Part 2 - How a social enterprise created a rapid connected response to COVID-19 in rural India

How a social enterprise created a rapid connected response to COVID-19 in rural India.

This is part 2 of a 3 parts series on how social enterprise Frontier Markets organised support interventions to remote places in rural India, in the times of COVID19 pandemic, and how they brought the ecosystem together.

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

In part 1, Ajaita Shah, CEO at Frontier Markets, explained the interconnectedness of the challenges that emerged in rural India when the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown took place. We learned among other things, that rural women’s economic independence was at risk, and the gains from years of work to reach gender equality were on the verge of being wiped out.

Ajaita Shah, CEO Frontier Markets

In this piece, Ajaita explains how Frontier Markets tackled multiple challenges innovatively and rapidly and how the company maximised partnerships on the ground with teams, NGOs, partnering companies and the government.

The official lockdown in India started in the third week of March 2020 but Frontier Markets started making the transition two weeks before that. The first COVID19 cases occurred in February.

At the beginning. Ajaita noticed that, despite having no lockdown, a lot of people were just not following through with the rules around sanitation and hygiene. To avoid contamination of team members through public transportation, the company started transitioning its JAIPUR office site - 50 people - into working from home, converting their normal work into a call centre. 

OGUNTE: How did Frontier Markets tackle this spider web of interconnected challenges in collaboration with your huge network of Saral Jeevan Sahelis?

AJAITA SHAH: In the last 18 months, we had already been aggressively working on digitizing the last the rural areas, getting women smartphones, and push on internet access. Increasing our focus on data collection as well as using a call centre model to increase consumer engagement as well as to support our sellers, the women entrepreneurs. That phase was helpful to create a mindset. We needed this to know what was happening on the ground. (Read about how the company transformed its internal operations in this article by Anjali Balakrishna, AIF Clinton Fellow)

When the lockdown happened, we needed to start checking in our women and all of our customers. We had already our technology in place, the e-commerce platform was already functioning, and we already had the call centre – this transition was done to further optimize, and reach our 700,000+ households and 3500 Sahelis fast.

But our customers in remote rural areas didn't understand the government context. They didn't understand how intense the virus was. They were removed from everything and our selling branches were a point of information and access to all solutions, including solar products, appliances, and agriculture equipment.

OGUNTE: How did you address the lack of information in rural areas?

AJAITA SHAH: We needed to reassure them. So we created strong scripts that reinforced our message of connection to the customer, as well as our commitment to the customer, giving them the context of the situation and why we were having to make certain decisions. We didn’t want them to think we were scared and leaving them.

OGUNTE: This wasn’t your first crisis either, was it?

AJAITA SHAH: It wasn’t, indeed. In India, in 2016-2017, India went through a period of demonetization, where the government depleted cash from the markets which directly hurt rural economies that were 100% cash-dependent. When demonetization happened, our rural customers turned to us first; they wanted us to try and fix it on the ground, not our NGOs, not the government; and we did. So, our customers thought: “you didn't leave us then why are you leaving us now?”

All the field staff were then put into virtual systems. We had originally already invested in their 4G connectivity, we had already invested in their handheld devices, therefore all of a sudden, 143 people were essentially set on tech system.

First, we reached out to the government and shared our learnings to see how we could collaborate to tackle the challenges. We offered our teams, infrastructure, and services to help address the accessibility challenge. We believed that we could leverage our 12 branches, 70 staff, and 2000 Sahelis in the field to help deliver doorstep services to rural customers.

We successfully attained permits from the government to reopen our branches, immediately, leveraged data to understand what essential goods and grocers are needed, and reached out to FMCG companies. When this was done, we contacted all the different FMCG [Fast-moving consumer goods] companies, as they had their infrastructures, yet they didn’t move as fast as we hoped. We had to lay out the benefits that represented shipping goods to our branches, at a town level, and explain to them we would take it from there and deliver their goods to the doorsteps, in rural villages. This was a total benefit for them, financially, and reputation-wise. Nestle was the first to come on board.

The partnership involved agriculture organisations, solar products providers - our suppliers; we also partnered with suppliers for nappies, childcare products, feminine hygiene, etc. Thanks to the e-commerce app, it was really easy to showcase all the products and get that moving. However, villagers wouldn't believe it until they physically saw Frontier Markets people delivering the goods.

We started partnerships with Hindustan Unilever (HUL), Marico, Nestle, Colgate, and agri-companies to ensure we had the full product lines available. We immediately added all into our e-commerce line, as well as created e-catalogues to share with our Sahelis and rural customers.

OGUNTE: What further challenges did you face?

