There’s strength / shakti in numbers

As Mr Zuckerberg was not only explaining his $19 billion acquisition of Whatsapp  at the Mobile World Congress yesterday but also extolling the virtues of internet.org’s vision Unilever were announcing a rather interesting, and we think highly relevant, partnership with internet.org. It is likely one of the 3 to 5 partnerships Mark mentioned yesterday as taking place over the next few years.

As we previously pointed out 2/3 of the unconnected world are in Asia with likely 2.5 billion in India and China.

Unilever reckon that only 13% of  the Indian population has internet access and with 17.5% of the worlds population that’s a big number possibly in total terms some ¾ of a billion over 14 year olds. Over 70% of the Indian population live in rural areas.

The partnership will carry out a comprehensive study to examine the opportunities to increase internet adoption in rural communities.

Unilever or rather their Indian operation Hul (Hindustan Unilever Limited) already have developed a network around the estimated 640,000 small Indian villages most of which are “hard to reach”. As part of their “shakti” (meaning strength in Sanskrit) project started around the turn of the century they are looking to have around 75,000 micro-entrepreneurs operating a rural distribution initiative by next year. They had 48,000 in 2012.

They describe the business model as being “… centred on partnerships with the government-supported and microcredit-financed village self-help groups. The self-help groups composed predominantly of women.

This was not only because women tended to be its main consumers, but also because of the belief that giving additional income to women would result in greater benefits for the household as a whole and enhance livelihood for the family.

This model has been guided by the belief that the private sector can help create solutions to social challenges through innovative strategies that meet both business and social objectives. By promoting micro-enterprise, our initiative not only made great business sense but also had deep social impact.

Now Project Shakti has provided business opportunity to the male member of the family too, who could service outlets not only in their own village but also of the nearby villages.

In 2010-11, Shaktimaan initiative was introduced under which men of the Shakti families are given bycycles to cover surrounding villages to increase HUL’s distribution and sales as well as enhance the income of Shakti families. There are now 30,000 Shaktimaans across India.

Each shaktimaan covers 5-6 villages in his vicinity which is a larger area than a woman, Shakti amma, can cover on foot.”

Originally set up to distribute traditional Unilever products like Lifebouy Lux & Surf plus the local offerings such as Kissan Fair & Lovely and Wheel they are already branching out and are introducing alliances with telecom & banking companies.

This partnership we think will be really worth watching as it appears to be based on practical grass roots experience of a hugely significant market in terms of the unconnected.

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