5 October 2012 Last updated at 19:05 ET
By Penny DaleBBC World Service, Soweto
Last year, Avon’s global sales were up a mere 1%, but in South Africa they were up almost 30%. So what’s the secret to the success of South Africa’s “Avon Ladies”?
“Everyone loves Avon,” says Nelli Siwe, trying to convince me above the sound of passing traffic in the heart of Soweto, South Africa’s most famous township.
She and her colleague have set up a tray of beauty products at a busy crossroads in the township, hoping to target Soweto’s less affluent residents.
Alongside them are women combing and braiding hair on a makeshift salon of plastic chairs, a mother sitting in the dirt with her baby on her back selling spinach from a cardboard box and a man selling cheap sunglasses.
Two out of every five women on the planet have bought something from Avon in the last year – and Siwe is one of thousands of black women rushing to make those sales. What’s the appeal?
When she is not studying forensic investigation at one of Johannesburg’s universities, Siwe is an Avon Lady.
Fighting crime and peddling body lotions may seem worlds apart. But selling Avon products enables Siwe to pay her tuition fees, rent and transport costs. And, she says, it enables her to be independent – she does not have to depend on a husband or family members for financial support.
“I am old enough to have money and, as a woman, I shouldn’t have to ask other people every time for money,” she says.
For 126 years since being founded in the US, Avon has marketed itself around the world, with great success, as a company for women.
In South Africa, the harsh legacy of apartheid’s racism and sexism endures and the country’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world.
One in four working-age people are unable to find a job and black women are often at the bottom of the economic pile.
So Avon’s allure is perhaps unsurprising. It offers women without formal qualifications, often single mothers who don’t receive maintenance, a stab at financial independence.
Single parent Eunice Maseko studied at the University of Fort Hare in Eastern Cape. It’s 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.
She was even forced into hiding for a while and was in and out of jobs for years until she stumbled across Avon.
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 neighbours. 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.
In fact, her children played an important role in those early days.
“My son is very talkative so he said to his school teacher ‘my mum is selling Avon’ and the teacher said ‘you must bring the book so I can see what she is selling’,” she says.
“He took the brochure into school and he came back with orders.”
“My daughter also took the brochure into school – they both knew that if there were orders then they were sure they were going to have food at the end of the day.”
Maseko’s Avon career took off, and she became a district manager – earning a salary rather than just commission on products. This allowed her to pay for a private education for her children.
Last year, Avon restructured and she returned to being a sales leader. Her salary, approximately $700 a month, is about four times lower than it was. And she says that collecting the money from customers who have ordered the products can be difficult.
“Collecting the money is actually the hardest part. Money’s tight. They place an order in the hope that they will have enough at the end of the month – then they think of more important things than paying for a fragrance and so they might postpone you until the next month and then the next month.”
Sometimes, she says, customers don’t pay at all.
“It is a very dire situation because Avon doesn’t know who I am selling to,” she says.
“They know me as the representative. So if I want to keep my name in the clean I will do whatever it takes – sacrifice my commission, use my family money, even borrow from loan sharks to pay Avon.”
But despite the challenges, Maseko remains sanguine about the future – as do all the Avon Ladies I met.
Most are devoted to their jobs – so much so that in a report by Oxford University about the Avon Ladies of Africa, researchers said, “the enthusiasm of the sales force was so often expressed in hyperbole that the research team came to call the phenomenon ‘lipstick evangelism’.”
Born in the USA
- Avon set up in 1886 by travelling salesman David H McConnell, when his female customers were more interested in the free perfume samples than the books he was trying to sell
- McConnell also concluded the women’s passion for perfume would mean they would make better salespeople than men – and so began what we now know as direct selling
- As Avon points out, in 19th Century US, women didn’t usually run their own businesses – and the concept of financial independence for women was, indeed, revolutionary
It found that the income generated from Avon 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.
And who would be able to resist buying a lipstick from the ever-smiling Maggy More, especially once you hear her infectious deep laughter?
After the shoe shop where she had worked for 18 years closed, More walked the streets of Soweto selling cakes and muffins for three years – until one of her customers recruited her to join Avon.
“I am proud that I have joined Avon. It changed my life,” she says.
So enthusiastic and resolutely positive was she that I even, momentarily, believed her when she said that she could easily teach me the tricks of the trade and help me become a successful Avon Lady.
And therein, perhaps, is part of the reason why South Africa’s smiling band of Avon Ladies are making a difference to their own lives – and rolling in the profits for Avon.
In a country where 40% of black households are headed by women, Avon’s mantra of empowerment and self-belief seems to chime perfectly with those who have overcome the oppression and indignity of apartheid.