The Norman Transcript

April 18, 2014

Symposium speaker Paul Polik: Commerce can help and bring millions out of poverty

By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — How to harness the power of commerce to address social and environmental challenges in sustainable ways was the topic of discussion at the University of Oklahoma Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth’s fourth annual Social Entrepreneurship Symposium.

Titled “Socially Focused Design,” Paul Polik, author of “Out of Poverty,” was the symposium’s featured keynote speaker.

Polik discussed his belief that commerce can bring millions out of poverty; the challenges his innovative projects have faced; and several key points to designing products that can create networks of enterprises and measurable impact.

“We treated poor people as customers instead of recipients of charity,” Polik said of his work with International Development Enterprises (iDE) in Bangladesh, which has helped bring nearly 20 million of the world’s poorest people out of poverty through innovative product design and distribution. “Charity does not bring people out of poverty ... the farmers I spoke with, the poor people I’ve spoken with say they are poor because they don’t have money. I believe them.”

Polik then described his “Don’t Bother” trilogy, which follows three rules: 1) designers must talk in depth to at least 100 poor customers; 2) the product must pay for itself three times in a year; and 3) designers must be able to sell 100 million of the product. If these three rules cannot be complied with, then Polik said “don’t bother.”

“We need brave companies, a revolution in big business. A change in values is past due,” Polik said.

Polik said design is the process of creative problem solving. In the book “8 Keys to Zero-Based Design,” Polik goes in-depth into how various keys can bring about measurable impact by bringing people out of poverty. Some of those keys include listening, ruthless affordability, scale, transforming the market, last-mile distribution and aspirational branding.

Polik said to listen to those in poverty means more than hearing words, and a designer should take in the surroundings to correctly assess a problem.

“It’s really listening with your whole soul,” he said.

When describing ruthless affordability, Polik said a designer still has to create something of quality that adds aspirational value to customers, but specific cost targets and identification of key cost contributors are necessary.

“Design around each point by finding acceptable tradeoffs,” Polik said.

Polak is currently the CEO and founder of Windhorse International, a social venture leading a revolution in the way companies design, price and distribute products to the poor.

Windhorse International is working on four projects: Sunwater, which is working to provide affordable electricity in rural areas and is under beta tests in India; Green Coal from biomass roasted in thousands of village kilns; Success International, which will provide affordable education to poor areas; and Spring Health, which will provide affordable drinking water to scattered rural areas.

Polik said Spring Health is the farthest along. Spring Health uses an electro-chlorinator to purify water. It costs $250 to treat 80,000 liters/day compared to a reverse osmosis unit, which costs $5,000 to treat 4,000 liters/day.

Polik said a disadvantage to the electro-chlorinator is it won’t remove arsenic from water, but arsenic in non-drinkable water is not a large problem.

Spring Health has installed water purifiers at kiosks in India so kiosk owners can sell the water.

As part of aspirational branding, Polik said his team creates ceremonies when a kiosk begins to sell water. They have a professional theater team perform plays about the importance of clean water, they test the area’s drinking water so community members can see what’s in their water, and they have people create a buzz by going door to door in large groups to sell the water.

“2.7 billion people live on less than $2/day. Instead of designing a product that proves useful to 100 or 1,000 customers, design for 100 million,” Polik said.

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Katherine Parker


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