Web Exclusive | An entrepreneur’s crusade in lighting up India’s villages

Web Exclusive | An entrepreneur’s crusade in lighting up India’s villages
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First Published: Tue, Dec 04 2007. 05 09 AM IST

Solar power: A solar powered bulb at a Udupi market. Harish Hande’s Selco is committed towards rural solar electrification
Solar power: A solar powered bulb at a Udupi market. Harish Hande’s Selco is committed towards rural solar electrification
Updated: Wed, Dec 05 2007. 10 31 AM IST
New Delhi: Read this! In a country where we spend thousands of watts of electricity for a day and night cricket match, use the power-greedy heater to ward off the winter chill, there lies another India where villages are dimly lit by paraffin lamps and dim lights battling darkening chimneys. For this cash-strapped India an ignited filament powered by current is a rare luxury, for they cannot even afford electricity.
Interview with Harish Hande
Interview with Harish Hande
When a crusader in the shape of H. Harish Hande appeared with plans of delivering solar electrification to pockets of rural Karnataka, the below poverty lines families realized their nights need not be tremulously lit forever. An Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur product and doctorate degree holder from University of Massachusetts with solar speciality, Hande is the managing director and co-founder of SELCO-India.
Complete Interview
Winner of the Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy in 1995 and the Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2007, an annual honour that comes courtesy three organizations, namely Confederation of Indian Industry, United Nations Development Programme and the Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation, Hande says the poor actually pay more for power, giving example of the Delhi street vendors who pay as much as Rs20/- for an incandescent light every evening.
Solar power: A solar powered bulb at a Udupi market. Harish Hande’s Selco is committed towards rural solar electrification
The Social Entrepreneur of the Year is for those people who open new markets for the lower strata of society, innovate programmes, empower the people they serve, multiply resources and positively influence the government and other bodies to replicate their models.
Simantik Dowerah had an exclusive tete-a-tete with Harish Hande on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum. Edited excerpts:
What was the driving force behind setting up Selco Solar Lights?
It was more a matter of chance with the concept emerging out of my Ph.D on rural electrification. The next logical step was to set up Selco and to see how sustainable energy like solar can be diffused/ disbursed to rural areas in a way that allowed people to pay and maintain it. A sustainable venture, both in terms of social and commercial returns, it was set up in 1994-95 it rested on three tenets: poor people can afford sustainable technologies; poor can maintain sustainable technologies; and the poor can support the running of a commercial venture profitably.
I was deeply influenced by my experience in the Dominican Republic. Their poor were paying for solar, which was perceived to be powerful and expensive. This inspired me to take it up at my Masters and Ph.D level and Selco was only an outflow of that.
You have made solar electrification available to many BPL families in Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat. How much time do you think it will take to penetrate the national/ urban space?
I have the project going in Karnataka and parts of Gujarat. It will take sometime to drive it since more than technology, it is human resource driven. It took us five to six years to penetrate 500 houses. Convincing FIIs that solar makes sense, will take time. For example, when you sell a TV, you do not sell it telling what its technology is or what its capacitor is. You buy it because it is a Sony or Panasonic. But when you go to villages, you have to first tell them what solar is and what Selco is all about. Solar energy is not a good in itself, it is a need for lighting.
Initially, it was a four-light system but it is actually not that way. People need light for different purposes – children’s study, kitchen, bathroom, corridor etc. Once it is customized, it becomes a need. When the electricity board gives you power, it just gives you two points outside your house, the inside design is done by you. However, in terms of solar power, and especially in rural areas, you need to go inside. When you ask an architect whether he can do 150 houses in the next one year, he might answer in the negative because his ability to do so will depend on what each of those 150 householders want.
How do you deal with issues of scalability?
Scalability is a difficult question to answer. Once a farmer told me, he needs a three-light system. When we made it, he actually bolted, finding it very expensive. One of our technicians visited his place and broke a part of his house (and fixed a light). He needed light in three rooms. He did not need three lights. That reduced the cost by one-third. Had it been a typical company, it would not have sought him out to understand if there was any other option that could be looked at. Now 10 other BPL (Below Poverty Line) houses observed this for six months and finally bought a system. That makes the difference. It is not exactly going across India but making sure the right people get it in the right quantity and at the right price. We need a supply change that will work.
