Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative

Pioneering a unique bottom-up approach to research, education and practice in low income settings

The Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative (SMI) has pioneered a bottom-up approach to research and practice at the intersection of poverty and marketplaces. Its unique approach begins with a micro-level understanding of buyers, sellers, and subsistence marketplaces. It adopts a marketplace rather than a market orientation, viewing subsistence contexts as more than markets to sell to - rather as individuals, communities, and preexisting marketplaces to learn from. We have created unique synergies between research, education for students and managers, social enterprise for communities, and an ecosystem of forums and publications.


We have now conducted research for two decades on low-literate, low-income consumers in the United States, and subsistence consumers, entrepreneurs, and marketplaces in South India, Latin America, and Africa.

Our research spans the spectrum from understanding subsistence consumers and entrepreneurs at the level of thinking, feeling, and behaviors to product development, business models, and sustainable development, keeping the promise of a bottom-up approach. We have authored 40 publications including several books and edited special issues with approximately 60 refereed publications focusing on subsistence marketplaces.



Using a strong research foundation, we have developed and teach a series of educational experiences on this topic, reaching about 1,000 students at the University of Illinois as well as thousands of online students each year. Students from across campus engage in a year-long interdisciplinary course and one-of-a-kind international immersion experience, ranked one of the best entrepreneurship courses by Inc. magazine.


Social Enterprise

Our work has led to a unique marketplace literacy educational program reaching more than 100,000 individuals in eight countries (India, USA, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Argentina, Mexico, and Honduras) through the Marketplace Literacy Project, a non-profit organization founded in concert with this initiative, and other partners. Marketplace literacy relates to skills, knowledge, self-confidence, and awareness of rights as consumers and entrepreneurs. Our program enables savings and purchase of better-quality products for subsistence consumers and the start of a new enterprise or expansion of an existing enterprise for entrepreneurs. Unique to marketplace literacy is an emphasis on know-why, or a deeper understanding of the marketplace, which our research showed was a particularly striking need among low-income, low-literate individuals.