‘User categories’ of people living in poverty: Who and where are your ideal product users?


The top  countries, by percentage of population are the  Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Burundi, Madagascar, Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Central African Republic*.

Africa and Asia are the two continents with the lowest GDP per capita*. Among countries in these areas, China and India are the two countries that have made the most progress in bringing people out of poverty. (The only region where the total number of poor people has increased since the 1980s is Subsaharan Africa.)

In India, the total number of people living on 1.25 USD/day is  435 million, expected to decrease to to 295 million by 2015, based on current trends*. In China, the total number of people living on less than 1.25 USD per day is 172 million*. Sub-Saharan Africa, which has a population of about 800 million, has a poverty rate of 47%, or 376 million* However, the rate of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa is increasing. When looking at particular countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the one with the greatest poverty in absolute numbers is Nigeria, with about 173 million people living at or below 1.25 USD per day*.  If you look at the number of people living on 2 USD per day or under, though, South Asia has at least as many people as Sub-Saharan Africa, 68% vs 70% of the population, respectively*.

This information suggests that, when considering creating products designed to help bring users out of poverty, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are key regions to consider targeting. When considering releasing a localized product in a particular country, releases in India may have the highest impact in terms of total numbers, at least for the next few years.


Gender: 70% of all people living in poverty are women*.

Age:  Globally, approximately 45% of children (defined as those below age 18) live in poverty, the highest percentage of any age group*. Note that in many of the poorest countries, 75-80% of the population is under the age of 44*.

Urban vs Rural: Globally, 75% of those in poverty live in rural areas. In India, the numbers are more split, with about 55% of those in poverty living in rural areas. In all regions, however, accompanying problems such as lack of improved water and sanitation, limited access to education, and child mortality have a significantly higher impact on those living in rural areas*. (Note, however, that if one is releasing a product localized by city, a large number of those in poverty live in the world’s largest slums, Neza-Chalco-Itza in Mexico City, Orangi Town in Karachi, Dharavi in Mumbai, Khayelitsha in Cape Town, and Kibera in Nairobi, where problems related to lack of infrastructure also have a significant impact.*)

Resources: 80% of the world’s poor do not have access to a bank account or other formal financial services. Many, however, do have some access to resources and find their way out of poverty, whether these include informal loans, farming technologies, or materials for creating small businesses. A significant portion of these people slide back into poverty after major setbacks, however, making a real sense of social and financial security very important for long-term success*. It is this lack of access to a safety network which holds many back*. On the other hand, only 15% of the world’s population lacks access to a cell phone. Even if the world’s poor have the least access to cell phones, a figure of 20% still living in extreme poverty means that at least 25% of the world’s poorest people do have access to a cell phone. About 35% of the world lives on under $2 per day, meaning that about 57% of this group does have access to a mobile phone*.

Education: 1.2 Billion of the world’s poor (those living on under $2 per day) are also illiterate, unable to read or write*. Depending on the sources for each number, this is roughly half.

Employment: 33% of workers (those who are employed) worldwide live below the poverty line of $2 per day, while 14% live below $1.25 per day*. Given that about 1.7 billion* of the world’s poor are of working age, this translates into about 55% who work, versus 45% who are unemployed. Many countries have large informal labor markets, however, so these numbers are likely to be biased. Statistics on the informal sector are difficult to find; however, of the world’s poorest countries, listed above, the percentage of GDP coming from the informal sector is about 50% and averages 40% across all ‘developing nations’ (compared to 10-15% for many wealthier nations)*. Additionally, about 60% of female workers in developing countries are employed in the informal sector*.

User Profile

Taken collectively, an ideal user for a mobile market product aiming to tackle poverty is

  • Making under $2 per day
  • Likely female
  • Likely illiterate
  • Unemployed or working in the informal sector
  • Does have access to a cell phone
  • Likely living in Africa or South Asia
  • Living in either a rural area or a slum
  • Does not have access to a bank account or formal credit
  • Likely lacks access to healthcare and to improved water and sanitation facilities

If you limit your first product release to countries with the highest combined overall population density and high population (India*), and from there to large cities (Delhi and Mumbai), and from there to slum dwellers, you find yourself in Dharavi or other slums nearby*.

So there you are, working with your first target customer, a young, married woman in Dharavi, who speaks Marathi, works in the informal sector or at home in child care, whose family earns under $2 per day, and who does not have a bank account, have a flushing toilet, or know how to read.


I wonder what kind of app she would like?  If you can find a way to meet her needs, you will find that for your first product launch, there are

  • 8.7 million slum dwellers in Mumbai, of whom*
  • About 4.4 million are women
  • About 25%, or 1 million have mobile access*

If you aim to hit 5% of the Dharavi market within the first year of launch, your total market is 50,000 people. You then find yourself with some essential questions:

  • How much can I make from each user?
  • How much does each user cost me?
  • Can I subsidize their use from the profits I can make in other markets?
  • How do I make the move to Maharashtra and reach more users?! (18.5 million slum dwellers in that state)*
  • After all this work, if I really do help, say, 10% of users to rise out of poverty, that is only 5,000 people. Damn. What next?

These are some pretty tough questions. I guess that is why I am living in Bangkok right now. *Sigh*


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