Podcast | The Low-How Ep6

Women trailblazers making money at the last-mile

February 2023

Welcome to The Low-How, from Bopinc. Where we share our know-how about low-income markets.

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In this episode: Women trailblazers making money at the last-mile

Development agencies and big companies are investing in networks of sales agents in hard-to-reach corners of Bangladesh and Pakistan. Why? Because even in far-flung “last mile” locations, there’s demand for needed goods and services. And there’s potential for women to earn money by becoming sales agents in these distribution networks. The Low-How hears from women involved in one of these networks directly to understand the positive impacts they can bring, and talks to Bopinc experts about the promise and pitfalls of setting them up. What drives the interest of big companies in these networks? What are the essential ingredients of a successful last-mile distribution network? And what’s a realistic benchmark for success in such a tough market anyway? Tune into The Low-How to find out.  

Want to learn more? 

  • The Pushti Ambassadors Partnership creates opportunities for women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh with the goal of contributing to better nutrition in rural Bangladesh while also advancing women’s economic empowerment. DANIDA supports this project, in partnership with Arla Foods, which sells affordable dairy products. Bopinc brings its expertise on marketing and distribution to the project, which is also implemented by iSocial, which coordinates networks of rural female micro-entrepreneurs. Although changes are coming soon that will shift the project away from engagement with female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, the lessons learned from this project are still useful for other last-mile distribution partnerships involving women sales agents. 

  • Meanwhile, the Empowering Pakistani Women Partnership (“Guddi Baji”) in Pakistan is implemented by Bopinc, Unilever, Jazzcash and RSPN, with support from DANIDA. The Empowering Pakistani Women Partnership is working to break down these barriers by equipping rural women with entrepreneurship skills, coaching and a basket of health, hygiene and digital financial services that they can sell in their communities. As a result, women increase their income and provide much-needed products and financial services to other women in their community.

  • Monisha, the woman who spoke with us in this episode, is a “dyuthi” sales agent in rural Bangladesh. She is involved with another last-mile distribution program involving Bopinc, called Bright Innovations, which shares many similarities to the Pushti Ambassadors Partnership and Guddi Baji programs. Find out more about Bright Innovations here

  • Last-mile distributors (mostly women) distribute all kinds of things, including solar panels! Listen to our episode “Shedding light on selling solar in Africa” for more on that topic. We even recorded the episode partially using solar energy.

  • Explore our approach and our projects on the Bopinc website.

About the podcast

The Low-How is a new series of podcasts, launched by Bopinc in October 2022. In each episode, the Bopinc team will share our know-how about low-income markets. By harnessing the power of entrepreneurship across the value chain, we aim to improve the quality of life for consumers and entrepreneurs at the base of the economic pyramid.


Akoji John: You are listening to The Low-How from Bopinc, where we share our know-how about low-income markets. Bopinc works with entrepreneurs and companies to make the best products and services available where they matter the most.

Beryl Oyier: We are all about using the power of entrepreneurship to fulfill aspirations and meet the needs of people at the base of the economic pyramid.

Sumaiya Bushra: Come along with us as we seek out the right innovations, right for low-income markets.

Bushra: Hi, this is Sumaya Bushra. I'm working as a Project Manager at Bopinc. 

Patrick: And I'm Patrick Guyer, Impact Measurement and Insights Lead for Bopinc. Hey, Bushra, great to be chatting with you. How are you doing? 

Bushra: I'm doing great, Patrick. How are you doing? 

Patrick: Yeah, really well, thanks. So really nice to be speaking with you on the Low-How. Uh, what are we talking about today? 

Bushra:  Uh, so today's topic is about women sales agents in the last mile distribution networks. 

Patrick: Okay. Now that was just the jargon alarm that we heard. Uh, that goes off when we get into some vocabulary and phrases that not all our listeners might be familiar with. Let's just rewind a bit and unpack, uh, what do we mean by last-mile distribution networks?

And, actually, now that I remember back in episode two, our colleague, uh, Akoji John, gave us a really nice definition of last-mile. So why don't we let him fill that gap in for us? 

Bushra: Okay. Let's have a listen. 

Akoji: Basically, uh, it is the last leg of, uh, the journey of goods needs to travel to reach the consumer who live in places that are hard to reach. Uh, you could imagine that could be rural places with poor road, uh, or it could be an open community, uh, that is not well connected with the rest of the city. We say that uh, people who live at the end of this last leg of a distribution journey are living at the last mile. 

