Sarah Balisanyka travels door-to-door, selling household goods and innovative devices like solar lamps and clean-burning cook stoves to her neighbors in Mafubira, Uganda. She carries a mobile phone and a bag containing an assortment of consumer goods and life-saving medicine. At each house, she greets her clients, determines what products they need, sells it to them at an affordable price, and logs her activity using her mobile phone.
Sarah is a micro-entrepreneur with her own Living Goods franchise. She earns a modest income and the trust of her clients by delivering quality goods at affordable prices with helpful advice.
Living Goods has reframed the challenge of moving out of poverty as a distribution issue. The leaders of this U.S.-based organization view people living in poverty as value-conscious consumers and resilient entrepreneurs, rather than helpless victims. Living Goods combines a century-old Avon-lady business model with the latest mobile and enterprise technology to empower a network of women who earn a living as local distributors of essential goods. The company’s goals are to save lives, empower entrepreneurs to earn a living, increase access to innovative devices, and at the same time, create a financially sustainable business.
“Our business-in-a-bag model empowers micro-entrepreneurs with all the tools and training they need to launch their own Living Goods franchise,” writes Chuck Slaughter, Living Goods CEO. “What's the most powerful tool in their bag? A simple, feature-free mobile phone.”
The Living Goods network of micro-entrepreneurs ‑- known as agents -- stay connected to their clients and to Living Goods through an innovative mobile platform, developed and launched with grant support from Cisco. As in many developing countries, mobile phone access in Uganda has exploded to nearly 70 percent and costs have dropped significantly. Where agents used to log visits and sales by paper and mail, they now record their activity from the field with a text message. Clients post their agent’s phone numbers prominently in their homes, and when a child in her neighborhood falls ill, their agent is the first to know.
In Uganda, treatment for malaria and other life threatening diseases is often free, but only 49 percent of the population live near a hospital. Access to treatment requires a costly trip to a public dispensary where lines are long and qualified staff is in short supply. Living Goods brings healthcare to the village by empowering agents with basic healthcare training, affordable treatments, and Short Message Service (SMS) text reminders to clients. After a treatment sale, Sarah and her fellow agents can send an SMS code to Living Goods, which generates a series of automated reminders for the client. These simple reminders to complete the course of treatment for malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory infection can dramatically improve health impact.
“I really think the mobile system strengthens the relationship I have with the community,” Sarah exclaimed. “It adds to the friendship, people get a happy surprise when they receive a SMS from Living Goods, which supports my in-person interactions.” But more importantly, “it helps improve impact when we treat malaria or provide antenatal care for pregnant women.”
Sarah is right. A 2013 Harvard Kennedy School of Government report found that the presence of Living Goods saleswomen in a village increased the use of malaria medicines by children thought to be sick with the disease by almost 40 percent.
Shaminah bought a Mama Kit from Sarah when she was eight months pregnant and Sarah enrolled her in the program. She received automated stage and age appropriate SMS messages to promote a healthy pregnancy and a happy baby. “I think the texts are impressive; no one else does that,” she said. “I like the information I received about pregnancy and feeding and how to best care for my newborn.”
The new mobile platform has transformed the Living Goods business model. Agents earn more income for themselves, while delivering more effective care to their clients with automated reminders and product promotions. Living Goods has dramatically lowered the cost of marketing and monitoring agents in the field, and sees more social connections happening that increase impact and business success.
“All of these outputs collectively increase the pace and the success at which we improve the health, wealth, and productivity of the communities we serve,” according to Slaughter.
Nanyanzi Harriet always wanted to be a doctor like her father. When her father passed away, her family lacked the resources to send her to school. Today, she is a Community Health Promoter in Nsangi, a quiet community outside of Kampala, Uganda. “This is what I have always wanted,” Harriet says. “To work in my community and help them with their health. I thank God that what I always wanted is now here.”
Sarah and Harriet are earning an income that enables them to support themselves and their families. The business and health skills training they receive will equip them with the skills needed to be economically self-sufficient not just today, but throughout their working lives. And, thanks to agents like Sarah and Harriet, Living Goods has supported 153,926 pregnancies, treated 563,670 children for deadly disease, and sold over 58,000 clean-burning cook stoves.