Personally, I am not very fond of the term, slums. I think it is loosely defined term for a type of informal market. However, with all their problems and challenges there is a lot to learn from slums from a business perspective.
Entrepreneurism – slum areas are highly entrepreneurial, with a high degree of business activity. Most houses also double as business premises. While this is often out of economic necessity, there are some interesting models coming out of these organic (and often unregulated) businesses. During my first visit to Lagos’ Makoko, I was impressed with the supply chain of Nollywood movies (Nigerian films). Nollywood hawkers were everywhere, with no shortage of supply (and demand). The lack of law enforcement also provides some advantages to entrepreneurs. Because the market is informal, most businesses trade without bothering to fill out any paper work, keeping start-up costs low and speeding up the notoriously slow process of starting a business in Nigeria.
Low cost distribution – slum area are normally densely populated. Because such areas often have poor infrastructure, a conventional route system is normally ineffective in these areas. However, with some ingenuity, high density can be converted into quick delivery and turnaround time. For example, in Dhaka’s Motijheel Thana there is a highly effective cold chain (ice) distribution system catering to fish mongers. Deliveries are made with pushcarts and completed before 11 am. In 1999, while working in the Coke system in Ethiopia, my team and I rolled out a low cost manual distribution system to cover our outlet base in an informal market area. The model was by no means unique to Ethiopia or Africa. However, what made it different was that it was a managed distribution system that required detailed planning and implementation. The distribution model also created a high number of jobs in this poor area, about which The Harvard Kennedy School wrote a case study. The distribution system has since been adopted by a number of companies operating in Africa.
Environmentalism – poverty inspires frugality as well as innovation. When walking around in slums, you notice the importance of waste recycling. From computers to packing material, nothing gets wasted. Soda cans are hammered and reshaped into toy airplanes to sell to tourists. Grain sacks become patches on frayed clothes. Individuals living in slums already understand fully the environmental call to “reduce – reuse – recycle”.
Community projects – the extreme social and economic challenges faced by those living in slums has inspired innovative social programs and partnerships. In Nairobi’s Kibera there are a number of NGO projects focusing on how to convert waste recycling into stable income generation, as a means to lift individuals out of poverty. A number of organizations are also evaluating the potential of distributing “social products” such as condoms and vitamins to such areas. Simon Berry and his highly visible Cocalife campaign, is a great example. Escaping the slum is an unlikely reality for most and companies and NGOs need a fresh approach to operate in these areas.