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The Last 500 Feet

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Moving goods and services across the last 500 feet of the last mile in and out of scattered rural villages is a challenge crying out for practical solutions.


The author of this post, Paul Polak, has brought 20+ million farmers out of poverty. His work is dedicated to designing products for the Other 90% (the 2.6 billion customers who live on less than $2/day).


Moving goods and services across the last 500 feet of rural villages is a challenge crying out for practical solutions.

Developing practical and profitable new ways to cross the last 500 feet to the remote rural places where poor families now live and work is the first step towards creating vibrant new markets that serve poor customers.

Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to transport 100 kitchen drip kits from Kathmandu to Pokhara on the roof of a bus. The challenge is in getting those kitchen drip kits to the hundred scattered farms in hill villages that are a day’s walk from the nearest road!

From anything including drip irrigation kits, oral rehydration salts, penicillin, and disaster relief food, moving goods and services over the last 500 feet is especially difficult. And the reverse is equally daunting. Moving marketable goods produced by the hands of poor people in remote villages to the town and city markets where they will fetch the best prices is just as difficult.

Moving goods and services across the last 500 feet of the last mile in and out of scattered rural villages is a challenge crying out for practical solutions.

The last mile

I was surprised to learn that the “last mile” concept comes from the telecommunications industry, which has learned that it’s much cheaper to lay a fat cable carrying television and phone signals almost all of the way to the end customer rather than it is to split it up into a multitude of smaller wires that extend directly to individual homes. As it turns out, wireless communication has helped the telecommunications industry address the last mile challenge, but the movement to end rural poverty has found few solutions to the even bigger challenge of crossing the last 500 feet.

Several organizations have developed models that train villagers to market key goods and services to their neighbors. Following are some examples of this approach.

Living Goods

Living Goods village saleslady at work

Living Goods village saleslady at work

Following the Avon lady model, Chuck Slaughter founded Living Goods, which trains women in Uganda to sell three or four basic medicines to treat poverty-related illnesses such as malaria, diarrhea, worms, and tuberculosis. “We retail a child’s dose of malaria medicine for 75 cents,” Slaughter says. According to Fast Company, Living Goods has trained more than 600 women in Uganda, and some of them are making more than $100 a week (Fast Company Article). Hiring and training villagers to go door to door to sell important products is a rapidly growing strategy for covering the last 500 feet.

BRAC

BRAC (originally, the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee) is the world’s largest nonprofit development organization, with more than 100,000 employees and programs that directly benefit more than 100,000,000 people. In Uganda, BRAC has mobilized 1,880 village women to act as community health volunteers who distribute products such as oral rehydration salts, iodized salts, and antibiotics for a small fee to villagers.

Green Light Planet

Green Light Planet is a for-profit company in India, which recruits village entrepreneurs to sell $18 solar lanterns to replace kerosene lamps in villages (“Lighting a billion lives”).

Mom-and-Pop Stores

Another promising and widely available way to move goods and services across the last 500 feet is to take advantage of the staggering numbers of village mom-and-pop shops that already sell consumer items in every developing country.

In India, the women are not permitted to walk more than 150 feet from their homes to fetch water.

In India, the women are not permitted to walk more than 150 feet from their homes to fetch water.

According to the most recently available data, there are 638,000 villages in India (where, not so incidentally, some 72 percent of the population still lives). Since each of these villages has two or three small shops and the bigger villages have more than five, it’s reasonable to assume that there are more than two million small rural village shops in India. But as far as I know, nobody has ever counted them. My guess is that there are at least 10 million small shops in small rural villages in developing countries all over the world. There are also small vegetable carts, milk carts, and other kinds of peddlers’ carts bringing goods and services directly to rural homes. Many of these shops are 10 x 10-foot cubicles, with shutters that swing open when the shop opens and can be padlocked when it’s closed. These shops sell items such as cookies, candies, soap, cigarettes, spices, bulk cooking oil, bananas, small flashlights, and a variety of other small consumer goods, sometimes including chilled soda pop.

In India, the women are not permitted to walk more than 150 feet from their homes to fetch water. So how can they transport water to their homes from the closest safe water source, located 300 feet away?

Since they are already patronized by most poor rural customers in small villages, and can have easy access to bicycle home delivery and pick-up, these small shops are a priceless resource already in place and capable of carrying goods and services across the last 500 feet. But only a tiny percentage of their potential is being utilized.

Since these small shops are within 500 feet of many of the world’s poor customers, village shops could also provide natural collection and aggregation points for goods produced by the hands of villagers. Because daily sales volume at each shop is low, and the shops are widely scattered, most commercial attempts so far to distribute to small shops have failed to be profitable.

