Opportunities for women

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Quality Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Reduced Inequalities
  • Partnership For The Goals
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  4. Expanding opportunities in our retail value chain

Expanding opportunities in our retail value chain

Empowered women play a vital role in reaching our consumers and enabling our business to grow. By building skills among our small-scale distributors and retailers, we're creating new opportunities for women while strengthening our business.

Charity, Sunlight Water Centre manager

Why helping women is good for business

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Stores sell our products in more than 190 countries

Our products reach consumers through around 25 million stores in more than 190 countries, as well as through direct sales from micro-entrepreneurs. We know that millions of women work in this network, and that women own or operate 30–40% of the outlets in what is known as 'traditional trade' – the mom-and-pop shops, corner stores, kiosks, open market stalls and street carts that are vital to our sales in developing markets.

We want to help women in our distribution network address the factors that can hold them back – such as a lack of training and skills, lack of childcare or social attitudes – while improving their access to markets, information and financing. We do this directly, or in partnership with civil society organisations, governments or financial institutions.

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Potential increase in income if gender gaps in employment are addressed

Research shows that by narrowing the gender gap in employment in emerging markets, income per capita could rise by as much as 20% by 2030.1 By creating opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship, and addressing gender barriers, we can help women grow their businesses and gain greater control over their incomes. At the same time, they're helping us build stronger supply chains, distribution networks and markets as part of our drive to create a truly inclusive business.


Kabsig programme in the Philippines

Kabisig: supporting women store-owners, building our sales

In the Philippines, more than 90% of all retail outlets are small, ‘mom and pop’ style stores at the heart of their communities – and nine out of ten of them are owned by women.

These stores – also known as 'sari-sari' – play a vital role in bringing our products to consumers. But because they are not part of a group or chain, they often don’t benefit from training or development and they can lack access to business skills and information. Helping these entrepreneurs unlock their potential boosts their businesses and gives us an opportunity to reach more consumers with our brands. A key element of Kabisig lies in making connections between us and our retailers, but also among retailers themselves.

The programme is run alongside our Super!Store initiative which works with bigger, established stores who each act as wholesalers for up to 120 Kabisig partners.

Our Kabisig programme brings store owners together with our distributors at Kabisig Summits, where they learn skills such as stock control, financial management, sales techniques and customer service. Since it began at scale in 2016, Kabisig has enhanced the skills and training of over 83,000 women store-owners, and helped around 24,000 people set up new businesses. At the same time, our sales volume in participating Super!Stores has grown by 12% – 7% higher than stores that have not been through the programme.

Read more about Kabisig and other programmes aimed at Empowering small-scale retailers for growth.

New business models, new women entrepreneurs, new opportunities

As well as working to enhance the businesses of women within existing retail networks, we've created new distribution models, especially in developing countries. These enable women to use their entrepreneurial spirit and the skills learnt in their training to reach consumers in novel ways – increasing our sales while enhancing their incomes.

By recruiting, training and supporting women as independent sales agents, we can empower them to generate new business. It’s a big opportunity, for us as well as them. Billions of people live in hard-to-reach rural areas, or in cities with limited retail infrastructure, and connecting these consumers with our brands is vital to our business growth.

We've developed a range of new distribution models which support sales agents in a variety of ways including extended credit, marketing, sales and accounting training and sometimes equipment. And by offering the new lines across our portfolio of brands, we can also help women-owned outlets stock a more diverse range of products – to attract more customers to their shops.

Shakti – empowered women reaching consumers

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Women in our Shakti network in India

Our best-known distribution model is Shakti, our door-to-door selling operation in India which began in 2001. In 2017, it provided work for nearly 75,000 women in low-income rural communities. Shakti means 'power' or 'empowered', and the programme's success has brought a new level of respect for many women, who are known as Shakti ‘ammas’ or ‘mothers’, especially in communities where the norm was traditionally for men to be responsible for any sort of commercial enterprise.

Shakti entrepreneurs distribute our brands in many thousands of villages across India. We provide training on basic accounting, sales, health and hygiene and relevant IT skills. We also equip them with smartphones containing a mini Enterprise Resource Package to help them run their business efficiently. The initiative expanded in 2010 to include Shaktimaans, typically the husbands or brothers of ammas, who sell Unilever products by bicycle to surrounding villages.

