Gender equality, as well as poverty, are pressing issues in India. The nation has a 65% female literacy rate, more than 15% lower than the rate for men, and less than 50% of women attend secondary school. A large majority of women in India are not employed in the formal sector, with just over 30% of women participating in the labor force. Outside of the metropolitan areas, traditional gender norms prevail, and many women are expected to perform only domestic work.
However, things are changing in some areas. There has been a massive growth of microfinance in India, and 85% of the poorest users of microfinance are women, with microloans giving them more economic freedom. Aiding this trend is a company called Sakhi Unique Rural Enterprises, or SURE. SURE works with women in rural areas, and empowers them as entrepreneurs to sell products in their communities.
SURE was founded in 2005, as an offshoot of a larger umbrella organization, called Swayam Shikshan Prayog or SSP. SSP has been in operation since 1993, and worked primarily with women’s empowerment and disaster relief. In 2004, British Petroleum approached SSP with a new product designed for social impact: smokeless cooking stoves, called Oorjas, which eliminated many of the hazards of traditional cooking methods. The members of SSP decided to market the stoves through their own distribution network, focused on rural women as salespeople, and SURE was born.
Along with microfinance partner, Sakhi Samudaya Kosh, and Sakhi Social Enterprise Network which provides entrepreneurial skills training and mentoring to women, SURE built support among women in rural areas. SURE provided the training and products to be sold while forming groups of women to discuss business practices with peers and mentors. This network has been growing since, and now includes more than 850 women entrepreneurs, called sakhis, across two Indian states. SURE’s sakhis now sell a range of products in addition to cookstoves, from solar lights to water purifiers. The company is also expanding towards other impact-oriented consumer goods such as fortified rice products and sanitary napkins.
SURE operates through direct partnerships with the manufacturers of its products, which the sakhis sell in their communities. The manufacturers offer a 20-40% commission for each product, which is split between the sakhis (60%) and SURE (40%). Some sakhis report earning 3-4 times more than their employment before SURE.
SURE is led by a committed team of individuals, many of which have been working together in SSP since the 1990s. Mr. Upmanyu Patil, the CEO, and cofounder, has degrees in civil engineering and business administration. He has been working in areas such as disaster relief, water sanitation, and environmental management for the past 16 years. The other cofounder of SURE is its executive director, Ms. Prema Gopalan, who also founded SSP in 1993 where she has worked since then.
SURE’s revenues for the past 12-month period is Rs. 6 million ($98,000). By the end of 2016, the company aims to reach revenues of Rs. 250 million ($410,000). SURE is also profitable at the moment, with marginal profits of Rs. 500,000 ($8,200) in the past year. Currently, SURE is seeking an investment of Rs. 24 million ($390,000), through either equity or convertible loan options.
Because it is already profitable on modest revenues, SURE may be a more attractive investment candidate than many small companies which run large deficits before reaching break-even. As part of a larger organization headed by a team with decades of experience and contacts with rural women entrepreneurs, SURE’s management is a plus. However, potential investors will questions SURE’s ability to rapidly scale. SURE’s model is very hands on, requiring considerable time to acquire each new sakhi. Over the past 5 years, the organization has only recruited and trained 850 sakhis, a rate that will have to increase considerably in order to achieve the anticipated growth.
While there is certainly a demand for its products among rural populations, SURE is also highly reliant on its manufacturing partners. Although they probably have few other channels to reach the rural poor, the success of SURE’s business model and ability to attract sakhis depends on the number and variety of its products made available by its manufacturers/suppliers.
Overall, though, Sakhi Unique Rural Enterprises has already become an economic success with considerable potential for great impact. It’s certainly a company that will generate interest from both individual angels and funds engaged in impact investing. To contact SURE, please email its CEO, Upmanyu Patil, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos are used with permission and are the property of SURE India.