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Aparna is creating a global microretail chain that features disadvantaged women as both suppliers and sellers. Her retail chain, which opened in Kolkata last year with distinctively branded mobile points of sale, is beginning to expand to other Indian states and has attracted the attention of NRI groups as far away as Europe and the US.

This profile below was prepared when Aparna Banerjee was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Aparna is creating a global microretail chain that features disadvantaged women as both suppliers and sellers. Her retail chain, which opened in Kolkata last year with distinctively branded mobile points of sale, is beginning to expand to other Indian states and has attracted the attention of NRI groups as far away as Europe and the US.


Sukanya, the social enterprise set up by Aparna, is best described as an end-to-end social value chain, created and managed by disadvantaged women. A micro-retail chain, it rests on an intelligent supply chain management and distribution framework/network, robust back-end operations and third party logistics that enable poor populations to compete with and be part of the retail boom in India and globally, in a sustainable way.

The supply chain network aims to help an enterprise, in this case microenterprise, understand and operate its business profitably. For example, it allows the aggregation of sale point data about consumption and available products, feeding that data into an MIS (including sample testing) that enables them to spot production and consumption opportunities across regional markets, which in turn allows women's entrepreneur groups to scale up production in one Indian state and move products to another where demand is growing. The profits filter back down the chain.

Technology-enabled real-time planning and execution thus ensures high responsiveness to the market. Aparna’s range of services include transportation, storage, warehousing and inventory management that benefits the productivity and efficiency of the entire supply chain. On a larger scale, Aparna is removing an important bottleneck in the country’s efforts to alleviate poverty and boost the economy and conditions of rural producers and the urban unorganized sector. By bringing marginalized women producers as a whole into the competitive branded retail arena, Aparna is enabling them to be equal contributors to the country’s GDP and lay claim to their rights both socially and economically.



With the boom in the retail industry globally, organized retail in India is experiencing a fast growth at 11 percent per annum, with projections of 16 per cent by 2011. Supply chains have evolved into complex networks keeping pace with the increasing demands of the retail business. Technology intervention at every level of the supply chain helps track products and provides data visibility.

The unorganized sector, disadvantaged populations and rural economies have little access to the above. While globalisation may have been taken advantage of by the new manufacturing and service clusters and the Information Technology sector, the bulk of the unorganized sector languishes in abysmal economic conditions. It is a paradox that these millions, who manufacture more than 7,500 products ranging from metalware to precision industrial fasteners, exotic glassware, carpets and ethnic garments, have no legislative protection, or access or knowledge of supply chain management, logistics etc, despite their growing contribution to exports and the international supply chain.

Only 12 per cent of unorganized retailers have access to institutional credit. Only 48 percent of villages are covered by road network. This severely limits the access of rural producers to the consumer markets. A May 2008 study suggests that the retail sector, left entirely in the unorganized and informal segment of the economy, could well emerge as a major bottleneck to raising productivity in both agriculture and industry.

With the growth in large, organized retail, unorganized retailers have experienced a decline in their volume of business, leading to a further downslide in the economic conditions of the poor. From movement and storage of raw materials, inventory, and finished goods from points of origin to consumption – India’s poor can only cash in on the current retail boom if supply chain management is introduced to them. They need to be aligned into efficient, agile and adaptable networks that can handle larger volumes, expand reach, balance costs and address the demographic variations while providing scalability.

The prevailing retail model so far is a small shop, specialized or large cooperative, varied in inventory but again specialised by product line – eg textiles. And the existing pattern is that the shops are owned by small businesspeople for whom the supply chain is simply an economic proposition dictated by ready availability.

Moreover, the traditional supply chain network in India has a host of intermediaries. There are considerable gaps in the transportation and storage network of the country. Third-party logistics providers, a mainstay in any well-developed supply chain, are largely non-existent in India. There is also very little sharing of the supply network infrastructure. Today, backward integration is being facilitated by large retailers and their increasing presence, while enhancing efficiencies in logistics and warehousing, threaten to swallow the small ones.

Poor producers also lack the resources and knowledge to track inventory and leakage, plan and replenish SKUs (stock-keeping units), enhance CRM (customer relationship management) and take advantage of the potential of cross-selling other products and track performance management across locations and categories, to name a few.

The current system also looks at disadvantaged women just as producers, and does not offer a broader vision of themselves as actors in a global business with all of the opportunities that such an enterprise has. So their earnings and growth potential are limited by the design of that supply chain. Without a social relationship between groups of women there isn't a shared striving for broader economic opportunity. They sell what they produce and not what others produce as well. Lastly, disadvantaged women don't have a way to trust the disadvantaged across a state or across regions; no system has so far allowed them access to other peer communities.



