How this woman entrepreneur is helping over 10,000 ‘Sahelis’ across rural India earn a stable income

Founded by Ajaita Shah, Frontier Markets uses a network of 10,000 rural women entrepreneurs called Saral Jeevan Sahelis to market, sell, and service physical appliances, essential goods, and digital services in the banking and finance sector.

How this woman entrepreneur is helping over 10,000 ‘Sahelis’ across rural India earn a stable income

Friday February 19, 2021,

7 min Read

Ajaita Shah’s family, originally from Jaipur, migrated to New York City in the 80s to expand the family’s jewellery business. Ajaita went on to study International Relations at Tufts University, Massachusetts, where she was introduced to microfinance.

After graduating, rather than pursuing a career in law as everyone expected her to, she moved back to India in 2005. She worked with various organisations like the SKS Foundation, Ujjvan Financial Services, Swayam Krishi Foundation, and others, before starting Frontier Markets in 2011.

Based in Jaipur, the startup is dedicated to broadening rural communities’ access to high impact products and services through a consumer-centric platform by integrating ecommerce, women entrepreneurs, and a local distribution supply chain. 

“In my early days of working in the microfinance sector, I 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, clean water, to basic deliveries,” she shares with HerStory.

Ajaita worked in 5,000+ villages across the country, and the 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 address life challenges.

There were five key points Ajaita wanted to address:

  • Awareness cap – rural families did not have the knowledge or awareness about quality solutions that can be alternatives to address challenges.
  • Access gap – rural families were not accessing quality durables where they lived; the closest solution was around 50-100 km away.
  • Trust gap – most rural families had access to low-quality solutions or zero after-sales services, which would create scepticism.
  • Product-fit gap – most product companies did not understand the rural customer well, and therefore, many times, solutions were not customised to meet the rural customer’s challenge.
  • Local livelihood gap – local supply chains did not have job opportunities for rural families, especially women.

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. It started in Rajasthan “because of energy challenges, rural women networks were there all there, the hub was Jaipur, and so we set up operations in deep villages”.

Frontier Markets

The network of Sahelis

Building a network of Sahelis

“We wanted to localise the value chain, partnering with grassroots organisations to locally access rural households, communicate opportunities, deliver solutions, and track outcomes. We built a network of rural women entrepreneurs and set up local service centres that were hubs for delivering solutions and proving after-sales service,” Ajaita says.

Frontier Markets also connected with every customer to collect feedback and insights about their need, thereby becoming a customer-first, local delivery, and entrepreneur-driven platform.

These rural women entrepreneurs – called Saral Jeevan Sahelis – are trained to market, sell, and service physical appliances, essential goods, and digital services in banking and finance.

Frontier Markets also partners with product and service companies to build 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.

“Through our digital platform, we 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. FM also provides after-sales service for customers and delivery within,” says Ajaita.

“Frontier Markets operates in 2,000 villages in India, with 20 micro-distribution hubs managing 10,000 Sahelis using the Meri Saheli App, to facilitate access to products and services in agri, digital inclusion, home appliances, clean energy solutions, essential services, and finance to over 350,000 households,” she adds.

Its product categories include clean energy appliances like solar lighting systems, agri-solutions – pulses, cattle feed, appliances; home appliances; consumer electronics; essential services and digital services that include consumer loans, online payments, doorstep ATM services, and 4G data.

In exchange for offering these services, Frontier Markets’ earns income through the facilitation of sales, commission against products sold through its platform, as well as marketing fees for helping product companies test markets, learn customer insights, or use its platform for marketing

“Today 10,000 Sahelis have earned over $15 million by investing in their children’s futures, voicing their community’s needs, and becoming leaders in their villages. We have helped over 350,000 rural families build $25 million worth of savings and earnings through quality products. Around 70 percent of our customers are women,” Ajaita shares.

Frontier Markets

Bridging gap between products and families

The Meri Saheli app was designed three years ago and features local languages, voice bots, voice to text, and an AI training bot to help women, irrespective of whether they are digital savvy or not, to use a digital tool to do their work.

Sahelis use the app to demonstrate products, facilitate online sales, and collect insights on what rural families require. The app is also used for building an online and offline store experience, and earning income for data collection, facilitation, and demand generation. Women are the trusted influencers of their village, bridging the gap between products and rural families.

This is supported by local tech-enabled delivery and after-sales service team ensuring that every customer gets their products within 48 hours at their doorstep.

Ajaita says that what sets FM apart is that Sahelis do not have to travel; they can work in their own villages and earn an income.

Frontier Markets has been funded by equity investors.

“It has been EBITDA positive for 4+ years annually, and we successfully raised $2.25 million pre-Series A funding in July 2020 led by ENGIE Rassembleurs d'Energies, The Rise Fund, and The Singh Family Trusts (advised by Artha Impact), along with Teja Ventures and affiliates of beyond Capital Fund. The startup has raised total funding of $4 million to date. We are growing at 200 percent YoY and have been demonstrating profitability for the last four years,” she adds.

Once the lockdown was announced, Frontier Markets had to close down. Working from home, Ajaita says it quickly converted itself into a big call centre, using all employees to call the Sahelis and take stock of the situation on the ground.”

“In a first, we added groceries, personal hygiene items, and agricultural tools to our products basket, roping in several fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and agri-goods companies. Secondly, the company worked with the Rajasthan government to tackle the supply gap and reach every last-mile customer, ensuring the delivery team had the necessary permits to travel. Thirdly, the company focused on its technology platform to cater to the growing demand for essential goods,” she says.

Ajaita shares an instance when two employees covered several villages at one go – the bulging side racks on their motorbikes holding all that the villagers needed. With safety an absolute priority, the company tracked everything – right from the time when an order was placed, to how long it was on hold given stocks not reaching the warehouses, and when it was delivered.

Despite COVID-19, Ajaita says Frontier Markets pivoted and added agri-solutions for farmer families, invested further in digital marketing, scaled its network of entrepreneurs and customer reach. The startup says it has already crossed GMV of Rs 50+ crore from last year. 

“We are planning to grow from 10,000 to one million Sahelis in the next five years, reaching 300 million rural customers and becoming India’s largest women-led commerce platform driving a bottom-up lens for product innovation. At Frontier Markets, we’re building the future of rural India, giving rural customers the dignity and opportunities they deserve to create better lives.”

Edited by Kanishk Singh