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Finance & Innovation

This Woman Has a Clean Solution to a Dirty Problem

In the wealthy suburb of NYC where Ajaita Shah grew up, the main energy problem people face is which energy company to use. Shah’s parents emigrated from India, precisely so that she could have this kind of life.

But after graduating from college Shah surprised her parents by giving that up. She founded Frontier Markets, initially investing all her own savings, and now spends most of her time in northwestern Rajasthan, India, where she’s spreading solar energy.

Nearly 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity. Without energy, children cannot study, families cannot cook, and people are subject to the constraints of daylight hours.

In developing countries like India, kerosene lamps offer a cheap, but hazardous, alternative. Deaths caused by accidental fires are sadly common, especially in slum areas where makeshift homes are packed tightly together.

“I saw a 5-year-old die in five seconds … there was nothing we could do,” Shah told National Geographic.

Not only are the lamps fire hazards, they are also grossly inefficient — they cast a dim lit while releasing carbon emissions and causing respiratory illness.

Through Frontier Markets, Shah is helping to reduce the number of kerosene lamps in rural India. So far, she’s sold over 85,000 solar products and has established 225 retail centers where products can be serviced.

The organization supplies women with solar lamps and empowers them to be the distributors of solar energy to their rural communities — communities that lie beyond the reach of the power grid or have sporadic energy supplies.

“Women are not a challenge. Women are not an impact story. Women are actually smart business,” she said.

But Shah isn’t just supplying women with solar lamps and expecting them to hustle. She’s training them to become educators so they can teach their communities about the negative impact of kerosene lamps and the positive attributes of solar energy. In doing so, she’s helping these women generate income and become financially independent, but she’s also raising their status within their communities. Women have told Shah that their husbands now listen to them and that community members now greet them with respect.

There’s no doubt that Shah and Frontier Markets are providing clean solutions to a widespread problem, but it’s unclear whether or not solar energy will remain the solution of choice for India’s poorest.

“Villages are quick to abandon renewable energy when the grid reaches them … the poor … want grid-based power like urban households,” noted Lydia Powell, an energy expert with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

In India, energy is not just a necessity, it’s a social issue. Access to power is correlated with income levels and castes. Those of lower caste (social status) generally have low income and poor access to energy. As a result, power — the kind that can be controlled with the casual flick of a switch — is more than a necessity, it’s a status symbol.

That’s why Frontier Markets crucially equips women to be educators, not just salespeople.

As a woman in a male-dominated culture herself, Shah said her work has been tough, but she’s “doing what [she] wants to do.” And progress is being made. The woman whose 5-year-old child Shah saw engulfed by flames is now the leader of her village’s solar lantern selling.


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