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Poverty Reduction for Profit? A Critical Examination of Business Opportunities at the Bottom of the Pyramid
Leading management thinker C.K. Prahalad argues that selling consumer goods to four billion poor people at the bottom of the economic pyramid (BoP) both generates sizeable profits for large businesses and eliminates poverty. A welcome, innovative and influential perspective, but an opportunity missed, I argue here. First, selling to the poor may do little to eradicate poverty, but potentially hurts small businesses and threatens local jobs and incomes. Second, a more precise analysis using household surveys shows a much smaller BoP market size, less than 5% of previous estimates. Third, virtually everyone in developing countries is classified as a 'poor' consumer in much of the BoP literature. The focus and the bulk of Prahalad's new purchasing power rests with the emerging middle class in India, China and Brazil, while the 2 billion people below $2 a day, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, are marginalised in this debate. Data for consumer prices confirms that the true challenge is to serve the latter group, those that are completely cut off from the global marketplace. This paper concludes that big businesses have a central role in shaping and expanding these future markets by generating employment and incomes.