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.
Why helping women is good for business
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.
This distribution network is essential to our growth ambitions. It is also one of our biggest opportunities to create a positive social impact, including through creating opportunities for the millions of women who work in it.
Women own or operate 30–40% of the outlets in what is known as 'traditional trade'. These are the mom-and-pop shops, corner stores, kiosks, open market stalls and street carts that are vital to our sales – especially in the developing and emerging markets which provided 60% of our turnover in 2019.
And there are potentially millions of new opportunities for women to enhance their livelihoods and help grow our business by helping us reach consumers in new ways − including in remote or hard-to-reach areas, through what is known as 'last-mile distribution'.
We want to help women throughout our distribution network address the factors that can hold them back – such as a lack of training and skills, lack of childcare, social attitudes and financial exclusion – while improving their access to markets, information and financing. We do this directly through our programmes, or in partnership with civil society organisations, governments and financial institutions.
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.
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 not only 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. Over 2016–2019, more than 233,000 owners – around 90% of whom are women – have accessed training and advice on how to set up, run and grow their businesses at our Kabisig Summits. Given that many store owners are family-run businesses, we estimate that this initiative has touched the lives of over 1 million people in the Philippines.
As well as enhancing the skills and training of existing owners, our sales volume in participating Super!Stores has grown 5% higher than stores that have not been through the programme.
This work contributes to the following Sustainable Development Goals
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.
Many women are already acting as sales agents in our distribution network − which we describe in detail in Empowering small-scale retailers for growth.
More reach, more growth
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 for them. Billions of people live in hard-to-reach rural areas, or in cities with limited retail infrastructure. 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.
TRANSFORM: empowering partnerships
One of the most powerful ways to create change is through public–private models that support social entrepreneurship. Innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships can bring together resources, creativity and collaboration to unlock the power of markets to address development challenges.
Some of the best ideas and boldest actions are coming from entrepreneurs and start-ups. These disruptors are driving innovations and new business models to create the momentum the economy needs.Rebecca Marmot, our Chief Sustainability Officer
A key example is the work done by TRANSFORM, a joint initiative between Unilever and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).
TRANSFORM identifies, funds and delivers technical expertise and capacity-building to social enterprises that meet low-income household needs in developing countries.
DFID and Unilever founded TRANSFORM in 2015 with an ambition to bring private sector creativity and commercial approaches to solve persistent global development challenges. Its aim is to enable 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to access products and services that improve their health, livelihoods, environment or well-being by 2025.
By the end of 2019, TRANSFORM had supported over 48 projects across eleven countries, which have already benefited over a half a million people.
TRANSFORM is supporting a number of social innovative enterprises that empower women.
doctHERs is a social enterprise that matches the under-utilised capacity of female doctors to the needs of underserved communities in Pakistan, where around 120 million people in rural areas lack access to affordable, quality healthcare.
Supported by TRANSFORM, it connects patients to doctors through high-definition video-consultations and aims to reach over 1.15 million women and girls in low-income households in 1,750 villages.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
TRANSFORM initiatives include MumsVillage, a digital marketplace and peer sharing community for low-income mothers in Kenya, Dharma Life, which promotes clean water solutions at village level through women micro-entrepreneurs in India, and Kasha, a mobile e-commerce platform.
Tackling social stigma through e-commerce distribution models
Combining mobile phones with an entrepreneurial spirit, e-commerce models have enormous potential to create positive impacts for women and communities at the same time as boosting economic growth.
Kasha, a mobile e-commerce and content platform founded in Rwanda in 2016 and supported by TRANSFORM, shows what can be achieved. It confidentially sells and delivers women’s health and personal care products such as sanitary pads, contraceptives and soaps, helping women in urban and rural areas overcome issues of social stigma, so they can purchase the health products they need. It delivers products through an innovative system that incorporates direct delivery, various pick-up points and a network of over 60 distribution agents. The company has now expanded into Kenya, and has plans to scale up to Ethiopia and Nigeria.
“The majority of our agents are widows, single mothers or primary breadwinners for their families,” said Malyse Uwase, Kasha's regional health and impact manager. “We look for women who are motivated and trusted in their community, who can explain products and help people through the ordering process. They’re the face of Kasha.” By the end of 2018, Kasha had reached around 34,000 of Rwanda’s poorest consumers.
The platform doesn’t require internet connectivity to browse and pay, so it’s accessible with a basic mobile phone. And it’s supported by work in schools to deliver health information sessions that help young female students learn more about their bodies and self-care in a positive and supportive environment.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Shakti – empowered women reaching consumers
Our best-known distribution model is Shakti, our door-to-door selling operation in India which began in 2001. In 2019, there were 118,000 women in low-income rural communities active in the initiative. 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.
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 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.
Is it working? Assessing our programmes' impact
We want to get a better understanding of the impact our programmes are having so we can focus resources on the best models.
That's why we're conducting evaluations and building impact-measurement tools that help us gain, and share, insights.
For example, we asked research agency 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 improved their financial decision-making abilities.
It also found that the programme helped women to increase their confidence, self-esteem, negotiating skills, communication and engagement capabilities, and supported the development of an entrepreneurial mindset.
In 2018 we worked with impact investor Acumen and 60 Decibels to co-develop a survey tool, the Lean Data Gender Toolkit, which focuses on the lived experience of participants. We applied the model to our Shakti Colombia network as a pilot. Women in the programme highlighted the following positives:
- improved income (48%)
- access to high-quality products for the household (39%)
- access to a more robust social and professional network (11%).
The data (PDF | 1.77MB) has also highlighted areas we can improve, though. Roughly half of all respondents said that margins are still relatively small and are often driven by cost savings in purchasing products for their own homes rather than sales to external clients. Participants also indicated challenges with delivery and the credit programme. These findings will help us improve the experience of participants and continue building a robust Shakti Colombia network.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
How we’re extending our reach
Shakti has become our model for reaching out to rural consumers on low incomes in developing and emerging markets – and we’re adapting it at scale around the world.
With our experience in India as a base, we’ve launched related programmes in 10 countries, including Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Colombia and Egypt. We adapt the Shakti model to fit local conditions, and to explore new ideas.
For example, Project Zeinab, launched in Egypt in 2014, has provided training to more than 2,000 women and helped them establish their own grocery businesses – while changing perceptions of what a household’s bread-winner looks like.
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. In Ethiopia, we’re collaborating with a social enterprise called Kidame Mart and the BoP Innovation Center to implement a new cost-effective, ‘open-basket’ distribution model – one in which women micro-entrepreneurs sell a mixed basket of products from Unilever and other producers.
In Guatemala, in 2018 we developed a collaboration with CARE International in which our distribution model focuses not just on income creation, but also serves as a platform to address social barriers to women's empowerment with a strong emphasis on women’s rights.
Guddi Baji: building knowledge, confidence & sales in Pakistan
Farah Qadri, our Project Manager of Guddi Baji, explains: “Guddi Baji means ‘good sister’. The initiative 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 2019, there were over 1,300 women active as Guddi Baji, who gained help with sales and marketing and to refurbish their home shops. 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.
We’ve also started a collaboration with multiple partners, such as Women’s World Banking, Jazz Mobile, the Danish Development Organization (Danida) and RSPN (Pakistan’s largest NGO) 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.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goal
1Private Sector Engagement with Women’s Economic Empowerment: Lessons Learned from Years of Practice