Here is part II of my interview with Ajaita Shah. For background on Ajaita Shah, Frontier Markets (FM) and to find out what the heck a Solar Saheli is… please see Part I.
Rich: What are the threats and opportunities of a typical Frontier project, and how to you respond to some of your more interesting threats and/or opportunities?
Ajaita Shah: FM has built a proven and scalable model with a network of 2,500 women entrepreneurs (Solar Sahelis) that are trained and access technology, marketing, and technical repair, to provide innovative solar solutions to sell to rural households. However, as Frontier Markets expands into new states and new business lines, it faces many risks in the process. Frontier Markets has systematically identified all risks that could possibly impact their current operations and future operations in states of expansion. Both external and internal risks are identified and are constantly monitored to appraise management of the risk possibilities.
- Political risks: Operational disruption
- As FM’s solutions are socially desirable and focal point of rural access to energy and upliftment, FM does not face any significant political risk
- Economic risks: Financial loss
- FM educates consumers on the quality of its products and engages regularly to build loyalty
- Invests in branding to compete on dimensions rather than on price
- Has long term contracts with suppliers to negate the effects of constant changes in input costs
- Social risks: Harm to FM’s reputation; financial loss
- FM engages in community service in local areas which help in building a loyal base of customers
- Technology risks: Loss of stakeholder trust; financial loss
- FM organizes periodic ICT training (including mobile) and awareness programs for staff as well as key stakeholders
- Contracts with financially secure and reputed machinery suppliers who can meet service requirements
- Budget risks: Unsuccessful deployment of launch in other states; financial loss
- One of the key KPIs of the operations manager is to execute the launch within established time and costs budget
- FM is also collaborating with Intellecap to ensure that its activities are planned with clear cut projections and benchmarks so that deviations from budget are minimized.
- Process risks: Financial loss
- FM has a rigorous focus on digitized record keeping for real time updates and monitoring by senior management
- Focus on digital interventions including internet enabled devices for last mile distributors
- Mandatory annual internal audits
- Human Resource risks: Operational disruption; financial loss
- Extensive induction and training is provided to all members of the staff as well as to the Sahelis (Women entrepreneurs) on the essential aspects of the job
- FM has robust whistle blower policy to bring to light any unscrupulous practices
- Quarterly reviews/conversations with sahelis, distributors, and retailers to appraise management of any problems being faced
Rich: You’re doing a splendid job empowering women. What advice do you have for our female project managers?
Ajaita Shah: Solve a problem, don’t create one. If it’s just about making money, then by all means make money. But your life is more than money. It should be fulfilling, it should feed your passions. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. But if you’re like me and you feel it in your bones–then launch a business that will be successful because it solves a real problem and provides real value. In the end, that will be sustainable and profitable and better fulfill your life. Be ready to make mistakes, be ready for chaos, be ready for failures, and do not focus on the successes, do not focus on yourself – it’s a crazy ride, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you recognize that the people along the ride are your partners in the journey.
Take the time to truly understand what youre looking to solve, and why you want to become an entrepreneur; the best thing I did was spend years working with other social enterprises that were addressing challenges or working with communities I was interested in – I had the opportunity to truly learn about the market, the problem, how to run a company, while also being an asset to a new organization – it’s a win-win. I have met many people that want to jump into setting up social enterprise, but actually have not take the time to truly experience the problem they are trying to address – also partner! There are brilliant ideas and people trying to address common challenges, ideally we start understanding shared value better and start partnering to address the challenges – reduces wastage of resources, and also creates an opportunity to focus and invest in solving challenges leveraging targeted skills.
Be humble – assume you know nothing, and that the person that you’re working for, knows everything – your job is to understand it in a way that allows you to find an approach that works. We talk about Human-Centered thinking, but true practice is when we’re willing to have the right people on the table to help build a solution.
Rich: What comments do you have in general about projects that work to improve social or ecological conditions, rather than strictly economic measures?
Ajaita Shah: For renewables market. I am very optimistic – we have been seeing it happen with our own eyes – the sheer adoption, and the impact of the adoption; rural households are recognizing the value of embracing off-grid/ clean energy solutions for a few key reasons:
a) they own their systems – hence having 100% control over their power consumption
b) they understand the reliability is based on the sun, not distributed connections or politics, hence having more control
c) they are seeing the outcome of their investment: saving on kerosene expenses that are linked to both kerosene as a cost, and the sheer amount of health scares that are linked to it. Productivity: people are keeping their shops open for longer hours, they are working on additional income opportunities at night, they are seeing their children study safely, they are applying it to machinery that they require for their occupations. Safety – the fact that families don’t have to worry about kerosene fires, or disasters is huge, the fact that they have control over darkness is huge.
My optimism comes from the stories I’ve heard, and the families I’ve met and the Sahelis of course who tell me their motivation to make this happen for all villages quickly. I believe the energy transition will lead to a new rural consumer, a new rural economy, because we’re providing an opportunity of infrastructure that creates a fair level of productivity for farmers to earn more and be heard.