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Helping SME retailers grow

Average read time: 11 minutes

We’re creating income opportunities, providing access to skills, finance and technology to empower our network of millions of retailers – all while they're helping us reach consumers with our brands.

A male shopkeeper in a bright yellow shirt weighs peas into a bag in India

Selling with purpose, unlocking potential

2/3 Of all the world’s employment comes from small and medium-sized enterprises

Our business relies on a thriving distribution network. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are seen as one of the world’s engines of growth, accounting for two-thirds of all employment. Around 180 million small stores interact with 4.5 billion customers daily all across the world.

And every day, millions of consumers buy our products from independent stores, outlets and kiosks, or micro-entrepreneurs making sales in the streets or house-to-house. The success of the SMEs in our retail value chain is directly linked to our own success and we believe that by helping SMEs grow, we can also create a positive social impact that ripples out beyond our value chain, making whole communities fairer, more prosperous and more resilient.

Supporting SMES is one of the goals in our Unilever Compass and is part of our commitment to help build a more equitable and inclusive society by raising living standards across our value chain, creating opportunities through equity, diversity and inclusion and preparing people for the future of work.

Help 5 million small and medium-sized enterprises grow their business through access to skills, finance and technology by 2025.

This is one of our Raise living standards goals

How we’re supporting SME growth

SMEs are too often held back by barriers such as limited market information, poor access to credit or lack of financial management skills. And they can be under-served or unserved directly by the distributors or companies they work with. We’re providing them with access to digital tools, financial inclusion and services and public–private models that support social entrepreneurship, to help them grow their business and their income. At the end of 2022, 1.8 million small retailer stores used our digital platforms, setting us on track to reach our goal.

We want to inspire other companies to take up economically inclusive models too. To boost the impact of our own efforts, we’re embracing a multi-stakeholder approach to create thought leadership on this agenda. We’ve joined forces with organisations such as the Better Than Cash Alliance and The CEO Partnership for Economic Inclusion which is committed to developing partnerships and expanding financial access, including among hard-to-reach groups such as women and small businesses.

Working directly with sellers to build skills

We've long understood the importance of nurturing the channels through which we reach consumers – and the opportunity they give us to raise living standards for individuals and communities. Despite often being in business for years, many retailers have not been engaged in any form of business management, or digital or financial literacy skills training. To help their businesses – and ours – to grow, we're supporting and evolving programmes that build business and financial skills among store owners and entrepreneurs, such as our Kabisig eSummit in the Philippines.

Going further to reach consumers

Sales agents help us reach the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who live in small towns and villages, often with restricted access to stores and shops.

By recruiting and training micro-entrepreneurs and supporting them with extended credit, marketing, sales and accounting training, we can help raise living standards – while improving our channels to reach consumers.

Our Shakti micro-entrepreneurs

Our Shakti programme in India is our best established and most successful model, designed to empower women micro-entrepreneurs through access to training and support, as they in turn help grow our business.

Around 160,000 women from poor rural communities are now part of our Shakti distribution network in India, bringing our brands to hard-to-reach consumers while generating incomes for themselves and their communities. Equipped with business and product knowledge, they can advise their customers on the basics of nutrition and hygiene too, and become agents of positive change in their villages.

A group of women buying from a Shakti micro-entrepreneur in India

Shakti has become our model for reaching out to rural consumers on low incomes in developing and emerging markets – and we’re adapting it at scale around the world. We tailor it to fit local conditions, and to explore new ideas. With our experience in India as a base, we’ve launched related programmes in several countries, including Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Colombia.

Financial inclusion for financial success

Helping retailers access financial services is a key way to help them increase their income, improve their financial control and build their resilience to withstand shocks and risks.

We're working with partners on a range of initiatives that educate and enable small retailers with financial tools and unlock access to credit and financial services.

A young man reviews his accounts on his phone beside his laptop

For example, to support the kick-off of our Shakti business in Nigeria and Ethiopia, each Shakti micro-entrepreneur is offered a start-up interest-free stock loan. This enables them to buy their first batch of Unilever products and they have up to six months to repay the loan, with no interest fee. This allows us to create employment opportunities for women from rural areas – who frequently have no working experience and limited education. Becoming a Shakti seller is often an important first step to financial independence.

We want to ensure that our store holders are able to purchase as many products as they can sell – and not only as many as they can afford. In Kenya for instance, we work with retailers through the Jaza Duka (‘fill up your store’) programme. It's a strategic initiative with Mastercard and other partners, with support from the CEO Partnership for Economic Inclusion.

Jaza Duka: driving sales growth in Kenya

Jaza Duka uses a combination of innovative technology, targeted training and the strength of our relationships with our distribution network to help retailers free themselves from the constraints of cash-based business.

