A couple of months ago I was in my house in rural Goa, working on the draft of a book. The monsoons had just begun and on a Saturday afternoon, a tree fall brought the power lines down. I had no hot water, no light except candles and a rechargeable lamp and I felt cut off from the world after my laptop and blackberry batteries ran out. As I could do nothing to fix the situation I relaxed as I was sure the power would be restored on Monday. It was.
My memory had harkened back to a dinner some years ago in my friend Jessie’s home where I had struck up conversation with a quiet and earnest man who had chosen to spend six months in a village without any power. So it was with a sense of surprised pleasure that I read that he had won the Ramon Magasaysay award.
Harish Hande, who recently won the Ramon Magasaysay award for putting solar power technology in the hands of the poor and encouraging them to become asset creators, began his journey towards setting up a social enterprise by spending six months in a village without electricity in Sri Lanka.
“I wanted to understand the psyche of people who simply cannot take for granted that they can fruitfully use the extra hours after sun down”, he says. Hande has an MS and Ph.d in solar energy engineering from the University of Massachusetts. For several years now, he has had a long distance marriage as his wife works in Boston while he goes about busting the myth in India that the poor cannot afford and use the best technology productively.
His experience of living without power led him to set up Selco India that provides sustainable energy solutions. When I first met him some years ago, he had spoken about an instance where a simple solar lantern enabled a street hawker to work late and supplement her livelihood. She could not afford to buy a lamp, so Hande’s next step was to identify a local entrepreneur who saw the business sense in buying solar lamps and got microcredit to buy the lamps; he charged the lamps during the day and lent them out each evening to hawkers. The hawkers were able to pay him a small daily fee for the lamp from the day’s earnings.
This is just one small example of what Selco India has achieved. From 1995, Selco has financed 115000 solar systems to customers. It has developed solar powered lights, heaters, inverters and stoves. It also provides credit for rural and disadvantaged customers, partnering with commercial banks, grameen banks and credit cooperatives. It has not been all smooth sailing and Hande strongly resisted the push for profits from early investors, as his commitment has always been to build a social enterprise.
I ask him how he made the company financially viable to which he says the answer depends on the definition of viability. Selco employs 170 people in Karnataka and Gujarat and works on a minimum profit margin. Hande says that companies that think only of increasing the value of the shareholders and disregard the value to their staff and the end-users are unethical. Sustainability should not be based only on the financial profits; equal value has to be given to social and environmental factors as well.
A Selco technician had a solution that cost only Rs.20 for a woman in Gujarat who wanted more light to work on her sewing; he placed a few glass tiles on her roof that gave her enough light to work. “Why can’t the big companies come up with better ideas?” he asks. Solar energy is clean but it is essential for manufacturers of fans and sewing machines to create efficient appliances.
He rues the fact that we are not an innovative society and that education is limited to retention of facts. “We have to learn to use more from less”, he says. Selco’s rural lab in Dharmasthala focuses on incubating entrepreneurs in agriculture, education, water and livelihood generation. Laudably, Hande will not use the prize money of $50,000 (about Rs 2.22 crore) for himself or Selco but to help young entrepreneurs.
This article is an elaboration of my column in http://www.heraldgoa.in published on Aug 6, 2011