Using Direct Sales Agent Model to open new pathways for women empowerment

Vendors and customers at a market.
February 20, 2023

Women's Economic Empowerment (WEE) involves the creation of equitable economic opportunities for women, including access to markets, financial services, and other resources that enable women to participate in economic activities and benefit from them. WEE also includes creating an enabling environment that gives women the same agency and opportunities as men, valuing their contributions to the economy.

Market development interventions are vital for promoting women’s economic empowerment in many regions. Such interventions involve creating or improving networks of producers, intermediaries, and buyers in a particular sector or geographic area to enable the exchange of products and services, thus unlocking new growth and business opportunities.

Women often face significant barriers in accessing these markets, such as limited access to financial services and information about opportunities, restrictive gender roles, and cultural norms that hinder their ability to participate.

Market development interventions directly address these obstacles by introducing initiatives that provide access to resources, expand market linkages for women-owned businesses, and design specific programs for women entrepreneurs. They also support advocacy and policy change around gender issues in the markets and place increased emphasis on addressing gender dynamics in the bidding and subcontracting processes. When implemented correctly, WEE in market systems development can lead to more significant economic opportunities for women, more equitable economic participation, and improved outcomes for both men and women in communities.

How can development interventions support women’s access to resources and agency in Northeast Nigeria, where culture and traditional practices limit women’s potential to compete in marketplaces? The Feed the Future’s Rural Resilience Activity (RRA) works to protect the livelihoods and well-being of the population by engaging economic, civil society, and public sector actors to bring about lasting changes in incentives, rules, norms, and services within markets, ultimately improving the participation of poor women, youth, and men.

RRA consciously tries to avoid activities that merely create temporary shifts in incentives and behaviors. The Activity’s approach requires a clear vision of how things could work better for large numbers of people without continued external intervention in the future.

While many models have strengthened WEE, the women as Direct Sales Agents (DSAs) models are the most promising. Direct sales agents are independent salespeople who distribute goods through the network they create. They work directly with consumers, selling the products and finding each customer personally. As a direct sales agent, one will be self-employed and responsible for arranging market materials. They could aggregate products from a particular company on cash or credit and use their closeness to customers to sell and earn a margin or commission.

Vendors and customers at a market.
SHAKTI female participants trained as Direct Sales Agents.

The DSA model benefits companies, women who serve as DSAs, and customers. To the women, it is an opportunity to diversify revenue streams because they sell additional services and products to customers, have a chance to participate in the money economy, and guarantee better income security and earning potential.

To companies investing in DSAs, the model is inexpensive to adopt, reduces the costs of reaching customers, builds brand loyalty, is easily scalable, and has a good return on investment. Data from RRA’s market analysis shows that DSAs generate a 34% return on investment (ROI) in the first year of adoption.

Currently, RRA has supported 14 companies in adopting the DSA business model. So far, 1300 women are serving as direct sales agents and earning decently from this engagement. The number is growing at an accelerating speed. While the real benefit is yet to be realized and quantified, more companies across sectors that sell fast-moving consumer goods, home care products, solar and clean energy products, processed foods, and other agricultural products have expressed interest in adopting the DSA model.

For market systems development (MSD) programs, the DSA model is attractive because of the potential to reach poor and remote populations with productivity-enhancing information and products. DSA models have been adapted and piloted in the agricultural sector in numerous private sector and MSD programs such as GROW and PRISMA.

These range from traditional DSA models, which promote agricultural products using woman-to-woman models, to models encouraging services such as aggregation and input sales. Companies such as Unilever use SHAKTI, a successful women's DSA model.

RRA believes that the DSA model can be compelling for enhancing women’s empowerment. In our experience, the model enables and facilitates women’s access to resources. It also catalyzes the capability of decision-making required for women to have the agency to act upon the acquisition of those resources and influence the systems in which they live.

As more women now self-select themselves as DSAs, the resulting outcome is a reduction in gender inequalities throughout the market system, opening new opportunities for women to access additional resources and enhance their agency. This dynamic cycle ultimately strengthens women's access, agency, and control of resources. It empowers them to compete for and reap the benefits of market systems on a level playing field.

We will continue to pitch the benefits of the DSA model to several companies and development facilitators as a tool that could successfully strengthen WEE. Our selling points to companies include understanding how their current distribution and sales or procurement model works. Who is involved in their current model, and what are the costs associated with working with them? How effective is their distribution/procurement model? What are their businesses’ critical challenges in meeting volume or quality targets, sales, and distribution targets of products or other services? Are they currently using any agent model in their distribution chain? If so, how effective is this? What are the current challenges with their agent/trader system? Answering these questions helps us gain insights and find a sweet spot to collaborate with companies investing in the DSA model.

About the Authors:

Cecilia Adamu is the Intervention Lead and Inclusion focal point of the Rural Resilience Activity.

Dooshima Anita Terkehe is the Intervention Lead for Women Economic Empowerment on the Rural Resilience Activity.

John Rachkara is the Deputy Chief of Party of the Rural Resilience Activity.

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