7 Oct 2012

'Lipstick evangelism' in Africa

10:39 am on 7 October 2012

Avon cosmetic sales in South Africa were up almost 30% last year due to 'lipstick evangelism' by its sales force - the Avon Ladies of Africa.

In a country where 40% of black households are headed by women, a report by Oxford University about the Avon Ladies of Africa 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.

"The enthusiasm of the sales force was so often expressed in hyperbole that the research team came to call the phenomenon 'lipstick evangelism'." the researchers said.

They concluded that Avon Ladies are making a difference to their lives and their financial independence in a country where the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world.

The BBC reports one in four working-age people are unable to find a job and black women are often at the bottom.

Avon was set up in 1886 by David H McConnell, a travelling salesman who found his female customers were more interested in free perfume samples than books. He concluded they would make better salespeople than men.

Since 1998, Avon has officially called itself 'the company for women' and and 99% of its 6.5 million active sales reps worldwide are female.

Avon products are available in more than 100 countries.

Several African Avon Ladies spoke about their lives in a BBC documentary.

Nelli Siwe said selling Avon products enables her to pay her university tuition fees, rent and transport costs.

When she is not selling cosmetics and body lotions, Siew is studying forensic investigation at university in Johannesburg.

Single parent Eunice Maseko 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 for about $US80.

The BBC reports that experience gave her the confidence to devote herself to selling for Avon.

She became a district manager, earning a salary rather than just commission on products, which 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 $US700 per month, is about four times lower than it was.

Non-payers a problem

"Collecting the money is actually the hardest part,'' she said.

''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 said, customers don't pay at all.

''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."