Part 1 - The complexity of women’s lives in India’s rural areas - COVID-19

The core interconnected challenges that rural India, and especially women, are facing in a pandemic.

This is part 1 of a 3 parts series with Ajaita Shah on how her social enterprise Frontier Markets organised support interventions to remote places in rural India, in the times of the COVID19 pandemic. To read the synthesis article, click here

To understand the nature of interventions needed from different partners in such an unpredictable context, it is important to capture the interconnectedness and intricacies of what happens on the ground in normal times, and the trigger effects that an event like COVID19 then brings about.

Ajaita Shah, CEO Frontier Markets


Ajaita Shah runs a social enterprise called Frontier Markets, based in Jaipur, India, serving rural families located in India’s last mile. About 551 million of these people live out of reach of traditional retail outlets and are not getting access to the products and services they need to build better, more dignified lives. Frontier Markets believe that rural households need to be treated as dignified customers. They need to access high-quality services at their doorstep, and women are the right investments to drive the rural economy to help rural households have an “Easy Life,” or as they call it, “Saral Jeevan.”

As the Covid-19 Pandemic started in India, the lockdown immediately triggered a ripple effect of issues. Frontier Markets very quickly started conversations on the ground with their vast network in rural areas to understand the complexity of the situation and how everything was interconnected, with immediate implications for women.

OGUNTE: What are the biggest learnings that came out from the conversations you had on the ground?

AJAITA SHAH: One was, of course, the massive gap of information for every rural household, but also the timing and the challenges that they were facing. For some odd reason, every time there's a crisis in India, it's always during harvesting season. The harvesting season is like the highest income opportunity for all of the farmer families. It’s happening now, just like it happened during demonetization in 2016.

Imagine a household with seven people. During harvesting season, five people at least go to the field. The more bodies you have working, the more opportunities you have to generate an income. With the social distancing rules, suddenly one family in one house can only send one person, at most two people. It means a steep immediate decline of income.

The second challenge was that all the activities that were taking place in the SHG [Self-Help Groups] suddenly stopped. It meant less lending, less savings, no group gatherings.

All of the other women who were in the village and who would have had other small income opportunities, stopped as well.

Then, of course, rumours were being spread that women were weak and needed to be kept at home, “otherwise they would get COVID faster”, which is ridiculous.Solar Sahelis - Frontier Markets - Rural India

OGUNTE: As a means to prevent them from going out? And send men Instead to earn money?

AJAITA SHAH: Absolutely. It is reinforcing stigmas. It’s easier to isolate women and get them to stay back. Their biggest value for being part of the group was always the savings and the finance they bring in. That stopped, therefore men have more than ever reasons to claim: “Now you're kind of worthless, so stay at home and take the responsibility for the kids when the lockdown happens. On top of this, a lot of auto-rickshaw drivers, the blue collared labourers, the freelance labourers that otherwise would have been working, all lost their jobs, and they weren't allowed to stay on the streets.

As overcrowding was forbidden, all of them mass migrated back to villages. Suddenly, the same village that would have had seven people in a household, had now 12. It reinforced the housework that the women would have to be taking responsibilities for.

Ultimately, that became a massive issue. Thematically, we were going backwards. The importance of women contributing to the family vanished. Women went from freedom back to isolation. Women lost their role in the system. Men were not taking responsibility for the housework; it was “only women’s role”.

To sum up, women had big income challenges, and to top it all up, we saw massive misinformation about the actual virus and how it functions.

OGUNTE: What else did you notice?

AJAITA SHAH: The icing on the cake was around supply chain access: we saw a lack of basic staple goods. For instance, basic food, hygiene, medicine, masks, gloves, all of the things that were needed in towns and urban areas were completely inaccessible in these rural areas.

Large FMCG companies have built a strong rural distribution in India from the state level to large rural villages that service small “mom and pop” shops, or “Kirana” shops, but these shops are still three to five kilometres away from the actual houses where people live. Due to lockdown rules, no vehicles are allowed to be on the road without permits, and generally, if you can't travel, you're not going to reach these stores.

OGUNTE: We are indeed talking about a last-mile frontier market.

AJAITA SHAH: Exactly. The other challenge was that even if these small shops had stock, they were suddenly selling three times more than the base price. In the meantime, the government was publicising all these statements about “selling goods for lower prices, or discounting”. The government could manage this for all the e-commerce companies, because they were on tech platforms, but in these rural areas, of course, there was no control oversight.

OGUNTE: These are a series of challenges that have a lot of overlaps, intersections. It’s a spider web!

AJAITA SHAH: This is what people need to understand, indeed.

The second part of our 3 parts interview with Ajaita outlines how Frontier Markets tackled these challenges innovatively and rapidly, and how the company maximised its partnerships on the ground with the Sahelis, the teams, NGOs, and the government.

Do you have little time? Read the synthesis article here. 

Interview produced by Servane Mouazan , CEO of Ogunte. 
Learn from other ImpactWomen interviews here.

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