Women are game-changers & problem-solvers, it’s about time we own it: Ajaita Shah, Frontier Markets
In India, over 800 million people lack access to quality healthcare, education, climate-friendly solutions, and affordable finance, says the founder of Frontier Markets, Ajaita Shah.
Bhoomika Singh March 8, 2023
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In India, where over 64 per cent of the population is rural, the development of the nation would be possible only if development reaches every corner of the rural areas of the country. With a similar thought process, a social commerce platform called Frontier Markets is providing access to high-quality, climate-friendly products and services to last-mile villages by investing in rural women entrepreneurs so that rural India could develop through the betterment of its female population.
On International Women’s Day 2023, SME Futures spoke to Ajaita Shah, Founder of Frontier Markets, to know how important rural women are and why we need to talk about them. She also reminisces about her entrepreneurial journey with us.
Tell us about your journey with Frontier and what inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
When I worked in the microfinance sector, I became aware of the challenges that rural populations, especially women, faced in gaining access to effective tools and strategies for overcoming poverty, such as electricity, telecommunications, clean water, and basic services.
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While working with more than 5,000 villages across the nation, these challenges inspired me to focus on social businesses, women’s empowerment, and the idea that every rural family should be treated as a dignified customer with the right to access excellent solutions to address the various challenges that they routinely face. More than 800 million rural consumers live in areas without access to high-quality goods that could enable them to overcome daily challenges and achieve economic empowerment.
However, there were a few problems that I thought needed to be fixed. I first observed that rural families lacked adequate knowledge of the better solutions that could be used as the alternatives to address their issues. Second, these rural families’ homes were between 50 and 100 kilometres from the closest high-quality durables.
Thirdly, many products were not designed to solve the issues faced by rural consumers because most product manufacturers lacked a thorough understanding of their needs. Finally, the local supply chains were not providing the rural families and the women with any employment opportunities.
To address these issues on a larger scale, I founded Frontier Markets in 2018 to increase rural communities’ access to high-impact goods and services through a consumer-centric platform that integrates e-commerce and a local distribution supply chain.
Why did you choose to work with rural women? And how do you inspire them to join you, as rural regions have always been conservative?
In India, over 800 million people living in more than 700,000 villages lack access to crucial services like quality healthcare, education, climate-friendly solutions, and affordable finance. To tackle this issue, partnering with rural women has proven to be effective as they invest in addressing these challenges by being the epicentre of the impact.
However, the low female labour force participation rates pose a challenge as rural women are unable to access minimum wage jobs outside their villages due to the burden of unpaid care and household work. This is why investing in rural women entrepreneurs has become crucial as they can help their underserved communities to adopt the solutions that will benefit them most.
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As of now, through our platform, 35,000 rural women have earned over US$ 25 million while contributing to their community’s progress. Therefore, empowering rural women entrepreneurs becomes a catalyst in building a better Bharat and in addressing the challenges faced by millions of families in India.
How has Frontier Markets evolved over the years?
Launched in 2018, the organisation has invested in 35,000 rural women entrepreneurs who have provided deep insights about the needs of 1 million rural families and has helped them to access over 50 million solutions in healthcare, finance, agriculture, digital services, and essential care.
After extensively studying the landscape of rural India and Frontier Markets’ data, the organisation understood that due to the burden of unpaid care and household work and social barriers, over 100 million rural women today are still way behind on digital transformation and in accessing holistic services to help them gain long term income opportunities.
Additionally, the organisation has partnered with over 46 innovative solution providers in healthcare, agriculture, financial services, social services, essential care and commerce to introduce them to rural villages through our technology platform – it’s India’s first fully integrated solution to help rural families access services in one place. It has also enabled us to leverage the data to better understand the impact outcomes for each family, which in turn has allowed us to design solutions that have been especially customised to the needs of rural families.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced as a woman entrepreneur, and how did you overcome them?
Again, the trend of wanting to invest in female founders and entrepreneurs has emerged only recently. To demonstrate that I could actually overcome the distribution challenge in rural India as an Indian American with an American accent, the first seven years were very difficult for me.
See, how simple is it to persuade a group of Indian men who predominate in the sector? And at the age of 25, a young Indian American woman told a group of Indian male investors that she knew how to craft, reach the most distant populations, and create a sizable market opportunity. I couldn’t persuade anyone until I invested my own money. I located the ideal impact investor, hit my numbers slowly but consistently and had to back up my claims. I can say that in the beginning, it was extremely difficult.
What initiatives have you undertaken to promote gender equality and support other women in business?
Last year, we launched an initiative called ‘She-Leads Bharat’, which is a coalition of partners from civil society, government, market-based service providers, and impact investors who have come together on a common platform to create long-term income opportunities for rural women and their communities.
The initiative leverages the strengths of each partner’s proven reach, scale and experience in helping women’s networks to access skilling, capital, entrepreneurial opportunities, and infrastructure to drive a collective approach to create women entrepreneurs on a technology platform called Meri Saheli.
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The platform operates as a blueprint for all regions and states to replicate this initiative globally, paving the path for women leaders to be the drivers of impact at scale. She-Leads Bharat is a collective of organisations that are ready to invest in rural women as drivers of social and economic development in India.
Besides that, we have our 2030 Goals, under which we intend to –
- Enable 1 million women entrepreneurs to earn a living wage.
- Provide 100 million rural households with access to vital products & services.
- Unlock US$ 1 billion in capital through a 100 million in giving.
What have been some of the key lessons that you’ve learned on your entrepreneurial journey so far?
As a woman entrepreneur, I am grateful to have learnt perseverance from all the rural queens that I have been interacting with for the past 12 years. Not just that, I have also learnt to grab onto any opportunity that comes my way and make the best out of every situation because every failure just acts as a steppingstone to success!
This year’s Women’s Day is themed “Innovation and technology for gender equality”, how can the broader community support and encourage women entrepreneurs, and what steps need to be taken to promote greater gender equality in business?
With the efforts of e-gov platforms and e-Mitra, as well as other start-up initiatives that are trying to deliver those schemes right back to the rural villages, we definitely see an improvement in their adoption and penetration.
However, I think what needs to be done is that we need to be able to create a mechanism that allows us to collect post-government scheme adoption assessments around who has taken on what and how that has possibly benefited them. And if people have not adopted them, what are the barriers that have prevented them from doing so?
So, there is an opportunity here to dive a bit deeper into being able to do more regular assessments with a lot more frequency so that we can keep our dashboards more updated in real-time, and this is a huge opportunity that digital women entrepreneurs could probably facilitate, to make things happen more quickly on the ground.
What advice would you give to other women who are considering starting their own businesses?
Learning from my experience in this sector and working with strong rural women entrepreneurs, I always recommend that women should never give up on their visions and should always believe in and remember why they started their entrepreneurial journeys in the first place.
As a young entrepreneur, I wish someone would have told me this, which is why I advise women to take their time to do research and gather information about their industries, including the trends, the customer needs, and the potential competition. This will help them to make informed decisions and develop a strategy that will set them apart.
Additionally, I am grateful to be a General Partner at Beyond Capital Ventures – A women-led, emerging markets impact venture fund, which aims to support plenty of other women like me.
And lastly, I would like to say that all of us women are queens. We are game-changers and problem-solvers. It’s about time that we owned it!