Ajaita Shah: Empowering women entrepreneurship in Rural India through Frontier Market

Frontier Market was started by Ajaita Shah in the year 2011 for providing rural India with products such as solar torches and lanterns from various brands from last-mile distribution points. The organization then partnered with rural shopkeepers who could sell these products to rural customers. As time passed, customers started asking Frontier Markets for products beyond clean energy. So, the organization began expanding its portfolio to include digital services and other consumer durables.

In 2015, Frontier Market adopted its gender module which is women-centric making it India’s largest women-led commerce platform driving a bottom’s lens for product innovation. At Frontier Markets, we’re building the future of rural India, today—giving rural customers the dignity and opportunities they deserve to create better lives.

Growing at 200% YoY and demonstrating profitability for the last 4 years. Today we operate in 2,000 villages in India, with 20 micro-distribution hubs managing 10,000 Sahelis using our app called the Meri Saheli App, to facilitate access to products and services in Agri, digital inclusion, home appliances, clean energy solutions, since covid, essential services, and finance to over 350,000 households

However, there were many barriers in 2005 for social enterprises. The social enterprise start-up space was dominated by male leaders who were in their 40s and came from successful careers in large firms like McKinsey and Citibank. Ajaita didn’t fit this profile. She was in her 20s and investing her own money into her belief that improving market access would allow rural households to acquire the products and services they need. She repeatedly needed to justify that risk to her family and society.

In addition to social barriers, the lack of capital, network, and innovation prevented social enterprises from scaling up. Her solution was to establish the Frontier Innovations Foundation 2012, which connects entrepreneurs who are trying to solve the challenge of last-mile distribution to a support network, donor capital, and development institutions. Ajaita incorporated an understanding of gender, innovations in financial services, and customer-centric product design to disrupt the existing system at the deepest level.

Ajaita understands the challenges social entrepreneurs face because she experienced them herself, so she was instrumental in helping incubators like Villgro and Shell Powered understand barriers and develop solutions for young entrepreneurs.

Now, at age 35, she is the CEO of a company with 15 years of experience, but she is a rare case. Ajaita imagines a world where young entrepreneurs’ achievements can match and surpass hers because they have a supportive and inclusive ecosystem from the start.

The Journey

Since the implementation of the gender module which is women-centric in 2015, there has been no looking back for Frontier Market. The company has seen immense growth and contributed towards generating employment in villages. Companies invested in women entrepreneurs to become service providers in their villages.

In 2018, leveraging digitization of rural India, ie: internet connectivity, Frontier Market had its next major growth by introducing its App – the Meri Saheli App – an app designed for those women – enabling them to become assisted commerce enterprises, or digital shops. Leveraging technology enhances Frontier Market’s ability to widen its product portfolio, boost its network of entrepreneurs, increase its customer base, and have solid Revenues.

Growing at 200% YoY and demonstrating profitability for the last 4 years. Integrating New Services in Agriculture and Finance for deepening impact on Rural Households. Differentiating us for our deep rural connect, strong gender lens, and strong financial systems.

The pillars of success

Frontier Markets is a very strong leadership team led by Ajaita.

Each person on the team comes from decades of experience working in rural India with over 100 years of experience in microfinance, rural marketing, rural distribution, telecom, and finance. Ajaita’s learning was that she would need a team of experienced people in rural India to truly be able to say everyone knows the pulse of the rural customer, where they come from, and how to serve them.

Ajaita has committed to empowering rural women across the developing world through market-based business models, clean energy, technology, and inspiring women to push themselves beyond their societal boundaries.

She has been a leader in driving socially conscious business models through partnerships and pushing “bottom’s up to leadership,” keeping the rural consumer in mind. After 7 years of success, and challenges, Ajaita started Frontier Markets as a need to build a new model for energy access, focusing on women entrepreneurs, market insights, after-sales service, and scale. She has an inspiring journey of risk-taking and respect for the knowledge and skills innately existent within poor communities.

In her leadership at Frontier Markets, Ajaita has helped Frontier Markets be recognized on a global platform through awards like the Ashden Award 2015, Most Innovative Rural Marketing Enterprise 2015, National Geographic’s Energy Challenge Winner 2013, Hogan Lovells Solar Community Award 2017, UN Seed Award Winner 2014, and more.   

An advocate for women-led, transformational leadership and rethinking how market-based approaches and social innovation organizations can better design for scalable impact, she has recently crafted a groundbreaking partnership between Frontier Markets and the award-winning, Barefoot College, to exemplify this vision.

Their Offerings

Frontier Markets is connecting India’s rural customers to products and services at their doorstep. They are solving the rural last-mile access gap through an assisted e-commerce platform that is run by rural women to market, sell, and service physical appliances, essential goods, and digital services in banking and finance.

The company partners with product and service companies to aggregate a robust but targeted product basket of solutions consumer durables, financial services, and digital services targeting productivity, financial security, and aspirational impacts for rural customers. We have become a strong B2C access partner for their production companies as the linkage to rural customers. Through our digital platform, they aggregate key customer and Saheli metrics to drive better customer KYC for partners, as well as insights to update our product basket, establishing strong cross-sell, up-sell, and re-sell capabilities.

Investing in Women is smart business and key to poverty alleviation at scale.

Its after-sales service and fast-tracking delivery, 48 hours delivery, and easy tracking make it different from those in the market. Looking Ahead

In the next 5 years, Frontier Markets is planning to accelerate its network into new states, and further invest its technology platform with new product integration, digital marketing tools, and AI bots for patterns development so that it can reach millions of more customers across India.

 At Frontier Markets, they’re building the future of rural India, today—giving rural customers the dignity and opportunities they deserve to create better lives. The company’s network of women and technology enables them to introduce, test, and scale new products, and innovative financial services to strengthen the future of rural Indian households.

