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How the ‘Avon Lady’ Inspired Better Health and Livelihoods in Africa

October 18, 2012 - 1 Comment

According to the United Nations, one in eight children in sub-Saharan Africa die before the age of five. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable, but poor families simply can’t access the products and services that could help.

With a shortage of healthcare facilities in rural areas, many families cannot afford to miss a day of work to travel the long distance to get to a health facility, or to return for follow-up care. At the same time, there is little in the way of preventive care and health education, so minor illnesses quickly become serious and costly. At the core, these are issues of lack of access and inequality, and they prevent the poor from living healthy and productive lives.

Living Goods is removing these obstacles by bringing products, services, and knowledge directly to the doorsteps of people who need them. If you’ve heard of the ‘Avon Lady,’ you know how Living Goods works.

Employing a micro-franchise business model, Living Goods operates networks of independent, mainly female, micro-entrepreneurs — or agents — who go door-to-door  selling affordable and effective products that can lead to better health: fortified foods, insecticide-treated bed nets, de-worming pills, malaria treatment, water filters, and soap, for example. Most Living Goods products are priced below retail, making them more affordable for their low-income customers.

The women micro-entrepreneurs who sell these products keep a portion of the sales, gaining a sustainable source of income. Living Goods enables these women to become economically self-sufficient by providing them a means to earn a living, entrepreneurial and health skills training, and the opportunity to make a difference in their own communities.

Living Goods Insecticide-treated curtains keeps families safe from malaria. Photo: Living Goods.

Last week, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tina Rosenburg wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that eloquently summarizes the Living Goods business model and its power to improve health for poor families in rural Africa while giving poor women a means to earn a living.

Every day, Cisco receives requests from nonprofit organizations that are working to create economic opportunities for people around the world. While we wish we had the resources to support them all, we don’t.

So we look to support those with the potential to scale to reach ever greater numbers of people in need, to demonstrate measurable impact, and eventually, to become financially sustainable. Technology is the key driver, enabling widespread increases in access, and leveling the playing field so that all people may have equal access — not just those who can afford it.

Living Goods is just such an example. It began operations in Uganda and will soon be replicating its model in Kenya. The organization launched an Advisory Services Division to help nongovernmental organizations and consumer businesses adopt its micro-franchise model. The organization is demonstrating impact both in health outcomes and sales. And, it is making steady progress toward financial sustainability.

Earlier this year, we awarded a cash grant to help Living Goods develop a mobile technology platform that their agents can use to report sales, manage inventory, and directly communicate with their customers.

Living Goods uses mobile technologyLiving Goods agents get trained on the mobile platform. Photo: Living Goods.

Africa is the fastest-growing mobile market in the world. People who cannot afford desktop computers and Internet access, or may not even have electricity, use mobile phones for everything from texting and banking to downloading music and getting information about healthcare and farming. In Uganda for example, mobile phone penetration is expected to exceed 70 percent of the population by 2014.

Living Goods is tapping into this mobile boom to advance its mission of improving health and increasing livelihood opportunities for vulnerable and underserved populations. With Cisco support, Living Goods built a mobile technology system that, among other functions, sends automated healthcare reminders to customers, further multiplying the impact of its product line.

For example, a few days after buying malaria treatment, a mother will receive a sequence of messages tailored to the treatment protocol, such as: “Your child may feel better but you have not killed all the malaria. Give the full course of treatment: 2 times a day for 3 days.”

Living Goods Founder and CEO Chuck Slaughter wrote in the Huffington Post recently that an SMS marketing campaign promoting a sale on high efficiency cook stoves drove a 300 percent increase in sales. The stoves, designed for the more than 3 billion people in the world who cook with open fires, reduces fuel costs and emission of pollutants that can cause respiratory illnesses.

Living Goods agents use mobile techologyAgent Sarah Balisanyuka uses her mobile phone to record the treatments she provides to her clients in Mafubira, a semi-rural region in Uganda. Photo: Tine Frank.

In just the few months since its launch of the mobile platform, roughly half of Living Goods agents in Uganda are using the system and have logged more than 20,000 interactions with their mobile phones. Sales have grown 60 percent since this time last year.

Sarah Balisanyuka, a Living Goods agent who uses the new mobile platform, says, “I really think the mobile system strengthens the relationship I have with the community… it helps improve impact when we treat malaria or provide antenatal care for pregnant women.”

Living Goods exemplifies how human networks (its door-to-door agents) and technology networks (mobile communications) can multiply impact on the health, wealth, and wellbeing of thousands of people.

Learn more about Living Goods from this in-depth NBC News segment.

Do you want to be part of this network? Donate to Living Goods today to help deliver more life-saving and life-changing products to the doorsteps of the poor.

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  1. Micro-finance just keeps getting smarter and more impactful! The use of mobile alerts to encourage treatment follow-through is genius. Even with the right medical supplies on hand, people still need information and encouragement to achieve an optimal result. Bravo Living Goods!