Patrick: And to our listeners, if you haven't heard our episode with Akoji about the business of selling solar home systems in Africa, please check that out on our website. But back to what we're talking about today, Bushra. So that's last-mile explained by Akoji. What about last-mile distribution networks and women's sales agents? Can you explain that a little bit more please? 

Bushra: Uh, yes, sure Patrick. So basically Bopinc works with companies that want to sell socially impactful products and services to low-income consumers at the last mile in countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

So often these last mile communities are small and remote, making them hard to reach for traditional logistics systems and supply chains. So one option for these companies is to engage people already living in these communities, to act as sales agents to sell and distribute these goods in the communities where we live.

Patrick: Okay, so you mean like in their own shops? 

Bushra: No, actually door-to-door or sometimes even through courtyard sessions. So basically gathering women from the community around in a village and showing off the latest products they have to sell. 

Patrick: Okay. So, could you give us an example of a project or two like this that Bopinc has been involved in recently?

Bushra: Sure Patrick. Here are two Bopinc projects where we are working with women sales agent, and the first one is Pushti Ambassadors, which is a four-year project funded by DANIDA and implemented by Bopinc, Arla Bangladesh, and iSocial. The project focuses on creating jobs for female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh by enabling them to sell nutritious products like milk, thus contributing to women's economic empowerment and improved nutrition in rural Bangladesh.

And the second project is in Pakistan. Uh, with funding from DANIDA, uh, where we have been working together with Unilever Jazz Cash and the Rural Support Programs Network to test a sustainable and scalable last mile distribution model that provides low-income women with decent employment and financial inclusion.

The name of this program, Guddi Baji, literally means the “good sister”. And through it we have worked with women retail agents to sell needed goods as well as access to financial services, through Jazz Cash to their customers. So Patrick, what we're looking at today is how to make last-mile distribution networks work, both for women's sales agents and the companies that we engage.

Patrick: So Bushra, it sounds like there's a lot of interest among private sector and also development sector actors in the potential benefits of these last mile distribution networks. Um, that sounds like there's a lot of different projects about that, including quite a few that Bopinc has been involved in. But what about for women in rural communities in a place like Bangladesh who might become these sales agents? What kind of interest do they have in these kinds of projects and what's in it for them? 

Bushra: Maybe we can ask one directly. 

Patrick: Yeah. Can we do that? 

Bushra: Sure [phone ringing] 

Bushra [translating]: Monisha says that of course, her life has changed, so she likes that she is working for the company. So she has a tag of Unilever, which is prestigious in her society, and then she is also getting financial support from the project. Um, by generating, uh, incentives by doing the demonstration work and also generating profit by selling products.

So overall, she has become financially independent and she mentioned that she's also helping her family, uh, through her income. So when she was asked about what she likes about being a dyuthi (sales agent), Monisha said that what she liked most is that people listen to what she says and she can also mix with a lot of people.

And most importantly, she said that, um, she's making an impact by supplying the needs of the people to the doorstep. So, she's very proud that she is helping the people in her community. 

So what the sales agent told us, is similar to what we hear from lots of women sales agents in Bangladesh. 

Patrick: Okay. Well, that's really great to hear from somebody like Monisha directly on that, Bushra. Thanks a lot. Now I'm also curious about the customer perspective. How does this kind of last-mile distribution network work for low-income consumers?

Bushra: Well, actually, I spoke to a woman who is a customer of Monisha recently. 

Patrick: Really? And what kinds of things did she have to say? 

Bushra: Maria is a neighbor of dyuthi Masuda, and she lives in Bagerhat. Maria purchases a lot of products from dyuthi, especially soap, shampoo, detergents, handwash, et cetera. She mentions that the nearest shop is almost two kilometers away from her house and not easily reachable always.

So Maria prefers purchasing products from dyuthi rather than walking to a shop. She loves the quality of the products that the dyuthi sells. She says that these products are long-lasting and of great quality. Maria is grateful that there's a dyuthi in her area because dyuthi provides her services at the at her doorstep, which makes Maria's life easier.

Patrick: So really, really interesting to hear what Monisha and Maria had to say. Thanks very much Bushra, and also for your translations. So it sounds like for customers like Maria, it really comes down to convenience, access to quality goods and services, and being able to purchase things that they need from people that they know without having to travel to a retail point that might be pretty far away from where they live.

