In her village, Ahire, some 100 kilometres from Mumbai, Shobha Thombare is popularly known as Shakti Amma. Thombare lost her husband in 2005, and she had to raise their toddler on her own. Thanks to Project Shakti, Hindustan Unilever's rural direct-to-consumer retail distribution initiative, Thombare has been able to provide herself and her child a decent livelihood. She makes a profit of Rs 2,500 a month, selling Lux soap, Wheel detergent, Fair & Lovely cream, and other products such as SIM cards.
Thombare invested Rs 15,000-20,000 with the assistance of a local self-help group that worked with HUL. She earns a 13 per cent commission on products sold directly to consumers, and three per cent on goods sold to retailers.
The project was designed for the Indian market. "Almost 67 per cent of India lives in villages," says Kedar Lele, who heads Project Shakti. "In the 1990s, we could reach out to just 40 per cent of the population, as our traditional distribution system didn't work in the hinterland. Therefore, creating a self-sustaining model of micro-entrepreneurs in these areas made sense."
Project Shakti has helped thousands of women - and also men. For instance, Thombare's brother Premchand joined her business as a 'Shaktimaan'. Launched in 2010, the Shaktimaan initiative encourages men in the Shakti Ammas' families to distribute its products in village clusters, and provides them bicycles. "We realised that most men in these families worked in the fields and were not employed through the year," says Lele.
With some 48,000 Shakti Ammas and 30,000 Shaktimaans, HUL reaches over three million households in 100,000 villages in 15 states. Project Shakti has been replicated in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan, the Shakti Amma is called 'Guddi Baji' (Urdu for 'doll sister'). Guddi Bajis, who are trained to provide beauty care services, sell brands such as Lux and Fair & Lovely. During visits to rural customers' homes, they also teach them the importance of hand-washing, educating girls, and registering births and deaths. In Sri Lanka, they are called 'Saubhagya', which means good luck. There are nearly 2,000 Saubhagya entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka and 1,100 Guddi Bajjis in Pakistan.
"All these women make profits of Rs 700 to Rs 3,000 per month," says Lele. He says that he hopes to see Project Shakti spread to Africa by the year-end.