Seeking Solutions in Crisis: A Social Enterprise Navigates COVID-19

When I joined the Frontier Markets team as an AIF Clinton Fellow last fall, I was thrilled to be joining a team working on bringing clean energy—and other life-improving products—to rural customers in India, and was looking forward to spending the year helping prepare the company for its next stage of growth. I couldn’t have possibly imagined that I’d be evacuated back to the U.S. seven months later as the world faced down the biggest public health crisis of our time. From afar, I’ve had the opportunity to continue working with and supporting the team as we navigate this unprecedented crisis—and I believe social enterprises around the world trying to manage the situation could learn a lot from how Frontier Markets has been tackling it.

Since COVID-19 began to escalate in India a few weeks ago, the Frontier Markets team has been trying to ask, and answer, a question that many other companies—particularly startups, and particularly social enterprises—have been wrestling with at this time of global crisis: How can we survive this crisis as a company—and how do we continue to support the communities we serve while fighting for our own survival? As a business, it is our primary imperative to, well, stay in business. But as a social enterprise, we must do it in a way that solves important problems for people and/or the planet. In a moment like this one, complex new problems are arising everyday. So what do we do?

From what I’ve learned from Frontier Markets, it seems like the answer might be simpler than we’d expect: ask your customers what they need at this moment, and see how your approach can be adapted to meet this need. The most operative part of this statement is “your approach.” I am not suggesting that you build a new company or innovative breakthrough solution to the COVID-19 crisis (though if you are in a position to do that and have the scientific expertise, please, please do this!). Instead, I’m suggesting that the key to surviving in a crisis moment like this sits at the intersection of the imminent needs your customers have, and the unique value proposition and IP you’ve developed—and finding a new alignment between the two. 

Pre COVID-19, our field staff and women entrepreneurs invested heavily in getting to know our customers. This hasn’t changed. Photo Credit: Kritika Mudgal, Frontier Markets.

Before I go on, I want to share a disclaimer: we are still early in the crisis; we don’t know what the future holds, or whether the efforts of Frontier Markets, or any company for that matter, will pan out in the long term. But from watching our team’s approach, and seeing the agility and willingness to make strategic pivots, I would bet on Frontier Markets to come out of this crisis stronger than before. 

So what did Frontier Markets do? How did we leverage our solution to bolster our business and better serve our customers? First, a bit of context. Frontier Markets is a social enterprise founded by a former AIF Clinton Fellow in 2011 to solve an access challenge for rural households in India. While customers in towns and cities had easy access to high-quality products and services—such as safe lighting, home appliances, phones, and more—India’s 165 million rural households did not. We have built an assisted e-commerce model, where a network of trained rural women facilitators use our e-commerce app to market products and make sales to their community members. One of the founding commitments that Frontier Markets founder/CEO Ajaita Shah made to customers was that the company was there to help them have a “Saral Jeevan”—or easy life. This idea has animated the company since, and has served as a North Star for how we approach our social mission. 

In the months prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Frontier Markets was starting to expand the product and service offerings we had available for rural customers. While the company initially focused exclusively on selling clean energy lighting products, we had started selling products like refrigerators, washing machines, cell phones, 4G data services, and more. We were preparing to add financial services like savings and EMI capabilities to our platform. These products increased productivity, strengthened ability to pay, decreased household labor, and connected our customers to the broader world. But what set Frontier Markets apart in recent months was our ability to meet not just the needs of rural customers, but the wants—to get them access to aspirational products that would enhance their lives, even if they were not strictly necessary for survival. 

Before the crisis, Frontier Markets was getting into selling large household appliances to make life easier for customers, particularly women. Photo Credit: Kritika Mudgal, Frontier Markets.

Then, COVID-19 arrived. Days after I left India, the state of Rajasthan (where we are based) went into lockdown. A few days later, all of India. As the crisis set in, what would be our next move? Talk to our customers. Within two days, our Head Office was restructured, redeploying all staff members to make up a newly expanded (if temporary) call center. From their homes, our team spent the first few days calling customers and Sahelis (what we call our rural women entrepreneurs) and asking them what was going on, and what they needed. 

We quickly learned that our customers were in trouble. Essential products—from food to lighting to cleaning supplies to agricultural tools—were nowhere to be found; and if they somehow were available, they were being sold at exorbitant markups. Suppliers and delivery providers were focused on making sure cities and towns had what they needed; the rural customers were being left out.

As suppliers rush to meet the demand of cities and towns, villages are being left behind. Photo Credit: Kritika Mudgal, Frontier Markets.

We heard what our customers needed—the next step was to see how to adapt our solution to meet the need. Ajaita, our founder/CEO, called state government officials right away, shared what we had learned, and found out that the government was desperate for help in providing essentials to rural customers during the lockdown (and beyond). What’s more, they were defining “essentials” narrowly, and Ajaita helped them understand that products like solar lighting were essential for customers at a time like this. Within a few days, we secured permits to close the supply chain gap for the rural Last Mile. 

Frontier Markets delivery staff will be working to bring product packages to rural customers. Photo Credit: Kritika Mudgal, Frontier Markets.

Under these unprecedented circumstances, how we do our work, and what products/services we offer had to evolve, and quickly. We added new products to our basket—food items, masks, gloves, and more. We shifted our management systems online so that staff were supporting our rural women from their homes in Jaipur. We turned 100% of our field staff into delivery personnel who could deliver bulk orders to Sahelis, who will in turn distribute the supplies to 8-10 customers through a sanitary, doorstep delivery process. We added 8-10 new Sahelis in every village to reduce the customer to Saheli ratio for faster processing and more effective social distancing. We continued calling our customers and Sahelis everyday to learn about what they need and how things are changing for them daily. Though the tactics evolved, we stayed true to our core values and approach: to get rural customers what they need, when they need it, to create a “Saral Jeevan.”

Some of our Sahelis—Pre-COVID-19!—equipped with smart phones and e-commerce app to take orders from customers. Photo Credit: Kritika Mudgal, Frontier Markets.

When I take a step back, and look at the work Frontier Markets has done over the past few weeks, I see that the company has inverted my original question: How can we survive this crisis as a company—and how do we continue to support the communities we serve while fighting for our own survival? Instead, Frontier Markets asked how do we meet the most urgent, pressing needs of our communities, and how can that enable us to thrive as a business? By investing in meeting the customer’s needs, not only will Frontier Markets fulfill its social mission, but it will build long-term brand equity and customer loyalty that will support the company’s continued growth into the future.

Anjali is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Frontier Markets in Jaipur, Rajasthan. For her Fellowship project, she is creating a distribution model that is cost effective and efficient in providing rural households with access to clean energy products through a network of rural women entrepreneurs. Anjali graduated with a degree in American Studies, where she focused on how the design of the build environment—from school buildings to housing developments to monuments—shapes culture and society. While at Yale, she launched a consulting practice that paired Yale business students with undergraduate organizations to improve their strategy, infrastructure, and ultimately, impact. For the past five years, she helped grow The Future Project—a non-profit organization focused on helping young people develop the purpose and agency to build a better future for themselves. After wearing a variety of hats at the organization, Anjali found her professional passion as the company’s vice president of innovation, leading teams to incubate and launch new products, programs, and services to increase reach, quality, and economic sustainability. Inspired by her time working with young people, Anjali plans to devote the next phase of her career to pursuing this purpose through environmental work—developing clean and sustainable products, services, and systems that will ensure that we have a healthy planet for our young people to inherit. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Anjali is excited to dive into the world of clean energy and rural empowerment, reconnect with her Indian heritage, and spend time with her grandmothers who she hasn’t seen in years.

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