A solar sales network helps rural India [video]

In rural villages in India far from electric grids, life gets harder when the sun goes down.

Children study by the light of smoky kerosene lamps, which might tip over and cause a blaze. Even if a woman is fortunate enough to own a sewing machine to support her family, she must stop work without light.

Solar power can solve these problems, if families can be convinced that it is worth the money to buy solar lights and other devices and if shop owners will stock and service them.

That’s where Frontier Markets of Jaipur, India, comes in. It has created a network of 3,000 entrepreneurs it calls “Solar Sahelis,” or Friends of Solar. It has 400,000 customers and is trying to reach 1 million by 2020.

Frontier Markets has won international awards and recently captured the grand prize in a tech-startup competition at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, India.

Thanks to that victory, founder Ajaita Shah and her company will receive $150,000 from Amazon and Google Cloud services to expand Frontier Markets beyond its primary market, Rajasthan, India.

Shah also connected with mentors and investors at the summit, which was sponsored by the U.S. and Indian governments and drew 1,500 businesspeople from around the world.

Competitive pressure

At the summit, Frontier Markets won the pitch competition sponsored by the State Department’s Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) initiative, which involved 24 promising tech entrepreneurs making their best pitch in three minutes or less, and then four finalists speaking for just 90 seconds to “close the deal” before a panel of judges.

“It was intense and humbling,” says Shah, 33, an Indian American from New York who moved to India 12 years ago after college to work for microfinance companies providing small loans to help villagers start businesses. But she must have been good at it: She says that people afterward told her, “You made me cry. You made me believe.”

Frontier Markets’ strength is delivering products and services to hard-to-reach places. The company enlists shopkeepers in remote villages to sell solar flashlights, lamps and stoves. The Solar Sahelis, too, make sales and show women how they can improve their families’ livelihoods by becoming entrepreneurs.

Women in India sitting around solar light (© Frontier Markets)
Women training with Ajaita Shah (© Frontier Markets)

The company doesn’t make the products, but buys them from reputable solar manufacturers.

“We’re the market builder,” says Shah. “We’re telling the customer, ‘We’re going to become your voice. We’re going to listen to what you need and get it at the best price possible.’ And we’re telling the manufacturers, ‘You have great products, but don’t understand the customer. We’re going to get your products to market faster.’”

Other pitch competition finalists include these:

  • Jainesh Sinha of Delhi, India, whose company GyanDhan provides loans for college.
  • Fiona Edwards Murphy of Cork, Ireland, whose company ApisProtect helps beekeepers monitor their hives.
  • Maria Burns Ortiz of 7 Generation Games, a Santa Monica, California, educational game maker.

Read more about the summit here and here.