A leading light returns to rural India
New Yorker Ajaita Shah quit the bright lights of her home city, to help illuminate her parents’ native rural India.
Jaipur, India — “I saw a 5-year-old die in five seconds,” says Ajaita Shah, recalling the Indian girl enveloped by a kerosene fire at home. “There was nothing we could do.”
This article was originally published by National Geographic.
Not then. But since that 2008 disaster, Shah has helped cut the use of kerosene lamps in rural India by selling thousands of solar lanterns, street lights, and home lighting kits.
Shah, 30, was barely out of college when she began working in Indian villages. She launched her own company, Frontier Markets, to bring safe and affordable clean energy to the northwestern region of Rajasthan, where she spends most of her time.
This wasn’t what her parents had in mind. They had emigrated from India so their children would have a better life. Raised in affluent Scarsdale, N.Y., Shah graduated from Tufts University and was set to go into corporate law when she grew interested in microfinance.
“They were freaking out,” she says of her parents, not exactly ready for a derring-do daughter to risk her own savings on a startup in the developing country they left behind. She’s wearing a colorful Rajasthani tunic but talking in rapid New York style as she calls herself the “black sheep of the family.”
In a country where one-fourth of people lack access to electricity, Shah has made her way as one of the few women leading a business that sells clean-energy products. She’s earned plaudits—Forbes magazine's Top 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, for one—and raised more than $550,000 in funding that includes a grant from the National Geographic Society's Great Energy Challenge.
She’s sold more than 85,000 solar products so far and set up 225 retail outlets to provide after-sales servicing. Half her customers have no access to the grid, and the others get only sporadic power.
“It’s very useful and better than other products,” says V.M. Khan, a homeopathic doctor, of the solar LED lantern he bought last year. He has access to the grid in his village of Jalsu, but he uses the lantern when the power goes out or he visits patients in rural areas.
On a 22-acre farm in the village of Mukandpura, where women tend the fields in orange- and cerise-colored saris, Manphouli Devi Yadav's family uses the lantern for cooking, studying, or checking cattle outside at night. It used kerosene lamps before the home was connected five years ago to the grid, which doesn’t provide continuous power.
“Blackouts happen all the time,” Shah says.