People, Planet, Profits & Projects

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Richard Maltzman
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Solar Empowerer - Interview - Part 1 of 2

Categories: ajaita, empower, india, market, power, rural, solar

As promised in a prior blog post (which also contains the background), here is Part 1 of 2 of my interview with Ajaita Shah (thanks to Amrit Mohan of Frontier Markets for providing some of the answers as well).

Have a look at this brand-new video from CNN featuring Ajaita.

Q1: Let’s start with your company’s Mission Statement and then we’ll get to the good stuff – the projects.

According to Wikipedia, your mission is to provide over 10 million products to 30 million households in India and become a global leader in rural distribution and products for low-income households. FM (Frontier Markets) also trains women (known as "Solar Sahelis") to market, sell, and service renewable energy products in rural Rajasthan. FM has sold 703,000 products, and trained over 5000 entrepreneurs (50% women)


PMI says a project is: ‘a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result’. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.  Given that,


How do you see the mission in terms of projects (or do you)?  Or is this more of an ongoing operation?  Do you launch projects?  If so, how do you define them in terms of scope, schedule, and time?

Frontier Markets (FM) is a rural distribution company that markets high-impact consumer durables in India through a network of digitised local entrepreneurs with women at the centre of the value chain. FM helps rural communities achieve “Saral Jeevan,” or “Easy Life” by providing targeted, customised product solutions designed with direct input from rural communities. FM developed innovations like a solar torch and home lighting system, solar-powered television with built-in access to a wide range of channels that retails for less than $200, solar-powered poultry farming devices, and induction stoves.

At the core of FM’s model are women leaders and entrepreneurs, called Solar Sahelis. FM’s network of Sahelis is FM’s direct link to remote households. They bring products to customers, relay insights back into FM, and create an ecosystem of shared value and trust between FM and rural communities. By investing in Solar Sahelis’ long-term professional growth, FM helps her develop the skills she needs to understand her customers and meet their needs. FM offers a range of income-generating opportunities and helps her develop the skills she needs to fill these roles. FM’s model is built around women leaders because we believe that they are a bankable investment with the potential to drive deep social change.

To date, FM’s network of 2,500 Solar Sahelis have contributed to 703,000 clean energy solutions sold to 600,000 households, impacting 3.5 MN lives, preventing the release of over 950,000 tonnes of carbon.

FM believes that rural households are the future economy of the world and need their voices to be heard; that providing them access to quality products and services that address their safety, productivity, and aspiration will drive a systemic change to the world. FM believes that investing in women is “Smart Business,” and the KEY to poverty alleviation at scale.


Q2: Who are your stakeholders?  Clearly the Solar Sahelis are, but who else?  And for our audience, could you tell us about the profile of a Solar Saheli, what they do for you, and what you’ve done for them?


I think it’s best to reply with our Unified Partnership Model: Operating Together for Shared-Value Impact

Government: FM is leveraging the Rajasthan government’s E-Mitra network to digitize orders, build local stock points, and rapidly scale operations in new areas. FM partnered with the government’s National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) initiative to develop a network of women’s livelihood enhancement groups. FM is involved with Niti Aayog to convert Solar Sahelis into recognized business owners.

Civil society organizations (CSOs): FM contributes to CSOs’ financial sustainability by hiring experienced CSOs to train Solar Sahelis. FM recruits Solar Sahelis through the CSOs’ networks, linking the skills acquired through the training to financial opportunities. Through successful partnerships with Barefoot College, Ibtada, Grameen Evam Samajik Vikas Sanstha (GSVS), Manjari Foundation, and Spectra, FM can rapidly expand into new areas and reach more villages.

Companies: FM provides market insights to manufacturers and businesses planning to enter rural markets. After partnering with FM, one manufacturer reported a 15 to 30% decrease in total costs across the value chain and a 2 to 5% increase in net income.

Financial institutions: Through partnerships with financial institutions, FM has co-designed several financial products to test in rural markets, including a model for rural women to access working capital. This model has been net income positive for the last two years, demonstrating opportunities for strong return on equity to investors.

Ecosystem Enablers: Industry platforms like GOGLA gives FM the access to new future partners which include manufacturers. IFC gives FM strategic guidance, access to new partners as well as penetration inside rural villages through its Consumer Awareness Campaign for Lighting India. FM has been engaging with UNSe4All for leadership structures and participating in pushing gender energy access on global platforms. Ashden has helped FM showcase its story.

