rsz_111 copyBy Mal Warwick

In The Business Solution to Poverty, Paul Polak and I advocate the “Don’t Bother Trilogy,” which reads as follows:

a)    If you haven’t talked to at least 100 customers in some depth before you start [your venture], don’t bother.

b)    If your product or service won’t earn or save three times the customer’s investment in the first year, don’t bother.

c)    If you can’t sell 100 million of them, don’t bother.

Although almost every review of our book has been overwhelmingly positive, this simple set of guidelines has attracted criticism from some reviewers and readers. Their objection, in short, is that there must be room for small ventures as well as large. In other words, they draw the conclusion that Paul and I feel it’s pointless to undertake any effort in poverty alleviation unless it can be built into an enormous enterprise. 

And that’s simply not true. 

1Take Begue Coco, for example. 

This small for-profit startup in Dakar, Senegal, is the brainchild of Emma Giloth, a young North American woman. The company’s mission, as described on Facebook, is (translated from the French by this non-French speaker) “to promote the nutritional, artisanal, and ecological properties of natural coconuts by means of a social enterprise.” Begue Coco employs young local people, in a country where youth unemployment tops 30 percent, by some measures. At sales stands in the capital city, the company sells coconut milk and derivative products such as handicrafts and confections. 

AKA The Happy Coconut, Begue Coco is now running an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for a modest expansion.

Will Begue Coco end poverty or restore the damaged natural environment in Senegal? Of course not! However, it is providing jobs to several fortunate young people and is on track to hire more, demonstrating that grassroots ventures can be built, and, perhaps equally important, serving as a training ground for Emma Giloth as well as for potential entrepreneurs in Dakar. In fact, as Emma writes, “Starting this business has actually inspired me to pursue an MBA specializing in Social Enterprise. I am currently prepping to take the GMAT in a couple months and begin applying to schools this Fall.” I don’t know about you, but I think that’s terrific! 

Throughout the Global South, there are thousands of worthy and successful small-scale projects like Begue Coco benefiting poor people in a single village, one province or state, or a particular country. Some of these projects transform the lives of dozens or even hundreds of individuals, any one of whom might later achieve a position of power and influence in her or his country — and make a huge difference for millions of poor people. Other projects provide invaluable on-the-job training and experience for young entrepreneurs or organizers who later play pivotal roles in much more broadly-based efforts. Still others incubate brilliant ideas that can generate successful, large-scale projects in the future. 

So, why did Paul and I include the Don’t Bother Trilogy? Simple.

Because no effort — for-profit, nonprofit, or hybrid — can possibly expect to make headway against the gargantuan proportions of world poverty unless it truly goes to scale.

With 2.7 billion people in the world now living on $2 a day or less, only very large multinational enterprises serving that market can hope to make a dent in the incidence of poverty. As Paul and I explain in the book, those businesses must operate in particular ways, remaining laser-focused on their mission of providing the tools to enable the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. And, just as important, they must get to be big. 

We’re convinced that no enterprise can become sustainable and reach scale unless the profit motive is a central element of its operation. Even if there were sufficient funds available from governments, multinational institutions, or philanthropists, which there aren’t, there’s no way for any project that requires constant underwriting from outsiders to sustain itself over the long term, much less grow. 

Meanwhile, all over the Global South, thousands of resourceful young entrepreneurs like Emma Giloth are making a difference in small ways — and, collectively, demonstrating that people can achieve great things through business. 

One Response to “Are small projects worthwhile?”

  1. Shazar Robinson

    Thank you so much for acknowledging this – it is so important for those of us who are starting out to tackle huge problems from a small seed of influence. And reinforces the understanding that in the project I am undertaking to sustain water – the villagers must get the message that this will help them financially and if that message does not come through there will be no committment from their side and no success to the project.


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