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The Rural Front Runner Nobody was going to be convinced until I put my own money in until I found the right kind of impact investor and slowly but surely kept hitting my numbers and having to prove myself. It was very challenging I think in the early days: Ajaita Shah

By Punita Sabharwal

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Ajaita Shah
Ajaita Shah, Founder and CEO, Frontier Markets

Born and brought up in the US, Ajaita holds her B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University, New York. At the age of 21, very soon after her graduation, Shah moved to India and started working with leading microfinance organizations such as Ujjivan Financial Services, Bharat Financial Inclusion, Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), and through that, Bandhan. She was exposed to more than 5,000 villages and 300 slums as she strove to understand communities' perspectives and design solutions that would create long-term value.

Ajaita became increasingly aware of a fundamental disconnect between the needs of customers and the available products. Customers, especially women, were frustrated by the lack of appropriate product designs and pricing structures, inefficient distribution networks, and insufficient after-sales service plans. Market access issues, she discovered, created barriers to basic welfare services such as healthcare, energy, education, and sanitation. From this insight, she founded Frontier Markets (FM) in 2011 with the vision to establish India's largest women-led distribution network and facilitate rural households' participation in the economy through income-generation opportunities.

Frontier Markets is driving access to quality and affordable products and services to rural customers (primarily women) in India leveraging a strong network of rural women entrepreneurs, called Saral Jeevan Sahelis, who are using their assisted e-commerce 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.

Ajaita believes that shifting the lens from seeing rural families as beneficiaries to dignified customers, and women as social influencers and service providers –can create a massive marketplace in rural India, and address climate challenges in the country.

The company has raised a series of investment rounds in the last 10 years since - totaling a blended capital raise of equity, debt, and grants totaling $7MN - Onboarding marquis investors like TPG Rise Fund, Seedfund, Acumen Fund, Schneider Impact Fund, Engie, and others. The last round, series A was later in 2020 when it raised USD 2.25million 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. "Coming in front of a bunch of Indian investors, male investors to be precise and telling them that I know how to craft, how to reach the most remote people and create a massive market opportunity was a big challenge. Nobody was going to be convinced until I put my own money in until I found the right kind of impact investor and slowly but surely kept hitting my numbers and having to prove myself. It was very challenging I think in the early days," says Ajaita Shah, Founder and CEO.

Sharing her vision, Shah further states, "Frontier Markets is focusing on government partnership for faster penetration. Aligned with the thoughts of financial inclusion, women empowerment and holistic development the company has partnered with Uttar Pradesh State Rural Development Mission. We are signing MoUs with the state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The future plans also include partnerships with global brands like Reckitt Benkiser."

Punita Sabharwal

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur India

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