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BBC Future

Africa’s ‘Avon Ladies’ saving lives door-to-door

About the author

Jonathan Kalan is an independent journalist and photographer specializing in social innovations in emerging markets. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, he frequently reports from around the region, specialising in the spaces where technological innovation, social justice and media converge. You can find him on Twitter at @kalanthinks

  • Health call
    Living Goods, a San Francisco-based social enterprise, sells affordable health care essentials to Uganda’s poor through an Avon Lady-style network. (All photos: Jonathan Kalan)
  • Essential service
    Gertrude, a Living Goods community health promoter, sells her goods to some 400 families in her community. It helps the widow provide for her four children.
  • Local knowledge
    Gertrude shows customers some of her items for sale in Tule, a slum in Kampala. She sells goods such as nappies and de-worming pills.
  • Easy to use
    One product sold is the Peepoo, a self-sanitising bag which requires no extra water. They can be stored safely and without smell, and disposed in a collection bin the next day.
  • Challenge of the slums
    Many of the customers live in slums which lack proper sanitation. When it rains, they flood. What toilets exist are often unsafe to visit, especially for women.
  • Easy to use
    A leaflet from PeePoo is used by agents to show customers how to use and dispose of the bags. Bags are sold in places such as Kibera, the Kenyan capital’s biggest slum.
  • Solar solution
    Barefoot Power sells lighting and phone charging products. It's best seller is its 1.5w Firefly Mobile Light, a solar-powered reading lamp 8x brighter than a kerosene lamp.
  • Crucial delivery
    At Barefoot Power’s office in Kampala, Uganda, employees help unload a container of products from China, via Nairobi, including lights and power packs.
  • Clean energy
    Saidi Rukamata, of Musubiro Village, Uganda, bought a Barefoot Power Pack nearly a year ago, which provides energy for his family of eight and means they no longer use kerosene.
The Avon Company approach to sales – going door-to-door – created an enduring American brand. Now the technique is being used in Africa – but instead of perfume, it’s selling life-saving equipment.

In 1886, David H McConnell chose a cheerful 50 year old woman – Mrs Persis Foster Eames Albee – as the first sales representative for his firm, the California Perfume Company. Nowadays, the company is better known as the Avon Company, and Mrs Albee has passed into history as the first Avon Lady.

For years, she travelled by horse-drawn buggy and train across America, earning a living selling the company’s perfumes door-to-door to women, and inspiring others to do the same. What began as an opportunity for women like her to earn their own income-selling products has now helped Avon grow into an $11bn (£7.2bn) company, its products sold in over 100 countries. The now globally recognised Avon Lady distribution model has stood the test of time, and remained the company’s primary way of distributing its products.

Yet while beauty products are one thing, life-saving and even life-improving products are another.

Today, social businesses across Africa are piloting very similar ways of distributing products – from solar lighting kits to single-use toilets – to poor customers in rural and urban environments. Through networks of entrepreneurs - just like McConnell’s Avon Ladies - who earn a commission-based income, the newest and most innovative products designed for the BoP (base of the economic pyramid) now reach consumers in some of the hardest to reach markets such as urban slums and rural villages.

These modern Avon Ladies – and Avon Men - of Africa are helping pioneer a new age of product and service delivery for the poor with a truly age-old model – door to door, and village to village.

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