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Posted by Sarah Brown on 05 Jul '13

How to change the world with marketing not charity

An inspirational story of how understanding a market others might ignore can work for a company and change the lives of the poor. And also a surprising statistic about the biggest selling mobile phone.

I have always believed that many businesses do a lot of good even while they are making money, clearly not all, but the inspiring stories are not always celebrated.

This story is about the poorest fishermen working off India who for generations have struggled to survive. They use basic boats, risking their lives to catch fish to sell and feed their families and communities. After catching the fish and returning to port the amount they used to earn was dependent on what the local wholesaler would pay. Without refrigerated boats in the heat of India they couldn't sail to another port or wait for a better offer, so they stayed poor and maybe hoped for a revolution where wholesalers felt more generous.

The revolution came in the form of technology - it cost almost a month's wages when one fisherman, Rajan, bought a mobile phone in 2003 but it changed everything. Now he has his phone with him as he fishes and it rings as wholesalers enquire about his catch 'when I have a big catch' Rajan reports 'the phone rings sixty or seventy times before I get to port.' Rajan gets offers from competing wholesalers, agrees the best price and sales to that port to deliver. In ten years his family income has tripled allowing him to get electricity, television and schooling for his children.

And the mobile has also changed the lives of farmers addressing the problem that over a third of India's fruit and veg output would go to waste due to market failures caused by lack of information - now mobiles provide that information such as prices which people in the west can easily access.

How has it happened? Well Nokia has developed a phone which meets the needs of the poor, having options which we would consider useless or irrelevant. For example, it can store multiple contact lists - essential in a phone that may be shared by many users in a village. A particular call can be price limited - important in a shared phone and you don't have to be able to read to use it. It also includes a flashlight, radio and alarm clock. And Nokia have done well with it, 250 million Nokia 1100s have been sold in the first 5 years of its life - this compares to 174 million iPods in its first 5 years and makes the Nokia the largest selling consumer electronics device in the world.

By understanding the market, creating a product to meet its needs at a price that was affordable the world has changed for millions of people. As a person who is passionate about marketing this makes me a little emotional.

If we understand the problems people face we can create products and services which can help them change their lives, giving them dignity and control.

What else can be developed? Charities, social enterprises and companies can all play their part by matching the needs of those who are most vulnerable in our world.

I read this story in 'Demand' by Adrian Slywotzky, I've only just started it but am already inspired by other tales such as the health care company changing the lives of old people by using scales - but more of that another day. If you have found this interesting and want to hear more then register for our newsletter and blog post.