FM believes innovation lies in the core of its philosophy; deep and targeted linkages between wealth creation and social impact. Empowerment is linked to financial gain. Therefore, FM’s lens is market based to drive value and wealth throughout the value chain; for rural consumers, women leaders, innovative product and service solutions, partners, and employees. The business model is a “bottoms-up” approach with women at the center of design. FM uses an investment lens that is long-term equity vs. short term gains believing this eventually leads to exponential profit with exponential impact. FM invests in a leadership network, and village consumer as an asset class.

Women Leaders: Investment Strategy:

FM invests in women with a belief that she is necessary to drive systemic change. This is because of FM’s understanding of the village ecosystem; in order to introduce high impact high, quality products that are costly, there is a behaviour change that women can drive because women are emotionally connected and build trust in communities. Enabling them to drive behavioural change faster. FM recognized that:


  • Women are the only ones who can enter into a rural HHs door without someone complaining
  • Women are the only one that can sit on the phone longer than 5 mins and get more insights out
  • Women give you 13 more data points then men

We invest in women leaders, not sales agents. Therefore, we invest heavily in her capacity, support her in marketing, and do it in incremental ways to ensure it’s effective giving her the time to become confident in what she is doing and investing the next.

Skill-development training: FM collaborates with CSOs that specialize in rural livelihood education to provide appropriate and targeted training to develop Solar Sahelis’ digital, financial, and marketing skills.

Continued support: After training, FM provides continuous operational, marketing, and coordination support for Solar Sahelis.

Tools for success: FM invests in Solar Sahelis by providing demo kits, stock, and helps her access capital to grow her business faster.

The long-term investment strategy is to develop her resume, to build her ability to access capital on her own, to build her credit history and justify returns through outcomes.

Take a long-term approach to investment: FM’s interventions generate life-time value for customers in the form of durable, high-quality, and context-specific products with reliable after-sale service plans. FM provides Solar Sahelis with skills and opportunities to sustainably generate income.

Diversify income sources for the rural workforce: FM involves Solar Sahelis in a wide range of wealth-creation opportunities, which has created a 400% increase in her income level over the past 4 years. She can also leverage the skills she acquires with FM to gain employment with firms.

Leverage data: FM’s evidence-based approach contributes to better decision making, faster response to market changes, and deeper insight into rural communities. FM reduces the costs of working in remote villages by collecting data through its call center and is currently developing a mobile app to improve connectivity.

Take a bottom-up approach: FM listens to rural customers because they are experts on their own needs and aspirations. By collecting feedback and insights from customers, FM created a product basket that is tailored to meet the needs of rural customers and designed an effective after-sale service plan.

Create a customer-centric model: FM selects products based on the needs of the rural customers. If the product doesn’t exist, FM works with product manufacturers to find a solution. For example, FM’s Solar Rakshak Plus, a long-range solar torch, was designed based on inputs from rural women.

Capacity optimization: By investing in Solar Sahelis’ long-term professional growth, FM helps her develop the skills she needs to understand her customers and meet their needs. FM offers a range of income-generating opportunities and helps her develop the skills she needs to fill these roles. Collecting data to inform the decisions of product manufacturers, for example, is one source of income she can access through FM.

FM’s Returns on Innovations

  1. Wealth Creation for Solar Sahelis
  2. Customer satisfaction rate: 79 percent of customers have referred FM products to at least four other people, 85 percent use FM’s products daily, and 30 percent purchase another product from FM within the year.
  3. Deep-market penetration: FM maintains a 30 percent market share in Rajasthan.


In Part 2, coming later this week or early next, Ajaita will discuss aspects of project risk management, her views on corporate social responsibility, and give some advice for female project managers.


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 22, 2019 11:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

A river runs through it

As a ‘seasoned’ project manager, I often find that the tools we use in PM are useful elsewhere – and I’m always on the lookout for tools and philosophies from outside our discipline that can be adapted and brought into PM to help us manage – and contextualize – projects from a broader viewpoint.  In a way it's like having a river of sustainability thinking running through PM and a river of PM running through sustainability thinking.

