Avon calling in Africa helps jobless women

A new three-year study has looked at how a sales team of South African women can help themselves out of poverty by selling lipstick and face powder.

The study, led by Saïd Business School at Oxford University, examined the selling structure of the Avon cosmetics company and how it could create relatively good incomes for disadvantaged women. The researchers found that the income earned by 'Avon ladies' in South Africa put them in the top half of black females in their community, and brought them in line with what a black South African man earns.

The researchers found that after 16 months or more in the job, 'Avon ladies' in South Africa earned enough to cover household expenses, such as food, non-alcoholic drinks, clothing, shoes, and healthcare. Three quarters of them reported that Avon had helped them to achieve financial independence, while almost nine out of ten said they had learned skills from the job that could be transferred to other forms of employment.

In surveys with the sales team, the women reported in very large numbers that working for Avon had provided them with confidence and social skills, as well as earning them respect from family and their community. Their sense of empowerment seems to stem from the supportive and women friendly work environment, as well as the formal recognition system that Avon uses to reward and motivate staff, the research suggests. 

Lead researcher Professor Linda Scott of Oxford's Saïd Business School said: 'The Avon system is flexible, and easy to adapt to other locations and goods in developing nations. While the economic and social benefits to the sales team are clear, some observers might say there are questions that arise out of selling cosmetics among poor Africans.

'The concept of "need" in relation to consumer products is not clear cut at all. In practice, limiting saleswomen and their customers to items that Western observers might want can be perceived as having negative ramifications. It raises daunting questions about global power. Who decides what the poor may or may not buy?  Many moral judgements about products – not just cosmetics, but food, drink, and clothing – have religious roots. Whose ethic should prevail as the standard by which to make such decisions?'

The lead researchers, Professor Scott and Dr Catherine Dolan, analysed data from two surveys – one with 300 black Avon representatives working in South Africa, and one with 77 of their consumers – as well as interviews and focus groups with Avon management, representatives and consumers. The study was funded by the British government, through the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Professor Scott's research interest is in what she terms the 'Double X Economy', which considers the economy of women in a holistic way, connecting their activities as consumers, producers, donors, workers, and investors around the globe. Other related projects include a study of the educational benefits of providing sanitary pads to African girls in school, and a study of the Pampers/UNICEF campaign against maternal neonatal tetanus.