Shampoo, saris and SIM cards: seeking entrepreneurial futures at the bottom of the pyramid


Catherine Dolan




Catherine is the Professor of Anthropolgy in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS university, and a member in the centre of African Studies


This research found some clear material benefits for women who participated in the entrepreneurial project. This included improvements in their incomes and their ability to make purchases for themselves or their family. There were several non-tangible benefits too such as a greater sense of self-esteem and confidence.

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.

Key Findings

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 individual.
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 individual.

    How to apply research

    Firstly, we need to design these projects where the organisation is centred around the needs of the women. We need to think about how we can protect these women and provide them with fair deal in their work.
    These projects could be adapted by letting women decide how the model is going to work and what could be sold.
    Another recommendation would be to incorporate women’s own production into the system for sale, as opposed to bringing in imported consumer goods. This would allow someone who’s local to have the opportunity to sell their goods.
    A warning for professionals working on these ‘Avon’ model schemes is to be aware of the cultural contexts in which the women will be working in. For instance, in rural Bangladesh, the women in our research were living under the context of Purdah restrictions. This meant that women could not travel unaccompanied outside their home. Therefore, one of the things we were worried about was the backlash women could receive from participating in these projects which require them to move between villages independently without a male guardian.
    Lastly, we need to move away from the problematic discourse that those who lives in poverty are able to be transformed into business people and create a life for themselves, if they are just given the opportunity. I think it is problematic that this discourse has entered development as a way to look at poverty reduction and improving women’s lives.
    These research findings are applicable to other forms of micro-finance and Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) projects developed by the private sector, NGOs and International Organisations across the global south.

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      About this research

      This journal article was part of a collaborative effort

      Mary Johnstone-Louis

      Linda Scott

      This research received funding from the Saïd Foundation

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      This research contributes to the following SDGs

      About this research

      This research received funding from the Saïd Foundation

      This paper was co-authored

      Mary Johnstone-Louis

      Linda Scott

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      What findings means

      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.


      It is a term with multiple dimensions, and has lots of different meanings depending on where you are and what disciplinary perspective you have. That being said, we found that empowerment is a process which women go through themselves. Also that empowerment has a lot to do with whether the individual has agency, and has the ability to act as they choose.

      The full paper is not available open access

      Dolan, C., Johnstone-Louis, M. and Scott, L., 2012. ‘Shampoo, saris and SIM cards: seeking entrepreneurial futures at the bottom of the pyramid’. Gender & Development20(1), pp.33-47.

      Thank you to

      for helping to prepare this research