[Product Roadmap] How Frontier Markets integrated tech to empower over 500,000 rural families
Working in the microfinance sector in her early days, Ajaita Shah was exposed to challenges faced by rural communities, especially women, when it came to accessing basic infrastructure, quality solutions, and means to address poverty – from electrification, telecom, and clean water to basic deliveries.
She worked with over 5,000 villages across the country at that time, and these challenges inspired her to work on addressing social business, gender empowerment, and believing that every rural family should be treated as a dignified customer, with the right to access quality solutions.
To create awareness about quality solutions, access to quality durables, trust, product-fit, and local livelihood, Ajaita set upin Jaipur in 2011.
“We aim to broaden rural communities’ access to high impact products and services through a consumer-centric platform by integrating ecommerce and local distribution supply chain. As clean energy was a real need in rural areas at that time, Frontier Markets began by bringing products such as solar torches and lanterns from last-mile distribution points,” says Ajaita.
The Frontier Markets Sahelis
What does the platform do?
The last-mile rural distribution startup has built a platform that allows it to digitally manage all point-of-sale (PoS) transactions, interface with its value chain partners, and track deliveries in real-time.
The hybrid platform creates a phygital store driven by women, called Sahelis, connecting customers to all kinds of solutions and data collection. Through the platform, Sahelis help facilitate adoption of ecommerce for rural households, while capturing valuable customer insights.
Frontier Markets recruits, trains, and provides digital access to Sahelis who earn income through data collection and sales. With every order placed, Sahelis are able to earn a commission. The designed program is suited for rural women - with flexible hours and zero mobility.
“The platform has also developed a robust information management system that tracks consumer demand, spending patterns, market mapping, and penetration through the Saheli network on a household level,” explains Ajaita.
Frontier Markets' mobile app allows Sahelis and branch staff to create and view their regular schedules, create and update order information, view training modules, as well as receive notifications on orders, events, and other activities.
The user interface is designed and made in Hindi language and is voice-enabled for customer-friendly experience. The application was designed in consultation with the Sahelis, where they told what they really wanted. The app is built with easy-to-use technology and processes with AI-assisted bots. The application includes various features like data collection, work management, and browsing products with AI assistance.
“With the help of Sahelis, FM captures key metrics like - Who is the customer? What do they do? What do they need? Which Product? What is the value proposition? Spending ability? When would they want it? Who else would buy it?,” adds Ajaita.
The company follows an agile software development methodology to build the solution using short iterations, so that the development process is aligned with the changing business needs. It is a mix of mobile app (for field level users) and web (for branch/HO level users).
Ajaita says, “Frontier Markets is driving access to quality and affordable products and services to rural customers (primarily women) in India by leveraging a strong network of rural women entrepreneurs called Saral Jeevan Sahelis, who are using their assisted ecommerce platform called "Meri Saheli app" to facilitate sales and doorstep deliveries in their villages. Today, 12,500+ Sahelis have helped over 500,000 rural families adopt 7+ million solutions.”
Selling green energy products
Being a hybrid online/offline assisted commerce platform, the startup has developed an integrated business model, with an aim to broaden rural communities’ access to high quality products and services through a women-centric supply chain network.
Starting as a solar/green energy product selling company in 2011, Frontier Markets revamped its business with tech innovations and gender centric business approach.
To date, the company has sold over seven million solutions to rural customers, ranging across verticals, including consumer durables, agri-products, home appliances, FMCG, fintech services, and others.
By selling 1.5 million units of homecare and electrical products, 715k units of agri products and tools, 46k units of appliances and smartphones in 2021, FM claims to have sold $40 million worth of goods and services in calendar year 2021.
“In 2011, Frontier Markets started as a solar/clean energy product selling company. In 2015, a third-party audit was conducted to examine the social impact of the venture. This audit turned out to be an eye-opener. It was found out that 70 percent of Frontier Markets’ 80,000-odd customers were women,” explains Ajaita.
Ajaita says, when they asked their customers about their experience using the products, most of them informed that it was either their wife, mother, daughter, or sister using them. The insight gave birth to the concept of Saheli, and from 2015, Frontier Markets turned into an organisation led by a women sales force. This was the first pivot.
