Founder, Frontier Markets
Born and raised in New York, Ajaita Shah returned to her roots and found her calling in unravelling the rural markets in India. She came to India with a career in microfinance and discovered that the rural areas were a colossally underserviced market.
“Products designed for 65% of India’s customers, the rural population either lacked in quality or were too expensive,” says Shah, who then conceptualised Frontier Markets (FM), a social venture based on the twin pillars of creating new markets serviced by rural women. The enterprise’s mission is to empower and uplift the rural women through financial independence. Thus, establishing women-led distribution network and facilitating rural households’ participation in the economy through income-generation opportunities.
“Our networks of women entrepreneurs, Saral Jeevan Sahelis, are digitally savvy powered with smartphones and our Meri Saheli app helps build markets by connecting rural customers to solutions across sectors. Our vision is to make the rural market digitally inclusive marketplace, where access no longer becomes a barrier for productivity,” says Shah.
Today FM has successfully sold 3 million solutions to 500,000 rural customers through a network of 10,000 ‘Sahelis’ in 2,500 villages. For the future, the enterprise has already chalked out a goal for a platform of one million rural women entrepreneurs serving 100 million rural customers by 2030. One million rural women entrepreneurs will have access to wealth to enable better planning for their kids’ future, have agency in household decision-making and become a known leader in their village. 100 million rural families will have access to quality energy, healthcare, agriculture, finance and digital tools to help them address safety, poverty and aspire to achieve a better life.
As a woman in the start-up business, there were challenges for Shah, especially in generating funds and trust in her business. It was her ‘never give up’ spirit that made her balance between business and impact. “Our customers, partners, employees, suppliers, investors are all content with the economic incentives and outcomes. It is time to shift the lens. See rural markets not rural areas; dignified customers, not beneficiaries; women as smart business drivers, not social enablers. I am working to make the world realise how rural markets are the future of the world,” concludes Shah.