Dignity through Diversification: The ‘Heifer MBA’ Empowers People Living at the Bottom of the Pyramid to Lift Themselves Out of Poverty
Authors: Jessica Ridlen, Jacquelyn Paykel, Eric Magaziner and Bradley Hicks
Which of the people in the images below are most likely to be enrolled in a graduate program at a top tier business school? Your answer probably reflects what Warren Buffett calls, “the ovarian lottery”. It’s an analogy that paints the picture that when we are born, we are given a hypothetical lottery ticket that will decide where in the world we will be born, to which parents, income level, level of access to education and healthcare, and more. This premise says that the poor in developing countries aren’t less intelligent, less skilled, or less motivated than anyone else; what they lack is the same access and opportunities as those living in the developed world. By that same logic, should Virginia or Ricardo from Guatemala (pictured below, first and third from left) have been born in the same situations as Jackie and Eric from the U.S., they very well might be sitting in a Zoom meeting, learning how to apply the principles of economics.
So how do we close that gap in access and opportunity? Renowned business strategist and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter says that we can solve societal problems like poverty by applying a capitalistic approach and creating ‘shared value’. In a TED Talk about letting business solve social problems Porter says, “Shared value is when we can create social value and economic value simultaneously. It’s finding those opportunities that will unleash the greatest possibility we have to actually address these social problems — because we can scale.” Scalability is the challenge because we can’t rely on charitable donations alone to fix poverty; there isn’t enough money out there to end it with a “gift”. Instead, charitable giving should be used as a springboard to build sustainable and profitable businesses that can allow people to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty for good.
Heifer International has combined those principles in a way that empowers people born into the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) to leverage the types of lessons that Jackie and Eric are learning in business school to improve their economic outcomes. The BoP signifies the world’s 4 billion poorest people, who earn less than the equivalent of $1,500 per person per year; this accounts for approximately two-thirds of the world’s population, as shown in Figure 1. Let that sink in — only 33% of the world earns more than $1,500 a year.
For 75 years, Heifer has gone beyond the traditional model of charitable giving to provide those living at the BoP the opportunities to earn what CEO Pierre Ferrari calls a “dignified, livable income”. Heifer does that in a way that feels very familiar to any entrepreneur, business school student, or person working in a capitalistic society: they leverage the foundational principles of business. In essence, they provide the poor an opportunity to go to the “business school of life”
so that they can learn how to lift their families, neighbors, and societies out of poverty. This article will apply those foundations of business to what Heifer is doing to help people at the BoP build a dignified life for themselves.
Betting on the Farm — Heifer’s Business Model
Heifer International is a global nonprofit corporation that performs the day to day work of implementing projects and programs. That work is supported by the endowment built by the Heifer Foundation, which generates long term support for the non-profit through endowments, annuities, trusts, and more. The Foundation is supported by a list of heavy hitters, ranging from celebrities like Oprah and Tim McGraw, to political powerhouse families like the Bushes and the Clintons. Corporate sponsors include Walmart and the Gap, and
philanthropic partners include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MasterCard Foundation. And Heifer doesn’t just take money from anyone — they have very specific guardrails to ensure that the funds support their mission, and are not intended to further the cause of whoever is providing the funds. Over 75% of the corporation’s total expenses are spent on the programs and services it delivers, earning them 3 out of 4 stars in Charity Navigator’s Financial Health ranking, seen in Figure 2 — which looks at financial health, accountability, and transparency. Heifer gets particularly high marks on the latter.
All that to say — this organization is the real deal. They are the Walmart of nonprofits, and coincidentally Walmart is one of a few corporate partners who meet their high ethical standards or guardrails for doing business. So how did they get there? An analysis of Porter’s Five Forces, as shown in Figure 3, shows that this is an extremely competitive market. The threat of new entrants is high as many companies look for ways to improve their corporate impact and image. The bargaining power of customers — those who donate money — is high, as there are no shortages of charities to consider. The threat of substitutes for donors includes anything that satisfies the customer’s internal motivation to “do good” or stimulate the economy, while a substitute for the farmers could be microfinancing organizations — an approach which Ferrari claims has been proven to have little to no real impact. Industry competition is extremely high, with organizations like The Hunger Project, Compassion International, and others following a similar “teach a man to fish” model.