“The second pivot came the next year when Frontier Markets reduced its dependence on imports. Most of the solar products were of Chinese origin. The company decided to rope in Indian makers and gave them consumer insights to make customised products. The demonetisation in November 2016 pushed the company to move towards a digital avatar. In 2017, mobile application “Meri Saheli” was launched. Sahelis were armed with smartphones and taught a digital way of transaction. From 2018, more products and services were added in the application,” adds Ajaita.
In 2020, when the pandemic took over the world, the company widened its product portfolio that rural customers asked for. Today, Sahelis are digitally savvy, and all the transactions are through digital payments, including phone recharge and paying utility bills.
“For example, during the lockdowns, the company collaborated with multiple brands and started monthly door-step delivery of cattle feed with annual subscriptions,” says Ajaita.
Building the product with Sahelis
Ajaita says, the minimum viable product (MVP) was also co-designed with the Sahelis. Every icon, element, color schemes, words/phrases, and walk-through was designed in consultation with them.
“The initial UI was kept extremely simple and intuitive. At the same time, it was also essential to help not-so-literate Sahelis navigate through the app seamlessly. They needed assistance while adding a lead or placing orders. This is when Frontier Markets introduced a voice assistant AI Bot that helped Sahelis navigate through the app easily. The entire tech is built on the AWS platform, which provides all the initial tools. It took roughly five months to do the research, creating wireframes, prototyping, UAT testing, and going live,” says Ajaita.
The MVP continued for almost a year before we shifted to the new UI. This was done to make it more user and navigation friendly.
“Frontier Markets always co-designs with rural women entrepreneurs and its customers. It meant deep diving on user journeys with Sahelis, understanding how the app can mirror real life practices in terms of navigation. Gradually, the Sahelis started becoming more comfortable using the app. Also, with the increasing number of products in FM’s portfolio, it was important to show some additional features for these products and services. This gave rise to the second version of the app, which was much better in design and navigation. At the same time, improvements in Voice Assisted Bot language, UX, and features were made,” explains Ajaita.
With the scale up and more Sahelis getting added to the network, the backend architecture needed a shift so that it becomes scalable (ready to onboard unlimited no. of users and customers), secure, and efficient. This led to a modern, API-first and cloud-native architecture, which is now live.
All this was possible because FM has both physical and digital interventions to get real time feedback from the Sahelis. The company has a call centre in Jaipur, which is responsible for tracking digital usage via its CRM, answering questions from Sahelis about the technology, and getting real-time product feedback and feature ideas.
Building the core tech
“To create such a technology and bring this in the hands of rural women entrepreneurs, FM needed a strong tech team to work directly with these communities,” says Ajaita.
This meant a team experienced in user research, back-end programming, UI/UX design, mobile app development, and quality assurance, and led by a strong CTO, Sr. Product Manager, and Project manager - all supported by an experienced architect.
The startup followed a four stage process -- define, design, develop, and deploy – in consultation with the Sahelis.
However, being a woman entrepreneur and setting up this kind of company was really challenging for Ajaita. Frontier Markets was started at a time when last-mile distribution was not a preferred area of investment in India. The company was able to attract impact investors, but even impact investors at the end of the day were never big fundraisers or big valuation people.
Product evolution and future
For Frontier Markets, data has always been the backbone for coming out with the right product at the right price for the right customer.
Capturing and accessing accurate data daily through Sahelis led to better product decisions and customer satisfaction, and more importantly, it helped increase wealth opportunity for rural women entrepreneurs, says the founder. Access to real time data is only possible because of the technology and innovation of the business model.
“At Frontier Markets, we’re building the future of rural India, giving rural customers the dignity and opportunities they deserve to create better lives. Our goal is to become the voice of rural women, driven by women,” says Ajaita.
“We aim to become the largest rural commerce platform in the country, onboarding 500K Sahelis with 50 million rural customers, becoming $10 billion+ company in transactions - scaling innovative solutions in climate, financial services, agriculture, healthcare, and education. Gearing to become the first social commerce unicorn in India, the company is raising its Series B of $20 million to accelerate and ramp up to the next 100K Sahelis in less than 18 months now,” says Ajaita.