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How a Last Mile Delivery Startup's Founder Made into Entrepreneur's 35U35 List FM focuses on helping rural households by creating access to clean energy products that improve their lives.

By Vanita D'souza

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Blenders Pride Reserve Collection presents Entrepreneur's 35U35 list included some path-breaking names from the field of entrepreneurship and Ajaita Shah, Founder, Frontier Markets made it to the list for enabling aspiring entrepreneurs to have an online presence.

Why Ajaita Shah?

Soon after college, Ajaita Shah started getting her hands dirty while working with social enterprises in the microfinance sector where learnt the art of bootstrapping while understanding multiple business models.

Talking about her experience she says, "It has been very challenging working in rural India, let alone, in the last-mile distribution system but we have been super successful." During this time, she also understood the importance of strong partnerships. This motivated her to start Frontier Markets (FM) in 2011.

Shining Like the Sun

Based in Rajasthan, FM focuses on helping rural households by creating access to clean energy products that improve their lives. To support its process, FM has established a network rural entrepreneur (men and women) who are at the centre of change as a distributor of these products, while earning income for themselves and their families.

Elaborating on company's vision she added, "FM believes in driving market-economies in a rural area by partnering with village-level entrepreneurs. We have been able to build a network of 5,000 entrepreneurs who have been economic drivers for 550,000 households in Rajasthan impacting more than 3.1 million lives. We continue to support them by innovating on products by partnering with local manufacturers and creating the next best solutions."

At its core is FM's Solar Saheli program, a network comprising about 5000 entrepreneurs who provide solar energy solutions to about 550, 000 rural households. Shah says Solar Sahelis are more than just "sales agents," they are market connectors, service providers, and change makers.

Additionally, more than 70 per cent of FM's users are women and most of them are in the last to last mile segment. Its business model has helped FM prove that women are best suited to gain household's trust to capture, analyze and apply customer insights to build and capitalize on the rural market opportunity.

"Training these women and giving them an opportunity to earn income has been our biggest success factor as they understand the need for energy because women deal with realities in every way more than anyone else. Our experience proves she's the right investment. If I learned anything from my time in microfinance it was that if you give women the right enabling environment, women are highly entrepreneurial," she noted.

The Journey

Having said that being a social entrepreneur, Shah journey has been like being on a rollercoaster ride - there are highs and lows, and each decision impacts something else. She shares, "every time you think you've seen it all, something else surprises you. For me, I learned that the places where we're working are massively chaotic and unpredictable. When Acumen coined the phrase "patient capital,' they weren't kidding."

Apart from reflection, refinement, the year 2018 had also been the year full of opportunity as the microfinance enterprise expanded its operations to new states and brought in new partners like Unilever, Solar Kiosk, Engie, and others.

"We have also expanded our team, bringing amazing leaders in the industry together to drive growth in our organization. We've launched the first women energy working capital facility supporting women entrepreneurs to drive wealth opportunities for their businesses; we have launched water solutions in the last mile, and we have invested in digitization of rural women and rural households," the shepreneur reflected.

While asking her about FM's 2019 goal, she promptly says tech inclusions as the company is investing in a technology company and launching an e-commerce platform for rural entrepreneurs. It will also be expanding to new 3 new states in India.

Furthermore, the social entrepreneur will be announcing the close of Series A investment with a variety of institutional investors that will help FM scale in a way that drives profitability, growth, and impact. "We will also be scaling our debt capital for our women entrepreneurs with a hope to invest in 15,000 entrepreneurs, reaching 2million rural households in the next 2 years," she concluded.

Vanita D'souza

Former Senior Correspondent, Entrepreneur India

I am a Mumbai-based journalist and have worked with media companies like The Dollar Business Magazine, Business Standard, etc.While on the other side, I am an avid reader who is a travel freak and has accepted foodism as my religion.

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