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Pop!Tech: Bunker Roy on Scaling the Bottom of the Pyramid
Robert Katz, 23 Oct 08
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Outside, it is grey and rainy, but inside, the Camden library is warm and inviting. Today's special session merited an early arrival to Pop!Tech: Scaling the Bottom of the Pyramid, a 2-hour talk by longtime BoP innovators Paul Polak and Bunker Roy.

Bill Gordon, a Pop!Tech board member, kicks things, describing Pop!Tech's active social change mission – realized through its Accelerator and Social Innovation Fellows Programs. He then introduces today’s speakers as the "heavyweights of the social enterprise world." I, for one, don't argue with that description.

Bunker Roy admits that he is the product of a "very expensive, elitist education" in India, which prepared him for a career as a doctor, engineer or diplomat. When he decided to work in a village instead however, his mother was appalled; but it marked the beginning of a remarkable career.

Roy founded the Barefoot College, a school only for the poor, in 1971. He asserts that rural India is full of professionals not recognized for their skills, such as water diviners and traditional midwives. His college is open only to people without a formal education and seeks to combine the knowledge of local people with modern technologies.

Roy's students create buildings that harvest rainwater and win architectural awards without a professional architect's involvement. They share knowledge and learn other skills, which they share back home. In 38 years, the Barefoot College has served 3 million people who live on less than $1 per day.

So, who are these barefoot professionals? Roy suggests that they all share three common traits: competence, confidence and belief. The college supports 300 competent, confident believers – 150 staff and 150 students. Its work focuses on architecture (geodesic domes, waterproofed roofs), water (rainwater harvesting) and energy (solar engineering).

During his presentation, Roy suggests that "if only we had the humility to listen to our elders and learn how they have been collecting rainwater for generations," we might not have 1.4 million people in the world without access to safe drinking water. His point is clear: don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to – often, poor people often know better than the government or the 'professionals' – if only we would ask them!

The Barefoot College's results speak for themselves – there are low-income people from Ethiopia, Gambia, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Bolivia electrifying their own communities and building long-lasting water tanks to bring drinking water and sanitation to thousands of schools, all without the help of governments or certified professionals. Amazing.

I do take issue with one aspect of Roy's presentation, however. He shows a movie about barefoot women solar engineers; in it the narrator states that "when you're dealing with the poorest of the poor, those making less than 50 paise (about USD $0.01) a day, it's inhuman to talk about business models." Sure, 50 paise is critically poor - but it's the larger idea that I take issue with. If those business models serve poor people's basic needs, is that really inhuman? And aren't prices – the building block of business – one of the best listening devices we have?

Stemming from that comment, I begin to wonder where the Barefoot College get its funding. Does it have a plan to reach the rest of the communities in the world that might benefit from its worldview and programs? If it won’t scale using a business model, then how will it? It turns out that Barefoot generates 30% of its revenue from earned income; the rest of its budget is from donors (the Government of India, Skoll Foundation, UN Development Program, etc.) As for scale, Roy's answer is straightforward, even though I might not agree with it: you don't need more colleges per se; each trained entrepreneur is a walking, talking Barefoot College!

While taking questions, Roy suggests that we keep making the same mistake: applying an urban solution to a rural problem. Poverty must be approached totally differently – but we're comfortable with the status quo of development. He says he knows it's going to fail – citing projects like the Millennium Villages – but it's already too far gone.

Ultimately, Roy's presentation is nothing short of inspiring. He embodies what it means to listen to the voice of the poor, to work with them – not for them – and to believe in the power of people.

For more on Bunker Roy, check out this Pop!Cast from 2005.

You can read my post on Paul Polak's talk, as well as a short interview with him, .

Rob Katz blogs at NextBillion.net, where this post originally appeared.

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