What the Students Say: Sustainable Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces
BY Leigh Buchanan
Things look different when you finally meet your customers, as student Jenna Goebig learned.
Eye Opener Jenna Goebig, right, with Madhu Viswanathan of the University of Illinois
"We got rid of all the bells and whistles." Jenna Goebig, a graduate student in business and architecture at the University of Illinois, visited India this winter as part of the Subsistence Marketplaces class.
My team is developing a disaster relief shelter. We were in a village outside Chennai, interviewing a young man who survived the 2004 tsunami. He lost both his parents. Their home was gone. He and his brother had nothing. We asked what he would have saved if he could have. What were his prized possessions? My prized possessions are things that preserve memories or the past. He said he would have saved two things: his ration card, so he could get food, and proof that he had graduated the 10th grade, so he could qualify for higher education or skills training. There are no official copies of these things, so when they're gone, they're gone. He had to go through so much hardship to get them replaced.
We brought along a camping tent to see how they would approach assembling something they'd never seen before. There is very low or no literacy, so we created a manual that used only colors and images—no words or numbers. But they had no experience with instructions. To them, it was completely abstract. What they wanted was a really good, detailed photo of the finished tent. They could figure it out from there. We also assumed two people would be assembling it. In the United States, we are used to working independently. But suddenly, all these people came running to help them out. And we realized what a communal society they were.
Prior to the trip, we thought about using technologies like solar panels, and UV rays to sanitize water. After, we got rid of all the bells and whistles and brought it down to a simpler level. You cannot design products and services for these markets unless you spend time in the contexts in which they'll be used.
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