Bottom of the Pyramid Selling

Bottom of the Pyramid Selling

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"Is there anything more prestigious than business?” What would sound tin-eared from the mouth of Mitt Romney reads very differently when attributed to a woman of long-standing poverty, discussing her newly found self-respect. The quote comes from a recent paper by a trio of female researchers from Oxford University's Saïd Business School—Catherine Dolan, who lectures in marketing and corporate social responsibility; Mary Johnstone-Louis, a doctoral candidate; and Linda Scott, of the Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The researchers studied a sales programme that employs Bangladeshi women at the proverbial bottom of the pyramid, run by the Bangladesh arm of CARE. Its Rural Sales Programme (RSP) focuses on women who are destitute due to abandonment by their family or the deaths of their husbands. CARE calls the women aparajitas (a Sanskrit term meaning “she who cannot be defeated”) and offers them jobs selling household goods and saris. Begun in 2005, RSP now employs more than 2,400 women across Bangladesh and has partnerships with companies such as Unilever, Danone and Bic.

There is an accompanying case study and teaching notes, which some might find particularly fruitful. They show a variety of issues that cropped up in establishing the program. Even though CARE Bangladesh had years of experience in the area, the sales model had already been locally pioneered by Grameen Bank's “phone ladies”.  RSP got off to a clunky start. An economic-development expert for CARE first thought that shoes would be the ideal item to sell and found a partner in BATA, a footwear manufacturer. However, the shoes proved heavy to carry, limiting the women's ability to reach customers, and several of them were humiliated to have to touch men's feet to fit the sandals. Fortunately RSP's developers uncovered this mismatch between good intentions and local circumstances and tried new products.

The case study also illustrates the challenges of collaborations between non-profit organizations and the pyramid to reach customers. In this approach, that has been applied across the globe, (like the e-shakti project run under the aegis of ITC in India) there have been some success stories.