Caroline Ashley

Caroline focuses on how innovative economic models can deliver more inclusive and resilient development.

Caroline has worked on markets, business models and investment approaches that deliver social impact for many years in roles with challenge funds, impact investors, entrepreneurs, corporates, NGOs and policy makers. As Results Director of the DFID Business Innovation Facility, and Sida Innovations Against Poverty programme, she founded the Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business in 2010, then took on hosting it, and acted as Editor of the Hub for 7 years before it transitioned into managed by IBAN.

Most recently Caroline led economic justice programmes at Oxfam GB, before moving to Forum for the Future, to lead global systems change programmes to accelerate our transition to a sustainable future.

Why have I never seen a Beckham Bed Net? Or Disney wholefood bar?

South Asia
20. Dec 2012

Healthy products for Base of Pyramid consumers need to be ‘aspirational’ as well as affordable and appropriate. This is the message I took away from a day at the GAIN Business Alliance Forum last week.

Why do so many children not sleep under bed-net even if their family has one? Because they are not keen. More hassle, less breeze and no appeal. As a mother of three lads I normally resent commercial and celebrity branding that makes perfectly normal goods twice the price on their Christmas list. But if Dora-the- Explorer, Beckham, or Disney branding meant that kids wanted to use a bednet, and more actually survived as a result, what better use for big names?

The same principle applies to nutritious food, I discovered. There are a growing range of healthy foods and hygiene practices, but they are yet to win mass appeal. I'm not of course recommending branding that makes prices triple. But the principles of marketing is of central importance.

As one speaker said, “We know the answers but not quite how to create them.” The nutritional products are not so hard to create, but creating the consumer demand is harder.

Providing nutrition in feeding centres is just one extreme end of the challenge, and the preserve of governmental agencies. But the wider pervasive problem of nutrition is about changing family behaviour, attitudes and shopping baskets. This is where the 3As’ have to come in: aspirational, affordable and appropriate products.

We heard of one example where micro-nutrient sprinkles were sold as a health product. During campaigns, uptake was high. But once the campaigns stopped, uptake dropped. Apparently mums were reluctant to make their own decision in the absence of health advice on a product that was seen as a health product. It did not become part of the family basket.

We heard how some companies are exploring how to boost the appeal of healthy products or habits.

  • Building popularity amongst children can boost family demand and usage.
  • Linking habits to ‘good mothering’ can build its appeal amongst mums.
  • Finding the central local touchpoint – such as the mill to reach farmers – can help get message heard.
  • It’s important to touch emotions not just meet practicalities. In a BOP Consumer Insight Project, (who make the fragrance for Unilever’s Lifebouy) have engaged poor people in four cities to explore tastes and fragrances they prefer, then co-create with them.

Unilever have growing programmes that promote hand-washing and use of their red soap. Their approach is designed to achieve 5 steps, which resonate equally in the nutrition sector. They aim to make hand-washing with soap

  • Understood
  • Easy to adopt
  • Desirable
  • Rewarding
  • A habit

This is what nutritious family food, such a micro-nutrient sprinkles also need if they are to reduce malnutrition (for more technical details on their role in nutrition, see an excellent explanation by my colleague Tom Harrison here). Making them available and affordable on the market is only one step along the way.

I also came away convinced that tackling pervasive malnutrition is an ideal space for public-private collaboration. The public interest in reducing the ill-health and wasted lives from malnutrition is high. One third of children in developing countries are chronically undernourished. But public health programmes can’t change family spending and family meals, so collaboration with those who produce, sell and market food products is essential.

At the same time, the public sector has essential roles in ensuring quality, creating level playing fields, weeding out bad practice. It also needs to create incentives and financial mechanisms to capture the positive externalities of good nutrition: although several companies are looking at opportunities, it is clear profit margins are not yet there, risk is high, and there is no gold-rush. In medicines, governments have used forward financing commitments to encourage investment in appropriate drugs. What is the variation of that model that would encourage private investment in commercial nutritious products that fit my three A’s?

If we need aspirational products, we need private sector skills. If we need trusted products, we need publicly enforced standards and regulation. And if we need a uptake of nutritional products and practice at scale, to save millions of lives each year, we need collaboration between them both.