By: Ajaita Shah, Founder and CEO, Frontier Markets

The Ripple Effect of Investing in Women: How Powerful Women Can Transform Communities

I have been working in India and with rural women for 18+ years now; it’s been the best eye-opener and perspective that I can experience. I started my career in microfinance, where I first learned about the POWER of rural women, and why billions of dollars were going to be invested in getting micro-loans to women, and women only. What was their understanding? Well, women spend money well, they have a reputational risk if they do not pay back their loans, and they want to earn money to optimise the future of their kids. BILLIONS of DOLLARS, if not TRILLIONS of DOLLARS, focused on INVESTING IN WOMEN… it’s a moment to reflect on as a 20-year-old coming from America, to witness the force and strength and opportunity to invest in women.

While working in the microfinance sector, I lived, worked, and spent time with 100K women… on a grassroots level – living in villages, spending time with families, connecting in a real way, and truly gaining the opportunity to understand the role that women play in communities, their POWER.

What were my learnings?

Well, they are the true decision-makers in their households, they know what is happening in their villages, they are the first to think about solutions, and they truly care outside of themselves. They are trusted. They are connectors, they have each other’s backs… they are, what I like to call, the future, their own #Fafia. (Femme Mafia)

But the challenge was larger than access to finance. For rural families to be resilient, aspirational, and economically prosperous to break the norms of poverty truly, finance was just not enough. We needed to think about the holistic challenges that rural families face. Today, rural India is home to over 900 million people, and many of them face significant challenges in accessing quality healthcare, electricity, private education/skills, digital access, cheap finance, and other basic services. Without these issues being addressed, we were not really changing the norms. And the reality is women do not have income opportunities – the burden of unpaid care and household work often prevents them from accessing formal employment opportunities outside of their villages. Ultimately, loans are great, but if women do not have a business, a job, or an opportunity, why would a loan make sense?

I set up Frontier Markets to partner with rural women entrepreneurs to bring these solutions to their communities – holistically maintaining the notion that women are at the centre but also driving additional solutions to the last mile where people live. Deep rural India. By investing in rural women entrepreneurs, we are not only addressing this challenge but also creating a pathway for these women to become leaders and decision-makers in their communities.

We believe in the power of women leaders as problem solvers in their communities. By providing them with an opportunity to work in their own villages where they have the most understanding of their communities, everything changes… give her a job that enables her to be her level best. And then… provide her with a digital platform where she can capture the needs of her community, showcase solutions, help people learn new skills, and facilitate services like finance, jobs, climate solutions, and more – she becomes the champion of her world to grow on her own, we are creating economic opportunities that have a ripple effect throughout their communities. This is what makes our approach unique - investing in the potential of rural women entrepreneurs.

We have seen first-hand the incredible impact that rural women entrepreneurs can have. They are the ones who are building a better future for their families and communities.

One example of the impact that rural women entrepreneurs have is the story of Usha. Usha was only ten years old when she got married. She stayed with her family until she was 14, attending school however, right around this time, her in-laws requested that she move in with them to contribute to their household. Dreams of pursuing higher education diminished in years to come as they experienced the loss of family members and financial instability. At 14, Usha went from being a child playing with her friends to becoming a wife, a farmer, a cook, a caretaker of adults, and within 2 years, a mother.

Usha wanted to earn an income, but given her immense responsibilities, travelling wasn't an option. She met Frontier Markets and became a “Saral Jeevan Saheli,” or “Easy Life Friend,” got trained, accessed a digital platform, worked from her own home, connected with her community, and helped facilitate services that would ease the pains of her village. Usha showcased solutions to her communities based on their pain points, from solar lighting solutions to handle electrification challenges to job certification programs to quality healthcare solutions to accessing finance.

Enabled with growing confidence, she joined a local women’s collective- a “Self Help Group” and worked her way up. Today she is the leader of this group, where she teaches women about government services, social challenges, and thinking about ways to support their community. Leveraging her experience as a Saheli and community leader, she constantly explores new ways to be involved and expand her connections to help others. Through the Self-Help Group, she became the group accountant and has helped women access finance, find direction for their own well-being, and generally find a place for leadership.

Today, Usha has helped over 50 women start businesses, has helped them access over INR 5 lakh of finance, helped 100 families take on solar solutions, delivered 10,000 other services, and has earned over INR 50,000/ year to invest in her family and her two kids that are dependent on her. She’s the centre of her community. “I am finally dreaming about big things, about the future of my children, and it’s a nice dream, not a nightmare; I want every woman in this village to have that opportunity,” Usha said to me. She wants her daughter to become an Engineer or anything professional in life. She sees herself as a leader. She controls her destiny.

Usha's story is just one example of the impact that investing in rural women entrepreneurs can have. By creating economic opportunities for rural women, we are not only addressing the challenges of poverty but also elevating their existing power as women leaders and decision-makers in their communities. This has a ripple effect throughout the community as women reinvest their earnings in their families and communities.

I realise that we need to change the rhetoric: it’s not about “empowering women” but actually elevating the power they already have. Women are born leaders, they are changemakers, they care about their community, and they are influencers. We just need to see that clearly. Investing in women, and providing them with the skills, the digital tools, and the opportunity to earn an income is not just the “right thing to do,” it's the smart thing to do. In recognising the continuously evolving position and power of rural women, we’ve seen women through the multiple roles she plays.

As we think about the world’s larger problems, we have embarked on a journey to unlock the potential of women and see them for who they are and what they can be. Leveraging her strengths as a mother, a farmer, a community member, an educator and a powerful entrepreneur.


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