Ten million small shops in villages all over the world are waiting for viable business models for distributing a cornucopia of branded, income-generating products and tools for poor customers, and collecting income-generating goods produced by villagers and transporting them to markets in cities and towns where they can be sold profitably.

Small shops are a priceless resource already in place and capable of carrying goods and services across the last 500 feet.  Tweet This Quote

Paul Polak

About the author

Dr. Paul Polak is Founder and CEO of Windhorse International, a for-profit social venture with the mission of inspiring and leading a revolution in how companies design, price, market and...

Paul Polak has written 19 articles for UNREASONABLE.is

  • CateRob

    When I started reading this article, I assumed that the solution would be some high-tech ‘something’ to traverse the last 500 feet. I was surprised to see that my paradigm was challenged with a solution WITHIN the 500 feet. Very enlightening, and very ingenious.

  • clemonsel02

    This article is so inspiring and saddening at the same time. I started reading this expecting to hear about a big solution. When in reality it is all the little solutions that add up to a big solution. The world needs to make little strides to win the race to fight for these last 500 feet. I do wonder what else is developing to help the end of poverty?

  • cameruca4

    Really interesting article and a great solution to a problem that is effecting how we deliver product to the billions of people living in poverty throughout the world. It will be interesting to see how quickly we can make strides in implementing the various solutions mentioned above. There is definitely an opportunity for more social ventures to use some of the methods mentioned above to start a successful business and help those in the world who need it most.

  • jbrycewilson

    I think one roadblock which has prevented everyday distribution models in Western society from taking root has to do with cultural norms and values. Especially as pointed out with gender roles. Without disrupting those values, it is important to make sure any solution aligns with the culture.

  • natebbeard

    The key takeaway you highlight, Paul, seems to be building the existing cultural and economic infrastructures already established in a certain community right?
    Trying to focus on what’s natural to the local economy and how it has historically evolved? How they already get the products they want and need rather than a post colonial perspective of recreating the wheel that we see fit?
    Do you think the 500ft gap is getting smaller based off of historical data? If so, at what rate?

  • Evan Baldwin

    This is true in the western world as explained with the telecomm services. It is the same with the postal service. The way they combat this problem is subsidizing the rural areas with the urban. Wouldn’t this model work if the product was designed to serve the urban and rural areas, or if it was something that the developed world could use along with the last 500 feet?

  • amykahl8

    I think it’s great that people are making an effort to help make medicine more available and affordable for people in poor countries that need it. My only question is do these people receiving the medicine have the information they need on what they will be putting in their body, how much to take, and when?

  • hladinim

    Very interesting article! I was wondering though, are there any options for people who need these resources but can’t pay for them? Is this based solely on a monetary system or can there be an exchange of goods or services as well?

  • ZakFritz

    This is really cool. I guess I had never thought how tough it would be to do all of this. I knew people were helping in India but I had no idea the challenges they had to go through in order to actually help. It is great that people are so interested in helping to do this. Are there any pther ways people have thought of to make this even easier?

  • AmandaBrom

    I enjoyed reading this article. It allows you to see examples of ways people try and help but it also makes you realize how easy America has it. When I want to go to the store I don’t have to wait for someone to come to me back the road is so far. I also thought it was interesting that the store carts make little to no profit because they have to travel so far. What roles can people like us play to help these people out? Thank you for sharing this article!

  • Leija2014

    I completely agree with you, Amanda! It really does make you think about how easy we have it in the U.S. I also liked that they train women in Uganda to help sell medicines to treat illnesses. It sort of breaks that language barrier than if an American were to try and sell it to the people of Uganda.

  • mhansen11

    Thank you for this article. I liked how you touched on the other countries compared to America and I thought about really how easy we do have it when it comes to medical care or even food and water. It’s sad that India women can’t walk more than 150 feet out of their house for just water..
    It’s an interesting topic regarding us helping or not..
    Thank you again!

  • Anthony Urbanski

    Very eye opening article! I think it is what BRAC and Green Light Planet are doing great things. Also mom and pop stores are having to deal with an immense amount of hassles. The fact that these shops continue to run without much profit is a a testament to the human good will. What other strategies could be developed to reach the last 500 feet?

  • Jessica Aschenbrenner

    Wonderful read! This article highlights issues that can be easily mitigated with solutions that have already been established, like the telecommunication services. My question would be, what happens after the 500 feet? If people were to know this boundary exists, would they exploit the poor’s disadvantage and try to somehow control that 500 feet? For example, a business may know that women can’t walk beyond 150 feet from their home to fetch water, therefore they could set up a water station 200 feet away and charge a premium. I know this sounds harsh, but it could and most likely is happening. How would one combat this?

