Jeff Singer

Without dependable access to electricity, more than half of the world’s population turns to unsafe lighting and cooking practices, which lead to more than 4 million deaths each year. Having lived in such circumstances, Ajaita Shah founded Frontier Markets (FM) in 2010 to bring solar-powered products to people in remote rural areas—so-called last-mile locations—in India.

Solar power is not new to India, but Shah, who was born in New York and studied international relations at Tufts University, found that a lack of education, access, affordability, and trust in the technology has hindered its use in that country. Inspired by Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s on-the-ground efforts to sell services alongside its products at the turn of the 20th century, Shah created a localized economy in solar solutions—one that educates sales personnel, distributes products to remote customers, and services the products sold—Rajasthan, India's largest state, and, more recently, Andhra Pradesh.

Starting with a handful of goat farmers selling solar-powered lanterns, FM now has 35 staff members on the ground who have sold about 50,000 products—including home lighting kits, street lights, and power packs—to 25,000 households and businesses. ARCHITECT spoke with Shah on how FM is empowering a population once skeptical of solar.

How do you train your sales and service staff and vet your products?
We have a lot of engineers and we take on local folks who understand wiring and batteries, and then train them in solar solutions. We get feedback on the ground on what households need and then we look into the market to see what's out there. Our engineering team does its own quality assurance testing, and then we take the products back into the market for more feedback. The products are not necessarily the best quality because it’s also a price-point issue, but we try to manage customer expectations. We also work with the International Finance Corp. on its Lighting Africa initiative, and look at what products they qualify as high quality based on characteristics such as durability, waterproofing, relevance, and design.

Solar energy is not a new industry to India. How does your company distinguish itself?
There are many companies that have sales influence, but they never applied it to quality assurance, accountability, education, and localized delivery. The average household in rural or urban India—or America—doesn’t understand solar well enough to understand the alternatives or solutions they have. We really know that loyal customer so when we’re designing product solutions with our partners, we understand what exactly that household needs. Our focus hasn’t been about making as much money from these customers as possible. It’s been a slow process of integrating their understanding of how solar works today.

How do you generate revenue?
It’s strictly from product sales. On the Frontier Innovations Foundation’s side, which is based in the U.S., we do a lot of consulting work and research as well. Until now, the market focused on maximizing the first dollar immediately. That should be your long-term goal. The first goal is build a relationship of trust and get [households] to transition. If that happens, money follows.

How would you convince U.S. households to use solar?
In America, the cost of electricity is very low and it’s a given that you’ll have access to electricity. Converting [American households] to solar is a lot harder. We do it well [in India], but I’ve spent 10 years here building a team and viewing the market and the customer. We eventually want to replicate our model into another country, but we would work with another partner on the ground.

How much time do you spend on the ground versus networking with individuals and organziations?
In the beginning, I was 100 percent on the ground. Now, I have an entire team that’s on the ground 24/7. My time now is about 40 percent networking and 60 percent on the ground.

What’s next for FM and yourself?
The company’s goals include showcasing solar as the future in developing countries and trying to change the mindset of how solar is viewed. It shouldn't be an alternative. It can actually be the only solution, but it can only work effectively when rural customers are demanding it and when they have actual ownership of their power. Personally, I’d like to get more involved on the foundation side and start working on the global perspective. I want to use my understanding of working on the ground to work more closely with government because I think governments are the only way to seal these initiatives. I’d like to work more closely with global agencies as well, focusing on where funding should be invested in the sector so we make a larger impact, faster.

How can architects help?
Get in touch. It would be interesting to do more workshops with architects who are thinking about designs, and it would be amazing to get a renowned architect—or someone who is interested—to come to India and help out on the project. We always are looking for partnerships and trying to bridge the different verticals. We’re starting to work with universities in the U.S. on thinking through design affordability. They don’t understand working on the ground, so FM and Frontier Innovations can bridge that gap and help develop that skill set. What technical and design skills would be useful?
Designing for affordability is about how you can maximize solar solutions efficiently and also use very little land and space. How that structure happens and how can we make solar adapt quite seamlessly into the building need more innovation. We can come up with the typical amount of solar required to cover a household’s energy requirements, but, at the end of the day, an architect who can make [solar solutions] gel into the infrastructure is naturally important.

Learn more from Greenbuild master speaker Ajaita Shah and earn an AIA HSW Learning Unit on Friday, Oct. 24 at 8 a.m. (New Orleans Theater).