As the world continues to search for climate change solutions, the investment in women from rural communities in countries such as India can spur gender equity, economic prosperity as well as sustainable climate progress in the Global South.
Ajaita Shah, founder and CEO of Frontier Markets, thinks that investment should be about building strategic initiatives for women entrepreneurs, also known as Saheli’s, to reframe how economic growth and climate resilience go hand-in-hand in creating a consumer marketplace for marginalized markets.
Since 2011, Frontier Markets has worked towards this goal, becoming the largest social commerce platform dedicated to solving rural supply-chain issues for over 900 million people in rural India, who according to Shah represent a $100 billion market opportunity.
This is in part due to the creation of a Saheli network of over 21,000 entrepreneurs, who showcase products, assist with e-commerce purchases and collect rich insights on customer demands and needs. And with this information Frontier Markets has been able to identify characteristics about the rural customer and the growing climate challenges they face.
"Women are community enablers," said Shah during her keynote at GreenBiz’s annual climate-tech conference, VERGE 22. "They are incredible influencers. They are already powerful, and already have a nexus and ability to actually make changes happen."
Women are community enablers. They are incredible influencers. They are already powerful and have a nexus.
The women in this network of Saheli, are mothers, farmers, community members and Shah's favorite "powerful entrepreneurs who have access to literally millions of customers, which gives Frontier Market a firsthand look at exactly what those rural communities face."
Frontier Markets has created a marketplace throughout 4,000 villages across seven states in India, and has sold more than 10 million products to 500,000 rural households, making a foundational impact with new technology and resources such as home appliances, smartphones, healthcare services and even bringing cattle feed to the doorsteps of rural households.
Shah adds that the investment in rural women goes beyond giving them the tools to become entrepreneurs — it’s about creating long-term sustainability for all in the value chain. And though the company earns commission from each sale, and marketing fees from suppliers, Frontier Markets ensures profit sharing as well, with 70 percent of revenue going to its saleswomen and the remaining 30 percent used to scale into new locations.
How does investment in rural women create climate solutions?
By combining technology with these local trusted influencers, Frontier Markets has enabled a much deeper connection to the rural customer and has also developed a better understanding of the rapidly increasing climate realities those communities face.
In India, a country with about 1.4 billion people, climate calamities are becoming increasingly common. According to a report by Down To Earth, in 2022, India saw natural disasters almost every day from January through September. From droughts to locus attacks, to heatwaves and coldwaves, to cyclones and floods — the country has faced tremendous climate catastrophes on 242 of those 273 days.
In fact, today India ranks first as the largest flood hotspot in the world, followed by the U.S. and China, and even though the carbon emissions are minimal compared to the Global North, these rural areas are the most impacted.
"The bottom 50 percent of India literally own nothing. They're not the carbon contributors, yet they are the most vulnerable when it comes to climate attacks," Shah said. "What happens if rural consumers start consuming the way that you and I consume? It's gonna be a disaster."
Working closely with these women has given Shah a real understanding of the realities these rural communities face, and urges quick action to equip them with the resources and knowledge to make better decisions to help them combat climate change.
An example Shah gave during her keynote was of a farmer, Anita from Uttar Pradesh — India's largest state — who lost over 50 percent of her crops due to the damage from both floods and droughts. She became indebted to lenders and separated from her family just to be able to cover costs.
After becoming a Saheli, Anita was able to stop this tragedy from striking other women. She helped Frontier Markets connect with thousands of women who faced similar climate realities. Immediately these rural communities were partnered with clean tech companies, climate funders to help introduce organic farming, reduce pesticides, create climate resilience seeds and provide solar-powered appliances.
"There are over  hundred million people like Anita that are actually ready to be that game changer and to have that opportunity," Shah said. "So imagine that we're not investing in just 20,000 women, but a million women like Anita."
While Shah and Frontier Markets are proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish, they still have a vision of creating a powerful sales force of 1 million "digitally savvy women," who will create a sustainable marketplace in rural communities and combat climate calamities.
Shah reminded policy makers, corporate partners, investors and philanthropists that making a big difference will require them to invest, while letting the rural women lead the charge and influence this next generation of consumers in the Global South.
"Customers are kings, but I will tell you that rural women are queens," Shah said. "And when you invest in women, they're a big massive community connector."