Paul Polak on Profits and Poor People
Why do I believe that the answer to extreme poverty is to earn attractive profits serving poor customers?
The microfinance movement and the work of iDE combined have probably helped about 50 million extremely poor people move out of poverty. Even if we have helped 100 million poor people move out of poverty, this amounts to less than 4% of the 2.6 billion people in the world who live on less than $2 a day. This is pitiful!
I define meaningful scale as any strategy or initiative capable of helping at least 100 million $2-a-day people move out of poverty by at least doubling their income. We desperately need to find ways to bring to scale the few comparatively successful models for development that are available.
What are the common features of initiatives that have truly helped extremely poor people move out of poverty?
- They begin by thoroughly listening to poor customers and thoroughly understanding the specific context of their lives.
- They design and implement ruthlessly affordable technologies or business models.
- Energizing private sector market forces plays a central role in their implementation.
- Radical decentralization is integrated into economically viable last mile distribution.
- Design for scale is a central focus of the enterprise from the very beginning.
It is clear that all of these factors are integral components of a business system, but this takes us back to the original question: should it be a business system that enhances the livelihoods of poor people without making a profit for outside investors? Or should it make a profit for investors as well as the poor people who are served by it?
To me the answer is obvious. The only way for a business to help at least 100 million poor people move out of poverty is to follow the laws of basic economics, which means providing an opportunity for both poor and rich investors to earn what they consider to be an attractive profit from their participation.
I have no doubt that there are huge profitable virgin markets all over the world serving $2 a day customers waiting to be tapped. By the laws of economics, creating a new market requires taking a very large risk, but the reward should be commensurate to the risk. If the new venture is successful, all the investors — the poor customer who buys the product, the shopkeeper who sells it, the company employee who makes or transports the product or manages the supply chain, and all the financial investors in the company — should make an attractive profit.