TECH & RURAL ECONOMY: Making life easy for rural consumers

By: |
March 11, 2021 2:30 AM

Frontier Markets provides last-mile products and services, delivered at the doorsteps of consumers in villages through an assisted commerce model run by rural women entrepreneurs

From better appliances, to smartphones, to affordable finance, agricultural tools—they want access to quality solutions to address their needs.From better appliances, to smartphones, to affordable finance, agricultural tools—they want access to quality solutions to address their needs.

Radha and Gauri, from Alwar in Rajasthan, have been participating in government programmes for the last 10 years to get digital skills and save money, driven by concerns about their children’s future and a deep desire to participate in the formal economy. Their village has internet connectivity, they have new paved roads, they use WhatsApp, they have electricity. From better appliances, to smartphones, to affordable finance, agricultural tools—they want access to quality solutions to address their needs.

However, much of this has eluded them and many other rural women across the country. Product and service companies want to reach the last mile but have not invested in deep, doorstep customer access—preventing them from customising for this massive rural market. Add to this, the digital divide for rural women prevents them from accessing long-term market-based skills to drive business opportunities, and therefore, accessing long term income opportunities to really drive rural markets and economies.

Frontier Markets has partnered with rural women to overcome these challenges. “We believe that social commerce is the future of rural India, and women are the driving force to make it happen,” says Ajaita Shah, founder of Frontier Markets, an assisted commerce platform that connects rural consumers to a diversified portfolio of curated rural-friendly products and services. Rural women entrepreneurs such as Radha and Gauri, called Saral Jeevan Sahelis, are the backbone of this assisted commerce business model.

“Our Saral Jeevan Sahelis help their family, friends and neighbours access all kinds of products and services at their doorstep through a vernacular and voice-enabled e-commerce solution designed for them. The Meri Saheli app was designed with our Sahelis three years ago—to have local languages, voice bots, voice to text, and an AI training bot to help all kinds of women (digital savvy, illiterate) to use a digital tool to do their work,” she says.

Sahelis use The Meri Saheli app to demonstrate products, facilitate online sales, and collect insights on what rural families require. Building an online and offline store experience, they are remunerated for data collection, facilitation and demand generation. “They are the trusted influencer of their village, bridging the gap between products and rural families,” says Shah. This is supported by a local tech-enabled delivery and after-sales service team.

“By making our platform the first hybrid online-offline platform to reach rural customers at the last village and connecting products in a low-cost, effective way, we have become the gatekeeper of quality products to rural customers based on their demand and opinions,” she says. Today 10,000 Sahelis have earned over $15 million of income thereby, investing in their children’s future, voicing their communities needs and becoming leaders in their villages.

Frontier Markets has been growing at 200% year-on-year and demonstrating profitability for the last four years. “We operate in 2,000 villages in India, with 20 micro distribution hubs managing 10,000 Sahelis using our app. It’s a new way to develop a rural economy—through digital inclusion in supply chains, leveraging data capabilities for better decisionmaking, innovative partnerships, and a market-based approach to build rural last-mile supply chain.

Shah says there is a huge demand to drive income opportunities for women, and deliver quality services to rural communities. “We have partnerships with women-run organisations across seven states. We are raising $6 million to scale from 10,000 Sahelis to 130,000 to reach 42 million families in the next three years,” she adds.

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