Adianta sessions: Diana Jue on social-impact technology

IMG_20141204_160558_297The Adianta School extends its heartiest welcome to – Diana Jue who is a co founder at Essmart: developing technologies for the underprivileged in the rural areas such as — affordable solar lanterns, nonelectric water filters and other life improving technologies.

She is here to share insights on tackling challenges she faced  “ doing her bit in bringing ‘social-impact’ technology to people who need it.”

1:05 pm Diana never chose to be an entrepreneur but it was her her desire for social welfare in ways much different from the norm (backed by her well thought understandings of technology + economic usability) , that led her to become one.

As the session commences Diana tells us that she is not a trained product designer but she saw a problem that she cared about and was confident in finding a solution for it, this is when back in 2011 she co founded Essmart with colleague Jackie Stenson.

…..What we saw as areas of innovation was to make a product which our users wanted and that, we did not understood only with time.

1:15 pm Diana tells the Adianta cohort, both of us had research backgrounds in technology development under mentor-  Amy smith at the D-Lab (Development through Dialogue, Design and Dissemination) . Their focus then was to synthesize user-centric design and technology in arriving at products for those who don’t have a much money to disposal.

Diana tells us how her research in Urban Studies and Planning was followed by a visit to rural China and India and her attempt to learn  about existing technologies also made her realize how only a few people knew of the existing technologies. And for those few who did know of the technology the did not know where to get them. In other cases, if the product was from a nongovernmental organization, they did not have good after sales service to mend a product (if broken)

1:26 pm She illustrates this with an example, from a Tibetan village where people were unaware of solar cookers and the household that owned it was too scared to use it fearing, an accidental fire! She also spoke of  dusty- smoke-reducing biomass cooking stoves locked ‘ignorantly’ in a warehouse in southern India as they were not commercialized effectively.


Diana then tells us how an interest in community development introduced her to Jackie who was doing a research in Sub-Saharan Africa (post university studies) pertaining to issues related to stores of distribution and economic logistics at the village level model which wasn’t working : as going door to door is hard and time consuming.

IMG_20141204_160558_3091:40 pm Diana tells us how she was convinced of a model which did not rely on distribution through retail but through institutional tie ups only. This was also a time when Jackie was researching in Africa , looking at successful distributors of mobile phones and coke bottles .

…..It is important to know what others are trying to attempt and be inspired by a person who you could possibly look to model .


1:55 pm Diana tells us how after finishing her masters in social impact technology she got a team together and raised money for Essmart.

….To facilitate a sustainable business model and a successful distribution system there is a need to create a complimenting eco-system around it as you can never ‘sell in a shell’

Diana speaks of her operations which were based on market demos, educating people on product usage and also concentrating on betterment of after sale services e.g. warranty facilitation. She tells us Essmart presently has 6 distribution centers the sales guys train the shop owner (as it is an institutional model and not a retail). However, as her team works in rural areas she does not want to market an Essmart product to echo with being ‘poor’. as an example she states…..

….. Nano was marketed very cheaply as the world wants to be an owner of the smartest car and not the cheapest car.

One of the things we learnt on the marketing front, in our case, was the fact that we want to resonate the image of a ‘Happy middle class family/families’ as Essmart is a brand of quality.

2:03 pm In terms of distribution: we decided to piggyback on the  existing buying and selling in the market and it is through the store owner that we build trust in our customers. Instead of reaching all of them one by one we need to approach the store owners who will create trust relationships .

The unorganized retail space is huge and we could scale faster if we focus on how to distribute products in a more accessible way. The model is also based on a lot of trust as it develops on the limited income from people in rural areas.

Diana shares her observation on how opinion leaders in the rural society matter a lot in such places. More importantly, the store guy is one among the trustworthy lot. So we need to make sure the store guy trusts us. It is a slow process and the relationship takes time to build.

In many cases people throw away their products so we noticed they want high quality products and we are trying on our part to ensure better after sale services and win their trust back in.

….. So make sure you as a new company ensure good word of mouth, customers don’t mind if a product breaks they mind more that we get their back and mitigate their risk.

