Revealing Demand For Pro-Poor Innovation

By Abby Madan, Blum Center Student Writer

On March 7, 2014, DIL hosted its first conference, “Revealing Demand for Pro-poor Innovations,” which focused on lessons learned from both failed and successful global development interventions.

Held at Georgetown University, the conference was the first in DIL’s “State of the Science” series and part of an effort to catalyze new technological approaches to development through interdisciplinary discussion.

Among the conference discussion topics was that economic and social mobility in the developing world requires an understanding of the demands, preferences, and needs of low-income consumers. Yet data collection in low-resource countries can be difficult, costly, and prone to errors. This can result in new technologies that are inappropriately designed, unaffordable, or inaccessible.

Attendees addressed how practitioners and innovators can better understand consumers’ demands in developing nations and their willingness to pay for novel solutions, as well as how pro-poor technologies can be tailored to fit demand. The event also offered a platform for interdisciplinary networking and partnerships by engaging over 120 engineers, social scientists, NGOs, and policymakers in plenary and breakout discussions about the adoption, diffusion, and scale-up of pro-poor innovations.

Speakers at the event included researchers, engineers, social scientists, and social entrepreneurs who have
recently developed new tools for revealing consumer demand. Nathan Eagle, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University and CEO of Jana, described the need to identify areas of unmet demand by parsing high-frequency data streams. Jana, a platform employed by the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, connects emerging market consumers with global brands using mobile airtime.

Susan Wyche, Assistant Professor of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University, addressed the need for interdisciplinary design teams to engage with consumers in a holistic way. When designing a poverty intervention, Wyche emphasized, “Don’t start with technology, start with people.”

Kurtis Heimerl, Community Cellular Networks

GramPower co-founder and CEO Yashraj Kahitan highlighted the importance of collecting reliable and relevant data on product performance. GramPower, a Big Ideas@Berkeley contest winner in 2011, is working with the government of India to install energy-efficient micro-grids in rural areas, which will provide on-demand electricity through a pre-paid model. GramPower is currently trying to identify consumer demand by using sensors to track household energy usage, in order to understand how energy use changes over time and how it contributes to higher standards of living.

While all of the presenters were enthusiastic about the potential of innovative data collection to improve development interventions, they cautioned that obstacles still remain. One frequent comment was that the cost of obtaining accurate and reliable data remains a point of contention. As Mitra Ardon, CEO of Lumeter, mentioned, there may be a tradeoff between investing in data collection and investing in other aspects of product development or service delivery.

In bringing together these perspectives, the conference provided a space for experts to discuss how to reveal
demand, understand data, and better serve beneficiaries. The hope is that these discussions will enable new
technologies to rapidly evolve to meet the demand of consumers at the base of the economic pyramid.