The big idea: How do you create a market for a life-saving consumer product when the population with the highest demand for it cannot afford it?

The scenario: The Food and Drug Administration has approved Female Health Company’s second-generation female condom (FC2). Now the company must figure out how to get it to the markets where it’s most needed. In 2010, the World Health Organization cited HIV/AIDS as the leading cause of death worldwide among women 15 to 44 years old. Mary Ann Leeper and colleagues knew that the female condom provided life-saving empowerment to women. It is the only protection against HIV/AIDS controlled by women.

The company had invested years developing the FC2. Its lower cost made it possible for more women to have access.

Before the FDA approval, the company focused on developing a global network by creating sustainable relationships with governments, public health sector groups, nongovernmental organizations and others. For example, in Zimbabwe, a relationship resulted in training more than 2,000 barbers and hairdressers in low-income areas to educate others on the use of female condoms, as well as to sell them. Thanks to the innovative public-private partnerships, distribution tripled in Zimbabwe in three years to more than 5 million units. That campaign served as a model for Guyana and Malawi.

In the United States, the number of women living with HIV tripled over the past two decades. HIV was the third-leading cause of death for black women, 25 to 44 years old.

Through its efforts in the developing world, the company realized that it needed a “village” to reach those most in need. Washington, with the nation’s highest rate of HIV/AIDS, was the most pressing area to reach. The infection rate was most disturbing for heterosexual African American women in the District’s poorest areas.

How could the company reach these women and ensure sustainable growth and returns for investors?

The resolution: The company created key public-private partnerships in cities across the country. The first partnership was in the District through the D.C. Female Condom Initiative led by the Washington AIDS Partnership and funded by the MAC AIDS Fund. The District’s health department led the community outreach and training programs with the help of Calvary Healthcare, Community Education Group, Our Place DC, Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington and the Women’s Collective. The company trained the peer educators in these programs. CVS sold the product at 56 stores in the District. Each city’s partnership has a unique personality, but the common thread is the emphasis on education and training.

The lesson: For their strategy to introduce the female condom to U.S. cities, Leeper and her colleagues took a lesson from the streets of Zimbabwe. Communities with severely limited resources often find innovation through cooperation. As U.S. businesses compete to establish their presence in the innovation age of science and technology, they should also look for innovations in cooperation often found in societies with the most primitive means.

Mary Margaret Frank

Frank is associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and serves on the board of directors of the Female Health Company.