They want to buy products with good after sale service , understandably – marketing, distribution and after sales needs to go hand in hand.

2:10 pm Nikhil (an ASLI student) has a question: Q) What do you have to say about warranty claims? what if they break products themselves ? A) Diana replies,  In some cases it happens and our suppliers do accommodate for it but at other times we ask the products owner to buy the replacement parts. The company supplies the products  and the cost of replacement is with the company we want to make sure customer is happy …

Q) How do you choose to include and market your new products in rural areas ? A) Diana replies, We have a book or catalog with pretty pictures :)… but before that we have to make sure everything is in print and ready to display. As we don’t have good internet in such areas we resorted to having a hard copy.We also have media channels talking about us.

Speaking of new products customers are requesting products from us such and their choices have surprised us (by challenging and inspiring us )  reflective ware , low cast head lamps, torch lights etc.

However, before we put out a product we carefully test it on the appropriate parameters such as : battery backup in the lab, drop tests to ensure durability. Post this we also go to stores and ask the guys to get feedback.The shopkeeper is the first user and if the response if generally positive we add it to the catalog.

Once the ‘technical guy’ is passed successful we have to deal with the ‘business guy’ who is responsible for bringing in the supplier. It is vital that the supplier is responsive enough and not stuck up in his own issues, as there are at times tax registrations for products and other logistics which delay delivery.


Q) What is your model of distribution if it is not retail?

A) Once done with the pilot stage testing we eventually start selling and as we cannot retail we do wholesale (based on FDI rules as we can’t do retailing) but it works for us. Presently,  it is hard to raise money in India and we have non Indian investors. I also learnt our customers care that we are a ‘US’ company and we want to play it a bit more in with a sense of aspiration

Q) How do you deal with the inventory management and distribution ?

A) We have a mobile app and details on the sale executive is there as ASLI students are also making new apps you could look at it in terms of a better solution for us too 🙂

The problem with our app is that it gives access to all people and if the sales guy just needs to place order it takes 5 clicks to place an order. At our end we are working on making the data more visual enough for us as we would have preferred graphs, pie charts et all to see how many pending orders are left, the locations etc.

Q) Any custom software you are using ?

A) We might have to do that as we are looking for people who can deal with bugs and not keep us waited for six months for the next release

Q) How do you shop keepers ensure proper space management for your products

A) We ask for a shelf to place Essmart as it helps the branding. Even our catalog needs a good placement as it is just like a book that may get lost midst other articles on the table. Speaking off branding we are also looking at store boards, wall paintings etc.

At this point an Chaitanya (ASLI student) points out how calendars have helped him leverage his brand name in his home start up which deals with educational institutions.

Q) How long does it take to deliver the products?

A) We essentially want immediate delivery as we want store owners to stock the products so we tell them you buy more get more discounts but for large products we connect the end user with the supplier

Q) Your thoughts on expansion expanding

A) We are presently in 6 places and in July 2013, we just had one center, now we have 6. Diana also tells us her love for Bangalore as she likes the weather better and it suits the management team too.

.….We started in Tamil Nadu and we think innovations diffuse towards from the richest to the poor.

You are not going to a start up forever and we want to spread geographical, simultaneously we also want to develop a culture within the organization. We want to understand what values we are willing to abide by for which we held role plays and other interactive sessions. We want to ensure the sales guy that his opinion counts and we want to respect authority and autonomy over everything …

…..You have to have your vision and make it a good one in what you start.

The HR team is also a vital part and don’t fire good people in the wrong roles.  You can always look out for better options for them.

2:46 pm Q) You biggest competitor?

A) It has to be a bad product in the market for e.g. cheap lanterns, we know word of mouth helps here and we too have dealt with cranky customers in the past.

3:00 pm Diana speaks of how her team is connected on WhatsApp be it the dispatch team or their close knit associates. They also have a software to get the sales data after the month,  Quickbook for accounting and how she ensures a cap on the transport expenses of these items when transferred to new households.

Diana Jue also spoke to CKS consultants on her challenges in developing social impact technologies

Diana Jue also spoke to CKS consultants on her challenges in developing social impact technologies

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