And then from the sales agent side. For, for women that we've worked with, like Monisha, doing this kind of work is a chance to earn money, uh, within communities where there are generally not very many economic opportunities, especially for women and micro-entrepreneurship, or becoming a sales agent or a demand creation agent, uh, offers a chance not only to earn money for themselves and their family, but also the opportunity to increase their own standing in their households and their communities and really developing more self-respect. Would you say that's about right, Bushra? 

Bushra: Yes, that is absolutely right, Patrick. In markets where gender norms can be quite restrictive like Pakistan, we have also seen how women's sales agents and their customers can benefit from a last-mile distribution network. Through the project we did in Pakistan with Jazz cash and Unilever, for example, we provided women with the opportunity to sell digital financial services like mobile top-ups, bill payments and mobile transfers. So while there are still a lot of challenges to overcome to make these models work well and scale up, we have seen that women's sales agents can increase their savings, confidence, autonomy, and respect within their communities. They also primarily serve women customers, which is important for making needed goods and services accessible to women.

Patrick: So Bushra, I'm curious, what do you think are some of the factors that help make women sales agents successful in work like this, and what are some of the common barriers that might get in the way of that success? 

Bushra: So, Patrick, to get some perspective on this, uh, we have asked these questions to our Bopinc colleague, Trisha Clauson, she's a senior project manager at Bopinc and to Muntasir Saqib Khan, who's the managing director at, uh, Bopinc Bangladesh. 

Patrick: We ask Muntasir about the factors that enable last-mile distribution models to work well and the common challenges that we've seen in our projects that get in the way. 

Muntasir: So, I basically look into three factors. One is acceptability by the community. That means how these women as neighbors has access to the houses. So they are more welcome. They also speak the same dialect. So it's not someone from a capital city or a bigger town who comes and basically preaches about like these products is good or bad. So basically their neighbor also trusts them.

So the second point, when we think it’s basically also their social esteem. So it's not only about money. So a lot of women in the rural also have some sort of education or inspiration to work both around to become financially solvent. 

Patrick: Trisha further boiled it down to four key ingredients that last mile distribution models should have in order to function well.

Trisha: So we've worked across a lot of different models and different markets in last-mile distribution and we found that there's sort of four key ingredients to setting up a viable last mile distribution model. And those include number one, the right location. So that means that, um, it has to be an area where the products and services aren't already, uh, distributed, but in those locations, there actually should be sufficient demand for the products already.

So there should have been some investment in, in awareness and, and demand before actually going in and setting up these, setting up these models. But there has to also be enough purchasing power, enough of a population and the infrastructure to reach these, these locations. 

The second is having the right profile of agents. So we've seen that successful agents, number one, tend to have sort of family or community support in communities where there are really restrictive, um, gender norms and social norms. That poses a huge barrier to these models being able to, successfully work. Um, but, but also other aspects like having entrepreneurial experience.

Having access to capital is, is obviously very important, um, to be able to purchase the products or have enough, say, float capital if you're gonna be selling digital financial services. So those are just a few examples. And then you also have the right recruitment and onboarding model. And that's where it can be quite expensive actually for companies to identify and recruit the right agents.

But having sort of these efficient processes with the right partners who can do it, that ideally is commercially viable, is really, really important. And then lastly, it's having the right route to market model. So how do you actually capture the orders and how do you, uh, deliver those orders in a way that actually makes commercial sense, or at least is done in sort of efficient, low-cost way as possible.

And when you have those four ingredients in place, we found that it can really contribute to a sustainable last-mile distribution model. 

Patrick: One thing both Muntasir and Trisha mentioned is that our ambitions for what last-mile distribution models can achieve, especially in the short term, probably needs a rethink.

Muntasir: So reaching last-mile is definitely costly. That's why probably the traditional distribution mechanism doesn’t uh, end up at those, uh, locally, commodities, right? But still, it is interesting for the companies to acquire new consumers. That's why they want to reach it. So it it'll not become straightway mathematically positive on the P&L (profit and loss statement) on the very fast year, probably.

