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.