Such was the case from a recent article in Nature, Prepare River Ecosystems for an Uncertain Future.  I mean, the title says it all, Project Managers: Preparing for an Uncertain Future – well, projects are unique, which means they are, by definition, working with an uncertain future.  We’re in unknown territory.  With climate change, it’s the same thing.  We’ve never seen some of the things we’re going to see over the next few decades.  How do we deal with that?

The article states:

Rivers around the world are struggling to cope with changing weather patterns. In Germany and Switzerland, a heatwave last year killed thousands of fish and blocked shipping on the River Rhine. California is emerging from a six-year drought1 that restricted water supplies and devastated trees, fish and other aquatic life. Across the US southwest, extended dry spells are destroying many more forests and wetlands.

The article says that “the tools of old” will not serve us in the same way.  We can no longer even hope to restore river systems to their original state as the climate warms.  We need to be less reactive, says the article, and more proactive.  We need to identify risk, it says in so many words, and come up with risk responses in advance, rather than reacting in real time to the massive changes expected.  Sound familiar?

In short, the article (and others like it) are promoting the use of tools we know and use in project management: data analytics and modeling (a la Monte Carlo simulation), trend analysis, and so on.  Note this extract:

Today, river managers track properties such as species diversity and population abundance, and compare them with historical averages. If they spot troubling declines, they might intervene by, for instance, altering the amount of water released from dams. But by the time trends are detected, they can be impossible to arrest.

Understanding how sensitive ecosystems might change is crucial to managing them in the future.

Again, this is about being proactive, about understanding systems on a system level as opposed to measuring specific reliable attributes we’ve always used in the past.  Those indicators simply may not be as trustworthy when the system itself is dynamic and being driven by sweeping changes – overarching changes – that we have never seen before.  And, armed with this information (and knowledge and wisdom) we can plan risk responses that are effective: the US southwest, river flows could be increased strategically from reservoirs to protect important species, such as cottonwoods. And in Australia, letting more water pass through dams in spring could stop rivers drying up while the eggs of Murray cod mature.

The reason Murray cod are mentioned in particular, is the recent demise of thousands of these very valuable fish (Australia’s largest freshwater species) in a recent heat wave there.

Assuring that risk response is both efficient and effective is key here.  We’re all familiar with the use of Pareto analysis to choose the 20% of problem causes to get rid of 80% of the problem effects – and the same applies here.  So does the concept of secondary risk.  If actions are taken to intervene, what are the possible secondary risks?  This also comes up in the article:

Process-based models can look further ahead and save time, money and disruption by limiting the number of interventions as well as avoiding adverse impacts. They would help stakeholders and managers to choose which features of ecosystems to maintain, to justify costly interventions such as major engineering works and to weigh trade-offs to build resilience under increasing climatic uncertainty

An example of using system models to predict change decades or even centuries in advance is shown below.  We’re not used to this as PMs, are we?  Our projects last months, years, or in some rare ‘megaproject’ cases, last decades, but not centuries.  Yet our “planning horizon” can and should be broader, especially when climate change is in the picture.

In other words, we, as PMs, can learn a lot from what these researchers are doing – and I would assert that ‘vice-versa’ is true as well.  Since we, as PMs are masters (or should be) at managing in uncertainty, we can help with the application of our mindset and tools for dealing with uncertainty to the important work of identifying, analyzing, and responding to the coming threats (and perhaps even opportunities)

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 21, 2019 12:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Solar Empowerer

This is not as much a blog post as a ‘teaser’ for an upcoming blog post – a very special one.  I will be having a discussion with Ajaita Shah, CEO of Frontier Markets.  Read this story (watch the video) and learn about the project (really a portfolio of projects and programs in my opinion).

 This will put you in the proper mindset to appreciate the upcoming interview.

I look forward to it and you should, too.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 10, 2019 09:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Your great-great-great-grandfather's plankton

Photo Credit: Michael Kucera

Part of the debate on climate change is whether or not it is anthropogenic - meaning caused by humans.  Some argue that, sure, the climate is changing, but it’s always changing, it’s natural, and we as humans have nothing to do with it.  This is a big deal, because if it is our “handiwork”, [A] we will know more about the nature of the problem, and [B] we would have better information – as well as greater responsibility – to do something about it, and fast.

