The ‘Avon Ladies’ of Bangladesh

Courtesy of The Guardian, a look at the “Avon Ladies of Bangladesh” – a report focused on the social aspect of a business strategy that nonetheless offers keen insight into the techniques of some multinational corporations to reach the emerging markets of some of the least developed countries.  As the article notes:

“…A woman shouldn’t go out to work, a woman should be at home,” says Ruby, looking ashamed. She hoists a large black bag on one shoulder and shuffles down the road, clutching the folds of her sheer white sari, traditionally worn by widows in rural Bangladesh. “But I have to survive.”

When her husband died five years ago, the 42-year-old fell into poverty and her four children dropped out of school. Had it not been for the help of Brac, a local NGO, she would have starved.

A culture of patriarchy and conservative religious mores mean women such as Ruby are largely excluded from the labour force. Only 4% of Bangladeshi women work for a wage and they earn less than half that of their male counterparts. They constitute the majority of the country’s 60 million poor.

Female-headed households are particularly vulnerable. After her husband died, Ruby married off her three teenage daughters. The youngest was 14. “It was a relief,” she explains. “Now I don’t have to worry about her.”

In her village in Bogra district, north-west Bangladesh, women rarely leave their paras (half-submerged islands floating in watery paddy fields that are connected to each other by a web of mud roads). Here, women raise children and livestock together, living in clusters of bamboo huts and corrugated-steel houses nestled under lush vegetation. Typically, it is the men who make the long journey to market and work.

“Men are seen as the breadwinners,” explains Fatima Jahan Seema, empowerment co-ordinator for CARE International in Bangladesh. “Girls and women are seen as a burden.”

But a new programme has surprised the development community. Ruby is one of 2,400 women across the country trained by CARE Bangladesh to act as mobile saleswomen on behalf of a number of multinational corporations (MNCs).

Unilever, Danone and BIC have all partnered with CARE Bangladesh to promote their products here at the “bottom of the market”. The women or “aparajitas” (meaning “women who never accept defeat”) – jovially called the Avon ladies of Bangladesh – walk several kilometres each day along knotted roads to neighbouring paras, where they sell shampoo sachets, skin cream, cloths, soap and razors to other women.

Pitched as a win-win-win scenario that benefits the saleswomen, communities and companies, CARE hopes to redraw the relationship between NGOs and the private sector. “I’d like to think we are talking about a new type of business – a socially responsible business,” says Nick Southern, CARE’s country director.

The average aparajita has more than doubled her income, although it remains low at 1,400 taka a month (£12). Often it has meant the difference between pauperism and a decent living. It has also challenged local notions of women’s work.

“It’s not the normal thing for women in this culture to be out travelling the countryside,” says Professor Linda Scott at Saïd business school, Oxford University, who is conducting a research project on the programme. “At first, people made fun of them.”

Married women face an additional challenge: they need their husband’s permission. “My husband didn’t like that I was going door-to-door,” says Shahida, another saleswoman. “But he liked the money.”

In December, the programme will break off from CARE Bangladesh to become a for-profit entity in partnership with Grameen Danone Foods, a social enterprise set up to combat malnutrition in children by selling cheap high-fat yoghurt to the poor. CARE will retain a 51% share in the new business, Jita. The hope is to create a sustainable business model that can continue to flourish without relying on donor funding. The new structure will also enable the organisation to set up an incentive scheme for the women, offer the prospect of setting up their own shops, introduce health insurance benefits and give them mobile phones.

But the programme has had its critics, including CARE itself. “We had a lot of criticism from within the organisation that we were effectively pushing MNC products to the extreme poor,” says Asif Uddin Ahmed, programme director of CARE Bangladesh’s private sector engagement office.

The key, he stresses, is creating distribution systems where currently there are none. CARE hopes over time to introduce more local products, such as undergarments produced by women.

Critics say there is a fundamental conflict between making profits and helping the poor. Unilever has already voiced concerns about the initiative’s low turnover; once Jita is launched, the enterprise will need to strike a balance between its financial viability and social objective. The issue will become increasingly relevant as the programme is rolled out to more than 12,000 Aparajitas over the next three years. There is already substantial corporate interest in replicating the model outside Bangladesh.

Market-based approaches have also been scrutinised by feminist scholars. “A strategy exclusively focused on increasing women’s labour-market participation is not guaranteed to produce a balanced distribution between men and women in both production and reproduction,” says Professor Rosalind Eyben of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. “It might help individual women make progress, but it’s unlikely to challenge those constraints that are at the core of women’s subordination.”

Indeed, many of the saleswomen retain deeply conservative views on gender roles. “I want my daughter to be educated because I want her to marry into a good family,” says Joytara, who just purchased a plot of land with her own money. “I don’t want her to work.”

The programme also operates within the power structures that restrict women to the domestic sphere. Many of the products cater for women in their role as carers, housewives or objects of beauty on the proviso that they gain “agency” through the process of consumption. Although a number of the products – including sanitary pads and condoms – serve a social purpose, the market is ultimately driven by demand.

One of the best-selling products is Unilever’s Fair & Lovely skin-lightening cream. In 2007, Unilever’s Indian subsidiary was forced to pull two of its advertising campaigns after it was accused of promoting racism. Feminist groups in Bangladesh have complained that the cream promotes discrimination.

“I want to be fair and beautiful,” smiles 17-year-old Golapi, grasping a small sachet bought with her father’s money. She dropped out of school aged 10.

“It’s important not to individualise the concept of empowerment,” says Professor Firdous Azim of Brac University, Dhaka. “In this case, whilst economic empowerment may be successfully achieved, other disempowering factors remain intact.”

The free market no doubt offers opportunities for poor Bangladeshi women, but it also presents unique challenges. NGOs operating in this area will need to navigate them with care.

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 20th, 2011 at 8:13 pm and is filed under Bangladesh.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

Wildcats & Black Sheep is a personal interest blog dedicated to the identification and evaluation of maverick investment opportunities arising in frontier - and, what some may consider to be, “rogue” or “black sheep” - markets around the world.

Focusing primarily on The New Seven Sisters - the largely state owned petroleum companies from the emerging world that have become key players in the oil & gas industry as identified by Carola Hoyos, Chief Energy Correspondent for The Financial Times - but spanning other nascent opportunities around the globe that may hold potential in the years ahead, Wildcats & Black Sheep is a place for the adventurous to contemplate & evaluate the emerging markets of tomorrow.