By Paul Polak
Developing practical and profitable new ways to cross the last 500 feet to the remote rural places where poor families now live and work is the first step towards creating vibrant new markets that serve poor customers.
In rural Orissa, India, the women are not permitted to walk more than 150 feet from their homes to fetch water. So how can they transport water to their homes from the closest safe water source, located 300 feet away?
Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to transport 100 kitchen drip kits from Kathmandu to Pokhara on the roof of a bus. The challenge is in getting those kitchen drip kits to the hundred scattered farms in hill villages that are a day’s walk from the nearest road!
From anything including drip irrigation kits, oral rehydration salts, penicillin, and disaster relief food, moving goods and services over the last 500 feet is especially difficult. And the reverse is equally daunting. Moving marketable goods produced by the hands of poor people in remote villages to the town and city markets where they will fetch the best prices is just as difficult.
Moving goods and services across the last 500 feet of the last mile in and out of scattered rural villages is a challenge crying out for practical solutions.
The last mile
I was surprised to learn that the “last mile” concept comes from the telecommunications industry, which has learned that it’s much cheaper to lay a fat cable carrying television and phone signals almost all of the way to the end customer rather than it is to split it up into a multitude of smaller wires that extend directly to individual homes. As it turns out, wireless communication has helped the telecommunications industry address the last mile challenge, but the movement to end rural poverty has found few solutions to the even bigger challenge of crossing the last 500 feet.
Several organizations have developed models that train villagers to market key goods and services to their neighbors. Following are some examples of this approach.
Following the Avon lady model, Chuck Slaughter founded Living Goods, which trains women in Uganda to sell three or four basic medicines to treat poverty-related illnesses such as malaria, diarrhea, worms, and tuberculosis. “We retail a child’s dose of malaria medicine for 75 cents,” Slaughter says. According to Fast Company, Living Goods has trained more than 600 women in Uganda, and some of them are making more than $100 a week (Fast Company Article). Hiring and training villagers to go door to door to sell important products is a rapidly growing strategy for covering the last 500 feet.
BRAC (originally, the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee) is the world’s largest nonprofit development organization, with more than 100,000 employees and programs that directly benefit more than 100,000,000 people. In Uganda, BRAC has mobilized 1,880 village women to act as community health volunteers who distribute products such as oral rehydration salts, iodized salts, and antibiotics for a small fee to villagers (BRAC article).
Green Light Planet
Green Light Planet is a for-profit company in India, which recruits village entrepreneurs to sell $18 solar lanterns to replace kerosene lamps in villages (“Lighting a billion lives”).
Another promising and widely available way to move goods and services across the last 500 feet is to take advantage of the staggering numbers of village mom-and-pop shops that already sell consumer items in every developing country.
According to the most recently available data, there are 638,000 villages in India (where, not so incidentally, some 72 percent of the population still lives). Since each of these villages has two or three small shops and the bigger villages have more than five, it’s reasonable to assume that there are more than two million small rural village shops in India. But as far as I know, nobody has ever counted them. My guess is that there are at least 10 million small shops in small rural villages in developing countries all over the world. There are also small vegetable carts, milk carts, and other kinds of peddlers’ carts bringing goods and services directly to rural homes. Many of these shops are 10 x 10-foot cubicles, with shutters that swing open when the shop opens and can be padlocked when it’s closed. These shops sell items such as cookies, candies, soap, cigarettes, spices, bulk cooking oil, bananas, small flashlights, and a variety of other small consumer goods, sometimes including chilled soda pop.
Since they are already patronized by most poor rural customers in small villages, and can have easy access to bicycle home delivery and pick-up, these small shops are a priceless resource already in place and capable of carrying goods and services across the last 500 feet. But only a tiny percentage of their potential is being utilized.
Since these small shops are within 500 feet of many of the world’s poor customers, village shops could also provide natural collection and aggregation points for goods produced by the hands of villagers. Because daily sales volume at each shop is low, and the shops are widely scattered, most commercial attempts so far to distribute to small shops have failed to be profitable.
Ten million small shops in villages all over the world are waiting for viable business models for distributing a cornucopia of branded, income-generating products and tools for poor customers, and collecting income-generating goods produced by villagers and transporting them to markets in cities and towns where they can be sold profitably.