Trisha: In our work, you know, we often couple the word sustainable and scalable together, and I think that we're still at the sustainable part of it. Um, and we're not yet at sort of the commercially viable, scalable part of setting up last mile distribution models. So I think it's just very good to be very, um, clear about what it is that you actually can realistically, you know, realistically expect. And at least in my experience, there are very few sort of commercially scalable last-mile distribution models out there. That being said, this was sort of something that non-profits, you know, it was like sort of a fully subsidized kind of, Intervention. Um, and, and you know, I think if we can move from it being fully subsidized to actually, you know, somewhere in the middle where commercial companies are able to, you know, continue to actually provide access to these products and to deliver the products, um, you know, that's, that's success.

Like, can you do that with 3000 agents on a, you know, on a long-term basis? That's really great. Um, and then, where I see hopefully that we'll be moving in the future is, by bringing in more, more partners. So a lot of companies now are sort of doing it alone. Um, but by bringing in more partners and enabling these agents to actually, you know, sort of one-stop-shop access products from multiple suppliers, and these partners can sort of share the same infrastructure, then you can start to sort of reduce the costs.

And from there you can start to think about, okay, how do we actually really make this sort of commercially scalable.

Patrick: So Bushra, it sounds like the story that's emerging is that women can really benefit from working as sales agents economically and otherwise, but there's also a lot that can get in the way of that as Muntasir and Trisha highlighted.

Bushra: Yes, that's true Patrick. And if we consider the perspective of the companies that are behind these projects, there are also quite a few challenges for them. Also for organizations like us at Bopinc, uh, that supports this work, the challenges are there. 

Patrick: And what are some of those challenges, Bushra? 

Bushra: So while making these projects work takes a lot of coordination between the companies, the suppliers, the distributors, and of course the women sales agent themselves. Uh, and there's also the big question of how profitable this is for the companies. 

Patrick: And, and what kinds of challenges are there to profitability from the company's perspective? 

Bushra: Well, these networks are active in markets that are just tough to operate in. These are mostly rural areas without large populations, many of whom are low-income and restrictive, and gender norms are common. It's a tough environment for generating significant. Even though there is strong demand for quality consumer goods and food products. And then another piece of the puzzle is credit. So the sales agents are micro-entrepreneurs, not employees. So they need to buy the goods they're going to sell and then sell them at a markup too, make a profit.

But since most sales agents are low income, the. Companies offer some form of credit to help them purchase stock, but when goods don't get sold and debts go unpaid, Tthat creates further challenges for the entire model.

Patrick: So, Bushra, I think there's a lot of different pieces to this puzzle. Uh, let's recap where we're at. So on the one hand, these last mile distribution networks, can be a good way to help get needed goods and services to people, uh, who really need them in hard to reach places. This stands to benefit consumers who want to buy these goods and services, and it also stands to benefit the companies that want to sell them and develop a market share in places where they know there's a lot of demand and will be even more demand in future. 

It also stands to benefit sales agents, these women's sales agents we've been talking about and talking to by providing income-generating opportunities that are otherwise pretty absent in the places where they live. And through this work, they stand to gain not only some income, but also maybe, some more respect, independence and also new skills. 

But on the other hand, there are a lot of challenges to these models. Uh, would you agree that's a, a reasonable recap of what we're hearing so far? 

Bushra: Yes, Patrick, that is true. Um, I'd also like to mention some of the things we're learning about what makes this models work.

I think from what our guests from this episode have told us, uh, there are a few key ingredients of any successful last-mile distribution network. To start with, uh, one is picking the locations well, so by definition, last-mile distribution networks are going to be tough places to do business, but we still want to look for areas where there is strong potential demand for goods and services, where there is enough of a population that can afford these things and where there is enough infrastructure to bring goods and services to consumers.

So it's also important to reach out to the stakeholders, like local political and community leaders to secure their buy-in before starting a project like this in those locations. 

Patrick: Okay. All right. That makes sense. Yeah. Is there, there's some more things?

Bushra: Yeah, of course. So the second thing that I wanted to highlight is finding sales agents.

With the right profile is also a key. So ideally we look for agents with some entrepreneurial experience and at least some level of literacy and numeracy. Uh, it helps a lot if potential agents already have access to technology like a phone and have some capital to get started as retailers. 

Patrick: But Bushra, what about when it's hard to find people who can check all those boxes? Is training and helping sales agents access things like technology and capital also an essential ingredient of a product like this?