To determine this, a study just published in Nature magazine which was based on a scientific research project that used plankton sediment from greater than 170 years ago (thus the title of this blog post) as a baseline (another project management key word!) to look at the changes.  In particular, this study used planktonic foraminifera, which are abundant at greater depths, and in some places can carpet entire swaths of the sea floor.

The writeup of the study in Nature is highly technical and frankly hard to read even for a science nerd like myself.  However, a summary of the study was provided in Smithsonian magazine, which is summarized here:

…one of the sea’s most ubiquitous organisms is helping researchers measure the changes that have already occurred. Centuries of fossil records and live-capture data show that some marine plankton populations reflect a clear change in response to human industrialization and the warming oceans that have come with it.

If you’d like to see one of these critters eating another critter (a tiny shrimp, in fact), watch the video below:

In any case, here's what the researchers found and just reported on last week:

  1. The plankton provided an unusually complete data set
  2. There was an exceedingly clear correlation between temperatures from pre- and post-industrial times and the representative plankton extracted in the core samples.

From the Smithsonian article:

The shift, measured by comparing the relative abundances of dozens of plankton species within the samples, doesn’t appear to be random. The amount of change in the plankton communities correlated with the degree of documented temperature change in the surrounding waters. The direction of shifting communities also largely lined up with patterns of ocean temperature change, as authors found when they matched up seafloor fossils with their closest analogues in modern communities.

Planktonic foraminifera may not be as majestic as whales or sea stars, but the breadth of their fossil record provides a useful baseline to confirm a wider trend of ocean life changing in response to human activity. Shifts in plankton communities are a concerning indicator of the “bigger picture” for marine ecosystems as ocean temperatures continue to rise at increasing rates, the researchers say.

I find this research project fascinating and I think it helps us focus on facts rather than to debate based on guesses and assertions which may or may not be true.

Your thoughts? 

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: June 30, 2019 08:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Carbon-negative, Cash-Positive

By now, we all know that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and is a cause of climate change.  For an excellent explanation of the overall causes, can go to this NASA site.

Or, watch this video.  It's 10 minutes well-spent.

A recent article from BBC news ( summarized three examples of efforts – successful efforts – to convert carbon dioxide into products that can instead help humans, and making money in the process, with deals like this popping up even after the article, which was published only a few days ago.  These deals mean initiatives, and these initiatives mean projects – and those projects will need project management expertise from people like you.

From the article:

Until recently, it was assumed that energy-intensive firms burning gas to fuel their processes would need eventually to capture the resulting carbon emissions and bury them underground.

This option is inefficient and costly, so the prospect of utilising some of the CO2 as a valuable raw material is exciting for business.

In this post, I’ll summarize a few and point you to some other ideas innovators have been considering.

Fizzing your beer or other beverage

One farm in the UK has found a way to take “horse muck” (BBC’s word, not mine) and straw and put this mixture through a bio-digester and then use advanced membranes to separate out food-grade CO2, which can be sold to local beverage manufacturers to make beer or lemonade (or seltzer, or any bubbly beverage) fizzy.  Find out more at Strutt and Parker Farms’ website.

Fertilizer pellets that are carbon-negative

With this technique, corn and cow manure are put into a bio-digester, where bacteria break down these materials to produce biofuel.  Then, the left-over sludge with other wastes from various industries (fertilizer, sewage plants, farms), and pump in CO2.  The CO2 helps the nutrients bind to the sludge, and to produce high-grade fertilizer pellets, which in the process, effectively reduces CO2 while producing a profitable product.  Find out more at CCM Technologies (of Swindon, UK).

Construction materials: Limestone from CO2

Carbon8 (and others) take ash from the chimney of a waste incinerator plant.  This is mixed with water and CO2, which produces heat (which can be used for various purposes, since that is a form of energy in and of itself).  However, the main “show” here is the creation of artificial limestone, which can be used for building blocks and other purposes.  This permanently captures the CO2 in the blocks.  This artificial limestone also reduces the need for cement, which is a carbon intensive material.

You can find out more about these carbon-negative, cash-positive initiatives here:

I also suggest that you check the links in each of the three processes above for really good content on each of the techniques.




Posted by Richard Maltzman on: June 30, 2019 02:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

"If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank."

- Woody Allen



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