Avon in South Africa.
Lipstick changes lives south of the Limpopo.
FOR years Alice Mthini scraped by as a domestic servant. Becoming an "Avon lady" in 2009 changed everything. Discovering a talent for selling, she persuaded other ladies to part with 10,000 rand ($1,190) for Avon's make up and fashion accessories in her first month. She now earns enough to send her children to a private school. She has bought herself a laptop and a car (although she has yet to learn how to drive it). "Avon is my life," she grins.
The world's biggest direct seller of cosmetics has had little to cheer about of late. Bad management and poor investments caused its share price to plunge. But in South Africa, it is doing well. "You go to a doctor's room and everyone has got a brochure," says Eunice Maseko, another of Avon's many ladies in South Africa. "You start to think, where am I going to sell?" she laughs.
The trick for direct-sales companies such as Avon is not getting people to buy your products, but getting people to sell them. That may be easier in a country where more than a quarter of women are unemployed and formal jobs are scarce, even for educated jobseekers.
Avon does not demand any formal qualifications; only a warm smile and a start-up fee of 75 rand. The firm, which has been operating in South Africa since 1996, is coy about how many people flog its wares there. But it says that in 2011 its sales in South Africa increased by a glossy 29%, whereas its global sales grew by a drabber 1%.
Most of those peddling Avon's products are black women. Researchers at Oxford University recently published a three-year study of Avon ladies in South Africa. They found that their incomes were above average for black women in their communities, and close to that of an average black South African man.
In rural areas, where many roads have no names and houses no numbers, Avon delivers merchandise to post offices so that reps can pick them up. Where there is no bank nearby, Avon organises payment through the post office or a big retailer. The company's credit checks have been eased to allow for the fact that few customers have any formal credit history or income. Avon has devised a rating system that takes account of small indices of permanence and responsibility, such as a mobile phone number or a formal address.
Linda Scott, one of the Oxford project's leaders, says that reps spoke of Avon in semi-religious terms, using words like "salvation". South of the Limpopo, it seems, lipstick changes lives.
琳达·斯科特（Linda Scott，音译）是牛津大学研究项目的带头人之一，她表示，那些直销人员谈起雅芳公司总会用到一些有宗教色彩的词，比如"救世"。 看来，在南林波波省这个地方，唇膏真的能改变生活。