So how does organization in this highly competitive environment differentiate itself from all of the options? Professor Chris Bingham’s MIT Sloan article, “Which Strategy When?” tells us that when industries are stable and competition is strong, competitive advantage comes from selecting a position and building a set of tightly interlocked resources around that position. For Heifer, the heart of their mission is to end hunger and poverty in a sustainable way by supporting and investing alongside local farmers and their communities. To achieve that mission, their model focuses on community mobilization, training, and connection to markets. From the day they started in 1944, they have believed that ending poverty begins with agriculture. Over the past 75 years, Heifer has worked with more than 35 million families to provide start-up funding and train them on how to run a profitable business, and then grow those businesses. Their model of tightly interlocked resources includes their hub and spoke model for support of each region, financial support through donations and their impact investing firm Heifer Capital, and their values based holistic community development (VBHCD) platform. All of this is aligned around one clear, common goal — which allows for some flexibility and innovation in the resource deployment.
Hope Grows at Heifer — A Single Minded Goal
Though the mission has remained the same since 1944, the company has evolved. One of the ways they’ve grown is in the target they’re aiming for. A vision that is aligned with a common goal is important in driving innovation and success, and highlighting when it will become important to evolve. Initially, Ferrari shares, they measured success by % increase in income — but that wasn’t enough. In an interview with our team, Ferrari shared the moment that triggered the change. He was visiting a women’s co-op of indigenous people in the mountains of Guatemala, and asked what budget they needed to live lives of dignity. He says that a tall woman stood up, “I’ll never forget her. She said ‘I’ll tell you exactly what we need.’” That woman went on to provide a litany of costs for her family that added up to the equivalent of over $7,000 a year, while her family earned just over $2,000/year. That gap, Ferrari says, “became a fixation for me. A single minded goal of living income” that became the company’s North Star. Because once they close that gap, he shares, “from there they become ecologically sensitive, gender sensitive, they become much more oriented towards educating their kids — lots of things begin to happen because they don’t have to worry about feeding themselves.” The correlation between closing that gap and impact on climate smart agricultural practices and household dietary diversity scores can be seen in Figure 4, which represents a region in Nicaragua that is outlined in the Heifer 2019 Annual Report.
As the target grew bigger, the approach also evolved. Heifer realized that the key to helping families reach a dignified, living income goal lies within business principles. At the strategic level, this meant simplification, focus, and leveraging economies of scale. Ferrari shared that when he started, there were 47 offices working on a small scale in hundreds of regions. He quickly began closing down offices to consolidate and be able to pour resources into fewer regions. They cut the number of regional offices in half, and any new project had to include at least 1,000 families in order to be culturally accepted and operationally feasible.
One example Ferrari gives is a goat farmers’ co-op in Nepal. Following these principles, that co-op has developed into an organization with over 200,000 farmers, unions, aggregation points, shipping lanes, and a value and supply chain that is wholly owned by the farmers. They’ve created an enormous amount of wealth, and Ferrari hypothesizes that they’ve affected the GNP of Nepal through this work, by interrupting the importation of goats from India and China. This is rural development, not just intervention. And once the farmers start bringing cash into the regions, other businesses thrive on that central industry — and cash continues to flow into and grow in the community. Once that happens, the banks show up. Their impact investment arm, Heifer Capital is available to support the farmers and show lenders that the farmers are a good credit risk, even without collateral. That same goat co-op in Nepal now has over $200M in credit being made available to them. This solves what Ferrari calls the “poverty traps of the rural poor”- the lack of access to working capital and cap-ex. Heifer’s model aims to solve that problem, and it’s key to their empowerment.
Planting Seeds — Dignity through Diversification
While this simplification and focus has aligned the organization to be more effective, implementing an integrated business approach is the key to creating sustainable income for the farmers. And Heifer teaches these concepts to the communities through a curriculum they call “VBHCD” — values-based holistic community development, a curriculum that sits on a platform called the 12 Cornerstones. As seen in Figure 5, that’s about teaching the farmers the principles of business, training them on how to run businesses, encouraging them to share these insights, and providing them the platform to thrive. “Wealth creation,” says Ferrari, “is the gateway out of permanent poverty.” Heifer teaches the co-ops how to create their own sources of income, diversify, and grow. For a fantastic explanation of the “Passing on the Gift” cornerstone, which is integral to the platform, see celebrity chef Alton Brown’s explanation.
