The Avon Products company holds a coveted spot in American history, having hired women to sell perfume, toiletries and makeup door-to-door, woman-to-woman, 34 years before women could even vote. The very first Avon Lady, Mrs. Persis Albee, reportedly was able to use her earnings to help save her family’s home from foreclosure.
Today, more and more businesses around the world are using the proven Avon-style business model to similarly revolutionize opportunities for women—many of whom have as few job opportunities today as did American women during the horse-and-buggy days. In developing countries, this traditional business model is alive and thriving. Women who have long networked informally and still spend days close to home are finding lucrative and life-changing opportunities selling home-to-home.
Leveraging the infrastructure of businesses with names like Solar Sister, Bana, LivelyHoods and Living Goods, these modern “Avon Ladies” increase their social status, financial security, educational opportunities for their children and even the safety of their community through the products that they sell.
In almost all cases, the products being marketed by these women aren’t perfume or toiletries, but rather tools and products to lift their customers out of poverty or life-limiting situations: solar lanterns for those who have no electricity or use toxic kerosene lamps for lighting, clean cookstoves that replace open fires, malaria treatments, water purifiers or sanitary napkins that enable girls to stay in school all month. Women make the best sales people and the best customers—because it is they who are dying in the kitchens without these products, or in distress for their children who can’t study or suffer severe health problems because of toxic fuel or unclean water.
In Nepal, Empower Generation was started by Anya Cherneff, who grew discouraged in her work with human trafficking victims—realizing that joblessness made the problem never-ending. She and her husband started a company that capitalized on the fact that women in patriarchal Nepal are nonetheless the household “energy managers,” buying or scrounging for fuel. They both feel the most pain from energy poverty, and stand to gain from affordable solutions. Men can sell products or work in other ways for Empower Generation, but only women can be “Solar CEOs”—including mandatory company registration and bank accounts in their own names. CEOs receive business and technical training, discount product pricing and admission to a coveted networking event, Entrepreneur Cafe, where senior and junior CEOs meet. The 23 women who have so far become Solar CEOs have been invited to sit on local governing committees or micro-finance groups, and to participate in far higher level conversations than before they earned this business distinction.
Thanks to Empower Generation, since 2011, more than 269,000 people in the community now have solar lighting instead of dim, toxic, and costly kerosene. Cumulatively the company has saved $1.98 million on household energy (kerosene, candles) and displaced 10,834 tons of carbon dioxide.
Likewise, the fast-growing African company Solar Sister—which operates in Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria—has hired more than 2,000 women who have become respected leaders in their communities by selling solar products door-to-door. A report by the International Center for Research on Women found that the company has had “profound effects” on the lives of women and their families, including empowering women, increasing their income and financial stability and making communities safer.
Bana of Uganda employs 400 women entrepreneurs to sell locally sourced sanitary pads—called BanaPads—to over 50,000 women and girls who otherwise use unreliable pieces of cloth and often stay home during menstruation or even drop out of school due to inconvenience or embarrassment. The female sellers, “BanaPad Champions,” are known for their confident sales and health seminars as well as their bright yellow tee shirts. They are not only destigmatizing menstruation in their communities; they are role models who build strong bonds among women they often recruit to become fellow Champions. Many use their earnings to start or expand other businesses or to pay fees to keep their children in school.
Kenyan company LivelyHoods focuses on both youth and women, and has created 900 jobs and sold 13,000 products in slums where the median income of sales agents is now $700—twice the norm for the area. Among the products that are distributed daily to a sales force that goes door-to-door to lean-tos and tents in slum neighborhoods with no formal addresses are clean cookstoves, solar lights, water filters and even irons.
Like Avon in its prime, each of these businesses is turning around the lives, living standards, and social standing of women in the eyes of their communities, families, and children. Runa of Empower Generation is a classic example.
Runa is a widow, which puts her shockingly low on the social hierarchy in Nepal. She has three children to feed, clothe and shelter. Shut out of the few “10-to-5 jobs” available for women, Runa toiled for years on a family farm plot—making less than $1 a day to keep her family fed. When she became a Solar CEO for Empower Generation, her income and her social status began to change. Her customers were impressed that she had the respect and backing of the professional Empower Generation staff who would come into town every so often from Kathmandu to train her workers, and appreciated that her products were of better quality—and came with a warranty—compared to the cheap storefront products being peddled by competitors.
Another Empower Generation seller—a former teacher named Urmila—said that even though she had always been employed, she had never had an independent identity before Empower Generation. As a teacher, she said people would say, “oh look, there’s Urmila, so and so’s teacher.” In her community, “oh look, there’s Urmila, Mahesh’s wife.” Now, she says, what she hears is much different.
“Oh,” people say as she walks by, “there’s Urmila, the business woman.”