  • LaurenSE

    I had the same thought as you, Amanda. This article really put my life in perspective and makes me grateful for what I have and the freedoms I have here. The diseases there, that have such a simple fix here (easily attainable medications), blows my mind. Things like that we take for granted, but are such an issue over there, even deadly. I too was wondering, what can we do from over here? How can we make a difference?

  • vitalecm03

    This is very true! I completely agree! Sometimes we all take life for granted and how easy we have it here compared to people in less fortunate countries and it can be so easy to forget about things like this. It’s sad to see people go through so much to be able to survive throughout the day. We should all work together to help those who have less than we do and by doing little things like the feed the hunger websites and other websites that are similar can make the biggest difference in the world.

  • LevenhagAL14

    Along with everyone else, I agree! It really puts life into perspective. How easily we have it, compared to people who don’t have the same opportunities we do. I think something that should be done is developing a way to help out those countries in need. I see many articles on here about helping out countries with their water sources, or other things, and I would love to make a different. So many commercials advertise helping people in need, but a big fear of mine is donating to a cause but only helping to pay for their advertising.

  • Drew

    I also wanted to say thanks for this article! I feel the same on how touching on other countries is important and unique! We do have it easier than we think! We tend to take things for granted way to often. But i on a medical prospect i think that Canada and Great Britain have it much easier and cost friendly! But I do agree that we have it much easier if you get the opportunity to go out of the US and see what its really like, to really appreciate what we have available in our own homes!

  • Jen McKiernan

    This is a very eye opening article. It is crazy to think that these other countries have to travel so far for things so simple. I think we really take things for granted over here. We can easily get medicine for anything and they struggle to get medicine for deadly diseases. It is very sad. I really admire all the people who are trying to help these other countries though and the shops that stay open even when they barely make a profit. It is so great to see these people helping others.

  • Marian326

    Dr. Polak, thank you for this informative article. I appreciate the information on several projects that are going well, as well the fact that the last 500 feet need to be covered in several areas of the world.
    What I was most inspired by, was the success of teaching local women to sell basic medicines to their neighbors.
    If I was 30 years younger, I would jump at the chance to be boots on the ground with one of these projects.
    Thank you!

  • Tyler Steinmetz

    This is such a great article and I thank you so much for sharing it!! A lot of people, including myself, do not know that the last 500 feet are the hardest for getting goods to people in developing countries. I had a bias, before reading this, that the hardest part was actually getting things to countries that are developing and I am shocked that I was wrong. It was very refreshing to read off all of the organizations and companies that are helping developing countries move these products the last 500 feet. Even though I love reading about the things we are doing to help developing countries, I often feel so useless. How can I get involved to help move products the last 500 feet?

  • Tyler Russell

    This is a great read and very though provoking. It is encouraging to see these business models that are already in place providing these needed services/goods while helping the local population generate income. I hope in the near future that many more companies see the potential of these markets and the true benefit they can bring these rural areas while being profitable. There is a lot the business world can learn from marketing to these areas.

  • Janna Bartels

    Thank you for your post! I love hearing about businesses that are trying to innovate new, cheaper, and more effective ways of living. This article opened my eyes to businesses that are trying to get more resources to the businesses already set up in communities. I think it is so important to support the businesses that already exist in those communities so they can better serve the people there. How can people like me help in these efforts?

  • BartuchGR11

    Thank you for sharing this post. I think it was interesting to read because I never know about the struggles people had delivering supplies the last 500 feet. I think more people should be informed about this situation because then maybe companies can help these developing countries. I do agree with everything that the some of the companies have already done for these poor developing countries. For example, one company showed women how to make 3 medicines and how much to give to children which can be really helpful. Especially when it takes so long for supplies to get to these poor rural developing countries.

  • Caroline Brewka

    I really enjoyed reading this! When reaching these remote villages, the key is to build off of their existing infrastructure. It truly is the only way to service 638,000 rural villages. By using their infrastructure you are not only saving a lot of money but you are also helping to exploit the assets that they already have. Like how Living Goods is training those local women- Living Goods is helping themselves by using those women to communicate their product to their villages, and the women in return are earning not only money but some respect and a sense of status in their community. Wonderful!

  • GraceFelion

    Thank you for this post! Again, another issue I never thought about until I read this post. I think this is an issue that more people should be made aware of so there are more people trying to come up with solutions. It is wonderful that there already are some solutions. It’s great that they are able to help support local people. That definitely is the best way to do it in my eyes. I hope to hear more about this in the future! What can I do to help?

