It’s the beginning of the month and orders are pouring in for FreshXpress, a delivery service based in Bhubaneswar, Odisha in India. Families are using the FreshXpress app to order cereals, grains, and other kitchen staples. Event planners are ordering supplies for upcoming weddings. And nearby hotels are stocking up on snacks and fruit to serve their guests. Madhusmita Patro, the 32-year-old founder of FreshXpress, oversees her five part-time employees and several temporary staff as they pack orders and load them onto motorbikes for delivery.
FreshXpress was born out of Madhusmita’s experience as a new mother during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. “My inspiration actually came from the pandemic,” she says. “I was a single mother here alone at home with a baby.” Her husband serves in the military and travels frequently. When COVID-19 lockdowns began, Madhusmita found herself home alone with their infant son, unable to work or safely buy essential items for her household. Existing delivery services were too slow, and their stock was unreliable, pushing her to take matters into her own hands. At the time, she was studying for the exams that would qualify her for government jobs. After a conversation with her cousin, she made the bold choice to forego the government career and start a business. The pair pooled their resources to rent a space, order inventory, and hire a developer to create the app customers use to place orders seamlessly. Today, when a new mother orders groceries from FreshXpress, she’ll have them delivered within 90 minutes.
Women entrepreneurs like Madhusmita often struggle to access the financial services that can help their businesses succeed. Traditional financial institutions may believe that these customers are too small, too hard to reach, or too unprofitable to serve. In India, only a small percentage of businesses are owned by women, and female entrepreneurs receive even less funding to start or grow their companies.
But innovative, digitally focused financial providers like Annapurna Finance Pvt. Ltd. are changing that narrative. The Indian lending institution was established in 2009 to provide financial services to the populations that weren’t being served by existing banks. Today, 85 percent of their borrowers operate in rural areas, and 99 percent are women. Madhusmita received a loan from their Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise (MSME) financing products. The loan has helped her pay rent and order inventory so she can continue to build her business. Along with the MSME loans, Annapurna also provides financial and technical support to start, expand, or digitally transform a business.
Fortunately, Madhusmita is already tech-savvy, and FreshXpress serves customers with a range of technical abilities. Customers place orders via app and can pay directly through it using the digital wallet PhonePe, or with cash upon delivery. She’s grown her business using both print and digital marketing, including Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Her team also hands out flyers to advertise, continuing to reach customers on and offline. After a long day of fulfilling orders, Madhusmita manages the business’s finances and operations from her desktop computer, often with her son on her knee.
Accion is a longtime partner of Annapurna Finance. We have worked together on Annapurna’s efforts to provide innovative financial services that can reach small businesses and individuals across India, as well as their own digital transformation. As they work to become a fully digital financial institution, Annapurna hopes to bring women into the formal financial system by providing them access and faster and more convenient products through digital channels.
Working capital like Annapurna provided to Madhusmita is critical to grocery businesses, which typically hold a lot of inventory and have limited cash available to invest in their growth. And Madhusmita does intend to grow. Over time, she wants to expand from grocery into seasonal items, such as pre-cut vegetables or and homemade juice, as well as pre-cut meats, eggs, and other fresh produce items. She wants to hire her employees full-time so that she doesn’t need to bring on temporary workers during busy periods. Eventually, she wants to also make her own products and sell them under her own brand name.
“I started from nothing and it’s good that I have come so far. I don’t want to stop here; I want to keep going,” she says proudly.