Subsistence Marketplaces


Madhu Viswanathan describes a Coursera course on Subsistence Marketplaces, part of a wider initiative on that topic at the University of Illinois


A Coursera offering on Subsistence Marketplaces designed at the University of Illinois begins January 13th – This 8 week course is divided into two distinct modules on understanding subsistence marketplaces and designing solutions.

Please also find below our recent communication about our web portal and our call for papers for the fifth subsistence marketplaces conference.

Dear colleagues, 

Our subsistence marketplaces initiative ( with a bottom-up approach to understanding the intersection of poverty and the marketplace has led to unique research, educational, and social initiatives and a biennial conference series with associated publications.  We have created a variety of educational materials along the way, as our offerings cover undergraduate, graduate and executive levels in business, an undergraduate course of engineers, and interdisciplinary courses for students from engineering, design and other areas.  

We are publicizing a web portal with a variety of content designed to provide access and allow educators to run exercises for classroom activities.  Our goal in putting together this web portal over several years is to have researchers, educators, practitioners, and students benefit from our experiences now spanning over 15 years. 

A very brief overview of the web portal is provided through a video at
The contents of the web portal include the following.

1. Day in the life videos 

6 videos (Urban Homemaker, Rural Homemaker, Urban Seller, Rural Seller, Urban environmental issues and Rural environmental issues)

2. Immersion Exercises 

This contains a set of videos with pictures from subsistence contexts, related to domains such as agriculture, water, technology, child nutrition, different geographies, etc. They could be used as stimuli for students to understand the broader context and specific needs and to generate product ideas in what we have dubbed virtual immersion.

3. Shakti Rising (Movie)*

Contains 2 versions (52 min & 1 hour 24 min). Both are edited versions of the full length movie.  Portrays woman who empowers herself through the marketplace and provides very rich context for designing solutions and developing business plans.  

4. Subsistence interviews

Contains transcripts of interviews conducted with subsistence entrepreneurs and consumers. 

5. Business Cases

The business cases are based on comprehensive business plans developed by student groups in the course titled Sustainable Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces.

6. Assignments associated with educational materials

7. Book – "Understanding and Designing Solutions for Subsistence Marketplaces" – available August, 2013, through etext for a very nominal price (to be determined but likely in $5 range with plans to use a portion to help subsistence communities through marketplace literacy educational initiatives).  The book is based on insights from research now spanning over 15 years, educational offerings, and social initiatives.  A table of contents is present in the introductory video above.

8. A forum to be operational soon to share experiences on the use of these materials.

Our resources web page is at


To gain access, instructors may complete a brief consent form at – 

To gain access and provide access to students, instructors may complete a brief consent form at –

Instructions will be forthcoming after completion of the consent form.
Please email if you have any problems in accessing the materials. We will try to resolve them as soon as possible.

We thank you in advance for your help in improving this web portal.  Over time, we plan to add content from different geographies and covering different domains of subsistence (water, sanitation, etc.) as well as customizing the portal to different audiences.

Madhu Viswanathan and Srini Venugopal



*Shakti Rising evolved out of conversations between Madura Microfinance, a non banking finance company operating across Tamil Nadu, India, that provides small loans to 400,000 rural women along with products that expand market access, and Usha Rajeswari, a documentary filmmaker. Madura pushed on with the concept of a business training film, teaming up with a non profit called the Marketplace Literacy Project, founded by MadhuViswanathan, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.The Marketplace Literacy Project provided business training through an innovative approach to this audience and Madhu had spent several yearsresearching subsistence marketplace entrepreneurs and had developed extensive curriculum. Working on the one hand with women whose lives inspired the film, and on the other hand with Madhu and his team, Rajeshewari wove a story and script that captured the essence of the messages of entrepreneurship. The name Shakti Pirakkudhu means in the Tamillanguage,’a new strength is born’. In English this has been translated as Shakti Rising. The movie has received an Honorable Mention at the Los Angeles Movie Awards (  The movie is now the basis for a teacherless video-based educational program to teach marketplace literacy that has been launched in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, through a collaboration between Madura Microfinance and the Marketplace Literacy Project.

Earlier message on Call for Papers – Fifth Subsistence Marketplaces Conference

The Fifth Subsistence Marketplaces Conference 

Consumption and Entrepreneurship in Subsistence Marketplaces: Spanning Geographies and Substantive Domains

June 13-15, 2014                        Champaign, Illinois

Call for Papers

Conference Chair

Madhu Viswanathan
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Themes / Co-Chairs

Consumption and Conservation

Chris Blocker, Colorado State University, and Roland Gau, Univ. of Texas, El Paso



Geoffrey Kistruck, York University and Srinivas Sridharan, Monash University


Substantive Domains of Subsistence

Jeremy Guest, University of Illinois


Diverse Geographies

Esi Elliot, Suffolk University, and Kelly Martin, Colorado State University


Social Innovation

Raed Elaydi, Roosevelt University, and Ben Lough, University of Illinois


Research Methods

Oana Branzei, University of Western Ontario, and Lisa Jones Christenson, University of North Carolina


Curricular Innovation



Junior Scholar Mentorship

Srinivas Venugopal, University of Illinois


Organized by the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, the fifth Subsistence Marketplace Conference will be held at the I-Hotel in Champaign, Illinois. 