This goes to the heart of some of the challenges associated with this work. If the communities aren’t committed, the approach can’t work. Ferrari says that some of these communities have become jaded and even entitled before Heifer came in– they know what to do and say to receive funding from charitable organizations, but then organizations move on and nothing changes. Heifer won’t provide funding to a community until they see them participating in putting plans together — that’s the accountability piece of the cornerstones. Another challenge emerges when it comes to the levels of education and experience. To address this, Heifer seeks to identify people to represent the “trinity of management” –someone to sell and market, to run the operations, and to be the finance person. And, Ferrari says, “That’s true of General Electric as well as for the smallest co-op”. When asked if those functions are done by Heifer employees, he says no, “we don’t do the work…we train and facilitate…we’re there to help.” He adds that there are some interesting phenomenon that develop in the communities as a response to this need and opportunity. First, there are young people who have left the villages to pursue an education who come back to help their villages succeed, and many of them take on these management responsibilities. Second, they find that they have created conditions for leaders to emerge within the villages. Ferrari calls it a “psychological phenomenon…kind of a magic”, this natural emergence of leaders when given the opportunity. He talks about a woman who was a poor goat farmer in Nepal and is now a Member of Parliament, and relays, with awe and admiration in his voice, that there are countless similar anecdotes. It’s clear that these farmers have made as much of an impact on Ferrari as his organization has had on them.
This introduction of a growth mindset to the farmers has them exploring what is possible with the resources at hand. While students like Eric learned how to analyze financial statements in their classrooms and boardrooms, Ricardo learned on his 2.5 acre plot of land in Guatemala. Before Heifer started working with him, Ricardo supported his family of 7 with corn, coffee, and beets — earning about $0.80/day. Heifer helped him expand to other crops, to fish and snails, and organize his plot in a way in which waste from one product went to fertilize growth for the other. They taught him to analyze his agricultural portfolio and invest his resources wisely, with analysis tools like the one seen in Figure 5. This approach to diversification increased Ricardo’s daily earnings from $0.80/day to $1.44/day — but more importantly, it taught him the strategic mindset for how to grow his business.
Pierre Ferrari and his team at Heifer never forget their central mission — to empower these communities to lift themselves out of poverty in a sustainable way. That means that at some point they need to exit, so that they can move on to another region that can benefit from this work. And that takes a deep understanding of their customers, competition, and company and where they are best positioned to succeed. That focus that Ferrari brought to Heifer provides a competitive advantage here. Heifer takes that expertise to the communities and teaches them the same principles of marketing.
Master Gardeners — Heifer Embraces Employing the 3Cs and 4Ps of Marketing
At a very basic level Heifer knows their customers well. Prior to initiating efforts in a designated region, they work with local farmers to understand the regional nuances and living income benchmarks. The living income benchmark isn’t something developed at Heifer HQ — it is co-created in the communities, based on their input. Next, they determine those in most need and help them develop businesses to close the income gap between current income levels and a living income. Helping local farmers create sustainable opportunities with the intention of taking them to scale for maximal impact is key to their mission of ending hunger and poverty. While a formal MBA education teaches us that The Three C’s (company, customer and competitor) and the Four P’s (product, price, place, promotion) are the basics of developing a marketing plan, Heifer teaches local farmers much the same through organization, collaborations, and in-the-field training.
Developed by Kenichi Ohmae, the 3Cs Model provides companies a strategy to pursue success through creating a unique competitive advantage. Heifer assists local farmers, business owners and cooperatives develop sustainable business models in very much the same way.
