Laundry soap, margarine, cooking oil, skin moisturizer: all these are products shoppers in developed countries drop into their carts without a second thought. In Mwandama, a remote village in Malawi with no supermarket and limited internet, the community was falling right through the meshes of the consumer grid. But a group of enterprising women has achieved nothing less than a small revolution by effectively turning themselves into sales representatives for the world’s second-largest consumer goods company.
‘I joined the project because I wanted to have an income from home. My starting capital was 1,000 kwacha ($6.6). Now I earn 3,000 ($20) kwacha a week,’ says Betty Chirambe, a mother of five. In late 2009, the Millennium Villages Project launched the program with the multinational firm Unilever and the Growing Sustainable Business (GSB), an initiative led by UNDP and the parastatal institution Malawi Investment Promotion Agency. The idea was simple: to allow women to buy Unilever products at preferential prices and sell them door to door within their community, in a country where over 80% of the population lives in rural communities that are not easily accessible by major distributors of consumer goods.
Since then, the project has expanded to 60 women who have been trained on business management and group dynamics. Known as ‘village sales agents’, these women have made a name for themselves, and don’t need to carry goods around the village anymore. Most of them have set up small shops at home, like Elizabeth Mtonga, a 35 year-old widow. ‘I was farming maize and beans. Now I have a small shop that I paid for with my profits,’ she says. Her earnings allowed this mother of three to buy fertilizers for her field and double her maize harvest from 9 to 18 bags. ‘Life has changed. I want to be self reliant. Now I have access to soap, and I want to buy a bicycle to carry my goods from the distribution point.’
Once a week, the Unilever truck rumbles into the village. Women gather around and choose their goods at a wholesale price with a 4% discount. They carry their products back home and cater for their customers while keeping an eye on their fields and broods. ‘I’m even able to save money. I pay school fees and I bought iron sheets for the roof,’ beams Betty in reference to an increase in income levels that allow families to move from thatched roofs to longer lasting iron sheets.
But the journey wasn’t always hurdles free. ‘At first, villagers didn’t believe that these were genuine products because of the low price. They thought we were selling expired goods,’ recalls 40 year-old Betty. Other retailers were also upset by the new market competition, so they started giving credit facilities to their customers.
Solidarity has also been key in these women’s success. ‘If one of us runs short of a product, she refers her customers to a friend,’ explains Betty. The use of a well-known brand was also an added value. ‘The products are well packed and sanitized, and people know them,’ says Zione Nazombe, 41, who wanted to expand her small grocery and venture into consumer goods.
‘The success of this initiative has been so encouraging that we are working on introducing it in the other Millennium Village, Gumulira. A total number of 20 women have already enrolled and received training in basic business management and product marketing,’ said Jonathan Mkumbira, the Mwandama team leader. ‘In Mwandama, the project will be scaled up. UNDP/GSB is working with a local partner to introduce a revolve fund for the women to expand their businesses.’