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Two women choose Knorr products from a Nigerian market stall

Helping SME retailers grow

Average read time: 7 minutes

We're creating income opportunities, providing skills training and empowering our network of millions of retailers through financial inclusion – 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, so we’ve set ourselves a goal to help them as part of our Unilever Compass.

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

We want to support those who distribute or sell our products, such as the people who run independent grocery or convenience stores or who sell our ice creams on the beach. We need to make sure that being part of our network is a source of growth and empowerment for the millions of people who contribute to it. And we believe that by helping SMEs grow, we can have a positive social impact that ripples out beyond our value chain, making whole communities fairer, more prosperous and more resilient.

SMEs, though, are too often held back by barriers such as limited market information, poor access to credit, or lack of financial management skills.

We aim to take down those barriers and improve financial access and literacy – to create the conditions for more equitable growth. We’ve learned from our previous initiatives, where our small-scale retailers told us that what they needed most was access to finance and better skills for an increasingly digital world. So we’re focusing on helping them get fit for the future. In 2021, the first year of our Unilever Compass goal, we helped 1.2 million SMEs across eight Asian countries be active on one of our digital ordering platforms. But it’s not only digital access we’re setting out to deliver. Over time, we’re aiming to assess how inclusive our programmes are by looking at livelihoods, personal resilience and wider social benefits.

Future-fit: sharing the benefits of digital

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.

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.

Accelerating digital financial inclusion across Unilever’s value chain is the right thing to do and it makes perfect business sense. We can use our scale for good across our extended distribution network and help to increase people’s income, improve their financial resilience and drive economic and social inclusion.

Rebecca Marmot, our Chief Sustainability Officer

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.

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

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

In Kenya, for example, we work with retailers through Jaza Duka, which translates as 'fill up your store'. 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 digitises 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.

Transform banner

Taking financial inclusion to new places

We want to build on the success of our partnership work to extend financial inclusion to new places.

In India, for example, we launched Smart Shakti, which enables Shakti entrepreneurs to place and pay for orders digitally, and to place them anytime from anywhere.

We've also joined forces with ten other businesses and organisations in 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, farmers and small businesses.

And we're working with partners in other ways to give retailers access to financial tools. For example, our partnership with the State Bank of India is providing Shikhar retailers with digital payment and financing solutions through access to an instant paperless overdraft facility.

Working directly with sellers to build skills

As we push forward on our ambition to help our distributors grow, we're building on years of work with small, medium and micro-enterprises around the world.

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. We'll keep supporting and evolving programmes that build business and financial skills among store owners and entrepreneurs, such as Kabisig eSummit in the Philippines.

Kabisig, which translates as 'linked arms', runs training summits under the banner 'Negosyo Mo, Kinabukasan Mo' (Your Business, Your Future). Training covers cash flow and inventory management, merchandising and customer service.

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 136,000 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.

Moving from cash-only to digital payments can bring a wealth of benefits to Shakti entrepreneurs, who typically sell our products door to door.

We've launched a smart payment scheme for our Shakti programme. Called Smart Shakti, it gives sales agents an app to pay for and place orders digitally, reducing costs and boosting transparency.

Two Shakti micro-entrepreneurs standing beside their small shop in India

Building on Shakti's success

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.

With our experience in India as a base, we’ve launched related programmes in several countries, including Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Colombia and Egypt. We adapt the Shakti model to fit local conditions, and to explore new ideas.

Assessing our impact

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

We’re working with impact measurement expert 60 Decibels to independently assess the impact of three of our initiatives: Jaza Duka in Kenya, Kabisig eSummit in the Philippines and Siparis Direkt in Turkey which is a 'eB2B' digital commerce platform. The studies found that despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, 2 out of 3 retailers participating in the programmes reported that their business grew as a result. Participants also provided important feedback to enable us to refine our approach.

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 is 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. So far it’s reached more than 6 million people through 61 projects across 13 countries.

TRANSFORM is supporting a range of social enterprises and distribution models. These include Kasha, a mobile e-commerce platform in Rwanda, and UJoin, a mobile-friendly online community in Nairobi, Kenya, for owners of 'base of the pyramid' shops.

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