Unilever Ethiopia’s Shakti Initiative: Building a Rural Sales Channel

by: Ted London

Publication Date: April 20, 2022
Length: 26 pages
Product ID#: 2-870-142

Core Disciplines: Base of the Pyramid, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, International Business, Social Impact, Strategy & Management

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Teaching Note

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In 2017, Tim Kleinebenne, managing director of Unilever Ethiopia, and Buks Akinseye, senior global sustainability manager in Unilever’s Rotterdam headquarters, had collaborated to develop and launch a Shakti initiative, creating a last-mile distribution channel that targeted rural Ethiopia. While serving rural Ethiopia presented Unilever with a substantial market opportunity and the promise of achieving greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in its business strategy, the rollout had proved challenging. To facilitate the initiative, Unilever Ethiopia’s search for a partner had led to Kidame Mart, a local social enterprise founded by Shani Senbetta. With funding from Unilever, Senbetta and her team recruited economically vulnerable women in rural Ethiopia to be Shakti entrepreneurs and provided them a basket of goods to sell locally. This basket included mainly Unilever products, along with a few non-competing items from other companies. But, creating demand for Unilever products and in rural markets was difficult.

Supplemental Videos:
This case includes two supplemental videos; one features Buks Akinseye and provides further background on Unilever’s global strategy for the Shakti initiative. The second offers a rich illustration of how the Shakti model works in rural Ethiopia. Video access information, and how they can be effectively incorporated into a case discussion, is provided in the teaching note.

Teaching Objectives

After reading and discussing the material, students should:

  • Assess the opportunities and constraints inherent in building last-mile distribution channels that serve rural low-income markets.
  • Analyze and respond to challenges in achieving equity, diversity, and inclusion through a strategy of engaging rural women as sales agents, particularly in a context where female empowerment and mobility are constrained.
  • Recognize and evaluate key interdependencies in business models focused on serving rural communities, including managing the balance between business performance and social impact objectives.
  • Prioritize among strategic options when seeking to scale a business model for low-income customers.