We asked Kantar Public to look at the impact of Shakti in four states (Karnataka, Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh). Completed in 2017, the analysis showed that the opportunity to earn an income was the biggest motivation in prompting women to join the initiative, and that most of them had not been employed before. They felt that Shakti enhanced their monthly income, leading to an increase in spending capacity, and also improved their financial decision-making abilities.

The programme helped to increase their confidence, self-esteem, negotiating skills, communication and engagement capabilities, and supported the development of an entrepreneurial mind-set needed to run a business. Building good communication skills is crucial: many of the women said they lacked confidence to speak to customers. But once they’d gained this confidence, customers said the Shakti ammas’ explanation of product benefits motivated them to try and buy our products.

My contacts have increased. I was not social but now I speak to many ladies and I share information with them as well. Now people know me. I have an identity in society. We normally can’t go out but because of this programme, I can go out now. I get to know many people. It’s like a designation to me in society. My credibility has increased in society. People know me now.

Shakti amma, Maharashtra

Shakti has become our model to reach out to rural consumers on low incomes in developing and emerging markets – and we’re adapting it at scale for other countries. We’ve launched related programmes in many more countries, such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Haiti and Colombia. In Nigeria, our Gbemiga programme incorporates our Shakti model along with nutrition and hygiene education, using an innovative mobile platform to encourage long-term behaviour change and reaching around 2,200 women in 2017.


Guddi Baji

Guddi Baji: building knowledge, confidence & sales in Pakistan

Farah Qadri, our Project Manager of Guddi Baji, explains: “Guddi Baji shows it is possible to create opportunities in rural areas where women face many challenges. The programme began in 2012, when it trained rural women to become beauticians, which is a service and a career that is sought in many villages.

In 2015, we enhanced it by looking for ambitious women retailers with small ‘hole-in-a-wall’ shops that could sell our products. Today, the programme recruits entrepreneurs and supports them in running shops from their own homes, where they make an income selling our brands.

Some of these women live impoverished lives and are the sole breadwinners in male-dominated societies. Many have become a symbol of advice in rural areas – with a real impact in terms of boosting their confidence and self-esteem. And we’ve seen that female shoppers who would hesitate to deal with a male shopkeeper are now happy to buy from a woman shopkeeper.

By September 2017, Guddi Baji had trained 1,015 women, refurbished their home shops and helped them with sales and marketing. Guddi Baji entrepreneurs are increasing their disposable income. Using these well trained and well stocked retailers has lowered the risk of shops selling counterfeit products, a common problem in many areas. And armed with a good knowledge of our products and how to use them correctly, Guddi Baji sales and the reputation of our brands have flourished. The network is now reaching nearly 350,000 customers and is providing a substantial uplift in our sales growth.

We’ve also started a collaboration with Women’s World Banking and Jazz Mobile to promote financial inclusion for Guddi Baji retailers, as around 50 million women in the country don’t have access to bank accounts. Through this partnership, we’re aiming to develop a network of JazzCash Guddi Baji retail agents who can offer access to financial services for their customers.

Water Centres: saving time & supporting skills in Nigeria

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Working hours lost a year to collecting water in sub-Saharan Africa

Over 2014–2017 we’ve created 18 Water Centres in Nigeria through our Home Care brands, in partnership with Oxfam and TechnoServe.

The Water Centres alleviate the burden of collecting water. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, around 40 billion working hours are lost every year just to the daily task of collecting water for household use. The brunt of this is borne by women who often walk many miles each day just to pick up their supplies, which are frequently of poor quality.

Run by women from the community, our Centres provide clean water for domestic activities. We train local women to run them – which gives them the skills, experience and opportunity to generate an income. Water is sold at an affordable cost, as are food and household products.

Selling household and laundry products has been a key component of making the Water Centres sustainable. All proceeds go towards the management of the Centres. At the same time, we provide education on the responsible use of water to help people get the most out of what’s available. Read more in Smart solutions for a water-scarce future.

1Private Sector Engagement with Women’s Economic Empowerment: Lessons Learned from Years of Practice (PDF | 1MB)

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