What is the USP of Selco?
It lies in the fact that solar-home-systems (SHS) are low-cost, customized and installed by Selco technicians to meet individual needs/ budgets. Solar energy is environment friendly and saves fast eroding forest cover, shrinking everyday as firewood for the poor. Hande. For a standard four light SHS, a customer pays Rs18,000/, a whopping amount for the financially weak but we now provide cheaper options.
We have forged partnerships with nine regional rural banks, commercial banks, NGOs and rural farmer cooperatives to develop financial solutions. With a force of 78 deeply committed technicians our management holds its fort, even against the cruelest odds. Employee commitment has been the single most reason why we are still around.
If we put solar energy against hydroelectric, thermal or even nuclear energy, where does it stand and how does India fare?
In India, we are definitely not on a level-playing field. When you get thermal energy you are not paying for the power plant that was built, nor are you paying for the pollution it causes. Moreover, we talk about T&D losses, remoteness of many families and plant load factor about supplying electricity to end-user. You take 10 end-users at the village level, where all need different quantity of lights. Without understanding for what and how much power they need we end up giving them surplus, as a result much of it gets lost in transmission.
How do the economics work out?
Power like solar, can be so decentralized and customized, that it is far more economical for end-user and supplier because one would take only what one needs. In Karnataka, five years back they generated 1.6 units of power to give one unit. Still they charge you for one unit – castration and production wise. So even if for a bit of electricity, solar makes so much sense in India.
For example, there are 20 million street vendors in the country. In Delhi, a street vendor pays Rs15-20 everyday for an incandescent light. We do not pay Rs600 a month for a single light, neither do we pay Rs2,400 a month for four lights. That means poor people pay more for energy. It is the same case with Bangalore street vendors who pay Rs15 every evening for a kerosene lamp they use for four hours whereas solar costs Rs5-6, that too for five to six hours. It is a grave reality that the poor end up paying more for energy. Surely, this needs far more serious intervention.
You have helped rural society by making cheaper electricity available. How is the government supporting you?
In terms of central and state governments, the biggest plus is that they are not interfering. I have seen it in other countries like Dominican Republic where the government suddenly appeared on the scene, subsidized it, and spoiled the whole programme. However, the government can help by replicating our work on a mass scale. For that, we need many similar social enterprises and government policies that can creating caps in financial institutions, in much the same way as they did for agricultural financing 40-50 years ago.
Put a similar cap so that at least 5% loans are on sustainable energy for end-users and 2% for entrepreneurs who want to do the supply chain in rural areas. Getting working capital from FIIs is tough because they are unsure about the viability of the project. I was fortunate since my IIT bailed me out. Wonder how many of us with ideas minus that tag would get a chance to pitch their value added services/ products?
You go to the people or the people come to you?
In villages where we are very well established, people come to us. In new villages, we definitely spend considerable time reaching out to them. Most of our employees are locals and we do not transfer them from village to village. It is important to earn their trust and to understand their needs and constraints.
We found that a priority for villagers was to have their cycles, pumps, motorcycles repaired in service shops. The first thing we did in 1995-96 was to first create service centres hiring local youth and promised them service within 24 hours. This has been a tough call but we have managed so far. Our technicians are the backbone of the company. Some of them have been with me for 10 years, they can earn five times the salary outside, but it is their conviction that keeps them here.
In order to survive we also realized that we had to change our style of service and the fact that we were too much into lighting. Secondly, when we are into income generation we need to be more critical. Then you realize how important lighting is and people invest their life savings to get it. When the policy makers say solar is expensive, I feel it is so paradoxical since they have not seen the real India.
Selco has come a long way since its inception in 1995. How do you rate yourself on a scale of 10?
I would rate 10 in terms of technician and employee commitment. There are 78 technicians who can walk into my room without knocking and say: “Harish, you made this mistake.”
In terms of social sustainability I rate it very high at 8.5. Regarding economic sustainability, I would have rated higher but will keep it at 7-8 since our senior management has chosen not to accept financial increments. They are pass outs from IRMA, leading CA firms and Scientists but have settled for salaries that are lower than what the market can offer them.
It is a long way to go still, but things are looking up and I am hopeful of reaching out to more villages and people, as we get stronger.
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First Published: Tue, Dec 04 2007. 05 09 AM IST