNCs [multinational corporations] involved in the BOP markets have the ability and the
motivation to find solutions to the problem of packaging in emerging markets."
MNCs have a much longer history of externalizing environmental problems than solving them, so Mr.
Prahalad may be falling prey to wishful thinking. This is not to say that Mr. Prahalad's BOP
theories should be abandoned due to environmental considerations. However, for BOP theories to be
truly sustainable, they must devote more fully-developed solutions to the attendant environmental
problems they create.