The purpose of our research was to identify whether being enrolled in ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ (BoP) projects was empowering for women. These entrepreneurial projects provide a new approach to economic development whereby markets are opened to those living in poverty. They entail multinational corporations partnering with development organisations to provide micro-entrepreneurs with products to sell door-to-door in their communities.
Our research looked at empowerment from a multidimensional perspective. Meaning that we were interested to see, not simply the ability of the intervention to increase the income, but also whether or not they provided other less tangible benefits, such as autonomy, decision making or greater bargaining positions in households.
Therefore, we focussed less on whether the women had or didn’t have empowerment and focussed instead on this question of agency. Whether women had the ability to act, and make decisions about their own lives.
We looked at this in 3 ways.
1) Materially – did income improve?
2) In the realm of the household – did household position improve?
3) In the realm of the community – did community status improve?
One of the main findings was that participation in this scheme seemed to enhance the women’s agency, in both their personal and familiar lives in their households. But there wasn’t any kind of collective empowerment. It was still very much about the individual.
Overall, there were some very positive aspects for women who were enrolled in this programme. The women weren’t simply able to improve their incomes, but they also seemed to perceive themselves as having a better status in the community.
Part of that was just materially. For instance, they were able to save money, make independent purchases without prior permission from their husband, and choose to put aside money for their child’s education. We also found that they could invest their income in starting new businesses, for example, through buying livestock.
But it also changed the women’s social status within the family and community. Women found that because they were now working and bringing in an income, they were invited to celebrations or were able to host people to come their house for a meal. People would speak to them, and ask them for advice, when they wouldn’t have done before. The women would now eat at the same time as their husband and children rather than after them. All of these examples point to how these entrepreneurial projects were able to shift the women’s visibility, providing them with a sense of place and honour within their household and community.
Also in terms of the women’s social interactions, the entrepreneurial projects proved beneficial, as they allowed women to build their networks. The projects enabled the women to meet with other women and talk about their personal issues.
Over 128 interviews were carried out with key players who were participating in the system, including women (mainly among divorced/widowed women but also among married women), members of the women’s families, with the NGO ‘CARE’, and also with a number of multinational corporations.
We also walked with the women as they did their route, selling to people in each village. We used videography to capture the women selling and their interactions with other people.
The main unanswered question regards the type of products supported. Perhaps they are not environmentally friendly, and the environmental consequences of commercial goods flooding into rural areas remains unknown. Should we be circulating sanitary pads and other products in these schemes?
The circulation of the whitening cream “Fair and Lovely” within these entrepreneurial schemes generated debate among the development organisations running these programmes. Some argued that you cannot be running a project aimed at allowing women to empower themselves and deny women the choice of what they buy and sell, while others saw this whitening cream as a disempowering product.