Best Courses 2011: Sustainable Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces
BY Leigh Buchanan
Learning how to serve customers in emerging markets
University of Illinois Taught by: Madhu Viswanathan and John Clarke
Both the socially conscious and the profit-minded see opportunity in a global market of up to four billion people living in poverty. Yet in most entrepreneurship classes, financially comfortable students develop products for customers who look a lot like themselves.
Madhu Viswanathan, a professor of business administration, believes experiencing subsistence markets is critical to serving them. His graduate-level class spends five weeks working through a poverty simulation, in which students role-play visiting a pawn shop, trying to obtain medicine, and agonizing over buying food or paying rent.
That exercise plays prelude to the heart of the class: a 10-day journey to the most impoverished parts of India. "They see urban, semirural, deep rural, tribal," says Viswanathan. "They visit households and shops and companies." Before the trip, students concoct product ideas in broad categories such as sanitation and disaster shelter. In India, they adjust those ideas to market realities.
Sometimes, a consumer product will morph into a tool for a microbusiness. For example, a team retargeted its idea for solar ovens from households to mobile tea carts and food carts. When another team asked a woman how much she could afford to pay for health education, "she told them, 'I won't pay you for the education. But I will pay you 1,000 rupees to learn how to give the education, and then go out and sell it myself,' " Viswanathan recalls. "They see this is a market with tremendous needs, but it is also a market of entrepreneurs."
Syllabus for Sustainable Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces:
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan