The d.light India team hosted a group of Acumen staff and community members at their new office in Gurgaon a few weeks ago. d.light is an Acumen-supported enterprise which aims to create a brighter future – by designing, manufacturing and distributing solar power and light products throughout the developing world. Through a series of stories and a community visit, Jaideep Mukherjee (Managing Director – Asia) and Atul Mittal (Director, Marketing), shared lessons that they had learned while navigating distribution in the difficult rural last mile. Here are a few highlights from our discussion on what it takes to build a strong rural distribution channel:
1. Choose a channel that is invested in selling your products: For many years, the company relied on private retailers of flashlights and battery products to be their key distribution channel. The logic was simple – a rural customer opting for a flashlight should switch over time to a solar lantern, given the much improved lighting, product durability and zero operating cost. However, the company eventually realized that these retailers stocked too many different products (250+) and just did not have the time to educate and convert the customer. d.light found a better channel with the government cooking gas distribution companies (HPCL and BPCL), who stocked only 10-15 products and had the time needed to educate the customer while delivering the cooking gas at their doorstep.
2. Distributor brand and reliability is as important as your own: One of the company’s key selling features from a product perspective is a no questions asked, 2-year product replacement warranty. While its customers love the warranty, their biggest fear is around the longevity of the retailers, who might close their businesses before the 2 year period. The relationships with BPCL and HPCL, which are state-owned companies and have been doing business in their neighborhoods for decades, also helped address this concern.
3. Training the channel on ‘sales-ability’ cannot be overemphasized: Over the course of the day, we stepped into a nearby community to meet with customers and talk to distributors. Balbeer Singh was one such distributor. Having recently retired from the army, the government gave Balbeer a parcel of land in his native village and his pension savings. With time on his hands and respect in the community, Balbeer has proved to be a good distributor for d.light, selling 120 units in a community of 350 households. However, this did not come easy because the d.light team had to provide hands-on sales training to him. Many d.light distributors have the same great intent and willingness, but lack essential sales skills. d.light coaches them in these skills which equip them to sell not only d.light solar lanterns, but many other products as well.
Translating these lessons, largely gathered through trial and error, into action has borne fruit for d.light in India. Monthly sales volumes have grown by up to 5 times over the past eighteen months, and Jaideep and Atul insist that this is only the tip of the iceberg. To date, d.light has served over 19 million customers in 34 countries. Globally 1.5 billion people still lack access to electricity and use kerosene, and 400 million of those are in India, so there is certainly more work to be done.