It is now widely accepted that green growth is the need of the hour. Various sources of alternative energy—those not based on fossil fuels—are being explored around the world, including in India. One renewable power source that is available in abundance in the country is the Sun.
Solar energy has the potential to not only help power India’s growing economy, but also make the growth cleaner and sustainable. Women, especially, benefit significantly from access to electricity in the home. Solar systems can provide power more affordably and safely, making cooking, studying and checking livestock easier. Thus, several governmental and nongovernmental organizations in the country are working to make solar power more accessible to people. One such organization is Ajaita Shah’s Frontier Markets.
The Rajasthan-based company sells solar energy products, aimed particularly at rural women, through existing shops and trained Solar Sahelis (solar friends), women who earn a stipend and commission to market these products. It also partners with local entrepreneurs, who sell clean-energy products under the brand name of Saral Jeevan.
Shah, co-founder and chief executive officer of Frontier Markets, was born and brought up in New York and earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations from Tufts University, Massachusetts. She has worked in the field of microfinance in India and was named one of Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs in 2014. Shah won the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Catalyst pitch competition at the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), organized by the governments of the United States and India in Hyderabad.
Excerpts from an interview.
What motivated you to move from New York to Rajasthan?
I grew up in a Jain community in New York City, surrounded by my loving family. This upbringing shaped my life. I did not know I would be an entrepreneur, but I did realize I had an entrepreneurial mindset and related skills when I started working in India. I was always drawn to the country because I could use my experiences in college and at work to address some of the challenges it faces. I saw the need for solar energy solutions. I was able to leverage my Indian background and my ability to speak, read and write in Hindi to assimilate and understand the local culture in multiple states of the country. It is my passion to make a difference, to understand people, to connect with their lives and to try to understand ways to address challenges. India was the perfect place for Frontier Markets to launch.
What is “last mile distribution,” the concept by which Frontier Markets operates?
Frontier Markets believes that if we use the voice of the customer as our guide, we can truly create demand. Seventy percent of its product users are women and most are in the “last mile.” It has proved that women are best suited to gain the household’s trust; to capture, analyze and apply customer insights; and to build and capitalize on the rural market opportunity. Our company has been a pioneer in taking a commercial approach to last mile distribution. It has optimized the entire value chain by putting women at the center and is now fueling it with customer data to scale. Frontier Markets wants to expand income generation for women using an enterprise-based energy access toolkit, covering financial and digital access.
The company was set up to bring solar electricity access to rural Rajasthan, focusing particularly on the needs of women. We planned to sell our products through the existing rural shops to build a local presence and provide after-sales service. However, it would not have been easy for us to recruit or retain women in the more remote and conservative areas. Therefore, it made business sense to partner with NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and government agencies, which had already developed the skills and capacities of local women through self-help groups.
These groups help Frontier Markets identify women with the potential to act not just as sales agents, but also as solar energy service providers, called Solar Sahelis (solar friends). Trained Solar Sahelis earn a stipend and commission to market products, educate potential users about the benefits of solar electricity, sign up customers, collect data, and provide a first point of contact for follow-ups and repairs.
What has been the impact of Frontier Markets?
Frontier Markets has recruited 1,000 women entrepreneurs who have successfully sold solar home lighting systems, solar agri appliances and clean cookstoves to 363,000 households in Rajasthan, impacting 3.1 million people. They have also supported 10,000 agri-livelihoods and generated 950,000 tons of carbon saving.
Please share your experience of the Global Innovation through Science and Technology Catalyst pitch competition at the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
It was an incredible experience to prepare for such a competition. The GIST team worked really hard with us to help us understand how to share our work in three minutes, which is an unfamiliar task for most social entrepreneurs because our work is very intense and complicated. It was the first time I actually prepared a speech and delivered it.
GES brought together amazing people from across the globe. So, it was a nerve-wracking experience to speak in front of so many people. The judges were all inspirational and it was an honor to get feedback from them. I did not know whether I’d make it to the finals, but when that happened, I was pretty determined to win. This was a hard feat because all the finalists are doing incredible work. I was surprised and happy to hear that we won. Our work has such an important connection to the theme of the 2017 GES: Women First, Prosperity for All. I am happy that the global community, especially the American and Indian governments, has finally noticed that if we focus on bringing women to the center of the value chain, massive impact can happen for everyone.
I was happy to hear that we had the support of Amazon, Google, Dell and others. I am really looking forward to working with both governments and corporate partners to leverage their resources and expertise to make our work even more effective.
Where do you see Frontier Markets in the next five years?
Our philosophy of building last-mile retail for solar energy products is working. We started growing and, suddenly, I am no longer an entrepreneur, but the CEO [chief executive officer] of a company. We have a 2020 vision of reaching over 5,000 women entrepreneurs and impacting one million lives in multiple states of India. I hope to achieve that goal, with my leadership team driving that movement, and hope to integrate our learnings into toolkits to help start-ups achieve impact in other countries as well.
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