Project Shakti

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Project Shakti

The Internet Marketing of Project Shakti

HUL is India's largest fast moving consumer good company and is a 51.55 percent owned subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch Unilever, a Fortune 500 transnational. HUL employs 36,000 people and claims to touch the lives of two out of three Indians. The old Shakti Web site gives the following objective: "to create income-generating capabilities for underprivileged rural women, by providing a sustainable microenterprise opportunity, and to improve rural living standards through health and hygiene awareness."3 Project Shakti is presented as "empowering women in rural India," and the text evokes the pioneering work carried out by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, claiming that HUL is working with NGOs and government agency partners which have established SHGs among rural women. The Web site asserts that the project provides individual women an income in access of Rs 1,000 ($22) per month, but also:

In addition to money, there is a marked change in the woman s status within the household, with a much greater say in decision making. This results in better health and hygiene, education of the children, especially the girl child, and an overall betterment in living standards.

These are not modest claims. The overall presentation of the project promises a fundamental transformation in the lives of rural women participants. "Shakti" itself means "strength," and the subheading to the project name is "Changing Lives in Rural India." The idea of recruiting individuals of modest means to sell company goods on a "direct-to-home" model is not original to HUL. Schemes such as Avon, Amway, Mary Kay Cosmetics, and Tupperware were well established in the United States and Europe generations ago, and some have moved into developing countries (Cahn 2006; Wilson 2004). What is distinctive about Project Shakti is its joining of this marketing model with the mechanisms of development projects such as SHGs, the reliance on microcredit, and the rhetoric of social justice inspired empowerment.

The recourse to pathos to establish the validity of a project's goals is not an unusual practice by organizations involved in development. The Shakti Web site provides pathos in abundance. The most poignant testimonial is in the form of a five minute video portraying Rojamma's story accessible from the project home page. Rojamma, in the sad English speaking voice of the narrator, recounts growing up in poverty and being married off at age seventeen, bearing two daughters only to be abandoned by her husband. Rojamma finds dignity in becoming a member of a newly formed SHG and learning to save one rupee (20) a day to build up the group's funds. She eventually becomes a successful Shakti dealer and claims that her life has been transformed as a result of Shakti.

The Organization of Project Shakti

The work of selecting and training women dealers from rural areas is carried out by field workers, numbering 650, termed Junior Rural Sales Promoters (JRSP). There is an increase in responsibility as one moves through the ranks of the field team. The JRSP and the more senior Rural Sales Promoter (RSP) are responsible for 20 to 25 Shakti Dealers each. These field workers are not HUL employees; rather they are "outsourced," employed by a management consultant firm. However, they work under a hierarchy of HUL managers, all under the control of the Business Head of Rural Ventures in Mumbai.

The majority of these field workers are young university graduates, many of whom hold MBA degrees and are eager to make their way in the business world. The overwhelming majority of them (95%) are male. Their jobs require them to travel extensively, visiting at least two Shakti Dealers a day, encouraging door-to-door sales. It was explained that the constant travel made the work unattractive to women.

It is the Sales Manager who makes the contact with local NGOs or with the District Collector in order to arrange for a...
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