Company: Heifer works with individual farmers, farming families, and business owners, but their main work focuses on the formation of cooperatives. When Heifer starts a project in a new region, they form a “self-help group”. This cooperative (i.e. company) offers collective support to each member. Understanding that maintaining a living wage in the selected regions is difficult, it is even more so when you are alone. Joining an accountability group of 20–25 dedicated persons allows the sharing of knowledge, resources and innovation. Together the members map out a strategy for income generation, scale and expansion into new markets for their goods and services. The cooperatives also provide a space where other locals can share their expertise and a place where Heifer staff can provide training and technical support.
Customer: If the goal of Heifer’s efforts is long-term sustainability through scale, discovering new markets for the goods and services is a vital part of the mission. Heifer creates intentional partnerships within each region of operation to connect farmers, business owners, and cooperatives with flourishing markets. Whether a business-to-business sale of eggs to local restaurants in India, or business-to-consumer sale of locally crafted textiles to tourists in Guatemala or produce and meats in Cambodia, the expansion of such markets offers potential for sustainability and continued growth.
Competition: Competition at the bottom of the pyramid is a different proposition than attempting to squeeze yet again another widget into the consciousness of the Western consumer. In the regions of the world where need abounds, it is more productive for competitors to cooperate — to build an ecosystem of support instead of barriers of hindrance. What Heifer calls a “Producer Hub” we might refer to as a Chamber of Commerce. The Producer Hub is run by a locally elected board of directors and provides a platform for farmers to share valuable resources, bulk order feed for livestock, gain access to otherwise difficult-to-obtain credit thereby allowing them to become active parts of the local economy. The Producer Hubs also offer train-the-trainer in animal husbandry and agriculture skills so that locals become self-reliant in managing their herds. For example, Heifer has trained over 200 people within one village on veterinary skills to improve the health of their livestock, thereby improving the quality of the milk.
The 4Ps (product, price, place, promotion) first proposed by Jerome McCarthy, demonstrate the ways companies could and do use advertising tactics to engage consumers. Ultimately, the 4Ps provide a framework for marketing decision-making. Nuanced to the local market, Heifer field consultants guide local farmers and business owners in the following ways.
Product: Heifer supports farmers and their communities as they mobilize and envision their futures, provide training so they can improve the quantity and quality of their goods. Intentional innovation in collaboration between Heifer and farmers have produced significant product improvements. For instance, farmers in Mexico are using drones to monitor crop growth, detect pests and develop sowing plans. Treadle pumps in Zambia double the amount of land under irrigation, extend the growing season thereby improving food security and income. In Honduras Heifer is implementing blockchain technology in the coffee value chain: “We believe blockchain technology will forever change the way non-profit organizations create value for beneficiaries and project stakeholders. Our vision is to build a blockchain network for agricultural development where all farmers can have access to working capital, technical assistance, and expanding markets.” Another way blockchain is expected to deliver value in the future is through registration of land rights. Once a farmer can demonstrate proof of ownership, they have the ability to borrow money against that collateral.
Price: Sustainability is dependent upon farmers and business owners obtaining a fair market price for their goods and services. In a formal MBA program, we may spend a considerable amount of time learning about pricing models. At the Bottom of the Pyramid, pricing models may differ, but they are certainly important. For instance, most BOP markets are informal and cash-based, which frequently results in obtaining a lower price for goods or services than in a formal market economy. In 2014, an estimated 2.5 billion adults in the world were “unbanked” or “underbanked” which means they have no credit or access to other resources. Experts believe that lack of access to financial services perpetuates poverty. Heifer assists farmers to transition from informal to a formal market is challenging in cash-based economies allowing them to eventually obtain financial services. When farmers sell at local markets, they get paid in cash right away. This is the type of transaction they know and trust. As businesses scale, and more robust markets are entered, Heifer teaches their beneficiaries that the entire value chain needs to be managed. With more formal markets, short term credit is the norm; and terms for goods and services need to be negotiated. Assisting with development of relationships with merchants is one of many ways Heifer helps farmers and business owners obtain appropriate pricing for their goods and services. Formation of cooperatives and producer hubs allows farmers to increase their bargaining power; by pooling their products farmers can negotiate better prices and retain more profits. The producer hubs also provide more reliable transportation to larger markets for products, instead of selling their goods to intermediaries who ultimately take a significant amount of the farmer’s profits.
