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Unique postgraduate course challenges students to help the poor by profiting from poverty

29 May 2014

Postgraduate students are being told to "radically rethink" many traditional business principles and focus on a five trillion dollar international market that has been all but ignored by the world's investors.

The four billion people in the developing world who exist on less than five dollars a day, says Associate Professor Ranjit Voola, provide the private sector with an enormous opportunity to genuinely engage with them in alleviating poverty and making profits.

Dr Voola has developed a unit titled 'Poverty alleviation and profitability' for around 50 students engaged in the CEMS Masters in International Management. CEMS in an elite global alliance of 29 Business Schools which includes the University of Sydney Business School.

"This unit is unique in its content in Australia and the University of Sydney Business School is among the first CEMS partner to introduce this into its curriculum," he said.

"The unit is aimed at encouraging students to radically rethink the traditional business focus on prosperous middle class markets and engage with the world's poor," Dr Voola explains. "We are not talking about exploitation but rather a novel role for business in poverty alleviation."

Dr Voola says that while poverty alleviation had been the exclusive domain of not-for-profits, governments and multinational organisations like the World Bank, there is now both moral and economic imperative for businesses to become involved.

As examples of how business can engage with the poor, profitably, Dr Voola points to the Safaricom/Vodofone M-Pesa venture in Kenya, which allows money transfers and access to microfinance via a mobile phone. "This enhances financial literacy and financial inclusion, amongst the poor," he said.

Another firm, Saathi, a small start-up has developed an innovative way of providing INDIAN women with affordable access to sanitary protection and a sustainable business.

"A lack of access to affordable sanitary protection robs around 200 million Indian women of vital work and education opportunities," Dr Voola explains. "Saathi has developed a way of making sanitary products from banana fibre and it has partnered with local women, who buy the machinery, manufacture the products and distribute them. This business model, engages the poor as both consumers and as producers."

Dr Voola admits that 'poverty alleviation and profitability' is challenging students to rethink all that they have been taught about business priorities and business risk in a developed marketplace like Australia and Europe.

"We are asking them to consider a business strategy that targets illiterate people with very little money who currently operate in an informal economy," he says. "We are also asking them to base their engagement with these people on social justice principles."

"The UN and others in the field now recognise that the private sector will eventually have a leading role to play in the alleviation of poverty," Dr Voola concludes. "By 2050, the world's population is forecast to be 9.3 billion, with a significant percentage who are poor".