Over the past 30 years, I’ve looked at hundreds of technologies for developing countries. Some provided elegant solutions for challenging technical problems. Some were big and clumsy. Some were far too expensive. Some were beautifully simple and radically affordable. However, only a handful were capable of reaching a million or more customers who live on less than $2 a day.

Three-quarters of the design challenge for a new, radically affordable technology relies on a strong branding, marketing and last mile distribution strategy. Tweet This Quote

If you succeed, against all odds, in designing a transformative, radically affordable technology, you are only a quarter of the way there. The other 75 percent of addressing the problem is marketing it effectively, which requires designing and implementing an effective branding, mass marketing and last mile distribution strategy.

Any competent electrical engineer can design a beautiful solar lantern that provides enough light to read or cook by in a village thatched roof house. But designing it with the features that a poor family is willing to pay for, at a price providing them a four month payback from savings in kerosene, batteries and candles, is an entirely different matter.

Eight Practical Steps to Design for the Market

If designing a branding and marketing strategy and a last mile supply chain that will put a product in the hands of a million or more customers is three quarters of the design challenge, you will want to read these eight steps to make it happen.

1. Interview 25 likely customers before you start.
We planned to sell battery charging services to villagers in eastern India using affordable solar technology, but when we interviewed 30 customers in ten remote villages, we learned there wasn’t enough market demand to justify it. Many villages were being electrified, and when one village received electricity, the fifty villages around it within a half hour bicycle ride got functional electricity. Villagers preferred putting a battery on a bicycle and plugging it in at a village with electricity to paying more money to a village solar-powered battery charging service.

2. Design to a customer-derived target price-point from the beginning.
The reason $10 is a sweet spot price-point for solar lanterns for customers in developing countries who earn less than $2 a day is that most of them spend $3-$5 a month on kerosene, flashlight batteries and candles. If they save $2 a month after subtracting costs like battery replacement for the lantern, they get their money back in five months. This falls into the 2-300 percent return on investment most poor customers look for.

If you succeed in designing a transformative, radically affordable technology, you are only a quarter of the way there. Tweet This Quote

3. Select the tradeoffs acceptable to customers to reach target price.
These tradeoffs occur with price and effectiveness. For example, government standards for a subsidized solar lantern in India called for eight days worth of reserve light for days when the sun didn’t shine. However, when I interviewed 25 people who had used solar lanterns in Kenya for a year and asked them what their source of light was before the solar lantern, they said they used kerosene lamps (which they still had). So, one trade-off to reach the target price of $10 is to bring the number of days of reserve light to zero. That’s because any rational poor customer will gladly use their kerosene lamp on dark days if they can’t bring the price of the solar lantern down to what is affordable for them.

4. Create a proof of concept prototype.
When we designed the first proof of concept prototype for a low cost drip system in Nepal, we simply drilled holes as emitters in black high-density polyethylene pipe lateral lines and let water flow through them from a 55 gallon drum about 2 meters above the ground. Then, we put a glass under each emitter and measured how much water came out over a fixed period of time. The proof of concept prototype worked well. If yours doesn’t work right away, keep prototyping it until it does.

5. Put the prototype in the hands of at least 10 customers.
Give the customers a chance to use the product, then learn what’s wrong and fix it. When we put these prototypes in the hands of ten one acre farmers in the hills of Nepal for one growing season, they told us that water squirted sideways out of the holes away from the plants. Thus, we put plastic sleeves over the holes. Then, the plastic sleeves came away from the holes when the lateral lines were shifted. So, we designed and extruded a baffle that fit snugly over the holes and didn’t move when the lateral lines were shifted.

Create a proof of concept prototype, put it in the hands of at least 10 customers, learn what’s wrong and fix it. Tweet This Quote

6. Design strategies that are capable of reaching a million customers.
These strategies include branding, marketing and last mile distribution. With the treadle pump in Bangladesh, we used staff from a commercial marketing firm in Dhaka to create the name Krishak Bandhu, meaning farmers’ friend, which is also now being used in India. We implemented a strategy of recruiting 75 small manufacturers, 3,000 village dealers, and about 3,000 well drillers, each of whom acted in their own economic self-interest to make market and install treadle pumps. Then, we launched a national marketing initiative, including Bollywood style movies, to create sufficient volume sales to make each of the small enterprises in the last mile supply chain profitable.

