Nicola Slawson talks to Tamsin Chislett, partnerships manager of Living Goods, a company giving away its successful ‘Avon Lady’-style business model in a bid to bolster healthcare in developing countries
Each fortnight, the Good Business column catches up with people who are leading social change. It’s hosted by Impact Hub Islington, an incubation space in London for socially minded entrepreneurs.
Nicola: Hi Tamsin, tell us about Living Goods
Tamsin: We work in Uganda and Kenya, operating networks of mostly women who make a living by selling high-impact health products door-to-door. Essentially we’ve borrowed Avon’s direct selling business model and made it work for products that are actually really important and in communities that are really poor.
What makes the business so unique?
We tackle a couple of the big problems with medicines in the area: affordability and quality. Normally, between the manufacturer of a drug and the village, there’s a chain of about 10 distributors and each of those have to add on their own margin, so by the time it reaches the village, it can cost more than it should. There’s also a lot of scope for people to mix counterfeits into the supply chain. We have a really short supply chain that we control. We can make sure it’s not counterfeit and we’re very competitive on price.
What products do the women sell?
They sell treatments for diseases that cause the vast majority of deaths in children under five. So we focus on solutions for mothers and children for illnesses such as malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea, as well as everything needed for a healthy newborn. They also sell preventative products such as mosquito nets and fortified foods, as well as a small number of consumer goods such as soaps, nappies and reusable sanitary pads. And they also sell technologies. Particularly in Kenya, we do really big business in solar lights, cleaner cook stoves and water filters.
How do women become Living Goods promoters?
We choose a community that’s got a high need for these kinds of products and speak to the local leaders who recommend people to us. We try to pick the very best, with a good mixture of commitment to service and ability to run a small business. We train them up over a couple of weeks, focusing on everything they need to know about community health and on how to run a business. Then they head out to their communities with a ‘Business in a Bag’ and $60 (£36)-worth of products, which they then pay back over a year. This is where the microfinance comes in.
What role do you play in the business?
My job is actually about getting other people to copy our business model. We’re the opposite of a competitive business. We want to give our model away to anyone who wants to run it. Our focus at the moment is global NGOs.
There’s this longstanding challenge in community health. People are starting to really understand the evidence about it saving lives, but programmes are expensive to run and you need to keep fundraising for them. Organisations are really excited about our model because it allows the promoters to make money themselves, and it’s really cost-effective because we cover a lot of our costs.
Why is Living Goods so special?
I think the reason the whole business is so exciting to me is because the challenge of distribution applies to so many countries in the world and we’re trying to solve that problem.
There’s been this big trend in recent years for people designing really great products for bottom-of-the-pyramid customers, but then that often stops at the product-design phase. You get this fantastic solar light, but no way of getting it to the customer in a way that’s affordable to them. We get to do it and employ tons of people along the way.