NEW DELHI: Hindustan Unilever and Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods giants, are both embarking on major new corporate social responsibility programmes in India.

Reflecting the low discretionary spending rates of rural shoppers, and the problems of reaching these communities with its products, Hindustan Unilever launched Project Shakti in 2000.

This scheme is based on a network of self-help groups, and empowers female entrepreneurs to distribute items like soap and shampoo, backed by in-depth training and formal loans.

In an extension of this idea, aimed at villages possessing less than 2,000 residents, Unilever has now allied with the State Bank of India on a microfinance drive in Maharashtra and Karnataka.

This pilot phase has seen 12 of the Shakti Ammas who sell Unilever's goods act as providers of basic banking services, and 1,000 accounts have been established thus far.

According to the company, 20% of households from the test regions have signed up, and nearly 80% of participants are women, generally seeking an "accessible" way to enter the category.

"The objective is to bring about financial inclusion in rural areas," Hemant Bakshi, HUL's executive director, sales and customer development, told the Times of India.

"By doing this, we strengthen the Shakti network and also provide villagers with the opportunity to access capital."

The ultimate intention is to roll out this offering across India in the next 12 months, utilising some of the 43,000 existing Shakti Ammas.

Procter & Gamble's activity has incorporated an educational effort entitled Shiksha, leveraging a tie-up with partners such as Child Rights and You, and Round Table India.

Under the Shiksha banner, a percentage of the proceeds delivered by purchases of brands like Tide, Ariel and Vicks are to be donated to secure better schooling for children.

Having previously run various iterations of this platform, P&G has set ambitious goals for the latest stage of its plans.

"Shiksha is not just an initiative, but a passion that we as an organisation strongly believe in," argued Sharat Verma, P&G India's marketing manager.

"After touching the lives of 150,000 children, we are now helping build the future of India's children by building 20 schools this year and aim to build another 20 in the coming year."

In order to stimulate awareness and interest in the most recent campaign, Procter & Gamble has enlisted well-known Bollywood actress Rani Mukherji as an ambassador for Shiksha.

"The way India is growing, I don't think, without education, we can see a very bright future. So if we want a bright future for our country, I think education is foremost," she said.

Data sourced from Times of India, NDTV; additional content by Warc staff