7. Field test the technology and all strategies. 
Do this in at least five different villages for at least four months, and modify it from what you learn. For example, a few years ago, Windhorse International (the private company I founded) was testing our strategy to sell safe drinking water to people in ten villages for six months, with a full independent evaluation. We quickly changed our strategy in at least six important ways. For example, we introduced attractive jerry cans, but when they fell off the rack of customers’ bicycles, they dented easily, so we had to double their wall thickness.

Make sure to field test your technology as well as the marketing strategy. Tweet This Quote

8. Scale up systematically to reach at least a million customers.
IDE reached 1.5 million customers in Bangladesh simply by replicating the model of manufacturers, dealers, and well drillers supported by IDE staff to reach scale in more and more geographic regions, and putting a lot of emphasis on supporting the Krishak Bandhu brand and national mass marketing campaigns.

Design for the Market: Practical Examples

The following video is a little long, but if you can suffer through it for nine minutes, it describes how three real enterprises need to change what they are doing to reach a mass market.

Then, please watch this video to learn applicable tips for designing a product that can be commercialized.


A version of this post originally published in July 2013. It has been updated and reposted to inspire further conversation.

About the author

Paul Polak

Paul Polak

Dr. Polak is Founder and CEO of Windhorse International, a for-profit social venture leading a revolution in how companies design, price, market and distribute products to benefit the 2.6 billion customers who live on less than $2 a day. He is an author of The Business Solution To Poverty and Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers.

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  • Jansscor16

    This is a great article with amazingly helpful points for people with startups. Your unreasonable challenge is something I will really put a lot of thought in the next few days. I absolutely love soccer, and not to long ago I saw a very cool idea. It is a soccer ball, but it has a lamp on the inside, that can extend out of the ball. During the day the kids play and kick the ball, that movement builds up energy in the ball, which then makes the light work at night. I do not know the mechanics of the ball, but I thought that was an amazing idea. After reading that article, I never saw anything else written about it. I hope to research it soon and see if it is still a success or maybe of your points could have helped them if it didn’t succeed. Thanks again for the article!!

  • Zintia Martinez

    Very informative, I am going to school for a graphic designer and eventually I would like to have my own business. These are great tips that will help me to be organized. I was not even thinking about this when planning to start my business. I know have the knowledge of how to approach people and the things I have to have ready or the things I need to work on before actually show them the work. Please share more articles like this, everyday day I feed my dream of having my business.

  • ZecCepeidaConner

    I think these are great instruction to get a product out onto the market. Get people talking about it and have an anticipating clientele base by the time the product launches. It’s a great road map to launch a product and incorporating marketing in that launch.

  • David Kessler

    Definitely “Spot On,” as you said Brian Lewis. What I like most, even more so than the brilliant content, is the systematic effectiveness of the different steps. It starts with asking the necessary questions (from the consumer) to then be able to design a product that will be able to solve a certain problem. Getting the prototype made and then having it tested by potential buyers is key. Very concise, practical and seemingly effective.

  • Britt27LaM

    This article provided so many ideas to stay organized and create a strategy for a new product. The steps are designed for his product but can be taken and used for any. Once you can design a product for the Market you are selling to, the rest can be done much smoother. The key to selling a product is making sure it is specific and marketable so it will sell!

  • rmantero

    I’m pretty sure these points can be brought over into most markets as well.

  • bdelbian

    This is exactly what I needed! I am currently working on a marketing campaign with a non-for-profit organization that help children in foster care. Although they do not necessarily focus on a specific product that they are selling per say, I feel that these tips that were provided above are completely applicable. I actually just sent out a survey not too long ago to people who have donated with this organization in order to get a better idea of how it was that they heard about the organization and what it was that encouraged them to donate to the cause. I am really looking forward to seeing what kind of a response I will get! Is there anyone out there who may have some other valuable tips or ideas that can be used when marketing a non-for-profit organization, beyond what has been provided above? I would really love to hear them as I continue to develop the concept for the campaign.

