One of the major problems faced by remote areas in India is limited access to products and services due to gaps in last-mile delivery. Sellers and marketers are not always equipped with the infrastructure needed to reach customers in these last-mile locations and, worse still, neither do they understand rural customers nor can educate them on how certain products work, or how to avail of servicing or repairing facilities after a sale is made. To make a difference, in 2011, Frontier Markets stepped in, and ever since it has been working to solve these problems, while also creating income opportunities for rural women by getting them to market, sell and repair various products and also facilitate delivery in the villages on its behalf.
By using a Frontier Markets-assisted e-commerce platform, till date, these women entrepreneurs have made doorstep deliveries of over a million products and services to 7,00,000 rural customers across the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha. The products delivered include everything from consumer durables such as solar lighting, home appliances and smartphones, to digital services such as 4G data packages. On one hand, this makes life easier for the rural folk, and on the other, it enables Frontier Markets to ensure a saral jeevan (easy life) for its customers. The organisation even refers to its women entrepreneurs as ‘Saral Jeevan Sahelis’, as they make life easier for villagers by bringing them various products and services. Frontier Markets curates the products to meet customer demand by leveraging its assisted e-commerce platform and accessing customer insights.
At the helm of this revolutionary enterprise is founder and CEO Ajaita Shah, who, instead of opting for a relatively stable career in law back home in the USA, moved to India at 21 to help those who really need help. Her work has won her several awards, fellowships and opportunities to speak at prestigious global forums.
Ajaita Shah (left) with Charles, Prince of Wales, at a tea hosted in London in honour of the winners of the Ashden Award in 2016, among who was Frontier Markets
Back to her roots
Ajaita Shah’s family is originally from Jaipur but migrated to New York City in the 1980s to expand their family business. She went on to study international relations at Tufts University, Massachusetts, where she was introduced to microfinance. With knowledge of microfinance, she gravitated to India-based enterprises, and after graduating, rather than pursue a career in law as everyone expected her to do, she moved to India in 2005.
For the next six years, she worked for leading microfinance organisations in the country such as Ujjivan Financial Services and SKS Microfinance. She also had a stint with CGAP (Consultative Group to Assist the Poor), a global consortium of development organisations that works to advance the lives of the poor through financial inclusion, and thus ended up working with Bandhan, a local microfinance institution.
Shah’s work exposed her to over 5,000 villages and 300 slums, which helped her to understand the hardships of its inhabitants. She says, “I became increasingly aware of a fundamental disconnect between their needs (as customers) and the products and services available to them. They—especially the women—were frustrated about the lack of appropriate products and pricing structures, efficient distribution networks and sufficient after-sales services.” Shah also understood that market access issues were creating barriers for basic welfare services such as health care, energy, education and sanitation. She adds, “I realised that the need of the hour, therefore, was designing solutions that would not only create long-term value for them but also ultimately eradicate these barriers.” She then founded Frontier Markets with the vision to provide rural India access to products and services and thereby create income opportunities for rural women.
Ajaita Shah speaking at the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development in 2018
Turning her vision to reality
As clean energy was a real need in rural areas, Frontier Markets began by bringing products such as solar torches and lanterns of various brands from last-mile distribution points. The organisation partnered with rural shopkeepers who could sell these products to rural customers.
To make it easier for these customers, especially women, Shah decided to invest in women to become ‘service providers’ in their respective villages. For this, Frontier Markets partnered with NGOs working in rural areas to recruit and train women in sales, marketing, data collection, technical repair and digital skills. The Saral Jeevan Sahelis thus went from door to door in their villages to market, sell and deliver the products. They soon began making sales, and Frontier Markets was able to gain a foothold.
As time passed, customers started asking Frontier Markets for products beyond clean energy. So, the organisation began expanding its portfolio to include digital services and other consumer durables. Frontier Markets also invested in an assisted e-commerce platform. Shah says, “Our Saral Jeevan Sahelis use the platform for viewing sales orders, managing their daily tasks, collecting data and facilitating deliveries. We, in turn, have been able to leverage the platform for distribution management, understanding consumer insights and purchase patterns, credit assessments, new product development, etc.”
At Frontier Markets, Saral Jeevan Sahelis are paid commission on sales as well as service fees for undertaking repairs. They are also paid a fixed stipend for collecting customer data and marketing. Shah adds, “We provide them with demo units of high-impact products, and access to smartphones, internet and our assisted e-commerce platform.”
Frontier Markets further supports Saral Jeevan Sahelis through its locally-invested supply chain infrastructure, which includes branch offices and local field staff. The branch offices handle inventory management, sales management, a direct-to-consumer call centre and after-sales services. The field staff takes care of brand development, marketing campaigns, mentoring and training of Saral Jeevan Sahelis, and delivery of orders.
Ajaita Shah (kneeling, middle) with Frontier Markets’ team, ecosystem partners and NGO partners while on a field visit to Alwar, Rajasthan
Over the years, Frontier Markets has brought in partners like Unilever, Samsung, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Crompton, Philips and Eko India Financial Services. Furthermore, the organisation has recently raised close to $2.25 million from investors. Shah reveals the investment will be used to grow the Frontier Market-assisted e-commerce platform. As for future plans, she says, “In the coming three years, we aim to scale up with a target of 25,000 Saral Jeevan Sahelis impacting 25 million customers. We will also launch India’s first last-mile rural B2C e-commerce platform for rural customers to order directly from and access life-changing services. Moreover, we are looking to add additional products and services covering agriculture, finance and water to our portfolio.”