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Game changer? Ugandans buy life-saving drugs through 'Avon lady' business model

NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports on how the Avon business model is being used to empower women and save lives in Africa.

KAMPALA, Uganda – With a distinct lack of lipstick and a background in multi-million dollar deals, Chuck Slaughter makes for an unlikely Avon lady.

But doing things differently has never fazed the online sales magnate and these days, as the only American in a sea of Ugandan faces, he's used to looking a little out of place.

"While I can't say I knocked the lights out of lipstick sales, I did learn quite a bit," he laughed.

By applying the business model developed by the iconic makeup brand, Slaughter has helped transform the lives of thousands of women across the east African republic.

But it's not cosmetics that his reps are stocking up on – it's life-saving drugs.

Andrew Tkach / for NBC News

Chuck Slaughter, center, in a staff meeting at Living Goods discussing how to promote their products, in this case solar lamps. Using the direct selling methods developed by Avon, Slaughter set up a not-for-profit medical company called Living Goods in Kampala, Uganda.

It struck Slaughter, 50, as remarkable that Avon had grown into a $10 billion business by selling things that aren't vital for day-to-day living. He began to wonder what might happen if he used the same model to deliver products that people desperately need.

So using the direct-selling methods developed by Avon, he set up a not-for-profit medical company called Living Goods.

"Avon is very much a direct inspiration. Much to my surprise, I found out it started in the 19th century in rural America and of course, when we think about the developing world today, it's a lot like that," Slaughter said. "You had women who needed a source of income, but there was no employment economy and you had these very tight social connections."

With counterfeit drugs rampant in the developing world, the fact that people can buy from someone they know has been vital to the Living Goods name.

But it is the ability of the company to buy in bulk that has really made the difference.

"The street price of some life-saving drugs can be 300 percent to 400 percent of the manufacturing cost," he explained. By aggregating the buying power, the company can ensure quality drugs at a fair price.

'Game-changing scale'
Sauda Baubidia, 28, said working for the Living Goods team "has moved me from zero to a hero."

Andrew Tkach / for NBC News

Sauda Baubidia is a community health promoter for Living Goods. She says working for the company "has moved [her] from zero to a hero."

"People know me as a hero because I have saved them," she said. "I saved lives for their kids."

Baubidia described how people couldn't believe the prices at first and assumed the drugs were fake. "How can a medicine sold at 15,000 [Ugandan shillings] ($6) in a hospital be sold at 2,000 [shillings] (80 cents)?" she said they would ask. 

For the women themselves the company provides low-cost financing and support, as well an excellent way to supplement the family income.

Like the Avon ladies, Baubidia and her colleagues buy the product at a discount before selling it on at a small profit. She also tailors what she buys depending on the time of the year – during the rainy season, for example, muddy swamps filled with sitting water become breeding grounds for malaria and other waterborne diseases.

"I have a promotion of malaria and diarrhea and when I brought my medicine it was really working and it was really cheap," Baubidia said. She is able to sell the drugs for a seventh of the market price.

Slaughter is quick to explain that Living Goods is not a charity. "We're not handing out the goods for free. We find that when someone pays something, even if it's a small amount, they're more likely to use it," he said.

Andrew Tkach / for NBC News

Michael Rusoke, a nurse and health training officer, discusses exam results in the final session of a course for community health promoters.

In the short term, cellphones are the next tool in the battle against disease.

When Living Goods started in 2007 only 20 or 30 percent of the households they served had a phone.

Now almost 70 percent have them and Baubidia said she was already seeing the benefits, with the head office texting people to remind them to give their children their prescriptions.

Slaughter is hopeful that the combination of selling models like Avon, microfinancing and the emergence of mobile technology will help women like Baubidia blaze trails in their communities. In turn he's hoping they can address the massive social problems in an efficient, sustainable way.

"So Living Goods isn't looking just to create a successful organization. We're really after game-changing scale," he said.

And although he's trained hundreds of women already, Slaughter stressed he was just getting started.

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