To simply put, Frontier Markets is a business that sells Solar energy powered products at an affordable cost to the rural communities of India. Ajaita Shah Founder & CEO of Frontier Markets is now one of the most successful social women entrepreneurs in India. She was also featured in the Top 30 under 30 list for Social Entrepreneurs by Forbes. The company has till date sold 10,000 Solar solutions across all rural communities in India.
So how did a woman born and brought up in a New York Suburb decided to start her business in her hometown Rajasthan? Well, that’s where this story gets fascinating. Born and raised in New York, USA, Ajaita’s parents are originally from Rajasthan, India. Her father came from a long chain of Jewellers from a Jaipur Jain Jewellery community. The whole community migrated to New York and lived a conservative lifestyle balancing western world and traditional cultural values. It was only during the college that Ajaita got an opportunity to ‘live on her own.’ She traveled a lot during the time, she went to Europe to study European Relations with the US during the Iraq War then went to Conflict Resolution training in Haque. She also went to Spain for 6 months and then started working at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars where she researched on Militarization of Pakistan’s Economy.
She had also interned with Gary Ackerman of Congress who was the co-chair of the India Caucus in the house of Representatives. During the time, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was visiting the US to sign the civilian Nuclear Energy Agreement with America. There were a bunch of controversies surrounding the visit as the US was confused in regards to the future of India and it’s energy needs. She was sent to India to get a detailed feedback from her counterparts in the Indian Government to understand India’s appetite for energy consumption. It was 2003 when she paid the visit to India and instantly Ajaita realised that the answer to the question she seeking was complicated. She realised during this visit that the problem was not so simple. She was struck by the rural reality. Around 70% of India required had power grid problems and needed better infrastructure.
It was during her visit's between 2006 – 2010 that she started working in over 5 Indian states covering a massive 25,000 Villages to understand household requirements. It was a no-brainer that electricity and water came across as the persistent issues in almost every rural household. This problem had led to millions of rural commoners being forced to live in the darkness, hence making them unproductive from the get go. The worst sufferers are the rural women who are housebound and cook in the dark until they light the sole kerosene lamp which is highly polluting and dangerous. There have been many instances in which countless women succumb to death due to burning because of the kerosene lamp being kicked by the wind which resulted in the entire hut being burned down to the crisp.
In her research, she realised that the Solar was the only obvious and scalable solution, but it was not without it’s shortcomings. The lack of knowledge and affordability were critical points. But with that there was no sense of trust as the solar products that were exposed to were of extremely meagre quality. To solve this problem she applied her learnings from working with Microfinance firms, by using micro-financing channels to drive pricing down in volumes and increase accessibility for villagers. But this was not enough, she realised that field staff were not equipped to educate the households about the products and they had Zero Support from manufacturers. So to solve the problems of after sales service the team started creating local access by converting retailers into Solar Points and started focusing on training through the band of women, the 'Solar Sahelis.' Since its inception in 2011, it’s been Ajaita and her team’s mission to make Frontier Market a last-mile energy distribution channel. The team is on a constant move to educate the households about the high quality solar solution.
She and her team are spending every day in the field to create as many as 'Solar Points' and 'Solar Sahelis.' A lot of Social impact investors have taken keen interest in her firm and her philosophy of building the last mile retail for solar. In her own words, she says that the lack of technology is creating a problem for us to reach out to maximum places. She states that no one understands the rural customers like Frontier Markets and the data can work as a differentiator but only with the right technology they will be able to penetrate, grow and touch more rural consumers.
They aim to help 10 million households with electricity challenges by 2019 in 4 states of India and scaling through partners globally in 4 countries. They aim to create 10,000 Solar Sahelis with 10,000 retail points so that every household has a right to reliable, economical and good quality electricity. We at Chatur Ideas salute their efforts and wish them best of luck.