Photo: CARE/ Kathryn Richards

Empowering Poor Women at the Base of the Pyramid?

By Catherine Dolan, Saïd Business School, Oxford University

Empowering Poor Women at the Base of the Pyramid?

Base of the pyramid (BoP) approaches have been attracting a lot of attention in business and development circles lately. Although typically associated with highly publicised schemes such as Grameen’s “village phone ladies” and Hindustan Unilever’s “Project Shakti”, a number of BoP initiatives have sprung up across Africa and Asia to address a range of development concerns, from health and energy to gender empowerment and poverty reduction.

For the last few years my colleagues* and I at the Saïd Business School have researched the opportunities that BoP distribution systems provide for women to earn an income by selling consumer goods door-to-door in communities beyond the reach of mainstream retail. We’ve looked at one scheme in depth: CARE Bangladesh’s Rural Sales Programme (RSP), which aims to create employment opportunities for marginalized women and to improve the access of the rural poor to a range of consumer goods.

Unlike business-led BoP distribution systems such as Project Shakti, CARE has grown the system from a small pilot scheme in 2004 into a sales network of 2,640 women known as aparajitas (meaning women who do not accept defeat) who distribute a basket of branded goods (e.g. Bic, Danone, Bata and Unilever) to other low-income households. The aparajitas not only sell multi-national company products but also goods made by rural entrepreneurs such as saris and prepared foods. Our research found that the RSP provides an important income-generating opportunity for some of Bangladesh’s most marginalised women -enabling them to gain a measure of financial autonomy and to improve food security in their households. The success of the program has also led to a joint venture between CARE International and danone.communities named ‘JITA’ – an NGO-private sector hybrid that aims to employ 12,000 women and reach 10 million customers in Bangladesh by 2014. For more information on the CARE RSP, see our teaching case and teaching notes, and our forthcoming paper in Oxfam’s Gender and Development. There will also be a panel discussion on the CARE RSP at the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship at Saïd Business School, Oxford on Thursday 29 March.

Though schemes like the RSP highlight the potential for BoP approaches to provide economic empowerment for poor women, they are not a panacea. There are ethical concerns about pursuing development through increased consumption, especially among the world’s poorest communities, and questions about whether development funds should be used to expand consumer markets for global corporations. There are also environmental questions about the wisdom of selling single serve sachets in a context of global climate change, and the long-term financial viability of the model as markets may become saturated as the popularity of BoP projects increases, eroding women’s earnings. The challenges and opportunities of BoP systems will be explored in a Development Studies New Initiatives scheme titled: “The New Economies of Development: Critical Engagements with the Bottom of the Pyramid,” a collaboration between the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford and Sussex.

The project will host an open public debate titled The BoP Approach: Responsible Capitalism or Business as Usual?’, at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford on Thursday 3 May. For more information, please email me.

* Professor Linda Scott and Mary Johnstone-Louis

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