Sales effort gives India’s rural poor an opportunity
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
CHOLLERU, India ? With its open sewers and mud-walled homes, this impoverished farming village of 2,200 in southern India did not look like fertile territory for an entrepreneur. But Srilatha Kadem was undeterred. Oblivious to the midday heat, she marched briskly along the unpaved streets, her cloth bag filled with soaps and shampoos and her heart with vaulting ambition.
She stopped at a tile-roofed house, where a gray-haired woman in a green sari lounged in the shade of the small veranda. “You’re charging the same as the shops,” the woman said grumpily.
“There is a difference in quality,” replied Kadem, a cheerful woman with silver toe rings and a fifth-grade education who works as a saleswoman for Hindustan Lever, the Indian subsidiary of the Dutch consumer-products giant Unilever. “What you buy on the streets, it doesn’t come from a good company. These products which I brought are from a good company.”
Consumer culture, spurred by rapid economic growth, is spreading to the vast rural hinterlands where two-thirds of India’s 1.1 billion people still live. The trend is creating new opportunities not just for big business, which has long focused on the urban middle class, but also for some of India’s poorest citizens.
A 30-year-old mother of two, Kadem is part of a novel Hindustan Lever initiative that enlists about 20,000 poor and mostly illiterate women to peddle such products as Lifebuoy soap and Pepsodent toothpaste in villages once considered too small, too destitute and too far from normal distribution channels to warrant attention.? Started in late 2000, Project Shakti has extended Hindustan Lever’s reach into 80,000 of India’s 638,000 villages, on top of about 100,000 served by conventional distribution methods, according to Dalip Sehgal, the company’s director of new ventures.
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To read more about Hindustan Lever’s Shakti project, click here.