A study, led by professor Linda Scott and Dr. Catherine Dolan of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, shows that South African women working for the Avon sales network is helping impoverished black women achieve economic autonomy.
The study investigated the way the system's portfolio of goods, its recognition and training practices, and its working capital provisions function to create incomes for these disadvantaged women. The research also examined the impact of the products on the representatives' communities.
"Any private sector effort to improve conditions for black women in South Africa will be limited by infrastructural constraints, including the shortage of formal employment options, the pervasive violence, and the dramatic gender and race inequities," said Professor Scott.
"However, the organic nature of the Avon system provides a flexibility that is adaptive to many obstacles and we believe the basic form of the system can be adapted to other locations and goods in developing nations."
Achieving financial autonomy
The researchers found that Avon representatives in South Africa with 16 months or more in the system earned enough to cover a typical household's expenditures for food, non-alcoholic beverages, clothing, shoes, and healthcare. The representatives' income placed them in the top half of black females in their community and brought them in line with what a black South African man earns.
75% of the representatives reported that Avon had helped them achieve financial autonomy and nearly 90% said they had learned skills from Avon that could be transferred into other employment. Respondents also reported that working for Avon had given them confidence and social skills, as well as earning them respect from family and their community.
"The economic and social benefits to the representatives are clear, but for some observers the nature of Avon's product line will raise questions of morality," warned Professor Scott. "The concept of need in relation to consumer products is not clear cut at all. Need is something highly fluid and situational - a fact that anthropologists and poverty experts have known for decades."
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