We all may remember the telephone pole placards “Work from home and make $5,000 a month: call 555-1212”. Most were frauds or multi-level marketing come-ons designed to feed on our innate nature and lower instinct to get something for not much of nothing.
But can you really make a living—and maybe even a fortune—helping the poor? There are 3 billion desperately poor people in the world. Is it really possible to bless the desperately poor while still providing for yourself? Can you help the billions of poor while still working from home?
Paul Polak and Mal Warwick say “yes” in their new book entitled, “The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers.” Berrett-Koehler, publisher; 264 pages; $27.95. The book is available in various formats on Amazon.com.
In the early 1980s, Paul Polak invented a donkey cart for Somalian refugees and started a project jokingly called “Ass Haul International”. But it ended up being no joke. Aid agencies bought the carts for about $450 each and provided them to refugees. The refugees turned the carts into small businesses, and some earned up to $200 monthly—a tidy sum in areas like Somalia. The carts were unique. They could be flexibly configured, and were much more comfortable for the donkeys that pulled them.
In the 1980s, Mr. Polak’s “new” idea was nearly heretical to the charitable aid community. His idea that business could play a role in undeveloped/developing nations to help lift people out of poverty met with plenty of cold shoulders. The view in the 1980s was that people needed charity in the form of food, sanitation, electricity, and medicine rather than simpler innovations that might lead to skills, jobs, and work. The old idea was that once the desperately poor of the world were provided adequate nutrition, health, and safety that the poor would eventually figure out how to support themselves and lift themselves out of poverty. The old view: it would be unseemly for anyone to make a profit while helping the world’s poorest citizens.
The new view is that so-called charitable food and medicine hand-out schemes are subject to criticism because the organizers of the charities see the needy as victims who are unable to ever support themselves, and who need perpetual care. Critics say that the emphasis on free aid in the developing world results in victims who are “made”, and the self-images that the free aid recipients develop breeds feelings of dependency and inability to help themselves. In contrast, the newer view is that business will treat poor people as workers and customers, empowering them to stand on their own two feet and provide for themselves.
Mr. Polak and Mr. Warwick’s book focuses on the particular challenge of trying to reduce poverty by building businesses that have products or innovations that might serve the 3 billion poorest people in the world—products and services which those people might buy with their own incomes. Polak and Warwick join other thinkers in this idea including a well-known work entitled “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” by C.K. Prahalad. Mr. Prahalad’s book also examined the idea of larger businesses making money while helping the poorest people of the world.
Mr. Polak’s innovations include concepts he calls “zero-based design” and “radical affordability” to appeal to people earning only a couple of dollars a day. The product or service sold need to be deliverable locally, as potential purchasers are unlikely to be on a postal route, let alone in an area with FedEx service. Polak also emphasizes that not only multinational corporations can play a role, but even individual entrepreneurs may have a place in helping the neediest people in the world.
Are You Called To Serve? Will You Act On Your Calling?
So what have you dreamed up that might be useful for the third world? An innovative and portable water filtration/purification method? A “super shoe” that is durable, comfortable, and long lasting? A smartphone application that teaches English? A solar food dehydrator? An affordable drip irrigation system for the small home-garden plot? An efficient, affordable, and durable light fencing material to keep marauding animals out of the subsistence farmer’s family food growing plot upon which the farmer’s family depends upon for much needed income?
If you believe that your idea is more than just an idle thought, and you want to try realize your dream as a real product or service, then one approach that you could take is to present your idea on “kickstarter.com“ in hopes of attracting sufficient “crowdfunding” from people interested in helping bring innovations to aid the world’s poor. I wrote a blog post about kickstarter.com not long ago that may interest you. Simply type “kickstarter” into this website’s search box to find it.
I remember from childhood Sunday School that in Mark 14:7 Jesus said “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.”
There are 3 billion really poor people on the planet. Do you have an idea or innovation that might improve their lives? Today might be your day to “do good” for some of the world’s poorest citizens.
The Thanksgiving Holiday week is a special week to remember how we have been blessed. And also to think about how we might share our blessings with others.