  • Ryan Dewane

    Great read! I think the last 500 feet is something key that businesses tend to overlook because of the other major parts of operations. Local people do seem to be the key to unlocking consumer potential in extremely rural areas.

  • Jessica Coder

    I found this article both interesting and insightful. When thinking about serving the needs of the poor in these countries we often think about the majority of the distance—across oceans and into corrupt governments- but the real trouble really is that last little stretch. I am goign through a similar problem currently, trying to send a gift to a remote building in Myanmar. Sure, getting something to the country is difficult enough- however, on top of that I have to personally find someone to deliver it once there- so I imagine selling necessities in these remote stores would make a world of difference to people in these rural villages.

  • Brittney Glende

    I love this article, it caught my attention right away. I am all about coming up with solutions to help those that are poor or less fortunate. What you all are doing here to transport food and different things to these families huts that are scattered around rural villages must be a complete challenge and the question is how do you get it there safely? The statistic you put about women in India and how the women can not walk more then 150 feet away from their hut to get fresh clean wanter is unbelievable, and the question is how do they do so when their family is in need of water? Thank you for posting this article it is nice to hear and to learn about what is going on in other countries.

  • laurenkraft

    I agree I think it is such an amazing thing that businesses are trying to create more effective, and cheaper ways of living. I would also love to support the businesses that are helping these communities to help their people. How can we help?

  • aulm92

    Thank you, I really enjoyed this article. I like how people are trying to help those in need by coming up with new business models to improve revenue in these small village shops. It’s hard to believe the fact that you put in your article about how women in India can’t walk more than 150 feet away from their hut to get fresh clean water, that’s absolutely ridiculous and I can’t believe people live in those situations.

  • Caitlin Snyder

    Thank you for this article! What caught my eye most is the fact that Indian women can’t walk more than 150 away from their hut JUST to get clean water. Clean water in other, more privileged countries is just 5 steps away. It is unbelievable how people can live in these conditions. It seems like a very challenging task to gather these things and transport them to these huts, especially considering safety hazards. This is an amazing article and I hope these efforts become increasingly successful.

  • Jessica Andrew

    Thank you for sharing this article! I really like the idea of people helping come up with business ideas for these small village shops to be somewhat successful. I was also surprised that women can’t walk more than 150ft just to get some fresh water. I am not sure how they can live that way. Some of the fresh water could be farther away too. What can we do to make the products move the last 500 feet?

  • strakaJA01

    Brittany, I had the same question! I can’t help but think how is this done safely when there is so much danger! With so much bad happening in the world, it is really nice to see and hear about people who are genuinely interested in doing good for others. I think this article is a good reminder to be thankful for what you have and never assume that you have it the worst. There is always someone out there that has it worse, even if you can’t see it! Thank you Paul for writing this!

  • katie bartlein

    This sounds like a win-win situation for most. By delivering the supplies to villages and individuals homes creates jobs and a way to make money. The neighbor idea is also very smart. If a neighboring house or in close range of other houses have supplies they can help each other out. I never knew that the women in some areas aren’t allowed to walk more the 150 feet from their house. My question is, what type of law, religion, or rules are placed against women or why aren’t they allowed to travel farther?

  • Jazmine Williams

    Thank you for sharing this article, before reading this i was foreign to the fact that these small shops existed. I assumed that the people in these poor businesses would plan and designate a day specifically for collecting their materials, but I was way off! Now, I think the idea of the bicycle dilvery is a great idea and I hope the percentage of how often it is used rises for the sake of the people who cannot leave their designated areas.

  • Kait Harman

    This article was so interesting, it was filled with lots of facts I did not know before. Many people in America know few to no information about India. In order to India we need to have Americans learn how it is there. This is a really random question but why are girls not allowed to walk more than 150 feet for water?

  • Tyler Steinmetz

    I couldn’t agree more with your comment! I always thought that the hardest part of the delivery process was going from country and making it through a corrupt government. It’s amazing to think that the hardest part of the whole progress is just getting it through the last 500 feet! Going over terrible terrain or even finding someone trustworthy enough to deliver your package is so difficult. I hope you have had success in finding someone deliver something for you!