  • Glassborow

    Thank you for this article, I think the points and tips you have given are really informative and I liked how you used your own company as an example of how you used these tips yourself. I’m no business entreprenuer but I do feel like if I followed these steps with a an idea I could really become successful, it’s so easy to follow and I feel they can be applied to so many other different situations too!

  • Alex Marski

    I agree with you about your comments on this article. I’m not a business owner or have no interest in ever owning my own company. But I agree these steps are extremely helpful and basic to follow for anyone who wants to have and grow a successful business.

  • karl coffield

    I agree with the presenter. You need to maybe designing a more efficient kerosene lamp or reducing the expense and the amount of your market exposure that you think you have. Might even think about loss leaders and putting these down engineered solar lamps into houses for cost to attract more customers. I would wonder if the new convection ovens can be down engineered for the cheaper markets. In the rural villages the need is for refrigeration. I remember you can take a bank of npn transistors and create a cooler on one side. This might be able to be put in conjunction with solar power to create maybe a family refrigerator or neighborhood refrigerator.

  • spitfireneil

    I have aspirations to become an entrepreneur and reading this article was easy and in layman’s terms and i think its definitely something i will keep in my mind for some time to come.

  • Brooke Bower

    These steps were very simple but yet very informative and helpful. By following these steps an entrepreneur could be very successful. And the first step is very important. It was to interview 25 potential costumers. This will tell you if the product you are working on is actually in demand for your target population. Why start working on an idea if there is no demand for it? That’ll save you so much time. Also, it’s important to talk to your costumers and ask them their opinion on your product. If they are having a problem with it then most likely other people are too. Take that into consideration and improve on your product/ idea. These steps will lead people to success.

  • Brooke Bower

    I would actually be interested in what your non-for-profit does for children in foster care? My family is a foster home for medical infants. We have had over 80 infants in and out of our home within the past ten years and actually adopted 5 of those infants.

  • bdelbian

    Hi Brooke! The onganization I am interning with is called Arizona Helping Hands. They are a non-profit that is based in Scottsdale, Arizona. They have several different programs that they run within their organization to help children in foster care and their families. They help provide beds, clothes, toiletries, toys, school supplies, birthday gifts, etc. They are really trying to do what they can in order to help support these families that are so willing to help these children in foster care. You can learn more and even look at some of the work that they have been doing on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/azhelpinghands
    It sounds like you have been able to provide a safe haven for so many children and I would love to hear more about what your experience has been. You have made a difference in so many children’s lives.

  • wegener61

    I almost think that selling technology to poor people is exploitation. Meeting the basic needs and improving infrastructure in these areas would be much better for the poor. Providing them with opportunities and jobs is much more meaningful than making a profit off of them. Sure the ease of a solar lantern is great when compared to kerosene, but isn’t a job where they can make $2 an hour better than teaching them to save up for the non-essential?

  • Brooke Bower

    That is so interesting especially because I am currently a social work major. It sounds like an amazing organization, and I will check it out on Facebook, for sure.
    It was an eye opening experience. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for my family taking in foster children and giving them a safe home, love, and for some of the children a forever home. I have so many stories that are meaningful.

  • epmcinty

    I really agree/enjoy the points this article brings up. There should definitely be a set of standard steps/precautions marketers should take when designing for developing areas. My favorite one I want to emphasize is definitely Step 1: Interviewing at least 25 likely customers. You may be knowledgeable and have a great amount of experience, but when you are reaching out and trying to make changes in places like developing villages, it is a different ball game and you require as much input as possible. The more people you interview, the better picture you will have of your idea, indicating whether it is probable or will reach great success. With this practice, you will not go forward until you have a realistic and probable plan lined up.

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  • KE7JLM

    This helped me with my current school project of helping rural Kosovars live better lives. Thank You.

