"I was able to facilitate my neighbors as well as help meet [my family's] expenditures," she explains, proudly.
Shareefa is one of over 1,500 beneficiaries of the Nestlé BISP Rural Women Sales Program, launched in 2017 to provide livelihood opportunities to some of the most disadvantaged women in Pakistan's rural society.
Life for women in rural Pakistan
There are 65 million women living in rural Pakistan. Tradition dictates that these women are often unpaid workers engaged in family farming, livestock management or fisheries businesses, or on low wages.
As Nestlé has already learnt from work with coffee farmers in East Africa, economic autonomy is essential to socio-economic empowerment. Financial freedom results in benefits, not just for the women themselves, but also their whole communities and their families for generations to come.
The importance of the BISP and Ehsaas Program
Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), now part of the Ehsaas Program, focuses on providing a cash transfer to the underprivileged in Pakistan. As the largest social safety net program in the country, BISP provides a helping hand, offering quarterly aid (approx. PKR 6,000 or USD 37) to ensure that no woman is left in a position where they cannot make ends meet.
Building on this, BISP partnered with Nestlé Pakistan to help graduate these beneficieries out of poverty and allow these same women the dignity and independence of earning their own incomes. Nestlé Pakistan also partnered with the Akhuwat Foundation to provide interest-free microloans to the women to scale-up their business. Thanks to the program, women are empowered to take up roles as Sales Agents in their regions: shopkeepers, servicing their communities whilst providing for their families.
The journey to change
"I faced a lot of opposition from my husband and family when I revealed my idea of working as a shopkeeper around two years back," explains 36-year-old Shanaz, from Mustafabad. "But I did not give up as I wanted to give my children a better living." Female Nestlé representatives spent time building trust with women in their communities in the hopes that they could persuade some to take a brave leap where others would follow.
"Today, my children go to school and have decent meals and on top of that my husband is also happy with me," Shanaz says, proudly.
New recruits undergo rigorous sales training and are offered interest-free loans to buy shops and stock. Each time they need to re-stock, rather than heading to the city to buy products, they simply call a company representative who delivers to their door. Sales Agents are now operating in 23 districts of Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan.
Nestlé Pakistan's Healthy Women Program also offers each new Rural Sales Agent nutrition awareness sessions. Armed with invaluable information on the importance of good nutrition and ideas on how to cook healthy nutritious meals within a budget, the Agents can impart wisdom that spreads throughout communities.
In our village the concept of working women was alienShagufta Shopkeeper
"I have learned a lot about hygiene," says 37-year-old Razia, a residence of Kot Bela village. "This has also enabled me to give my children fortified food and I also try to keep my house dirt free. I persuade other women to also keep their surroundings clean so that our children won't get sick."
Over the next couple of years, the plan is to scale the program to around 5,000 BISP beneficiaries as Sales Agents.
"In our village the concept of working women was alien," says 35-year-old Shagufta, a shopkeeper in a small village near Pindi Bhattian. "But there were days when my family ate one meal only. I felt miserable when I saw my children wasting their precious time on streets instead of going to school. Now, all my children go to school and we also eat good food. I am proud of the fact that I am the first Rural Sales Agent from my village and it has encouraged other women to work in a bid to come out of poverty."