  • Monique

    I really enjoy reading what you have to say Paul Polak. It’s important that people think about these problems. In the 1st world, we think that we understand innovation and that there is nothing we can’t do now. Anything and everything is at our finger tips. That is not the same for the rural poor. It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to reach the last mile. When you think of all the technology and transportation available it seems like an easy solution. If walking, biking, or driving aren’t feasible to the last mile than why not use a remote controlled airplane to deliver products? There are so many innovative solutions to this problem and all we have to do is start thinking about them. I hope that more businesses can start realizing the potential of the BOP and start investing research into fixing these problems.

  • kristinwagner32

    I have that same question! And also agree with many of the facts you stated also Katie. Overall what can you lose ya know? Both would be benefiting and I think it is something great to invest in. And whoever made the law of walking 150 feet is crazy!! Thanks!

  • lex_alwaysMIA

    I agree, it is hard for some to understand how privileged they are. In our society today with the advancements of technology, you do not have to do too much of anything. If I don’t feel like getting up to do certain tasks, I have a gadget or a device that does it for me. As others in these rural areas around the world do not get these privileges. There needs to be more research conducted to aid in the advancement of these areas. Great article!

  • Steven Bichler

    As a person who cares greatly about the health problems in the world today, I think about this a lot. Sure it’s easy to get all the supplies to the countries they need to be, but it’s extremely difficult to get them to the people they truly need to get it to. If the people got the supplies, they could get care because their are people that are able to help them, but those last couple miles are probably the toughest. Interestingly enough I never thought of it from a business perspective before and that opened my eyes to more of it quite a bit.

  • Kevin Weber

    Thanks for the article! This is one of the more unique blogs I have read so far. These organizations are thinking smart, and using the resources they have. It seems to be a win-win for both sides. I’m not sure this can be a long term solution but it seems to be working well right now.

  • Alyssa Borgrud

    Interesting point on the remote airplane idea. I never would have thought of that idea by myself, but after reading your post and thinking about it I think that it does make complete sense. In all reality, it does not matter HOW we get the supplies to them, it just matters that we DO get it to them. Ultimately, we have the power to change lives, but everyday we chose not to. WE have the money, power, and supplies to make change, but we constantly do not act upon this privilege. Too often people are consumed in their own lives to think about others basic needs.

  • Logan Dohmeier

    This is a very interesting article that addresses a real world problem to spreading life-saving innovation. I think that a lot of people are very concerned about coming up with the perfect or next greatest invention to eliminate poverty or something along those lines simply forgetting about how the product will be transported and distributed. The “last 500 feet” is a great phrase that sums up your articles point. I also like the different organizations that you have mentioned throughout the article as they clearly are crucial in distributing certain products or goods to the different villages. Unfortunately, it seems like an additional barrier to this puzzle is a long the lines of a countries or villages social norms.. Great article.

  • masterdan55

    I agree with you, this article was great and very unique. Hopefully they can make it a win win for both sides like you said!

  • Angela Hoch

    Kevin, I also found this article to be different, in a good way from the others. I think your title fits perfectly because it sums up all the great points within your article about trying to fix these problems. I also agree that these organizations are thinking smart because they seem to be utilizing what they already have there, and trying to make it a long term change. Great points!

  • Jessica Mendoza

    I agree with you Steven. The business perspective also opened my eyes. I too greatly care about health problems in the world today. It is hard for me to think about how difficult it is to get the supplies to the people who truly need it.

  • Jessica Mendoza

    I agree! This article is so interesting. It made me aware of a lot of facts that I didn’t know before. I too am actually interested in that random question; Why are girls not allowed to walk more than 150 feet for water?

  • Jessica Mendoza

    I also enjoyed this article. And I agree with what you have said about how it is hard to believe the fact about how women in India can’t walk more than 150 feet away from their hut to get water. I don’t understand why and I too do think it is completely ridiculous.

  • Amy Rink

    Everything that you stated is what I thought! Especially about the women not being able to walk more than the 150 ft, it’s crazy to think! If more businesses were to help out these small villages, imagine how successful they could be!

  • Kevin Weber

    Hopefully, one side doesn’t take advantage of the other. I believe by both sides working, a lot can be accomplished in time.

  • Kevin Weber

    I’m right there with you when you say you’re foreign to these small shops. I also hope that the use of this continues to rise. Based off that it actually is stable and works.

  • Steven Bichler

    I agree completely. It presents interesting problems to be solved. Sure it’s easy to get all the supplies to the countries they need to be, but it’s extremely difficult to get them to the people they truly need to get it to. If the people got the supplies, they could get care because their are people that are able to help them, but those last couple miles are probably the toughest.

  • Tim Rutkowski

    Paul another well done job on the article. I think the problem we face is everyone is looking for the quick fix instead of making a few small changes. These organizations are doing great things by using the resources they already have, and cutting costs.