“Our partnership with HUL offers the rural entrepreneur a profitable business model while operating i-Shakti kiosks. Also, low cost delivery and customized products will result in higher benefit through enhanced economic gains for the rural consumers.”
~ Mr. Nachiket More
Executive Director, Wholesale Banking Group
“There’s incredible potential in rural markets. That’s where the growth will come from.”
~ Sharat Dhall, Hindustan Lever’s director of new ventures and marketing services
Sankaramma, the leader of the local Kanaka Durga self-help Group (SHG) belongs to K. Thimmapuram village’s Muddaner Mandal in the Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh. The village has 350 households with a total population of 1200. Sankaramma’s 5 hectares of agricultural land was not sufficient for six member family due to severe drought in the region. She started a business in April 2003 with the Hindustan Unilever Ltd. By 2005, she had a regular monthly turnover of Rs.10,000 per month. Initially she sold door to door, but thereafter the customers started visiting her home for products. She sees Project Shakti as a mean for the bright futures of her children. Project Shakti also enabled her to provide mid-day meals at the primary school in her village. Today, Sankaramma has become a key development figure in her village.
Usha Sarvatai, a mother of 2, traveled 32 km everyday to work. Her husband’s income was not sufficient for the two children and their old parents. But the long distance and the odd timings of the job forced Usha to quit the job. Then she got a call from the Government dept. to attend a meeting, convened by Project Shakti. Usha became a Shakti Amma and started a new venture. In a short span the good relationships she developed with the villagers helped her do good business. She says, “I am happy fulfilling my family’s requirements and people give me a lot of respect today.” And she is now very eager to grow her business in the years to come.
The list does not end here. Hindustan Lever Ltd., a subsidiary of Unilever is counting on thousands of women like Sankaramma and Usha Sarvatai to sell its products to the rural consumers it couldn’t reach before. By 2005, around 13,000 poor women were selling the company’s products in 50,000 villages in India’s 12 states and contributed for 15% of the company’s rural sales in those states . The women typically earned between $16 and $22 per month , often doubling their household income which was used to educate their children. Overall, around 30% of Hindustan Lever’s revenue came from the rural markets in India
Started in the late 2000, Project Shakti had enabled Hindustan Lever to access 80,000 of India’s 638,000 villages . Hindustan Lever’s director of new ventures proudly expressed, “At the end of the day, we’re in business. But if by doing business we can do something positive, it’s a great win-win model.” Hindustan Lever was not the only company recognizing the vast marketing potential in rural India. With the saturation of urban market, the companies started reengineering their businesses and products to target rural consumers who are poor but are rich in aspirations fueled by the media and other forces.
Unilever in India: Business and Growth
Unilever was the world’s largest Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company with a worldwide revenue of $55 billion in 2005 . It’s Indian subsidiary, the Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) was the country’s largest FMCG company with combined volumes of about 4 million tonnes and revenues near about $2.43 billion . HUL’s major brands included Lifebuoy, Lux, Surf Excel, Rin, Wheel, Fair & Lovely, Pond’s, Sunsilk, Clinic, Pepsodent, Close-up, Lakme, Brooke Bond, Kissan, Knorr-Annapurna, Kwality Wall’s etc. These were manufactured over 40 factories across the country .
In 1931, Unilever set up its first Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Vanaspati Manufacturing Company . Thereafter the Lever Brothers India Limited and United Traders Limited were established in 1933 and 1935 respectively. In November 1956, these three companies merged and form HUL. Unilever’s share in HUL was 51.55% in 2005 and the remaining of the shareholding was distributed among about 380,000 individual shareholders and financial institutions. A foray of acquisitions followed thereafter . In 1984, the Brooke Bond joined the Unilever fold. Lipton was acquired in 1972 and Ponds in 1986 . HUL was following a growth strategy of diversification always in line with Indian opinions and aspirations.
The economic and political development in the 1990s had marked an inflexion in HUL’s and the Group’s growth curve. Economic liberalization permitted the company to explore every single product and opportunity segment, without any constraints on production capacity. On the other hand, deregulation allowed alliances, mergers and acquisitions. In 1993, HUL merged with the Tata Oil Mills Company (TOMCO) 1993 . In 1995, HUL formed a 50:50 joint venture with another Tata company, Lakme Limited .
The company had also made a string of mergers, acquisitions and alliances in the Foods and Beverages sector. Some of these were the acquisition of Kothari General Foods (1992), Kissan (1993), Dollops Icecream business from Cadbury India (1993), Modern Foods (2002), Cooked Shrimp and Pasteurised Crabmeat business of the Amalgam Group of Companies (2003) .
