By Sarah Benjamin, KF13, Peru

As I meet with borrowers here in the low-income areas of Lima, I’m constantly surprised by how many “Avon ladies” there are.  Direct sales (for companies like Avon and Tupperware) are booming in developing countries like South Africa, Indonesia, and of course, Peru.  Avon began sales in Peru in 1982, but only in the last ten years have things really taken off.  Women are looking for ways to earn an income while still maintaining a flexible schedule and completing their traditional tasks relating to family and home.

The "traditional" image of the Avon sales representative is turned on its head in the developing world.

Linda Scott, a professor at Oxford University, published in the July 2009 issue of Gender and Development the following about her research on Avon sales in poor communities in South Africa:

“For many women, working for Avon is more than a way to earn an income. It is an instrument for personal and social transformation. The Avon experience allows women to craft a new identity as professionals, refashioning their appearance and deportment, and redefining economic activity as enterprising and entrepreneurial. While the company employs a range of strategies to motivate women as capitalist entrepreneurs, it has also opened up new possibilities for women to become agents of personal and social change; not a small accomplishment in a context where gender inequality, exclusion and disempowerment often frame a woman’s life.”

So what do I mean by the “Tupperware Effect”?  A Newsweek blog post from March 2010 defines it as “when direct-sales companies go into developing markets and, in the course of building their business, build up the opportunities for the women that work with them.”

A natural criticism of this phenomenon (aptly described by Jeff Chu in his Fast Company profile of Linda Scott) is that the poorest of the poor will not benefit from direct sales.  And I couldn’t agree more.  If someone is living on a dollar-a-day, eyeliner and lipstick are not priorities.  That said, what I have seen here in low-income communities lends itself to Avon quite well.  If you are at the poverty level, you still want to have a couple beauty products.  And who better to sell them to you than your friends and neighbors?  Of course, any given community has a natural ceiling on how many “Avon ladies” it can support, so not every woman can dedicate herself to selling cosmetics.

How, then, do Kiva loans facilitate direct sales?  When a borrower takes out a small loan to help build-up her direct sales business, she is generally making it possible for her customers to pay in installments.  If a customer can only pay a little at a time over several months, Kiva capital allows the borrower to buy the products from Avon outright, get them to the customer, and then pay back her loan with her customers’ payments.  Call it the “developing world Avon model,” but it works.

Interested in learning more about loans that support women’s businesses here in Peru with EDAPROSPO?  Click here.

Sarah is a Kiva Fellow living in Lima, Peru.  She has yet to buy any Avon products from borrowers, but she’s been tempted by the colorful catalogs.


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