What are consumers in rural India actually looking for?
Dharma Life provides rural regions in India with know-how and products that offer high social benefits. Thousands of small local merchants form a network, sell high quality products at affordable prices, and support their use in the local villages. Clients thereby learn how they can improve their daily lives both at work and at home.
As an investor and strategic partner, elea supports the development of Dharma Life into a profitable business that is expanding its reach from region to region.
Dealer and client
We are on the streets of Kelghar, a small country village in the state of Maharashtra in India. Subha, the local Dharma Life Entrepreneur, is heading for a small house made of unplastered clay brick. She greets both of the women who are laughing and waiting for her alongside a door made of simple wooden boards joined together. These are two of Subha’s clients to whom she has regularly been selling hygienic products from the Dharma Life product range over the past five months. They immediately begin a discussion about a new kind of solar lamp that Subha had shown them in a prospect during her last visit a week earlier.
A village like Kelghar
Approximately 400 million people in India live in towns like Kelghar, where modern infrastructure has barely reached them: they have no electricity, no public water supply, and insufficient health care. Bad, often unpaved, roads and inefficient business structures with a countless number of intermediaries make the proverbial “last mile” a nearly insurmountable hurdle. The village of Kelghar is, however, one of the lucky ones: as the local representative for Dharma Life, today Subha sells selected products and services that make daily life easier for Kelghar's inhabitants. Previously, these products and services were either not available at all, or if they were, then only irregularly and for an excessive price, as is still the case in a countless number of villages. In such villages, the productivity of local businesses (mostly subsistence agriculture) remains very low, and income is well under the poverty level and can vary quite substantially depending on the environmental and harvesting conditions. Accordingly, daily life in these villages is arduous, hard, and characterized by a constant fear for one’s existence.
One Dharma Life Entrepreneur per village
Over 16,000 village level entrepreneurs (i.e., “Dharma Life Entrepreneurs” or DLEs) form the core of Dharma Life, and there is typically one DLE per village (like Subha from Kelghar). They literally go door-to-door in their village to present the range of Dharma Life products and explain their benefits. Oftentimes, clients do not know that a simple solar lamp can provide their family with many hours of light per day. By using a solar lamp, families can save several dollars per month, given that they no longer need to use kerosene. The DLEs are also there to help families if they encounter a problem with a product or if the product needs to be replaced. The DLEs, who are often small farmers focused on subsistence agriculture, earn a commission for every product that they sell and thereby realize an important additional income. Dharma Life chooses and trains its DLEs and supplies them with new products by means of a professional process. As representatives for Dharma Life, and thus representatives of a mission to improve living conditions in the villages, the DLEs provide authority in the villages and set the basis for an independent economic existence.
What motivates you to be a Dharma Life Entrepreneur?
Hygienic products, sewing machines, solar lamps – and a former investment banker as the “spiritus rector”
As the example from Kelghar shows, Dharma Life awakens the hidden entrepreneurial potential of Indian villages. The story of how Dharma Life itself was established is also quite an extraordinary entrepreneurial story. Gaurav Mehta, a thirty year old investment banker, completed his MBA at the London Business School in 2009. At the same time, he developed an innovative business plan with his fellow students to solve the acute rural distribution problems that have existed for decades in India with regard to simple consumer goods like hygienic products, sewing machines, and solar lamps. Gaurav was born and raised in Germany and had been involved on a part-time basis for several years in efforts to improve the conditions of his ancestor’s homeland. He realized that he could make a difference given his special perspective and life experience and thus decided to implement his most ambitious plan in the form of a social enterprise called Dharma Life. In 2010, he moved to India to build the organization and serve as its CEO. Today, Dharma Life is present in some of the largest and most densely populated states in India, and it is helping to develop the largely untapped market potential of rural India: Estimates suggest that the demand for consumer goods in Indian villages will increase from USD 12 billion in 2012 up to USD 100 billion in 2025, and Dharma Life is ideally positioned to shape this growth in a responsible way.
elea as a partner and investor
As an active philanthropic investor, elea accompanies Dharma Life along the growth path to an established, financially and strategically self-supporting social enterprise. By means of an extensive due diligence process and several on-site visits, elea has affirmed that Dharma Life has a large potential to create lasting social added value and that they satisfy the entrepreneurial conditions for securing a long-term loan via elea. Today, elea actively contributes to the discussion and implementation of Dharma Life’s strategy. Andreas Kirchschläger, the CEO of elea, is a member of the Advisory Council of Dharma Life. There are several strategic initiatives dealing with various themes whose implementation is actively supported by elea, both directly and via the elea network. For example, within the framework of the partnership between Accenture Switzerland AG and elea, Accenture experts work together with Dharma Life on strategical IT questions.
How do you launch products in a new village for Dharma Life?
A fast-growing social enterprise
Enormous challenges must be overcome in order for Dharma Life to realize their ambitious goals in terms of improving the living conditions in rural India. These include: poor infrastructure, complex business structures, as well as the almost proverbial Indian bureaucracy. The professional team of experts in marketing, IT, and finance that is being established at the headquarters of Dharma Life in Delhi and its local sales staff in the rural regions are as necessary as the most modern IT systems and sophisticated logistics to reach remote villages in spite of these hurdles. They are all also necessary to keep development of the Dharma Life business on a growth-oriented and profit-oriented path. Growth is the prerequisite for Dharma Life to be able to work on a long-term basis all the while covering its costs and creating more impact. This is, however, not an end in itself. More revenue means better provisions for the villages, more income for the village entrepreneurs, and efficiency gains within the organization.
The vision: a comprehensive platform for sustainable development
Dharma Life pursues a comprehensive vision: Over the next few years, the organization has set the goals of establishing a network of 100,000 Dharma Life Entrepreneurs and providing a substantial and long-lasting contribution to the entrepreneurial and social development of rural India. As a result, millions of people should have better chances to realize a self-sufficient life. As a supplement to the distribution of goods and services, Dharma Life is further developing its business to include a comprehensive platform that collects knowledge about rural India and initiates development processes. Today Dharma Life is already carrying out large-scale information campaigns and consumer surveys in Indian villages, testing new products in the design and launch phases, and evaluating buyer behavior with reputable partner organizations like the World Bank, Tata Trusts, Coca-Cola, and Unilever. These activities are taking place in areas like solar energy, internet access, infant nutrition, and personal hygiene. The strength of these partnerships and the social added value that is created by them are based on the relationships that Dharma Life nurtures in the villages: it is an entrepreneurial organization that operates on a level playing field with its clients.