India's Frontier Markets innovate in face of coronavirus

Grassroots gender focus boosts global development

A woman sits with a torch

Around the world, clean energy offers rural communities a host of benefits: from better health, education and comfort to improved earnings. But social inequalities mean the most marginalised often miss out.

Ashden’s research on gender and energy access in Tanzania shows there is no guarantee that clean energy in a community will benefit women, certainly not as much as it benefits men. Our work reveals how gender inequality can taint (or even be reinforced by) the distribution of clean energy products – through male-dominated sales teams, marketing efforts focused on men, and a male bias in ownership and control of bank accounts and mobile phones.

We also tracked the complex relationship between energy, gender and poverty. Women’s wealth had a large impact on the potential for solar to change their lives – for example, better-off women were more able to afford more powerful appliances that created time-saving and income earning opportunities. In total, more than half the women we interviewed after the arrival of solar in their village were making money from business opportunities such as mobile phone charging and screening television programmes.

Ultimately, research suggested an approach simultaneously tackling the problems of poverty and energy access would deliver the maximum possible change in people’s lives.

Trailblazing enterprise Frontier Markets, which bring clean energy products and other essentials to isolated rural communities in India, has shown the value of a gender-focused approach. Its socially conscious, market-driven approach is built around the needs and aspirations of rural women – its mission is to help rural families access life-improving products and services.

In a country where only 24% of rural women are engaged in formal economic activities, Frontier Markets has helped 10,000 women become Saral Jeevan Sahelis – digitally enabled entrepreneurs selling solar lighting and appliances, as well as other goods and services. Sahelis are given training, access to affordable finance and a range of products to sell. Sales from Sahelis to other women quickly unlock multiple benefits – through enhanced incomes for entrepreneurs and the distribution of new products meeting women’s needs. The company has sold goods and services to 5.9 million people, including more than 4m women.

A new role for rural women

Ashden’s insights, and the frontline experience of Frontier Markets, prove the existence of crucial, universal issues around gender and energy access. The success of Frontier Markets demonstrates an important point – that if enterprises are to address the web of interlinked challenges restricting women’s access to energy and their upliftment, gender-sensitivity must be integral to business models – not an afterthought.

For example, our research found solar enterprises are more likely to interact with men than women at every stage of the customer journey. Male-dominated spaces such as village meetings were popular sites for marketing. Our interviewees had only ever seen male sales agents, and agents were more likely to train men in how to maintain solar systems. This creates a risk that the views and experiences of women are not influencing key decisions – whether energy is bought, and how it is shared between family members. In fact, our research showed that men sometimes made key purchasing decisions without consulting the wider family at all.

Frontier Markets supports women working in their own villages – becoming powerful agents of change in their own communities. This model limits the need to travel, which has proved a barrier to women earning. Far from limiting the company, Frontier Markets’ locally-driven approach creates opportunities. For example, trusting relationships allows entrepreneurs to lend demonstration units to potential customers, an effective sales tactic.

Founder and CEO Ajaita Shah sees addressing gender inequality as crucial to powering development in rural India and elsewhere. She says: “If we provide a woman with an economic opportunity, we know she will invest in her community and create a resilient rural economy.”

Creating systemic change

Around the world, social inequalities block women’s access to energy. These include a lack of access to savings and communication and financial tools, bank accounts, phones and mobile money services. In the areas examined by our research, solar home system accounts were owned almost exclusively by men, even though men and women were about as likely to pay the bills. In some cases, this was because men had greater access to mobile money and were more likely to own a mobile phone, particularly compared with poorer women.

Frontier Markets is taking on these issues. It is helping women create savings groups, through which they have access to bank accounts in their name, often for the first time. When it comes to digital inclusion, Frontier Markets’ work starts with ensuring the Sahelis are equipped with digital tools, such as smartphones, and the skills to use them. In turn, the Sahelis have been helping rural women buy good-quality second-hand phones. The organisation has partnered with technology companies to help people reactivate dormant bank accounts and switch from cash to online payments, all using mobile phones.

Frontier Markets’ nuanced response to inequalities includes support for people at risk of marginalisation for multiple reasons, such as older women. More than half of Sahelis are aged 37 or above. And by working in the very poorest areas, the enterprise focuses efforts to fight poverty where they are needed most.

Pandemic leaves communities in crisis

Across the world, coronavirus has been a blow to energy access efforts. Supply chains are disrupted, social distancing makes sales difficult, and many customers simply cannot afford to pay. Enterprises face new challenges, at a time when their work is more important than ever.

In recent months Ashden has held regular discussions with affected organisations, building up a detailed picture of common challenges. Recurring issues included struggles to access rural communities, and the importance of urgent digital innovation. It is clear that enterprises cannot continue with business as usual – they must adapt. But as the crisis continues, we see that nimble enterprises can play a crucial (and unique) role bringing support to ‘last-mile’ communities.

India’s villages are hard-hit by the pandemic. But Frontier Markets has helped them endure the disaster, by forming a crucial link between isolated communities and those in power. Staff at head office spent the first days of the crisis calling customers and Sahelis to find out how they had been impacted, and what they needed. These calls revealed that essential products — from food to lighting to cleaning supplies to agricultural tools — were unavailable or suddenly much more expensive.

The company shared these insights with state government officials, who pledged to help provide essentials to rural customers during the lockdown (and beyond). Frontier Markets encouraged authorities to broaden their view of essential products to include solar lighting and other products, ensuring that goods crucial to the wellbeing of women and their communities continued to be available.

Frontier Markets quickly added new products to its range: food items, masks, gloves, and more. It shifted management systems online, and redeployed all field staff as delivery personnel who could deliver bulk orders to Sahelis.

This agile response was made possible by Frontier Markets’ deep links to local communities. The organisation continues to closely track the impact of the pandemic, staying true to its mission of meeting the needs of India’s rural women – whatever challenges they face.

Read More

Related Winners, news and opinion

UK spending review: more needed for green schools and buildings, aid cuts a mistake / Ashden responds to Chancellor’s plans

Fair Cooling Fund pledges $580,000 to protect the most vulnerable / Grants and support for frontline solutions

Earthshot Prize: Ashden joins Prince William’s search for green innovation / Supporting ‘fix our climate’ category

This site uses cookies to provide you with the best user experience. By using the Ashden website, you accept our use of cookies.

Stay up to date

Be the first to know about our latest projects and news