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  • kgonyo

    The very first point of interviewing potential customers is excellent, and an often missed step. Many times, we get carried away with a brilliant idea in our minds, and race to improve it before even figuring out what improvements the target audience would really find useful. Taking the time to hear the insight of your customers firsthand can not only speed up the process, but heighten the success of your product.

  • FalkinerRR23

    I agree with you. If you don’t interview your potential customers and go straight to production, you can miss the most important information you could possibly get for your product.

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  • ryanstorto

    This has so many ideas to stay organized and create a strategy for a new product. The steps are about a market but can really be applied to anything. Once you can design a product, you need to understand the market you are targeting for it to be successful.

  • Ryan Dow

    This is a interesting take on this. Very good blog and has opened my eyes. People and/or companies don’t get enough credit for the work they put it something.

  • McKennaKJ29

    This was an interesting read. Not many people think about how much effort goes into marketing and creating products for people who live on such little money per day. It is incredibly hard to get production cost down to the point where you can profit from these transactions.

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  • Jess Heman

    I like the unreasonable challenge they have given us. As I have lived in the United States for most of my life, I am not the best suited to develop a solution for another nation. However, I was homeless in the US for six years and know that lack of access to a bathroom and shower are huge barriers to getting work and housing. The only public showers are either at gyms, which are too expensive, or at shelters, which are overcrowded and you have to wait in line for several hours to get a shower. A small building with multiple automated shower stalls, sinks, and toilets where you can pay with quarters for a certain amount of shower time could be a solution to this problem in urban areas of the US. Because many people panhandle or collect cans to earn small amounts of money, a price that could be paid with change is likely a good customer-derived target price. I expect the tradeoff would be good, because even though a person could get a free shower at a shelter, time is a houseless person’s most precious resource- you have to wait in long lines for everything from a shower, to food, to a bed. The solution could be implemented in one city as a prototype and then spread to others. In urban areas where individuals are actively seeking resources, marketing would be as simple as letting a few people on the streets know about this. Bonds within street families are very strong and people are very willing to tell others about helpful resources. No city that I know of has established adequate collaboration between agencies for it to be easy to find out info on resources like hours open, etc. If you talk to people on the streets about what they know, you will find that they learned through word of mouth.

  • Your article is spot on. Proof of concept prototype and a small pilot test are definitely key to fix what’s wrong with it before scaling. And when scale comes, focus of the operations seems to shift to branding, marketing, and last-mile distribution. From your past works, it seems like it is useful to draw experience of local experts to incorporate local tastes and behaviors into these efforts. Thanks for sharing and I hope to read more about this in your book that I’m about to purchase.

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  • Azra Samiee

    Important article to digest and recognize when thinking about designing social innovation tools. While a person may create a revolutionary product that they believe can change lives and potentially could, if the innovator doesn’t understand the needs and scale of the community they want to serve the product will become superfluous and unsustainable.

  • Storm Hurwitz

    I completely agree, Azra. I would add that the fifth step, which advocates that individuals put the product in the hands of the target consumer to learn more about its successes and failures is key. I think that this process of iteration is one that should continue throughout the products life, regardless of the amount of hands it is in.

  • Paige Carl

    I am a graphic design major at the University of Florida, so
    I really enjoyed your article. It made me start thinking about the people we
    normally design for, and I had a sudden epiphany about how different marketing
    strategies really would be for a developing country. Not many people actually realize how much harder it must be. In school, the students in my program are trained in incorporating marketing strategies into the design projects and explaining how the products we make would be sold. This article was great and opened my eyes up to how much further ahead I should be thinking in terms of my projects. I loved how you stated that creating prototypes is so important because we are constantly encouraged to do that. What is the best way for you to field test the strategy you have developed? I think that a lot of the time, designers get so excited about an idea that they have, that they do not take the time to interview people that fall into their target demographic or really gather all of the essential information for what they need. In reality, if they took more time to research in the primary stage of developing their product, then it could turn out better and truly pay off in the future. We are never as knowledgeable as we believe we are. I love how this article provided steps in a clear and simple manner that were easy for readers to understand, and can now be applied on a grander scale to any project being attempted. I also love how the author used his own previous venture as an example to demonstrate the successes and failures during this process.

