June 22, 2012
The shop owner below runs a small store in Pollachi, a city in southern India. He sells items like shampoo packets, snacks, and sweets. But with Essmart Global, he could begin offering local villagers technologies that really change their lives.
In mid-June, Essmart Global won the Dell Social Innovation Challenge and a $50,000 investment. Their vision is to build a distribution network in India that markets “essential technologies” like solar lanterns, water filters, and cooking stoves through a catalogue, then orders and ships those items to local shop owners to sell.
Before they were introduced by an MIT professor, cofounders Diana Jue and Jackie Stenson had come to the same conclusion: by traveling in Western China (Jue) and Africa (Stenson), they realized that critical technologies weren’t getting into the hands of needy families.
So they created Essmart Global, starting with a small pilot in southern India. Jue packed her bags and got to work with 2 teammates, plus students from a local Indian university, to conduct over 200 surveys of shop owners. The team distributed 17 different technologies to 2 of those shops, and they all sold out within a week – an encouraging result.
“A lot of the shop owners … really were interested – not just because of the margins that they could potentially receive on them,” explains Jue. “They were saying things like, ‘Oh, this could really improve our people’s lives.’”
In August, Jue and Stenson will start building Essmart from the ground up in India: getting warehouse space, hiring sales agents, and building relationships with local shops.
Somewhat counterintuitively, they believe that selling these technologies may have a bigger impact than just giving them away. Some of the free stuff distributed by governments and other organizations goes unused, the cofounders explain, because people don’t have the training or even the personal investment to use them. But buying creates a sense of ownership and value – like when locals in small villages buy cell phones to communicate with their loved ones.
“Something that we do want to foster is instilling dignity through a buying relationship, which is something that we in the States experience all the time,” says Jue. “It’s something that individuals in these more remote areas of developing countries don’t always get to experience.”
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