Providing access to larger markets is crucial to expansion, profitability and sustainability. However, barriers often exist to transport goods to other markets in neighboring communities for sale. Heifer helps create relationships and collaborations to make this possible. At times transport can prove to be very challenging due to difficulties caused by political and social unrest. Even this does not deter their efforts; Heifer’s goal is to work with local farmers and business owners to get products in front of consumers that are most likely to buy them.
Heifer’s solid business guidance encourages farmers to uphold their contractual obligations within the formal markets. Accountability feeds a reputation of reliability, which in turn results in increased sales. Farmers are also taking on their own promotional training provided by Heifer projects. One example of successful promotion was borne out of Leveraging Success, a 5-year Heifer project underway in Honduras. This program helped launch a beekeeping startup that has been so successful in the honey business that they have grown from 20 to 360 hives that produce prize-winning honey (Figure 11). The business owners’ goal is to expand to 1400 hives by 2021. To add value to their core honey business, the owners are opening a beekeeping store to support the other new beekeepers in the region. Ultimately, they would like to purchase a building where they plan to manufacture honey for export to markets in Canada! The project also supports farmers and their cooperatives to participate in local, regional and international conferences and to attend trade fairs to learn from others in similar businesses.
Impact — The Heifer High
If you talk to any Heifer employee about their experiences with the organization and the work that they do, you will quickly understand what the “Heifer high” is, as described by Executive Assistant Tracy Beene. It’s the feeling that what they do makes a difference in the world, and has done so for a long time. Heifer International has stood the test of time by helping to strengthen communities for over 75 years. Their aspirational goals, of ending hunger and poverty are supported by strong financials. Over the last five years alone, Heifer has successfully raised over $100 million each year to fund their operations and mission. Figure 12 reviews Heifer’s allocation of 2019 funds. Please see Exhibit 1 for Heifer’s Consolidated Statement for 2019. Over 76% of all expenses go directly to programs helping families across 21 different countries. The organization’s initiatives are primarily broken out into three separate areas, which are International development, Sustainability (69%), International development education (29%), and International development agro-ecology (2%). These development projects ending up contributing more than its initial investment by acting as a wealth multiplier for communities. For example, each $1 expenditure by country programs in Albania, Nepal, and Uganda, households can be expected to gain about $2.35, $1.19 and $1.25, respectively on an ongoing basis. While Heifer’s projects work on a micro scale, the organization’s collective effort creates jobs and opportunities globally. In the fiscal year of 2019, Heifer started 34 new projects and ran a total of 134 projects across the Americas, Africa, and Asia. This directly supported over 706,000 families, impacting 148,235 families in Americas, 365,398 in Africa, and 193,268 in Asia.
Heifer’s global programs aim to impact society with a bottom up approach focusing on supporting farmers and their communities. The Heifer teams help build individual’s futures by providing training to effectively raise livestock and increase production. Their expertise does not stop with production, but also helps with distribution. To do this the organization connects farmers to new markets for selling goods, and keeps them informed of fair market prices to help boost income. As individuals develop into a stronger business, this begins to ripple throughout the local economy and community. After these sponsored farms grow, they then are connected with cooperatives that are independently owned by the farmers themselves. As a cooperative, they can access credit through Heifer Capital, or private institutions, to further reinforce their farms and communities. Additionally, by joining assets they can reduce costs and gain more influence in setting market prices.
To give you a better idea how this impacts farmers and their families, let’s take another look at Ricardo.
Ricardo joined a Heifer project that provided livestock, seeds, and training to struggling farming families. With his new boost in income he re-invested into his farm and bought basic goods for family. Through additional guidance from Heifer, his farm became further integrated in the eco-system by including fish farming, more diversifying crops, and an improved irrigation system. Ricardo now says, “I am proud to farm and prouder that my whole family is doing this work.” After improving his family’s life, Ricardo now looks to improve others by giving livestock demonstrations to other families. Heifer helps millions of families like Ricardo’s every year. Since 2015, they have helped 3.39 million families reached their living income goals.