Aparna has worked out an entire system for organizing and professionalizing the hitherto unorganized retail space for products manufactured by women’s self-help groups (SHGs) in villages and peri-urban areas. She invested Rs 24 lakh and started with a website and invited women interested in selling handicrafts and home-made products to join the project. She received 1,670 applications and chose the feasible ones. She targeted universities to identify groups of women who would act as state nodal centers and focus on sourcing products as well as undertaking quality checks. These women make up the Micro Enterprise Units (MEUs) which are registered as NGOs and financed by Aparna.

The MEUs then source products made by SHGs, which are graded at Aparna’s center according to quality and category, packaged under the single brand name Sukanya and then marketed through sleek mobile kiosks (Business Organizing Units – BOUs), designed and patented by Aparna, which are stationed at different points in a city. These also act as sourcing units, where thse interested in supplying products can fill out a form that costs Rs 20, provide a sample and then get it analyzed and graded by Project Sukanya before distribution. Products graded as category A are immediately bought with a 10 percent advance; those assigned category B are provided technical assistance and other support services such as quality upgradation, redesign etc and then bought; and category C comprises products that face market saturation. In these cases, Project Sukanya trains women to manufacture alternate products which have greater demand in the marketplace. She also has a Research and Development wing that provides marketing inputs and helps her make informed decisions on different product categories.

In Calcutta, where she has piloted her idea, she already has 500 Sukanya BOUs, manned by women who work in shifts, with about 4,000 women supplying products to this microretail network. The strong branding at the point of sale – the color of the mobile carts and their distinctive shape, with women at the helm – gives the initiative strong intellectual property rights. She has thought through every detail of the cart which is manufactured in-house – it is fitted with insect repellents and artificial lights.

Keeping to the retail model, Aparna has started work in 11 other state capitals, exploring new opportunities, experimenting all the time to come up with the right solution. For example, during the apple season in Kashmir, the MEUs there informed her that a bumper harvest had led to rotting stocks. The MEUs then sourced 19,000 kg of apples which were going at a throwaway price of Rs 14 a kg, a huge loss for the farmers. Project Sukanya transported the entire lot for Rs 87,000 from Kashmir to Calcutta, put it in cold storage for Rs 1.00 a kg for three months till apples disappeared from the market and then distributed them through her BOUs. Including cartage to various locations, the cost price per kg was Rs 18 and it was sold in West Bengal at a retail price of Rs 60. The profits were shared right down the chain to the farmers who received a margin over and above the Rs 14 earlier.

The success of her microretail chain depends on high visibility and hence the kiosks are located at prominent points in the city, including major parking lots. She makes sure that she has all the licences in place and has built relationships with the police and other authorities so that they are sensitized enough to not harass the women. In culturally sensitive Kashmir, where the women are still in purdah in many areas, while the MEUs are controlled by women, the BOUs are operated by men.

Sukanya thus is facilitating the movement of products across states ensuring that more markets equal higher margins and a product range that is new, different and continuously evolving. Governments and banks are now coming forward with support for her MEUs and producers. Aparna has negotiated with the state government to set up a Common Facility Center which will apart from gradation, packaging and distribution, have a lab for testing and manufacture of perishable products, including tetra-packaging. She is also setting up a water treatment plant here to aid the production of food items.

The Union Bank of India and the State Bank of India have now come up with microloans for the women entrepreneurs called Sukanya to support the procurement of raw materials and the mobile kiosk. Aparna has also negotiated with insurance companies for a comprehensive insurance plan for these women and a sustenance allowance. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development is considering a proposal to finance the MEUs and has offered 44,000 acre of land for development as a hub for organic farming.

Apart from this, Aparna has insitutionalized various systems such as employing women over 45 and senior citizens at her packaging units; a buy-back policy for unsold goods; a ‘Crossfire’ team which conducts surprise quality checks to keep standards unform; and a well-established MIS and logistics control system.

Within a year of operations, she has 340 hand-made and environment-friendly products which are constantly tracked to ascertain shelf-life and marketability. She is setting up a second manufacturing unit for her mobile kiosks in Aurangabad in the state of Maharashtra with funding from the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation.

As for the surplus that is generated after all expenses are covered, Aparna and her team are using it to set up a home for women with HIV-AIDS, hoping to make them economically independent as well.

She is working towards a target of one lakh retail shops by 2012 and has just launched in the US through the Indian diaspora network.



From a middle-class family in Calcutta, Aparna set up her first business at the age of 17. Her father resigned from a senior position in GEC on ethical grounds and his subsequent depression plunged the family into a financial crisis. Using her father’s engineering knowledge she set up a transformer manufacturing unit, which for the next three years became one of the biggest suppliers of machine tools in the West Bengal market. These three years were also the most difficult for her as a woman in a man’s domain as was her abusive marriage a few years later into a conservative family where women did not have a say. These experiences seeded the idea of economic empowerment for women in a patriarchal society in her mind and she decided to arm herself with a degree in logistics and supply chain management from the premier XLRI business school. She then studied Anthropology to gain a better understanding of human rights before she set up Project Sukanya.