Social Enterprise Showcase: Sakhi Retail – A friend to help you reach every rural doorstep

Through a trained rural women entrepreneur network who can create markets in challenging areas, build awareness among consumers and deliver effectively to the rural doorstep, Sakhi Retail Pvt. Ltd reaches over 600,000 people with affordable clean and green products.


Through a trained rural women entrepreneur network who can create markets in challenging areas, build awareness among consumers and deliver effectively to the rural doorstep, Sakhi Retail Pvt. Ltd reaches over 600,000 people with affordable clean and green products.

Sakhi Retail today reaches over 600,000 people in rural Maharashtra and Bihar through 850+ women micro-entrepreneurs. Pic courtesy: indiabookofrecords.

After 18 years of working on disaster relief and empowerment of women in rural Maharashtra, Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), an NGO, decided to turn to business. After several rounds of deliberation between founder Prema Gopalan and BOP guru CK Prahlad, SSP arrived at the ‘sakhi’ model – training women in rural India to create markets for clean and green products in the most challenged regions of India.

Genesis

The story of ‘Oorja’ – a smokeless cookstove product for rural markets is also the story of how and why Sakhi Retail started. In 2004, British Petroleum (BP) conducted  a research along with the NGO SSP, to replace polluting firewood cookstoves used in villages with a clean and green product. ‘Oorja’, a product co-created by BP, SSP, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and rural women’s groups, was a smokeless biomass stove which used pellets (produced from a mush of corn cobs, coffee beans and sugar cane crush) as fuel.

The oorja smokeless stoves were the first product that SSP collaborated with BP and other partners to develop, market and distribute.

Priced at Rs. 675, the Oorja has a chamber for burning pellets, a mini fan powered by rechargeable batteries, and controlled by a regulator which blows air to fan the flames. The two year long association led to an interest in creating a robust rural distribution model, through which a company called Adharam Energy Company Pvt. Ltd. was formed in 2006. When BP withdrew its business from India in 2009, a company called FirstEnergy took over the distribution and manufacturing of Oorja stoves. While the cookstove sales picked up, there was an interest in adding to the portfolio of green rural products and distribute them effectively and that is how Sakhi Retail was born in 2009.

The Sakhi model goes over and above retail, though. At the heart of Sakhi Retail is 850+ women entrepreneurs who are trained to create markets for affordable, high quality products, from water heaters to solar systems, create awareness among the community and deliver products effectively at the rural doorstep. “Women entrepreneurship is how we wanted to scale product creation and distribution in rural markets,” says Upmanyu Patil, CEO, Sakhi Retail.

SSP created 3 entities for this purpose – Sakhi Samudaya Kosh, a microfinance institution, Sakhi Social Enterprise Network which is a capacity building and skill training entity and SURE – Sakhi Unique Rural Enterprise or Sakhi Retail, mainly for marketing and distribution.

At a Sakhi village outreach event.

 

Central Idea and Solution – women-powered rural distribution networks

SSP as an NGO leverages the trust built from 18 years of experience with women empowerment at Sakhi Retail, which  builds on the women’s capacities and community relationships earlier developed through the micro credit groups/networks. The confidence, business skills and reputation gained as marketers empowers Sakhis to expand their business. They become role models and inspiration for other rural women to step out of their homes and take on business initiatives.

SURE has also developed a direct feedback loop with the product creators. The women entrepreneurs actively engage with product companies right at the product conception stage – from form and size to pricing and outreach strategies. With long standing strategic partnerships with leading companies, SURE supports cutting down of distribution costs and reaching the BOP market effectively in rural Maharashtra and lately, Bihar. Some the products that have sold best through the Sakhi network have been Oorja stoves, D.Light solar lanterns, biomass pellets and organic fertilizers.

“We have begun exploring micro-manufacturing in local areas to bring down costs and pricing. We now set up and operate water purification plants to sell pure water at Rs. 2 to 3 per litre. We are also setting up a sanitary napkin production unit. We support the manufacturing process in its entirety and then market and distribute these products as SURE.” The manufacturers give 20-40% as commission, and this is split between the sakhis (60%) and Sakhi Retail (40%). The Sakhis earn 3-4 times more than their earlier jobs.

Secret Sauce – women selling to women

“We selected women to be the core beneficiaries of this enterprise model because, for one SSP had already worked largely with women and had become a trusted name to them for social, economic and political empowerment. Secondly the products we were dealing with resonated more with the women due to their frequent use by them – from cook stoves and sanitary napkins to solar lanterns.”

Sakhis also help remove the number of layers from manufacturer to consumer, apart from making the producer itself so appealing. This reduces the loss of margins in between all these layers. “We have logistics and storage capacity close to the end consumer, including service requirements and replacement guarantees. At a very basic level we position all our products as not mere products but an actual solution to prevalent issues – be it pollution due to conventional cookstoves or lack of electrification in rural areas overcome by use of alternative energy applications,” says Upmanyu Patil.

The numbers

Sakhi Retail today has over 2,200 sakhis, a customer base of over 600,000 and reaches a staggering 1,000,000 people with clean water, 25,000 with solar lighting and 5,000 organic farmers with manure.

From HUL’s Pure-it to Godrej’s ChotuKool and biomass pellets, Sakhis have helped enhance sales and distribution effectively among the 600,000 people they reach today. The route has been challenging; one of the first hurdles being convincing the women. “We spend a lot of time and effort in capacity building and training.” The second major challenge Sakhi Retail encounters is in dealing with rural markets where awareness is low. The third and potentially most difficult one is in dealing with clean and green energy products, where market adoption and price sensitivity play an important role in purchase decisions and promotional efforts.

Future course

SURE still relies on grants and funds from various institutions to cover the cost of their overall operations. They are looking to move towards a hybrid funding and operating model, in order to be more sustainable.

Sakhi Retail is a finalist at the Artha Venture Challenge, a nationwide competition by Ennovent andVillgro to identify, select and provide the best socially focused ventures access to mentoring, connections and funding.

Social Enterprise Showcase is a series of profiles on mission-driven profit-cum-impact enterprises that are working on social, environmental and cultural development challenges across India.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
IDEX Fellow and founder of collaborative blog Seize The Word. When she isn’t bouncing off the walls with new ideas and childlike enthusiasm, she is dreaming up story book plots and researching for her new venture. A social-entrepreneur-in-progress, her plate is never empty and her glass is always half full. A Bangalore girl with a soft spot for Mumbai. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
IDEX Fellow and founder of collaborative blog Seize The Word. When she isn’t bouncing off the walls with new ideas and childlike enthusiasm, she is dreaming up story book plots and researching for her new venture. A social-entrepreneur-in-progress, her plate is never empty and her glass is always half full. A Bangalore girl with a soft spot for Mumbai. more

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