AJAITA SHAH: Indeed, the challenges did not end there; the first obvious challenge for our women was that they couldn’t travel within their village, nor could they reach 150 households. They couldn’t gather to do market activations, nor could our field staff. We needed to start thinking about an alternative to reach a full household. We addressed the first challenge by reaching out to Self Help Group (SHG) leaders - there are 8 groups in each village -, as we wanted to onboard more women entrepreneurs to help coordinate their nearby neighbours.

Secondly, we turned to our tech. Could we help more women and rural households access our e-commerce app to help place orders? Earlier, we were physically downloading our technology onto all of these women’s smartphones. It turns out that a lot of other women, their children or their husbands also have a smartphone at home. Ultimately, we just needed the app to reach as many people as possible. So we immediately launched our app onto Google Play Store and we created a virtual bot that essentially helped them download the app onto any device that they had access to, which then allowed them to conduct work more effectively. We also told our field staff to cover micro territories as well, and instead of managing 50 villages, they would manage 24 for weekly doorstep deliveries of essential services to rural households.

Solar Sahelis - Frontier Markets - Rural India

SUSTAINING DOORSTEP DELIVERY IN REMOTE RURAL AREAS

OGUNTE: How long did it take for all these solutions to align and start?

AJAITA SHAH: It took us two weeks to get people to understand that we were serious about doorstep delivery. At the same time, as lockdown got more serious, we realised women were finding it difficult to use their phones to call and add data at the same time. Feedback from our customers taught us they wanted to directly place orders. So we created e-catalogues and we set up an automated voice recognition system that goes to a call centre staff. That person takes your order on their laptop, all of the data comes into our system, and we can track in real-time orders and deliveries. It's been a month since lockdown, we got our act together halfway through it, with 4000 women entrepreneurs in Rajasthan working on the ground, covering 2000 villages. We've done about 10,000 deliveries already.

We’ve introduced a system of order placements and deliveries on specific days of the week.

OGUNTE: You’ve introduced deadlines and the understanding that one action has a ripple effect, correct?

AJAITA SHAH: Correct. Otherwise, it's chaos, right? The 1st necessity products are also really low-margin products, we can't afford to have one staff going to deliver to one house for $1 worth of goods. Now on average, we organise deliveries for at least 20 people per village and that is also creating confidence.

OGUNTE: How have rural villages been able to afford these goods given the reduction of income?

AJAITA SHAH: The government recognized that when they reduced the number of farmers that would be allowed to work, there was going to be a cash challenge. Therefore, the government created a monthly stipend of about $10 for every person in a family who has a government bank account, to enable a direct transfer for the next three to six months monthly. If you're a family of seven, and let's say three people have that bank account, each of them would get $10 in that account.

OGUNTE: Well that’s a big help! 

AJAITA SHAH: It does sound wonderful, but you can imagine all the gaps. Imagine: some people have a bank account, but they don't know how to access it, they no longer have their PIN, or they've never used it. Remember as well that the banks are located next to the stores. A lot of crowds started to form at the bank to get their cash out, followed by police beatings for dispersion… That was a threat. So we immediately talked to a few strong FinTech partners. One of them was Eko India Financials who have been around for 10 years. They liked what we were doing and suggested to integrate and open-source their tech to us. The customer can now draw cash when we are on their doorsteps with the delivery. Going forward, the customers will be able to do cashless transactions with us, because we've now been able to integrate their banking information into our e-commerce system. They can choose cash withdrawal as one of the services, secured with a biometrics device, which enables the bank on the other end to validates the ID of the account owner. The field staff then handles the cash, the bank does all the checks and balances and verification.

OGUNTE: What protections and measures have been adapted to manage cash?

AJAITA SHAH: We were also very clear about honesty, and wanted to avoid fraud around the cash handling. Whatever cash the field staff has given to the customer as they withdraw money, gets reconciled and we can cross-check it in real-time. We’ve also created rules and processes about cash handling, that I got from my microfinance experience. If there was a discrepancy of even 10 Rupees, we would count this as fraud. And we would immediately fire the field staff and take action because there's no room for this in a time of crisis.

Overall this step of cash withdrawal is the need of the hour, today. Tomorrow, the goal is that by doing this, we're helping people become cashless. I think the challenge is that we always wanted rural areas to be cashless. The reason why we haven't been able to take cashless processes to the last mile rural households is because of all these gaps.

In the third and last part of this 3 parts series, Ajaita outlines the position of the company today, highlighting what has worked and where the gaps are, despite the efforts. In this context, she stresses the role that investors and philanthropists can play in this context to jointly create an impact and move in a smarter way.

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

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

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