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Consumer education can open many doors in rural India. The best part is it is inexpensive

Anuradha Bhavnani 

Throughout the developing world, the private sector, donors, governments, - and often innovative partnerships made up of these organisations - are trying to provide the four billion people who live at the so-called bottom of the pyramid with a wide range of products. Till, date, however, there has been mixed success.

Many organisations are trying to catalyse markets so that the world's poor can purchase products like improved cookstoves (ICS), solar lanterns and water purifiers that deliver a range of social and environmental benefits. But this is complex and few have achieved adoption at scale.

There is a large and growing body of evidence to suggest that social marketing plays an important role in delivering product sales of a large scale to the bottom of the pyramid. There are potential financially viable, scalable social marketing models to explore. The sector now needs to learn more, re-evaluate past and current efforts and pilot and grow new ones. If it does not do this it will be failing to tackle some of the largest barriers to adoption of products on a large scale.

The challenges for social marketing efforts are best epitomised by the attempt to market on a large scale improved cookstoves (ICS) that reduce smoke in the kitchen. Around the world, two million people die each year from indoor air pollution as per the Global Burden of Disease study (published in 2012). The number of premature deaths attributed to indoor air pollution in India alone is 500,000 every year - women and children being the most vulnerable. The globally acknowledged solution lies in improved cookstoves that burn 50 per cent less wood, emit 80 per cent less smoke and reduce cooking time by half.

Marketing ICS requires convincing affected households to make a behavioural shift from open fires or traditional stoves to ICS. This is not an easy task since it requires a drastic shift from traditional cooking practices.

Our work in Shimoga district of Karnataka gave important insights into marketing of cook stoves to the bottom of the pyramid. Between 2008 and 2012, we worked with cook stove manufacturers such as Envirofit, and Almost 70 per cent of Karnataka's population is affected by indoor air pollution.

Lessons from Shimoga
To test out the various social marketing tools, we focused on Shimoga over a ten-month period and carried out a series of activities in the period October 2009 to July 2010. The district, with an estimated population of 1.6 million, was blitzed with a wide range and combination of campaign activities (with three levels of intensity 'low, medium and high' to identify what would be most effective.

Low intensity: Wall paintings and van campaigns
Low intensity activities were limited to wall paintings, van campaigns and village activists for periods of up to three months. Despite constant attempts to improve the performance of the various activities (in terms of stoves sold), costs were unsustainable for most activities. Vans were costing $21 per additional stove sold while village activists cost up to $92. There clearly needed to be a higher conversion ratio. However, the reach figures were more encouraging and exceeded targets - vans reached 57,920 people while village activists reached 82,417 people.

Medium intensity: Self-help groups

The conversion ratio was significantly higher when the village activists were paired with self-help groups along with the activities of the low intensity areas. In all, village activists organised 417 gatherings with self-help groups where 1,480 members were present. Across all meetings, 22 per cent of the members of SHGs expressed an interest in buying a stove in the first round of demonstrations, falling to 21 per cent in the second round but rising to 24 per cent by the third round of demonstrations. Of those interested, 96 per cent bought the stoves. This route involved more intensive contact and the costs per reach were significantly higher. Equally, the ratio of people reached to sales was significantly higher.

High intensity: Support from Anganwadis
This route involved additional communication through Anganwadi workers with the support of the state government and local administration. Anganwadi workers reached out to 31,570 households (approximately 157,850 people) during the three-month programme and conducted 2,685 stove demonstrations to groups and households. Although the reach "90 per cent + of households in an Anganwadi worker's patch" was good, converting this reach to sales was not straightforward and resulted in low sales. This highlights the need to integrate social marketing with effective distribution.

Lessons from the ground
Van campaigns: These are almost a necessity because consumers are suspicious of improved cook stoves. Evidence from surveys and pilots demonstrated that even mass-media like local television and radio advertising alone were not sufficient to drive stove purchase. People wanted to see the new stoves in action and ideally next to traditional stoves so that they could compare. The challenge is that van campaigns are expensive.

Wall paintings: Their permanent presence means they can score high on recall but they need to be a part of a wide set of activities. High footfall locations (for example, bus stations) can help but also hinder if there is too much noise, such as multiple advertising hoardings in one location.

Stove demonstrations in weekly markets: Our surveys showed that the average decision-making period for buying a stove is three weeks. Given this, it is essential that stove demonstrations are conducted for several weeks running in exactly the same location in the market. But this is expensive and logistically difficult to sustain.

Village activists: Their constant presence in villages was a major plus, but their main shortcoming, ironically, was their independence as generic stoves champions acting 'in public interest'. While this allowed them to promote several stoves they were constrained by not being able to enter into price negotiations and had to operate with a fixed price. Identifying the right incentives for the village activists also proved challenging, leading to wide variance in performance. Finally, their inability to offer credit was a barrier to success.

Health workers (Anganwadis): They are already respected members of the community and score high on credibility. Using this network is also cost-effective and scalable as one can leverage existing resources and the Anganwadi system. The challenge is how to shift from pure education to stove purchase and adoption where a distribution partner is required. As Anganwadis are government workers, they cannot enter the sales process or advocate finance. All they can do is refer interested households to the nearest stove retailer and too often this is where things break down as the retailers can be quite a distance from the household.

There is no single solution to social marketing. Every situation is different. Social marketing is like baking a cake: you need the right ingredients in the right proportions. Simply put, the required ingredients are a) an affordable, user-desired product b) readily available for purchase c) promoted in a cost-efficient manner d) by credible individuals or organisations e) using persuasive messaging.

Anuradha Bhavnani
Director, Shell Foundation, India

First Published: Mon, August 19 2013. 00:08 IST