  • Hi Paul, amazing insights into product design. Agree with you when you say great design is just a quarter of the problem solved.It’s marketing and distribution that holds the key. Over the period of last one-and-a-half years, through my project ‘One Life, One Passion’, I have had the opportunity to personally interact with many social entrepreneurs and discuss with them their challenges in selling to the BOP.

    3 things stood out when selling to BOP- 1.Creating and showing value 2.Getting the unit economics right 3. Building trust. Here’s something http://social.yourstory.com/2016/06/socents-selling-bop/

    My take in the above article has been from a marketer’s perspective.
    Cheers
    Rohan
    http://rohanpotdar.com/creativelyunsettledtheblog/

  • Alexis Brown

    This post was incredibly inspirational and helpful to me. I am an aspiring social entrepreneur passionate about the intersection of research, art, design and advocacy. Recently, I have become interested in how technology can assist in efforts to drive social change in the field of health. I have a venture idea which would engage under-represented groups in the issue of health literacy and navigating the health care systems. My theory of change, or opportunity belief is that if given better, culturally-sensitive resources which are engaging and fun to use, then under-served populations could be exposed to important principles of behavioral change, lower their risk of health disparities, and feel that an institution that has historically marginalized minorities, was being changed to address their specific needs and concerns.

    Over the past few months, I have been teaching myself principles of human-centered design (inspired heavily by design firms such as IDEO), and through my entrepreneurship classes, learning about how to engage with populations to conduct market research. I really enjoyed this article because it tapped into both of these pursuits almost seamlessly, yet brought up some points which I hadn’t really considered.

    One point that particularly resonated with me was the idea that I should dedicate some time to developing a prototype to test in the field. I definitely have a tendency to work alone, and to go through an entire process or project alone, without feedback. This is particularly concerning because when I do receive feedback on a project or venture idea, sometimes the process is so far along that to make substantial change to my idea disenchants me. However, this article’s emphasis of including others in the process, and prototyping along the way is brilliant. It reiterated to me that even the best ideas can fall short without full context of who one is serving. It’s almost a disservice to myself then to think that effective work can be done in isolation without input.

    Another point that I liked from this post was the idea of considering the trade-offs for customers in using my product or service. I think this is particularly important when working with vulnerable populations who already have many other concerns to consider. It would be important to ask questions, and think empathetically. For example, in my social entrepreneurship class, for an assignment, we were asked to create a sample budget with a limited income. When putting myself in the shoes of another person who is more economically disadvantaged to me, I have to wonder, is my product worth their extra 10 dollars for the month? Another relevant question could be, what is the time commitment or learning curve that the product would demand? Would individuals be interested in this?

    Overall, the post sparked some significant considerations in my mind, and have helped me to think critically about my own future actions. Thank you for posting such great insights!

  • Kristine Chen

    This article was very informational and helpful. Many people believe that creating a product is the hard part, and to some, it may be, but the hardest part is making the product successful. Like the article mentioned earlier, an electric engineer can create a solar lantern that provides enough light to for a village, but designing it to help the poor is an entirely different matter. The poor is only going to focus on what the cheapest method of getting what they need is, and in this case, the solar lantern would be competing with the cost of kerosene, batteries and candles. With such a small cost (to us) of spending $3-5 a month on kerosene, batteries and candles, it’s extremely hard to create a product that the poor would be interested in buying. The only option would be if the product cost less, such as the $10 solar lanterns. What creators have to also realize, however, that even though a family would be saving costs in the long run, if the initial cost of the product is too high, they may not get it either. Poor families are barely making or not making enough in general to live, so having a high initial cost would mean a less likelihood of the product being purchased. I liked how this article mentioned using customers to give feedback. Customers are the ones who are going to use the product, so creating a prototype and having potential customers test it out would give a better representation of what the item needs to be changed. The use of field testing is equally important, like I mentioned earlier, it gives a better representation of what can be improved about the product. Potential customers are the ones who know what they need and what their budgets are.