Unilever looks to clean up in Africa

Friday, November 16, 2007

The residents of Muko stand transfixed yet suspicious, arms crossed and frowning, as the strangers who arrived that morning dance on a stage they have erected from the back of a truck.

With the aid of a sound system – rare enough in south-west Uganda to draw a crowd of 150 – three easygoing young visitors pump out music and try to strike up casual conversations with the villagers.

“How many people ate breakfast this morning?” one asks the audience, composed of women in kaleidoscopic shawls, men in sports shirts, and children in blue school sweaters.

The majority of hands are raised, but not all. “And how many people washed their hands before eating?” About 30 people signal they did. And then: “How many people used soap?” Two.

The result is wearily familiar to Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company, which looks increasingly to emerging markets to drive sales growth, but finds antibacterial soaps a hard sell in parts of Africa.

That is why its staff helped to write songs and skits for the show in Muko, which is delivering a message that washing hands with soap can eliminate the bugs that cause diarrhoea and respiratory infections – the two biggest killers of children in Africa after malaria.

The event is a pilot for a government-backed country-wide campaign in which performers, decked out in “Hands touch everywhere” T-shirts, will promote handwashing in 11 languages. But two aspects of Unilever’s involvement make it unusual.

First, the company does not coat it in the do-goody mantra of “corporate social responsibility”. It states openly that it wants to make washing hands with soap a habit – especially after going to the toilet and before eating – in order to sell more bars of its Lifebuoy soap.

At head office in London, Myriam Sidibe, who manages Unilever’s handwashing operation, says profitability will guarantee what all development projects need: consistent support. “It’s the fact that we hope to make money which makes our involvement sustainable,” she says. “This can’t be a fashion if we are a soap company. When we say ’we’re in this for the money’ it helps, because people know we’re not going to leave next year when the chairman’s wife finds a new charity.”

Source: Financial Times (link opens in a new window)