Subsistence marketplaces consist of consumer and entrepreneur communities living at a range of low income levels, and are concentrated in developing countries and regions such as Brazil, India, China, Vietnam, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In the last decade, the Subsistence Marketplaces Conference has been a leading forum for evolving and sharing research and fostering best practices in these communities. 

In its fifth edition, the 2014 conference is titled to highlight consumption and entrepreneurship while emphasizing diverse geographies and substantive domains of subsistence. Specific themes include consumption and conservation, entrepreneurship, substantive domains of subsistence, diverse geographies, social innovation, and curricular innovation. The theme of consumption and conservation emphasizes the need to understand the environmental issues that impinge on day-to-day living and basic needs. The theme of entrepreneurship covers the gamut from survival and subsistence to thriving and transformational.


Specific substantive domains of subsistence such as water, food, sanitation, and energy will be of particular focus, with each of these vital life realms representing significant challenges and opportunities. This theme is particularly germane for work conducted in a variety of disciplines encompassing the social and physical sciences. The theme of diverse geographies highlights the need to study, compare, and contrast a range of subsistence contexts, across regions around the world. Cutting-edge research and practice relating to social enterprises in subsistence marketplaces are highlighted through the theme of social innovation. The theme of curricular innovation will focus on modules, courses, and programs that bring subsistence marketplaces into the classroom.


The conference will begin with an evening reception Friday, June 13, and sessions through Saturday and mid-afternoon Sunday, June 15. The conference will include plenary sessions, participatory workshops, special sessions on specific topics, and presentations of papers submitted in response to this call. An emphasis will be on sharing ideas and knowledge among researchers, practitioners, and students. A pre-conference workshop for doctoral students and junior researchers is planned for Friday afternoon, June 13.  A poverty simulation and a movie showing is planned for the evening of June 13.


Academics, students, social entrepreneurs, policy makers, and business and nonprofit practitioners are encouraged to submit papers and attend. Some suggested topics are provided overleaf; however, submissions may go beyond these topics.

Suggested Topics

            Consumer behavior in subsistence marketplaces
            Entrepreneurship in subsistence marketplaces
            Substantive domains of subsistence (e.g., water, sanitation, energy, food)
            Emergence of marketing systems
            Environmentalism of subsistence consumers and consumer-merchants
            Issues of environmental justice relating to subsistence marketplaces
            Sustainable product design for subsistence marketplaces
            Inventing and re-inventing new products and services for subsistence marketplaces
            Organization design and re-design for operating in subsistence marketplaces
            Collaborative models for business innovations
            Supply chain and distribution challenges and opportunities
            Pricing for value and sustainability
            Marketing communication and education
            Innovative research methods 
            Economic and financial perspectives on subsistence marketplaces (e.g. financial literacy)
            Health, well-being and justice in subsistence marketplaces
            Merging social and business missions through social innovations
            Incorporating business practices in nonprofit organizations developing social innovations
            Social innovation alliances and partnerships among NGOs, governments, and businesses
            Bringing subsistence contexts into the classroom
            Multidisciplinary teaching initiatives addressing subsistence phenomena and regions

Abstract Submission Requirements

All authors are asked to submit a three-page abstract, from which acceptance decisions will be made and preliminary session planning will be carried out. Proposals for special sessions are also welcome.  

Page 1:            Title, author(s), and full contact information including email.
Pages 2-3:       Double-spaced abstract of the paper or special session, inclusive of references, tables, and other key materials.
Format:           Please email as a Word attachment to


Submission Deadline: 31 January 2014

Notification of Review Decision: 15 February 2014

Submissions for Journal Review for Special Issue

A special issue or a special section of the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing will be published based on articles developed from research presented at the conference and submitted to the review process. Prior conferences have led to a book (Advances in International Management series by Elsevier in 2007), and special issues/sections of journals (Journal of Business Research, Journal of Macromarketing, and Journal of Marketing Management). Further details will be available as they are finalized.  A tentative schedule is as follows:

Submission Deadlines for Full Drafts: 

August 31, 2014:         Deadline for paper submission after incorporation of comments from 

conference participants and conference chairs

November 30, 2014:   Feedback to authors after peer review

January 31, 2015:        Deadline for revised submission

May 31, 2015:             Final deadline for subsequent revisions

Publication Submission Requirements

Page 1:                        Title, author(s), and full contact information (including e-mail).
Pages 2-35:     Double-spaced paper not to exceed 35 pages including references, appendices, and exhibits.
Format:           Please email as a Word attachment to