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  • 08.26.13

How A Traveling Salesforce Of Women Could Bridge Africa’s “Last Mile”

Carrying goods ranging from detergent to solar lamps, the “Avon ladies” of Africa could help connect the most remote towns and villages.

How A Traveling Salesforce Of Women Could Bridge Africa’s “Last Mile”

In the U.S., Avon ladies helped pioneer the door-to-door sales business model while peddling makeup and perfumes. Today, one at a time, women are fanning out to reach some of the world’s most remote markets with desperately needed goods and services.

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With wares ranging from rehydration salts and soaps to detergent and solar lamps, businesses and aid agencies in Africa have trained hundreds of traveling salespeople–mostly women–to bring goods and knowledge to regions without them. The scale is still tiny, but for a few hundred dollars, aspiring entrepreneurs can receive training, salary, support networks, product starter kits, and a sales region with little competition (if massive challenges).

A handful of companies and NGOs have thrived on this model. Barefoot Power is delivering off-grid appliances and electricity systems to rural homes. VisionSpring has sold more than a million pairs of eyeglasses to people around the world, and Solar Sister gives women a “business in a bag” for solar lamps, according to the New York Times.

A remote distribution network is difficult to build, but not unprecedented. Avon and Amway are multi-billion-dollar companies. Coke and Unilever also get their products to towns lacking electricity and paved roads. But these systems have focused on delivering a specific good. Creating a flexible distribution system for any array of items is a bigger endeavor.

That’s the vision behind The Paradigm Project, which peddles stoves, water filters, solar lights, and other products door-to-door under its EzyLife brand. A small team of about 25 sellers in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, as well as corporate staff in the U.S., has racked up about $3.5 million in sales during the last 18 months, the Paradigm Project reports. As it grows, the social good business, a B-Corp, aims to blend online software and a human salesforce to create a flexible distribution system.

“What we’re really trying to do is build a distribution model that gets to the last mile,” says Neil Bellefeuille, The Paradigm Project’s CEO. “It’s an unbelievably hard thing to do. I don’t think anyone knows how to do it at a level of profitability that would attract most for-profit companies.”

But that will change in the next five years, predicts Bellefeuille. As more efficient distribution networks emerge to serve remote markets, companies like Paradigm can build on them to deliver quality products at affordable prices. “Scaling is a good thing,” he says, “but if you scale something that is flawed, you put yourself out of business.”

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.

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