The Jaipur-based social enterprise has perfected a unique distribution model to promote green products in remote villages in Rajasthan

Women in Rajasthan's villages are increasingly using solar producrs. (Photo by Frontier Markets)

Women in Rajasthan’s villages are increasingly using solar products. (Photo by Frontier Markets)

More than 200 women have fanned across the desert state of Rajasthan in western India to spread awareness on products powered by solar energy amongst poor people living in hard-to-reach villages. Called Solar Sahelis (solar women friends), they are part of an innovative social enterprise that is bridging the last-mile gap in marketing renewable energy products such as lamps and household appliances in a state that receives 300 to 350 days of clear, sunny days.

The stereotype of Rajasthan women living under the veil have been comprehensively broken by women such as Binesh Sen, Guddi Thakur and Madhu Sen, who are leading from the front in promoting green energy in a state nearly the size of Germany. The innovative distribution model is pioneered by Frontier Markets, a company based in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital.

“Rural Rajasthan gets substantial solar heat throughout the year, making it one of the hottest states of India. But there is always hope. We are trying to convert sorrows of the desert state into smiles and hot challenges into big opportunities. Our solar products are gateways to turn this scourge into a blessing,” says Ajaita Shah, founder and chief executive officer of Frontier Markets. Shah has been working in India for eight years in microfinance and clean energy distribution.

Making inroads

Frontier Markets has made inroads into more than 12 districts of Rajasthan, including Dholpur, Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Chomu, Sawai Madhopur, Bikaner, Jodhpur and Ajmer. With a product range that exceeds 30 and includes lanterns, torches, home lighting systems, street lights, garden lights and water heaters, the company claims to have benefitted more than 10 thousand families in the state. Its efforts have earned it a place in the list of finalists for the 2016 international Ashden Awards, a globally recognised measure for excellence in the field of green energy.

Shah, an entrepreneur who has her roots in Rajasthan and has been educated in the US, founded Frontier Markets in Jaipur five years ago and has since fashioned it into a leading marketing, sales and distribution firm in the clean energy space. This was made possible by building a network of village women called Solar Sahelis.

Spreading awareness on solar products in a Rajasthan village (Photo by Frontier Markets)

Spreading awareness on solar products in a Rajasthan village. (Photo by Frontier Markets)

Rajasthan is obvious choice to lead solar initiatives as it remains sunny most days of the year. The desert zones in its western parts that include Barmer, Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur districts are endowed with 6-7 kilowatt per square meter per day radiation and vast flat and unused land. With these critical resources, the hotbeds of Thar Desert always possessed highest potential for solar energy and appliances.

Household products such as solar cookers, lanterns and geysers entered the Indian urban market as early in 1990s but have struggled to find a foothold either for reasons of cost inefficiency or an unprepared market, weak supply chain and unsure product efficacy. Profitable solar power installations or commercial solar ventures have also vied for policy support and manufacturers’ interest. Only a few years back hotel industry was also compelled to install solar geysers but lackadaisical policies have since thwarted attempts to gain acceptance and motivation for solar.

While solar power plants, mega solar kitchens, solar vehicles, handy lanterns, etc. at various social institutions and campuses have proved their worth, it’s only after India’s National Solar Mission was introduced in 2010 that some seriousness has dawned and efforts began to tap the potential to the fullest. With Rajasthan Solar Energy Policy of 2014, solar electrification has been reemphasized and the solar market is filled with more confidence to steer ahead with innovative utility products.

Working with women

Shah’s teams, in parallel to setting up sales and marketing chains in districts, works closely with women as they add more conviction to the cause and understand the transformational aspects of these efforts. While selling green energy solutions, she also sensitizes rural people about health hazards of carbon emissions from kerosene and wood and encourages them to shift to safe and smart options.

The Solar Sahelis make it simple and smooth on the ground. Frontier Market identifies, trains and partners with individuals, women working in anganvadis (day care centres), farmers and women’s self-help groups to sell solar solutions in villages. The Solar Saheli initiative has nurtured grassroots leaders who have also provided an income support to their families. Inspired by model followed by direct selling companies such as Mary Kay and Tupperware, the Solar Sahelis operate through their relationship networks and family members, friends and neighbours since they can best relate and explain utility of the products. They receive a fixed commission on the sale of every product.

Started in July 2015, there are now more than 200 Solar Sahelis who are marketing, distributing and training for solar-powered products. Of these, 80 are into marketing and direct selling and 120 are assisting in awareness programmes, trainings and events. “We are extremely happy and will continue our services for income generation and for changing energy realities in our villages,” says Guddi Thakur, a Solar Saheli. “No one can know how much unburdened we feel by becoming a part of a network and by becoming economically independent.”

“We endorse the products which we find reliable and user-friendly and have been able to generate an income of more than Rs.1000 by selling these products to village families within our reach,” says Binesh Sen, a colleague of Thakur.

The women point to a product called Unnat Chullah (a type of cooking stove) that has now become an indispensible part of their kitchens. They also said that by switching to solar options, user families are saving an average of Rs 300 per month on fuel alone. This does not take into account the attendant health benefits that result from indoor air pollution. Over half the world’s population use deadly cooking and lighting practices that kill over 2 million people annually, according to the World Health Organization.

The Frontier Market has introduced the Unnat Chulha, an advanced stove that restricts emission and reduces wood consumption and cooking time by 50%. It also uses marketing techniques such as setting up stalls at village fairs to display and promote green products. The company has also fostered a network of a thousand village entrepreneurs, who along with the Solar Sahelis sell products under the brand name Saral Jeevan (simple life).

The women of Frontier Markets think it’s just a beginning as they dream of changing the solar landscape in Rajasthan by promising quality products engineered according to specific rural needs and prompt service to build trust. The company now aims to expand to all districts of Rajasthan and in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh by building networks of Solar Sahelis.

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