Thursday, 16 October 2014

Creating social value in 'bottom of the pyramid' markets: What can multinationals learn from businesses in rural India?

image by africa/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
By Noemi Sinkovics, Rudolf Sinkovics and Mo Yamin

In a recent article published in International Business Review, 23(4), 692-707, Noemi Sinkovics, Rudolf Sinkovics and Mo Yamin explore the role of social value creation in business model formulation at the bottom of the pyramid and the implications for MNEs.

'Bottom of the pyramid' markets in Rising Powers
Within International Business, Rising Power countries such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia are not only important as home countries of emerging multinational enterprises (MNEs), but their large populations also present huge markets for MNEs from other countries. However, despite growing middle classes in the Rising Power countries, significant parts of their populations still live on low incomes at the bottom of the economic pyramid. In fact, the majority of people belonging to the 'bottom of the pyramid' (BOP) worldwide can be found in emerging economies. Thus, understanding how BOP markets work can be an important advantage for MNEs to be successful in Rising Power markets.

Creating social value at the bottom of the pyramid
Discussions on MNE strategies in BOP markets often centre around the notion of creating social value, in addition to making profits for the business. Social value creation can be defined as contributing to sustenance, self-esteem and freedom of servitude (Todaro & Smith 2011)1, which ranges from basic necessities such as food and shelter to issues such as dignity and personal freedom to make choices in life.

To better understand the phenomenon of social value creation, this paper looks at how social value is created by entrepreneurs within the bottom of the pyramid, and what MNEs entering BOP markets can learn from these businesses.

Five examples of social value creation: businesses in rural India
For this purpose, we interviewed the owners of five businesses in rural India, who are not only targeting BOP markets but also themselves come from a low-income background. Two of these explicitly created their business to create social value, in order to overcome specific difficulties experienced in the local community: A company selling traditional paintings was founded to stop dependence of local artists on middlemen, who were selling their artwork at high margins. In a more modern sector, an IT entrepreneur founded a rural business process outsourcing firm in response to high unemployment among skilled workers in the area. Three other companies did not explicitly see community benefit as their mission, but nevertheless created social value through their operations in a variety of ways. Two companies producing bangles and incense sticks both have a positive impact on the community by providing education and employment opportunities to people from disadvantaged social groups, such as physically handicapped or slum-dwellers. Similarly another company that grows and processes amla (Indian gooseberry) and grew out of a women's self-help group has not only improved incomes for its members and employees. It has also acted as an example for other entrepreneurs to start similar businesses lifting them out of poverty.

On the whole, these case studies illustrate that social value can be created independently of whether this is a stated objective of the business or not. Further, for those businesses that do explicitly aim to create social value, this tends to be in response to a very specific 'trigger constraint', i.e. a local constraint that entrepreneurs experience and try to overcome.

On top of this, all five businesses show that in order to make a difference for communities, a business model at the bottom of the pyramid needs to be closely linked to specific needs and constraints experienced by members of this community. All business models studied addressed such needs as part of their core business, no matter whether they consciously aimed to create social value or not.

What can MNEs learn from this?
For MNEs, this means that in order to be successful in BOP markets connecting to local communities is key, but also that they will likely find it difficult to do this. In practice, it may be hard for MNEs to establish close links in social networks at the bottom of the pyramid to find out about the needs experienced locally. This puts them at a disadvantage over local companies. Further, long term engagement is important to understand the local situation - again, this is unlikely to happen for many MNEs. MNEs originating from Rising Power countries may nevertheless have an advantage in understanding of BOP markets over Western MNEs, based on cultural or spatial proximity.

The question of how MNEs can know about and respond to the needs of BOP customers is important to find ways of creating social value by responding to local constraints, as practised by businesses originating from the BOP.


For more details, please refer to: Sinkovics,N., Sinkovics,R.R. & M.Yamin (2014) The role of social value creation in business model formulation at the bottom of the pyramid – Implications for MNEs?, International Business Review, 23(4), 692-707.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ibusrev.2013.12.004


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1 Todaro, M.P., & Smith, S.C.(2011). Economic development (11th ed.). Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.


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