Creating sustainable farms also has the long-term benefit of aiding local self-sufﬁciency and reducing external dependencies. While subsistence provides resources and food in the short-term, developing a new marketplace is a job multiplier, which creates broader income, education, and an opportunity for communities to reach their potential. Heifer’s program’s forge stronger marketplaces, which increases the society’s ability to withstand inevitable shocks from droughts to political unrest. In fact, Chris Coxon, Director of Public Relations and Strategic Communication at Heifer, shares that the Fontagro Project in Nicaragua took place through a period of heavy drought in that region. As you can see in Figure 4, that community was able to make significant impact on farmer income, climate smart agricultural practices, and household dietary diversity scores.
Heifer also understands that improving the environment can be life changing for some communities. With this in mind, the organization integrates its programs to teach those climate-smart agricultural practices to increase resilience and crop production. Some of these initiatives are supporting bio gas plants that provide clean energy and irrigation projects that provide lasting improvements. Throughout each program, Heifer promotes agroecology to protect local ecosystems, promote conservation, and reduce carbon footprints.
Repeatable Execution Through the Seasons — A Clear and Measurable Mission
Ricardo and Virginia’s education, along with more than 700,000 other individuals across the world in 2019, has been compassionately and expertly constructed by Heifer. Their educational and impact investment approach has been carefully refined by iterative learning for over 70 years. Heifer surgically impacts the lives of individuals, families, and entire communities across many parts of the world left behind in the wake of the hyper growth, post-Industrial Age Revolution, and its investments of time and resources are structured to cement viable, multi-generational change in these people’s lives. In order to effectively run an organization that creates real change in lives through impact investment, there needs to be consistency in execution of allocating dollars with tangible progress as ROI, and matching consistency in raising funds and forming partnerships.
Starting with Heifer’s Founder, Dan West, a clear and measurable mission statement was executed repeatedly, from conceptualization to actualization, and the more that Heifer was able to eradicate hunger, ease effects of disease from poverty, empower women, increase income for individuals and families, and lift people into a new paradigm of a human condition — where there is hope for longer and more comfortable lives — the more that Heifer was able to measure its success and seek grants, as well as strategic partnerships. Heifer has millions of Ricardo and Virginia’s, across dozens of countries, and can provide corporations, governments, institutions, and donating individuals a palpable face and story to secure funds for continued expansion — which is seen in its immense (and very transparent) balance sheet. The balance sheet boasts $238mm in assets, which is nearly 40% greater than its asset base 7 years ago. With Heifer’s iterative learning processes in how it executes employing dollars, expertise, and time to enrich the lives and improve socio-economic conditions in neglected eco-systems, it can continue to raise the critical funds to scale operations and become even more impactful in its approach, via economies of scale.
Given Heifer’s incredibly impressive statistics on families lifted out of malnutrition and morbid poverty, there are certainly equally important qualitative data points that don’t show up in a chart or balance sheet: the cultural dynamics, the very community fabric woven by all people in an entire community. The farmers are significantly impacted by seeing families who are re-energized by injections of capital and custom-tailored instruction on agro and livestock trade; they are launching themselves out of dire poverty. There is a network effect — on the collective human psyche — across a tight-knit community when a component, or multiple components of that community, undergo significant change, vis-à-vis a new economic lifeline that enables palpable positive change.
Heifer has accomplished vast success — through meaningful, material impact — in helping the poor in the most neglected corners of the world. That success has been built on the very simple, yet deeply held philosophy that men and women, working in community, can lift themselves out of poverty. The execution of that philosophy for Heifer lies in applying business concepts to agricultural practices, and allowing economies to develop and thrive. The impact of that execution has been millions of people to date living dignified lives with a living income that wouldn’t have been possible without this work. Pierre Ferrari’s advice to those of us in the business world who feel a calling to participate in nonprofit work in any way, shape or form is, “balance the reality of running a business with the social mission”. It’s the same advice Heifer gives the poorest farmer in the most remote area of the world. Because at the end of the day, empowering people living at the Bottom of the Pyramid to achieve a dignified, living income begins with treating them with the mindset of dignity and respect that Ricardo and Virginia are just as capable and worthy of managing a business as Jackie and Eric.
This article and all exhibits in it has been published with the approval of Pierre Ferrari, CEO of Heifer International.
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