Opinion Former Article

ESRC: Avon helps lift African women out of poverty

Becoming an Avon cosmetics Sales Representative is helping some poor South African women escape poverty as well as inspiring many with self-confidence and hope. South Africa’s growing band of 'Avon Ladies' are benefiting from economic empowerment, a sustainable income, raised social status and greater personal confidence, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The research team conducted two large 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, Sales Representatives and consumers. They also attended meetings and training sessions and accompanied Representatives on delivery rounds.

The research found that, on average, the Avon Representatives earned enough to cover their typical household expenditures for food and non-alcoholic beverages, clothing and shoes, as well as healthcare. "Although the amount earned is very small, particularly from a UK point of view, this income, by itself, would put Avon Representatives in the top half of black females in their community and bring them in line with what a black man earns," points out researcher Professor Linda Scott of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

The study also shows that women who relied on Avon for their primary income (and had worked as Avon Representative for 16 months or more) had earnings which placed them in the top 10 per cent of self-employed black women in South Africa. Women who had been working with Avon seven months or less and for whom Avon was their primary source of income earned considerably less (approximately 560ZAR (43 GBP) per month compared with the 1,400ZAR (108 GBP) per month earned by the longer term Representatives.

Nearly three-quarters of the Avon Representatives surveyed stated that Avon had given them financial autonomy. The researchers found that 92 per cent had their own bank account, as compared to only 38 per cent of black South African women having any bank account.

But, the benefits of becoming an Avon Representative were more than financial. Some 89 per cent of respondents said they had received job training that could be used to get other employment and 88 per cent of those surveyed said that their experience with Avon had made them more self-confident. Many interviewees claimed that their Avon work had transformed them into a role model for their children and allowed them to 'fulfil their dreams' of self-sufficiency.

"Working as an Avon Sales Representative provides some impoverished South African women with an opportunity to make money when they had previously thought this impossible," Professor Scott argues. "More than that, we were struck by how enthusiastic these women were about their work and how empowered they felt by it."

Researchers believe that the Avon model stands as a potential template for interventions on behalf of poor women elsewhere in the world, as currently many such interventions fail. Greater attention, researchers suggest, should be paid to the factors which underpin the success of Avon in South Africa.

First, Avon offers a tried and tested system of training, recognition, reward and support which encourages women who are otherwise often very discouraged, to persevere and achieve.

Second, the Avon model is based on a wide variety of small, repeat purchase goods for sale, rather than one 'big-ticket' item.

Third, unlike many other initiatives aimed at developing countries, Avon is not based on microfinance. Rather, Avon provides working capital on the basis of inventory, liquidates the credit each month, and does not charge interest. Avon carefully manages the credit exposure for itself and for the women in the system. A complete credit check is undertaken for every agent who applies, but the requirements have been adapted to the circumstances which black South African women face. For example, since many new recruits have no formal credit or income, Avon has devised a rating system that is sensitive to small indices of permanence and responsibility, like a mobile phone number or a formal address. Using this information, Avon determines whether a woman can be extended a small amount of inventory on consignment.

Finally, Avon has vast experience managing female Sales Representatives across the world and the company’s pro-woman principle offers a supportive, collaborative network and protective umbrella under which its Sales Representatives can achieve economic empowerment and greater confidence. In comparison, the researchers suggest, the entrepreneurship training programs often instigated by governments and well-meaning companies seem somewhat superficial.

"In the past," concludes co-researcher Dr Catherine Dolan, also from Sa?d Business School, University of Oxford, "many have viewed the global marketplace as hostile to women’s interests, but the example of Avon in South Africa shows this need not be the case. We must allow the possibility that the marketplace contains mechanisms, such as entrepreneurship, that can be harnessed for feminist purposes. The important question we should now ask is: how can we make better use of the marketplace in ways which benefit women?"

For further information contact:

ESRC Press Office:

Danielle Moore-Chick
Email: danielle.moore-chick@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone + 44 (0)1793 413122
Jeanine Woolley
Email: jeanine.woolley@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone + 44 (0)1793 413119
Saïd Business School Press Office::

Josie Powellk
Email: josie.powell@sbs.ox.ac.uk
Telephone: + 44 (0)1865 288403
Notes for editors

This release is based on the findings from a project led by Professor Linda Scott and Dr Catherine Dolan of the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, on 'Avon in Africa: reducing poverty through global exchange' funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The study was conducted in South Africa over a three-year period (2007-2010) using multiple methods: focus groups, interviews, surveys, home visits, and participant observation. Key members of the Avon management were interviewed and the remaining research was all conducted among Avon representatives and their customers. Research was conducted in four areas: Soweto (a large urban township), Polokwane (a middle-sized city in a rural region), Vosloorus (a poor suburb of Johannesburg), and a selection of rural villages in the Limpopo region.
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
Established in 1996 the Saïd Business School is one of Europe’s youngest and most entrepreneurial business schools with a reputation for innovative business education. An integral part of Oxford University, the School embodies the academic rigour and forward thinking that has made Oxford a world leader in education and research. The School has an established reputation for research in a wide range of areas, including finance and accounting, organisational analysis, international management, strategy and operations management. The School is dedicated to developing a new generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs and conducting research not only into the nature of business, but the connections between business and the wider world. In the Financial Times European Business School ranking (Dec 2011) Saïd is ranked 10th. It is ranked number one in the UK (11th worldwide) in the FT’s combined ranking of Executive Education programmes (May 2011) and 20th in the world in the FT ranking of MBA programmes (Jan 2012). The Oxford MSc in Financial Economics is ranked 4th in the world in the 2011 FT ranking of Masters in Finance programmes (June 2011). In the UK university league tables it is ranked first of all UK universities for undergraduate business and management in The Guardian (May 2011) and has ranked first in eight of the last nine years in The Times. For more information, see www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/

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