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Pop!Tech: MobileMetrix Makes the Base of the Pyramid Visible
Robert Katz, 6 Nov 08

Who are they?" Melanie Edwards asks us. Frankly, we don't know – and neither does the government. These are the people of Morro de Macacoes – Portuguese for "Hill of the Monkeys" – and they are among the 1 billion people worldwide whose existence has no official record.

Imperfect or non-existent information characterizes base of the pyramid markets worldwide. When Edwards began working in Morro de Macacoes (a slum near Rio), she asked government officials how many people lived there. The answer ranged from 5,000 to 60,000. She saw this disparity as a business opportunity; after all, how can businesses, banks, governments and NGOs serve people's basic needs if they don't know who they are? Edwards' company, Mobile Metrix, is founded on a simple principle: that accurate information on the invisible is the first step to solving poverty. Or, as she told me, "[We are] not just about changing lives and counting lives, but about making those lives count."

Melanie Edwards launched Mobile Metrix to identify and serve the world's one billion "invisible" people after a career with J.P. Morgan and the United Nations, among others. The market research and distribution company connects those at the base of the pyramid to critical products and services – including pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, voting registration, and job training. Mobile Metrix accomplishes this by hiring, training and equipping local youth – in Brazil and other developing nations – with hand-held mobile technology that is used to gather demographic data, door-to-door. The company also develops, administers and analyzes surveys for corporations, governments, NGOs, foundations and local communities.

At the recent Pop!Tech conference, I had the chance to sit down with Melanie – a 2008 Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow – for a short interview.

Rob Katz, NextBillion.net: Describe what you do in two sentences or fewer.

Melanie Edwards, MobileMetrix: We create markets to improve quality of life at the base of the pyramid through market research and the distribution of critical goods and services.

NextBillion.net: What gap or problem are you solving?

Melanie Edwards: The main problem is that there are 4 billion people in the world that we know very little about. Even the World Bank's best information is based on outdated surveys. For example, I went to Morro de Macacoes in Rio and asked government agencies how many people live there. The response: anywhere from 5,000 to 60,000. If the answer can vary by 55,000 people in one community, imagine how far off we could be globally? This is a problem because billions of dollars are being allocated based on these data – governments, foreign aid, foundations and companies are all investing or donating based on faulty numbers.

NextBillion.net: What was your A-ha! moment in founding MobileMetrix?

Melanie Edwards: I had a series of a-has. First was when I was in the Peace Corps, in Togo, seeing day to day the invisible population – no electricity, running water, nothing. Later, I was talking to a grandmother in a Rio favela who simply didn't know what social security was – and she is eligible – while her daughter was practically prostituting herself to put food on the table. This fundamental disconnect – which was keeping the grandmother out of the system – keeps me up at night.

The aha moments, followed by frustration – that's what gets a business started.

NextBillion.net: Tell me what I need to know about invisible people.

Melanie Edwards: Imagine if you were invisible. That means you have no official record of your existence. No birth certificate, voting registration, driver's license – without those, how can you participate in society? These people have no voice – we're trying to make the invisible, visible. Data give people a voice.

NextBillion.net: Who are your clients? What do they pay for and how is it useful?

Mobile Metrix: I'll give you the example of Johnson & Johnson. We approached them during the dengue epidemic in Rio earlier this year – when more than 250,000 people were infected. (Side note: All of our projects are community need driven, not necessarily client driven – that will change, naturally, but that's how it works now.) We match the needs of the community with the critical products and services that exist – and our bridge is market research.

So we went to J&J, realizing there was a need for anti-mosquito repellent. First, we went door to door in the communities collecting demographic data. In addition, we collected data on knowledge levels about dengue, prevention methods, etc. After the data were collected, the MobileMetrix agent educated them – on the doorstop – about malaria and about Johnson's anti-mosquito repellent.

A month later, we returned to measure the impact of the J&J intervention. Our agents asked a lot of the same questions to measure the change in knowledge about dengue and people's habits. We found a 45% increase in identification of the dengue mosquito and 100% increase in people who could identify the dengue egg. And for J&J's purposes, we found that 75% of the population would use Johnson’s anti-mosquito lotion again; 59% would buy it. We took these data to J&J, and now they're making a concerted effort to serve these communities.

NextBillion.net: Tell me about someone who works for you.

Melanie Edwards: Alexander joined us on our first project concept, more than 2 years ago. He is from Morro de Macacoes – he started as a team leader, and he's one of those millions of untapped, brilliant human resources that lack an opportunity. So we gave it to him – and now he's on our full time team.

NextBillion.net: What do you look for in your employees?

Melanie Edwards: Passion. Dedication. Trainability. Ethical fiber. Someone who wants to advance not only themselves, but their community as well.

NextBillion.net: Tell me about your market research process in deciding to found MobileMetrix?

Melanie Edwards: An ironic question. Part of it was poking around to see what exists out there already – and a lot of it was just frustration, frustration in getting these federal government studies that are so projection based. It was top down. There was no bottom up data – the system is broken without this viewpoint.

Also, I am a firm believer in the private sector driving new products and services for the BoP – and there were not good data to match company strategies.

NextBillion.net: Please comment on the "base of the pyramid" theory and its practice.

Melanie Edwards: First of all, base of the pyramid visibility is great – this is not any real super innovation. But Skoll Foundation, C.K. Prahalad, othes – they have done a great job raising visibility here. But there are still no data – not for social entrepreneurs, not for NGOs, not for startups, not for NGOs. So I hope that, in 5 years, the BoP movement will have more data through MobileMetrix and others to more effectively channel products and services to meet existing and future demand.

NextBillion.net: What is the biggest misconception you have had or mistake you have made in founding MobileMetrix?

Melanie Edwards: Which one do I pick – there have been so many mistakes! Mistake-wise, we initially started down the road of building our own software. Then we realized that we're not a software company – MobileMetrix is a partner ecosystem. So we brought in the software and hardware experts and used our expertise to build the right bridges between the BoP, the data collectors, the communities, the private sector – we're a bridge builder, not a software developer.

I should have known better! But it is all part of the learning curve.

I had a real conception that community leaders would be shy about sharing data outside of the community. But when I speak to them about what data they don’t want to be published, they respond, "Melanie, I want the world to know our reality" – which underscores the idea of giving everyone a voice.

NextBillion.net: What role does dignity and choice play in your business model?

Melanie Edwards: Through the youth that we hire, they earn dignity through professionalism. We hire people who desperately want these jobs. Our agents insist, for example, that they should not be allowed wear shorts – "we’re professionals, we must wear pants," they tell us. Down the road, these guys go in university and earn 3 times the minimum wage. They walk differently – to me, that's dignity. These are capable, untapped human resources – and by believing in them, we dignify them and they dignify themselves. We see our employees step into their power – to transform themselves and their community.

NextBillion.net: What should the NextBillion community take away about MobileMetrix?

Melanie Edwards: There is a market, plain and simple, for critical products and services.

It's kind of like we're starting a movement, when you think about it. I kind of see this as striking a match for other aha! moments that corporate execs will be having, but then they'll ask for the proof – and we'll have it.

Companies like Johnson & Johnson salivate when they see 73% product recognition and 59% willingness-to-buy. And we ask how much the consumers are willing to pay, of course. Even if the product is out of their price range, these data are a starting point for the board of directors about expansion, product development and pricing. It's a movement.

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

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