Jaipur-based social commerce startup, Frontier Markets, is empowering women micro-entrepreneurs in rural areas
It employs a network of local women, known as Sahelis, to help rural customers buy agricultural solutions, health and homecare products, and more via its app
Recently, the startup was awarded with the Rajiv Gandhi Innovation Award by the Rajasthan government
For a long time, India’s startup activity has been primarily concentrated in major metro cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai. In recent times, however, startups have begun to see untapped opportunities in Tier 3 and 4 cities, as well as rural regions. This shift is fueling a transformative wave of entrepreneurship in these less-explored markets.
A wave of startups are aiming to overcome long-standing barriers in rural India, such as limited educational opportunities, lack of financial access and underdeveloped infrastructure. In doing so, they provide rural consumers with convenient access to high-quality products and services.
Yet the impact of their endeavours extends beyond just economic growth, as they are also fostering social equality by creating job opportunities in rural India.
To recognise the efforts of these startups, Rajasthan iStart held a series of in-person and virtual sessions on 22nd August 2023. Organised by the Department of IT, Rajasthan, the event served as a forum for startups, innovators and entrepreneurs to exchange their experiences and technical expertise with one another.
The event also sought to shine a spotlight on startups that have been honoured with the Rajiv Gandhi Innovation Award. Presented by the Rajasthan government, this award recognises startups and entrepreneurs tackling challenges in rural development, agriculture, environment, healthcare, and more.
One such awardee is Frontier Markets, a Jaipur-based social commerce startup focussed on empowering women micro-entrepreneurs in rural areas. Founded in 2011 by Ajaita Shah, Frontier Markets employs a network of local women, known as Sahelis, to help rural customers buy agricultural solutions, health and homecare products, and more via its app.
These Sahelis are digitally savvy, rural women influencers who introduce products to local communities and gather consumer feedback at the grassroots level.
In January 2023, the startup, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, initiated the ‘She Leads Bharat’ programme aimed at empowering rural women by facilitating sustainable income opportunities for them. The initiative intends to unite corporations, NGOs, government entities and investors for the same.
“She Leads Bharat was started with an intention to create a ‘saral jeevan’ (an easy life) for rural communities by giving them access to high quality, environment-friendly, and gender-inclusive products and services at their doorsteps,” said Shah.
Shah said that Frontier Markets wants to support the progression of India’s socio-economic index through the social marketplace.
How ‘She Leads Bharat’ Benefits Rural Women
Women from rural areas who join the app undergo digital skills training and become ‘Sahelis’ (friends). Equipped with their new digital skills, these Sahelis utilise the She Leads Bharat app to present products, assist their communities with online shopping, collect customer feedback, and create a blended physical-digital shopping experience. They serve as local ambassadors for the app’s products, ensuring that their communities reap the benefits.
The startup claimed that the products listed on the app are environment-friendly and cost-effective.
The ‘Sahelis’ also provide digital training to other women interested in launching their own businesses. This not only promotes financial independence among these women but also fosters female entrepreneurship in Rajasthan.
While the app serves as a valuable resource for women and their communities in rural areas, it’s also being utilised by the government to distribute crucial information on topics like job opportunities, agriculture, education, and healthcare to these villages.
Frontier Market claims that the She Leads Bharat programme has helped more than 35,000 women and sold 50 Mn products. According to Shah, the app has reached 1 Mn households across 5,000 villages in rural regions of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
During the event held on August 22, Shah also shared her insights and strategies for engaging with rural communities. The event was inaugurated by DoIT officials who discussed the Rajasthan government’s initiatives, such as the Indira Gandhi Smartphone Yojana, to enhance digital access for women.
Shah discussed Frontier Markets’ hands-on involvement in the programme and how Sahelis are actively responsible for distributing smartphones within their communities.
The event concluded with a Q&A session featuring three Frontier Markets’ ‘Sahelis’ who discussed how the partnership with Frontier Markets had impacted their lives and given them recognition in society.