With 12.2% of the world population residing in the villages of India, the country’s rural FMCG market had a huge potential . The Indian FMCG sector was the fourth largest sector in the economy with a market size of $13.1 billion . The sector was expected to grow by over 60% by 2010. In 2005-2006 the urban India accounted for 66% of total FMCG consumption, with rural India accounting for the remaining 34% . However, rural India accounted for more than 40% consumption in major FMCG categories such as personal care, fabric care, and hot beverages . The Bid FMCG companies such as HLL, Nirma and ITC joined the foray to tap the huge potential.
In the 1990s, a local Indian firm, Nirma Ltd. started providing detergents to the rural poor at the lowest cost. The company had created a business system with a new product formulation, low-cost manufacturing, wide distribution channel, special packaging and value pricing. After a decade, Nirma became one of the largest branded detergent makers with a 38% market share and 121% return on its capital employed .
In 2002, ITC set up a network of internet-based kiosks, e-choupals, to help the farmers in their procurement process. The initiative began with the soya growers in Madhya Pradesh and then expanded to cotton, tobacco, shrimp etc. Starting with six e-choupals in June 2000, ITC’s Internet-based, rural initiative had linked 6,000 Indian villages with around 1,200 e-choupals by 2002. The setting up of each e-choupal entails an investment of Rs 1-3 lakh .The objectives behind e-choupals was to allow single place procurement and purchase point, allowing farmers to sell their products directly to ITC on the basis of updated current prices prevailing in the market. This eliminated middlemen and thus helped ITC to cut its costs.
In 2007, around 34% of the FMCG products sales came from rural areas . The number of households that used FMCG products in rural India had grown from 13.6 crore in 2004 to 14.3 crore in 2007 . This growth was achieved on an average 1.8% year-on-year growth in the number of households, which use at least one FMCG product. However, the growth in penetration level for the entire FMCG products was not same. According to one study by a market research firm IMRB, the monthly consumption of detergents and toilet soaps remained largely stagnant with a 92% penetration, but that of liquid shampoos grew from 68% in 2004 to 83% in 2007 . These figures revealed a shift towards higher-value products among the rural market, from toothpowder to toothpaste or from unbranded to branded products. According to the senior project director of IMRB International, Manoj K Menon, “One of the most significant changes, includes growing preference towards branded products. For example, in the food and beverages segment, penetration of branded atta has gone up year-on-year by 8 per cent and branded salt by 3 per cent. The penetration of unbranded atta has decreased by 1 per cent and salt by 3 per cent.”
The HLL Marketing Effort: Transition to Rural Market
HUL’s competitive advantage generated from three sources. First it’s strong well established brands, second, its local manufacturing capacity and supply chain and third its vast sales and distribution system. It was soon felt that HUL’s sales and distribution system which had protected it from competitors would be soon replicated by its rivals and to maintain its edge, the company had to increase its reach beyond the urban markets. So far the operations of HUL included more than 2,000 suppliers and associates. The distribution network, consisted of 4,000 stockists, covering 6.3 million retail outlets reaching the entire urban population, and about 250 million rural consumers .
Typically, the goods produced in each of the HUL’s 40 factories were sent to a depot with the help of a carrying and forwarding agent (CFA). The company had its depot in every state of the country. The CFA was a third party and got servicing fee for stock and delivery of the products. In each town, there was a redistribution stockist (RS) who took the goods from the CFA and sell them to retail outlets. By the late 1990s, the HUL management realized certain problems with the existing sales model. First, the model was not viable for small towns with small population and small business. HUL found it expensive to appoint one stockist exclusively for each town. Secondly, the retail revolution in the country changes the pattern the customers shop. Large retail self service shops were established. In the response of these problems, HUL redesigned its sales and distribution channel and the new system was known as ‘diamond model’ in the company. At the top end of the diamond, there were the self service retail stores which constituted 10% of the total FMCG market. The middle, fatter part of the diamond represented the profit-center based sales team. In the bottom of the pyramid was the rural marketing and distribution which accounted for 20% of the business .
Almost three-fourth of the total 1.2 billion Indian population resided in the rural areas and majority of them had a very low per capita income (around 44% of that of urban India) . Urban market had reached the saturation point, thus changing focus on rural India. In comparison to just 5,161 towns in India there are 6,38,365 villages in India [Exhibit I]. Moreover, more than 70% of India’s population lived in villages and made a big market for the FMCG industry because of increasing disposal incomes and awareness level.