The second segment is prisoners....They buy instant noodles at the commissary and mix them with all sorts of things in a remarkable way, mixing them with other ingredients to make elaborate concoctions—cakes, peanut butter and jelly facsimiles made out of instant noodles....Mostly we think they provide them with a taste of freedom. They buy them by choice; they make what they want.
And the third segment are, of course, college students....NPR did a series of programs and they ask their listeners, who I must say are not unlike the parents of the students, to send in their instant noodle stories, and the parents were very nostalgic about instant noodles. “Once upon a time, my boyfriend visited in my room and we weren’t allowed to have a burner in the room, so we made them and watched the sunset.” For middle-class students and their parents, they become a measure of middle-class life trajectory: “Once upon a time I lived on instant noodles.”
And then, of course Papua New Guinea, where instant noodles arrive in the 1980s and people are migrating out of villages into urban centers and they become, for many, a proletarian hunger killer. Bang for the buck, bang for 10 cents, and people become not only dependent on them but they really begin to like them for another reason. People can go into stores and buy them, and they really like the experience of choosing among the array of options. One of our arguments is they are helping transform Papua New Guineans into consumers, for better or worse.
IDEAS: You refer to the people “at the bottom of the pyramid” as a niche that instant noodles are designed to target. Can you explain that?
GEWERTZ: C.K. Prahalad wrote a very influential book called “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” He argued that even though the poor have very little money, there are a whole lot of them. So if you could find products which appealed to those at the bottom of the pyramid, then you would earn not very much from a few of them, but you’d earn a whole lot from them all. He also had a vision, as lots of businesspeople do, of a kind of win-win situation. If you could sell to those at the bottom of the pyramid and you could allow them to exercise their choice, and satisfy their basic needs, then they would move up economically....There would be this kind of evolution to the middle of the pyramid.
We tend to think of those at the bottom of the pyramid as remaining [there], but altered in some regard: more dependent on food coming from other places, less secure.
IDEAS: What is the future for instant noodles?
GEWERTZ: I think they’re unstoppable....We have seen that very, very, very poor people need a source of calories. We do not think instant noodles will save the world by any means, but we end up concluding, with a significant amount of reluctance, they do more good than harm in keeping poor people not exactly nourished, but certainly alive.