It digitalizes the processes of buying supplies and selling goods, so small-scale retailers can build the credentials they need to access short-term working capital loans. This provides better control of their inventory, so they can keep their shelves full for their customers.

More than 20,000 retailers have enrolled (of whom 54% are women). They’re seeing average monthly sales of up to 20% more.

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Enable and Pay Credit: digitalizing payments in Pakistan

In Pakistan, we’re driving SME business growth through an initiative called Enable and Pay Credit. Unilever and Finja, a financial services platform in Pakistan, are digitalizing supply chain payments between retailers and distributors. This enables retailers to pay Unilever product distributors directly from their SimSim mobile wallets, a branchless banking solution Finja offers with FINCA Microfinance Bank.

This mechanism means the retailer no longer needs to travel to a bank to withdraw cash. And based on their sales, retailers can also receive our products on credit, enabling them to extend their offering and increase sales when they lack working capital. More than 20,000 retailers are accessing credit and using the platform.

Future-fit: sharing the benefits of digital technology

A woman scans shelves of boxes in a warehouse with her mobile phone

Helping retailers access the benefits of the digital economy can boost their growth – and ours.

At the heart of our ambition is the drive to bring more and more retailers onto what are called 'eB2B' digital commerce platforms, so they can unlock the potential of their businesses and engage better with us, and with distributors.

Digital and financial inclusion are critical enablers to achieving our SME goal – and to contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Rebecca Marmot, our Chief Sustainability Officer

We’ve worked hard to accelerate the expansion of our eB2B platforms as Covid-19 restricted shopkeepers’ ability to restock through traditional face-to-face routes. Platforms such as Shikhar in India, Compra Agora in Brazil and Sahabat Warung in Indonesia are helping small retailers meet changing shopper needs. These platforms also offer many of our smaller customers access to features like extended payment terms and cashless payments that help them keep their shelves stocked.

Our platforms offer a safe, non-contact way of interacting with us at convenient times to place orders, track stock and shipments, and see prices and promotions. Not only does this create a better experience for our customers, it helps them increase sales – our digitally enrolled customers grew by 4% more than offline-only stores in 2021. And we can use the data from these apps to predict sales, manage inventory, offer insight-based advice to retailers and improve our customer experience.

Assessing our impact

It’s important we understand how our programmes are creating a positive impact so measurement is a crucial part of our approach.

Assessing how our programmes drive growth

We’re working with impact measurement expert 60 Decibels to independently assess the impact of our initiatives in market.

From three of our initiatives – Jaza Duka in Kenya, Kabisig eSummit in the Philippines and Siparis Direkt in Turkey (an eB2B digital commerce platform) – the studies found that despite the challenges of Covid-19, two out of three retailers participating in the programmes reported growth of their businesses. 74% of the retailers interviewed have experienced an improvement in their standard of living and 65% reported an ability to plan finances better.

The studies prove that our model of purpose-led programmes is driving business growth.

An illustration showing a female shopkeeper wearing a mask as she talks to two customers

Sharing our insights

Over 20 years of running Shakti and similar programmes, we've faced many challenges, as well as finding ways to address them.

We want to make sure those lessons are learnt by us, and shared with others. That's why we created our ASPIRE tool (PDF 451.45 KB), along with partners from BoP Innovation Center. It's a framework that brings together our insights and those of our external partners, which we use as a guide to help us launch and develop initiatives.

ASPIRE provides building blocks and guiding principles that have helped us and the social enterprises we work with to kickstart and progress inclusive distribution models. Among other areas, it provides guidance and insights on successful ways to harness technology, partnerships and investment.

Harnessing bold new ideas: social enterprise partnerships

Woman holding mobile phone to make use of the Kasha mobile e-commerce platform in Rwanda

One of the ways we're increasing the social impact of our work with small-scale retailers is through innovative public–private models that support social entrepreneurship.

Unilever and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office created TRANSFORM to support social enterprises that meet low-income household needs in developing countries. TRANSFORM’s aim is to enable 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia gain access to products and services that have been shown to improve health, livelihoods, the environment or wellbeing by 2025. Since 2015, it’s reached more than 7 million people through over 75 projects across 15 countries.

TRANSFORM is supporting a range of social enterprises and distribution models. As well as MESH, HappyTap and TrashCon, these include Kasha, a mobile e-commerce platform in Rwanda, and Drinkwell which works with utilities to provide water ATMs in low-income communities in Bangladesh.

Now the TRANSFORM approach is set to roll out in Colombia too via a new partnership between Unilever and the Global Solidarity Fund.

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