American cosmetic household brand Avon, has not had much to celebrate lately with plunging share prices, however the brand is finding hope in a new consumer niche in none other than South Africa. In 2011 Avon’s sales in South Africa increased by a whopping 29%, whereas its global sales grew only a marginal 1%.The beauty giant has been in the cosmetic business for 126 years, positioning itself as a company that has as its focus, women. In South Africa where the unfortunate legacy of apartheid’s racism and sexism is still very relevant, the huge wealth disparity has been most unkind to black women who are now turning to Avon for economic empowerment and most of all independence
A three-year study carried out by Oxford University in England on the Avon phenomenon in South Africa revealed ” black women in South Africa earn an average of 1,200 rand (£94) a month, while white women earn 9,600 rand and white men around 19,000 rand. The Oxford research included surveys with 300 black Avon representatives and 77 customers, plus interviews with Avon’s management, representatives and consumers.
It found Avon representatives’ income put them in the top half of black women in their communities, and brought them in line with what a black South African man earns. Avon representatives with 16 months or more in the system earned enough to cover a typical household’s expenditure for food, nonalcoholic drinks, clothing, shoes and healthcare.
Three out of four representatives told the survey Avon had helped them achieve financial autonomy, and nearly 90% said they had learned skills from Avon that could be applied to other job fields. Respondents reported in very large numbers that working for Avon had given them confidence and social skills, as well as earning them respect from family and their community,” the researchers said. “This effect on their sense of empowerment seems to result from the supportive and gender-friendly network, as well as the formal recognition system that Avon employs to reward and inspire achievement.”
A report done by the BBC tells the story of one of Avon’s South Africa rep, Single parent Eunice Maseko who studied at the University of Fort Hare in Eastern Cape, one of Africa’s oldest institutions that over the years played a major role in creating Africa’s black elite.
‘Like Nelson Mandela, who was expelled from Fort Hare for political activities, Maseko never completed her degree. Her involvement in the struggle against apartheid in the mid-80s put a dramatic end to her student days. One day she was travelling in a “taxi” – a commuter mini-bus – flicking through an Avon brochure a friend had given her. A fellow traveller asked to see it – and promptly placed an order with Maseko for about $80 (£50). That experience gave her the confidence to devote herself to selling for Avon. She pushed aside her shyness and approached her neighbors She visited waiting-rooms of clinics and beauty parlours – any public place where people could be persuaded to buy the lotions and potions that would put food on the table for her two young children.
For years Alice Mthini scraped by as a domestic servant. Becoming an “Avon lady” in 2009 changed everything. Discovering a talent for selling, she persuaded other ladies to part with 10,000 rand ($1,190) for Avon’s make up and fashion accessories in her first month. She now earns enough to send her children to a private school. She has bought herself a laptop and a car (although she has yet to learn how to drive it). “Avon is my life,” she said.’ The same sentiment was expressed by a lady named More who walked the streets of Soweto selling cakes and muffins for three years after the shoe shop where she had worked for 18 years closed.
According to the Oxford research, ‘Avon does not demand any formal qualifications; only a warm smile and a start-up fee of 75 rand. In rural areas, where many roads have no names and houses no numbers, Avon delivers merchandise to post offices so that reps can pick them up. Where there is no bank nearby, Avon organises payment through the post office or a big retailer. The company’s credit checks have been eased to allow for the fact that few customers have any formal credit history or income. Avon has devised a rating system that takes account of small indices of permanence and responsibility, such as a mobile phone number or a formal address.
Linda Scott, one of the Oxford project’s leaders, says that reps spoke of Avon in semi-religious terms, using words like “salvation,” stressing that the enthusiasm of the sales force was so often expressed in hyperbole that the research team came to call the phenomenon ‘lipstick evangelism’.”