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Posted 10.25.05

While filming the tsunami efforts of Care International in India, producer Linda Gerber agreed to interview the head of Hindustan Lever’s Shakti Project in Mumbai for The Center for B·A·W·B. When she met Shakti CEO, Sharat Dhall on a Sunday in the lobby of the Shakti project building she had very little background on the project. Her “search and exploration interview” with Dhall, as she terms it, piqued her curiosity about Shakti and led her to her work for B·A·W·B developing a full blown digital video with teaching tips.

“I was really, really intrigued by the quality of Sharat Dhall’s character during that interview,” said Gerber. “His values and the values of the project were integrated. He showed up as a really great man.”

A deeply religious Christian, Dhall talked about his religious upbringing and how much those values came to play in his work on the Shakti project, of which he is immensely proud. At the end of the day, Dhall said, he is always a happy man. For Gerber, there was something very irresistible about that. She was also impressed with the fact that his work was probably happening in a wider arena, in the Shakti women’s lives and in the lives of all the people who interacted with the program.

Project Shakti is an alternative distribution system and a bottom-of-the-pyramid initiative created by Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), a subsidiary of Unilever, in 2001.  Shakti allows HLL access to the previously untapped market of rural villages in India, which do not fit the traditional distribution infrastructrure.  The project is oriented to both income generation and community development.  By targeting low-income populations, particularly women, this project addresses deep social problems - like iodine deficiency or diarrhea disease - by training Shakti women to provide education about products that address these health issues, and also making the products available in remote areas of the country.

Shakti has already been extended to about 50,000 villages in 12 states.  It targets small villages with populations of less than 2,000 people and already services about a 15 million person rural population.  The respective state governments and several NGO's are actively involved in the initiative.  Shakti already has about 13,000 women entrepreneurs in its fold.  A typical Shakti entrepreneur earns a sustainable income of about Rs.700 - Rs.1,000 per month, which is double their average household income.  Shakti is thus creating opportunities for rural women to live in improved conditions and with dignity, while improving the overall standard of living in their families.

It seeks to empower underprivileged rural women by providing income-generating opportunities and health and hygiene education. In general, rural women in India are underprivileged and need a sustainable source of income. Shakti provides critically needed additional income to these women and their families by equipping and training them to become an extended arm of the company's sales and marketing operation. Shakti Vani is a social communication program. Women trained in health and hygiene issues address village communities through meetings at schools, village baithaks, and other social forums. iShakti, the Internet-based rural information service, has been launched in Andhra Pradesh, in association with the Andhra Pradesh Government's Rajiv Internet Village Programme. The service is now available in Nalgonda, Vishakapatnam, West Godavari and East Godavari districts. iShakti has been developed to provide information and services to meet rural needs in medical health and hygiene, agriculture, animal husbandry, education, vocational training and employment and women's empowerment. The vision is to have 3,500 kiosks across the state by 2005.

Gerber knew she had to come back for the larger Shakti story. One interview could not illustrate the impact on the women in the rural program. So she made arrangements to have video captured of the Shaktiamma’s (the HLL Shakti entrepreneurs) at work in a rural Indian village. Even the camera crew, who traveled from New Delhi to Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh to a village two miles from there and were only paid for eight hours of work, became swept up in the story and worked for 18 hours to complete the footage. The video crew traveled with the HLL’s most successful Shaktiamma, following her from the time she woke up and got her children ready throughout her day traveling and working as a Shakti Project entrepreneur. The crew talked to people in charge of the project in her area and interviewed her about management issues and how she has expanded the project.

When Linda received the film footage she was very excited. She immediately looked for the shots and interviews that would help people not familiar with the story to understand what Shakti was all about. The result will be a digital video and case study for use in the classroom. The case study and teaching note on the Hindustan Lever and the Shakti project have been written by Weatherhead professor, Sayan Chatterjee, who, with assistant professor C.K. Krishnan, is creating a research institute to further explore ways of creating prosperity in the developing world. The case, teaching note and short documentary will detail how a Shakti entrepreneur sets up her business, the challenges she faces, and the bigger picture of HLL. It will also show how the Shaktiammas are teaching many Indian villagers very basic hygiene lessons, such as hand washing after going to bathroom.

“What was most moving for me was being introduced to an ordinary woman who becomes a Shakti entrepreneur and I know she needs to contend with the daily challenges of life; she has no business background, nor the public identity she needs to run a business,” said Gerber. “Women are always in the background in rural India and men do work outside the home, so the Shaktiamma had to learn to present to women in other villages the benefits of a product as well as to talk to them about health.”

Gerber sees Shakti as a “really bold project” with bold plans about the number of people they are going to train to be Shakti entrepreneurs and the numbers of lives they will change in the process. The Shaktiammas have to create solutions to many problems to succeed. Often they must rely on male family members to accompany them because it is not customary or always safe for a woman to travel alone in India. Many times they are ambitious but not well educated and yet they are connecting themselves to a multi-national company who considers them partners in return. The Shaktiamma in Gerber’s video is making a lot of money. She paid off her original loan in a year and is doubling and tripling her investment now.

“This is a tremendous story which will affect not just HLL but other companies that are thinking this might not be profitable,” said Gerber. “HLL is now planning for the future by considering incorporating non-competing businesses into their plan. They are already in conversation with a handful of companies who can come in to expand opportunities for the Shakti.”

By Janet Roberts

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