Getting to the Bottom... of the Pyramid. Vol.I, Quality Matters

At Colibrí, we’re always talking about the bottom of the pyramid (or “base of the pyramid” or BOP), which is the poorest but largest socio-economic group in the world. Combined, the BOP holds a lot of purchasing power. That, and the fact that they are the largest income demographic in the world means we should be paying lot more attention to them—especially as consumers.

I’d like to dispel some misconceptions out there.

1.     People forget that those at the BOP are consumers.

2.     People assume the BOP doesn't care about quality.

One of the major drivers of this misconception is the assumption that it’s just a poverty case. It’s easy to think of “the poor” in 2-D, homogenous terms and rattle off assumptions like “they’re poor people, aren’t they happy with anything?” or “Isn’t something better than nothing?”

Incorrect. As SolarAid once put it, “the quickest way to fix a problem is the best,” and in most cases, that means quality.  

If you learn something new today, learn this: Poor people are people, too. They key take away here is that BOP consumers are consumers, and like for any consumer, quality matters—in fact, arguably even more so for the BOP. When you’re making an investment, you want to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your hard-earned buck. Of course, there is a spectrum of consumers. It would be an oversight to not recognize this, just as it’s an oversight to think of the BOP as a homogenous demographic, rather than as functioning, consuming societal members. 

Colibrí distributes and finances solar technology for low-income, off-grid households and is currently active in Nicaragua. Colibrí focuses on introductory solar products such as dual solar lights & cell phone chargers that retail for $42. This is an ideal, high-quality, affordable solution for a low-income demographic with baseline needs, which, in Latin America, are quality light access and cell-phone charging capabilities. Colibrí’s customers earn anywhere between $30-$100 per month; however, they’re usually spending between $5-$15/month on alternative lighting solutions such as kerosene, candles, and flashlights, and also traveling and paying to charge their cellphones.

We may be technology agnostic, but we are quality-concerned. We only work with products that do well in rugged environments, have at least a five-year product lifetime, come with a warranty, and have been rated and tested by entities such as Lighting Africa. A sleek, nice design matters, too. Our current favorite? Greenlight Planet.

Yes, this means they’re more expensive—but we’re catering to realities of the market. Quality sells. The quickest way to fix a problem is the best way—and the best way to alleviate energy poverty is to distribute quality, long-lasting goods.

Understandably, I’m often faced with questions (which tend to be worded as assumptions) like “Why and how would a poor person buy that?” or “You should consider something cheaper. You’ll take to market faster.”

I’m speaking primarily for Nicaragua, but in the Latin American market right now, this is what you’re getting with “cheap”: flimsy, poor quality Chinese-made solar lights with a handful of cell phone charger cords, dumped in bulk at the port for streets vendors to get at. A quick fix, if you will.

Plot twist: The product breaks within one to two weeks.

One of the most surprising but repeated encounters I had during Colibrí’s pilot in 2014 was having a rural Nicaraguan customer ask—before anything else—if “the product was from China.” It’s also commonplace for Colibrí to encounter a customer who tells us “Oh, I had a solar product. It was one of those made in China that they sell on the streets. It broke after week. I’d much rather have what you guys are offering.” If this doesn’t tell you that the BOP knows and looks out for quality, then I don’t know what does.

The cheap stuff on the street is oftentimes our biggest competition. It’s an easy buy, but a bad spend

We’re doing business at the base of the pyramid, so we’re competing in the open market. The cheap stuff on the street is oftentimes our biggest competition. It’s an easy buy, but a bad spend. Everyone is guilty of this. My personal issue? Buying $5 headphones at CVS or $6.95 sunglasses at H&M only to have them break or get lost every three to four weeks. I end up spending close to $200 over the years from repeatedly buying new headphones and sunglasses, instead of making a one time investment of $100 and having a quality product last me years and years—because I also care about it enough to not lose it and to treat it well.

This product, among others of its kind, was for sale on the street in the big market in Matagalpa-- Guanuca. It's easy to see that this product is, excuse my French, a piece of crap. The selling point? It's only $11.

This product, among others of its kind, was for sale on the street in the big market in Matagalpa-- Guanuca. It's easy to see that this product is, excuse my French, a piece of crap. The selling point? It's only $11.

It’s the same cycle for anything, including a solar product for a BOP consumer. Why buy the non-functioning $12 piece of plastic every few months when you can buy the $42 beautiful, high-quality, long-lasting solar device? It’s a no-brainer investment and the BOP knows that, just like any quality and value conscious consumer would.  

So, cheap, low-quality products—bring it on! Quality sells, but, more importantly, quality stays. 

/Morgan Babbs, Founder & CEO

Wondering how the BOP afford high-quality solar tech? Stay tuned for Vol.2.