There’s a much larger opportunity here – they’ve essentially created a platform that allows monetizing customer behavior and purchase – much like, well, Google.

Frontier Markets’ team says, “Imagine how their influence in the value chain and access to data can be leveraged by brands – monetizing on insights at a much larger scale – ie: HUL – We know what HUL is trying to figure out – why does Ghadi detergent sell more than RIN? We know it’s not pricing – it’s availability – and it’s the changing trend of rural women wanting washing machines – this is oil. But also – We can see the opportunity to have brands competing for this customer – When a customer comes to Saheli and says she wants to buy a fan, that information is critical for brands, and the power we see is that our platform will tell the customer which fan to buy.”

– bidding for this customer – making them a marketing platform with real results of a business.

Frontier Markets is Ready to Scale. There is a high demand to drive income opportunities for women and deliver quality services to rural communities. They have partnerships aligned with women-run organizations across 7 states of India. They are raising $6MN to scale from 10,000 Sahelis to 130,000 to reach 42 Million families in the next 3 years.

Ajaita Shah – A 360-degree visionary leader

Frontier Market’s founder & CEO, Ajaita Shah, has 12 years of work in microfinance and clean energy distribution. She has been a Clinton Service Corp, Echoing Green, and Cordes Fellow and has been awarded many accolades including Forbes, Business Week, CNBC, and Microfinance’s 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur and Women Entrepreneur of the Year.  Ajaita grew up surrounded by the love of my family and her Jain Marwari religious community in New York City, she holds her B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University. She is currently based in Jaipur where the company is based.

Both Frontier Markets (FM), as an organization, and Ajaita Shah, as a leader, have been rewarded and recognized for the approach and impact created. Specifically, Frontier Market has achieved:

  • 2019 CNBC-AWAAZ Rajasthan Ratna Awards – Best Social Impact Start-up2019 Top 35 Under 35 Entrepreneur.Com Award
  • 2018 Sankalp Awards Winner    
  • 2018 WTI (Women Transforming India) Award Winner (by Niti Aayog – Indian Govt.)2018 Digital Women Award Winner
  • 2018 I-Start Rajasthan Gold Rated Start-Up    
  • 2017 Logan Havell Solar Community Leadership Award2017 Global Enterprise Summit Catalyst: Winner     
  • 2016 Ashden Award Winner for Clean Energy for Women and Girls2016 CNBC-TV18 Young Business Women 
  • 2015 L’Oreal Women of Worth  
  • 2015 Innovative Marketing: World Congress    
  • 2015 India Conclave Women Social Entrepreneur of the Year2015 Nasscom Social Innovation Awards: ICT and Solar Winner
  • 2015 Forbes Magazine’s Top 30 Under 30’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 Business Week’s 30 under 30 award
  • 2014 Present Associate for the International Finance Corporation “Lighting Asia” Initiative2014 UN Seed Awards Winner
  • 2013 Most Innovative Model in Rural Marketing”, World Branding Congress 2012 National Geographic Innovative Energy Challenge Winner

An advocate for women-led, transformational leadership and rethinking how market-based approaches and social innovation organizations can better design for scalable impact, she has recently crafted a groundbreaking partnership between Frontier Markets and the award-winning, Barefoot College, to exemplify this vision.

She actively speaks at conferences for the US Green Business Council, Universities, Impact Investor Forums, United Nations representing SDGs, and more. She has been an active educator, collaborator, and catalyst in helping scale clean energy access globally.

Ajaita serves on the board of Frontier Innovations Foundation, a non-profit focused on last-mile distribution support for clean energy companies. She is also an advisor to various social enterprises in India focusing on product development for the poor. She is an active member of the UN Practitioner’s Network, Asian Development Bank’s Energy For All Partnership. Ajaita Shah holds her B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University.

She has also shared her knowledge and experience with youth, organizations, and forums for over a decade. She speaks frequently at global summits set up by the International Finance Corporation, World Bank, United Nations, and investment communities to provide an entrepreneurial perspective to address SDGs 5 and 7, to reframe thinking about the next level of evolution regarding gender and energy access. She is a board member for the Shine Campaign, a global initiative for energy access that brings together faith-based organizations and philanthropic capital and she is a long-term advisor of the Ashden India Collective and has designed initiatives for the People-Centered Accelerator (SE4ALL), which advances social equality and women’s involvement in the sustainable energy sector.

  • How do you look after your employees? What makes your team unique?

We recruit locally – 80% of our team is from nearby villages that we operate in. We recruit with a gender-inclusive lens – wanting to give opportunities to young women and driving leadership of empathy from within. 100% of our salesforce are women. At Frontier Markets, Saral Jeevan Sahelis is paid commission on sales and service fees for undertaking repairs. They are also paid a fixed stipend for marketing as well as collecting customer data.

We also 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 center, 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.

  • Is there any special experience with your clients you would like to highlight?

My favorite quote from our Saheli “Before Frontier Markets, people knew me as my husband’s wife, father’s daughter, and now they know me as me. I have been seen for my work, and skills, and my power.”

  •   According to you, what are the main factors that businesses should focus on to be relevant in the market after the Covid19 outbreak?

 In response to COVID, Investing in AI Enabled Direct to Consumer Digital Marketing, Training Bots, and Fintech Integration. This is a massive opportunity – A new way of developing a rural economy – through digital inclusion in supply chains, leveraging data capabilities for better decision making, innovative partnerships, and a market-based approach to elevate the potential to build rural last-mile supply chains in India

Women are leaders everywhere you look — from the CEO who runs a Fortune 500 company to the housewife who raises her children and heads her household. Our country was built by strong women, and we will continue to break down walls and defy stereotypes.

Nancy Pelosi

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