Profit from poverty: Turning victims into consumers

There are plenty of charitable foundations and public agencies devoted to helping the world's poor, many with instantly recognizable names like Unicef or the Gates Foundation. Private companies that manage to make a profit from helping the poor are rare. Donald Mcneil, Jr. writes about a little-known Danish firm that understands that social mission and profit can co-exist by developing products that are pleasing to the eye as well as life-saving. Vestergaard Frandsen, a Denmark-based company, started out making work uniforms. But Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen turned the company’s attention to relief work, beginning with distributing blankets and clothing to refugee camps. One of the company's inventions is the LifeStraw, a ten-inch plastic cylinder costing less than US$3 that filters out or kills a variety of bugs from contaminated water.

The simple device — tested nobly by Mikkel's father Torsten, who allowed television crews to film him drinking toilet water through the 'straw' — has sold thousands following the Myanmar cyclone and Asian earthquakes. The straw, turquoise and navy blue in colour, has made it into museum design collections. Other life-saving products include insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets and fly-killing tent tarpaulins. The "Very few companies take the attitude that doing good is good money," Mikkel says. One secret of their success, says an observer, is that they "think of the end-user as a consumer rather than as a patient or a victim".

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