Bushra: Yes, once we have found good sales agents, you have to onboard and train them well. So training is very essential and basic training on making sales, dealing with the customer's, financial management, and using mobile technology to manage orders can actually help these women become better sales agents and is useful for them in many.

Patrick: Okay. And how exactly do sales agents make and receive orders in a last-mile distribution model? 

Bushra: So then we get to the last essential in ingredient, which is an effective route to market model. Route to market is literally how goods and services get from the producers or from the providers to the customers.

Patrick: Okay. All right. Thanks for that Bushra. These four ingredients give us some serious food for thought. And I'm also wondering if these are the essential ingredients of the last-mile distribution model, what are the things that really set successful models apart? So if those are the basics, what are the factors that really, uh, help these kinds of models excel?

Bushra: Well, from my own experience and after listening to our guest today, I think there are at least three. Number one is technology, second is partnerships, and the third one is of course, social norms. 

Patrick: Okay, so three things. So what about technology? What does that bring? 

Bushra: So apps can help sales agents make orders and provide services directly to customers, um, to reduce distribution cost, and it can, uh, be a driver to consumer engagement and digital inclusion for the sales agents and their customers. But digital solutions are not always easy to implement. Connectivity and device ownership tend to be low in some rural areas and investment in app and smartphones for last-mile distribution models are expensive. 

Patrick: Okay. All right. So I take, there's a challenge there along with the opportunity and then you also mentioned social norms. Can you say a little bit about that Bushra? 

Bushra: Yes. So, this was the last one. But, uh, social norms in some of these communities make it difficult for women to get started and to thrive as micro-entrepreneurs. In some cases, men and even other women in the communities, don't feel that it's right for women to work outside of the home to do business in public or to go door to door for selling.

So that's why we make a point in many of our projects of engaging men, you know, the male family members of female sales agents and men in the community, and then we share the importance of what these women sales agents are doing and how it is going to benefit the whole community.

Akoji: You are listening to the Low-How from Bopinc.

Patrick: So Bushra, I think we've covered a lot in this episode already. Uh, in addition to the challenges and opportunities we've just touched on, I feel like maybe there are a few other lessons emerging here as well. 

Bushra: Like what Patrick? 

Patrick: Well, one seems to be that maybe we need to adjust our expectations of what a last-mile distribution model can actually deliver, especially in terms of profitability and scalability. So from the projects that we've talked about today, and from Bopinc’s experiences with many other similar projects across Africa and Asia, it seems that there are relatively few examples of last-mile distribution models that became profitable in the short term, and were also able to scale up in a big way, at least, you know, not only just a couple of years. So it seems like, yeah, maybe we, we just need to learn to be more patient, uh, with, with how these things work. 

Bushra: Yes. And that makes sense. Thinking about the challenges we just discussed, things like demand generation for goods and service, building an effective route to market pathway and bringing in the right technology and right partnership to help these models thrive can all take quite a lot of work and quite a lot of time. 

Patrick: Right, right. And so that makes me wonder if we should maybe consider a different definition of success or perhaps more modest goals for last-mile distribution networks.

Bushra: Um, that could be. But I think it's also important to keep experimenting with different approaches to see what works in markets like rural Bangladesh or Pakistan. 

Patrick: Absolutely. And I think we've heard some really interesting examples today from our guests of some of the things that we're testing out in these projects, and also of course, what we're learning from what seems to be working well and what, uh, maybe a little less well.

Bushra: Yes, and what these models can mean for sales agents like Monisha and low-income consumers like Maria.

Patrick: Yeah. Bushra, this has been a really fascinating exploration into last-mile distribution networks. Thank you so much for joining us to talk about this today. 

Bushra: Thank you, Patrick. 

Patrick: We'd also like to thank Monisha and Maria who spoke to us on the phone, as well as Muntasir Saqib khan, Trisha Clauson, Akoji John, Rakib Hassan Ravi and Johan van der Schaaf. Learn more about these projects by checking out the episode notes. Thanks for tuning in, and we hope to talk to you again on the Low-How. 

Akoji: Thanks for joining us for this episode of The Low-How. If you like what you heard, leave us a comment and give us a review wherever you get your podcast. 

Bushra: The Low-How is brought to you by Bopinc. Learn more about us by visiting bopinc.org and be sure to check out extra info and links about what you heard today in the episode notes. Thanks for listening.