A last mile solar startup wins big at Global Entrepreneurship Summit

Frontier Markets works to empower women in rural India through solar energy and solar products. Photo by: Frontier Markets

HYDERABAD, India — A distribution solution for energy products in rural India claimed the spotlight at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit on Thursday night, when founder Ajaita Shah won the event’s pitch competition.

Emerging from a pool of 75 hopefuls, 24 semi-finalists, and four finalists, Shah was named the 2017 Global Innovation through Science and Technology Catalyst pitch competition Grand Champion during the closing plenary of the summit, which convened entrepreneurs and businesses from around the world in Hyderabad, India.

The work of Shah’s 6-year-old startup, Frontier Markets, takes place far from the shiny lure of India’s tech capital. Frontier Markets responds to the market failure to provide rural, bottom-of-the-pyramid villagers in India with access, training, and servicing for clean-energy products, Shah said during a press briefing at the summit.

The model addresses a lack of education in clean energy use, as well as a lack of trust in solar in rural markets based on inferior products purchased in the past, she added.

“The twist is that we work with women entrepreneurs to deliver those services end to end,” she said, explaining a strategy that currently provides training to and employs 1,000 women entrepreneurs to sell products such as solar lanterns, home lighting systems, power inverters, and clean cook stoves.

Frontier Markets trains women — who earn a stipend and commission based on sales — in marketing, sales, and technical repair: “They are the ones that are there for the after-sale service,” Shah said. “They really are the center of this entire model in terms of solution.”

With a background in microfinance, Shah herself worked for years in rural villages throughout India and dealt with the pain points that come from lack of energy access, she said. Seeing the role that women could play firsthand, she knew it was time to start something herself that would create a much larger impact.

“We’re working with women who got married at the age of 14, who are now 33 years old, have five kids, are uneducated, who are kind of lost in this entire value chain … and they are dying for an opportunity because they want to be able to take a stance to prevent their 14-year-old daughter from getting married,” Shah said.

The startup already partners with finance institutions to provide consumer financing, and works with companies such as Philips, as well as solar social entrepreneurs. But 70 percent of the products they sell are manufactured in partnership with Indian manufacturers, Shah said. The group also just partnered with Barefoot College, which focuses on women’s empowerment and electrification through solar power in rural communities, and relies on several partners in the NGO space to supplement their economic empowerment with social empowerment programs.

“As you can imagine, ‘cracking the last mile,’ as they say, takes a lot of different pieces, and the reality is we aren’t going to be good at everything,” Shah told Devex.

To date, 1,000 women entrepreneurs have generated $2.5 million in revenue by selling solar-powered systems to 400,000 rural households. Staying lean, Frontier Markets has raised about $1.5 million, but with new capital investment, Shah is looking to scale to six new states in India with the goal of reaching 21 million people with 10,000 women entrepreneurs to drive larger revenue and “go deep into that last mile,” Shah said.

As the GIST Grand Champion, Shah will receive a suite of prizes, including $50,000 in Amazon Web Services credits, a Dell laptop computer, an exclusive virtual mentoring session with an Amazon executive, and $100,000 in Google Cloud credit and services from Alice, the artificial intelligence tool for women business owners.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has reported from more than 20 countries.

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