Freedom from darkness

Freedom from darkness

Harish Hande doesn’t care about electrifying India, he wants the solar lamp to transform this country. Of course he was pleasantly surprised when newly appointed Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he would back the growth of solar power so that every household in India has at least one lamp by 2019, but Hande has also observed, for the last 15 years or so, that the ministry of new and renewable energy unfailingly gets a new secretary every six months. “Some don’t feel it’s an attractive post, some are quickly shifted, some retire,” he says with the air of a veteran who has figured out how to make things work despite policymakers.

But these are all relatively minor niggles. Hande, 47, won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2011 because the ideas at Selco (Solar Electric Light Company—India), the solar energy equipment supplier company he co-founded in 1994, shine brighter than the lights it sells to the poor.

Take, for instance, Selco’s Light For Education project whose participants include around 30,000 children in Karnataka. Solar panels are installed on school premises and the battery, about the weight of a lunch box, is given to children. Children charge the batteries when they come to school. If they don’t come to school, there’s no light at home. “We stole the idea from the midday meals scheme,” says Hande. Stole and innovated.

Or the way Selco tackled the unique problem faced by a community of poor drum-makers in Bangalore. They were willing to pay for solar power, but they had one condition. They were often evicted, with only 15-20 minutes to gather their belongings. Could Selco design a system they could run with? No problem, a design school graduate who works at Selco conjured up a solar system on a cart.

Around 1.2 billion of the world’s population doesn’t have access to reliable electricity, and 400 million of these people live in India. Hande, who jokes that while growing up, his bread and butter came from a coal-fired plant in Rourkela (his father worked in power distribution at the Steel Authority of India), understood early that coal and gas wouldn’t be enough to meet India’s growing energy needs.

Yet, as an energy engineering student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, US, Hande’s interest in solar was restricted to its supply security dynamic (the sun as a source of energy is limitless) and its environmental impact. Until a visit to the Dominican Republic in 1991 taught him a new lesson in thermodynamics. He saw the poor paying for solar lights and realized that renewable energy could be a catalyst for social change. So he spent the next two years in Sri Lanka and India—in darkness.

He took time off to see how communities in both these countries lived without electricity. “I realized I didn’t know what happens after 6pm. We were just making decisions based on Excel sheets,” he says. He learnt a few things: The moment you don’t know a language (Sinhalese), the artificial hierarchies of a formal education crumble and you are treated like anyone else; none of his formal education was useful, except perhaps the confidence he had gained by living in a hostel. In Sri Lanka especially, communities came together after dark, usually in Buddhist temples, to vent their frustrations; in India, the lost time was usually spent in isolation and the kerosene lamp made people even more depressed. “It was my most efficient period of time, I joke,” he says. That’s also probably when he realized that the poor don’t want sympathy. They want partners and collaborators.

He worries about the hierarchies he believes English-speaking India imposes on the rest of the country. He knows he may not be able to influence the thinking of a top dog at a Bangalore-based research firm who asks him how he ever manages to have “intellectual discussions” in rural India. Or the suit who eagerly shares that his children “teach” their rural counterparts every weekend. But he hopes he can someday convince urban children to partner with fellow Indians who don’t speak their lingo. “How do I tell kids that we are all part of the same society? That they need to learn from each other to create some sort of social equity? How to make kids interested in solving problems?”

Selco gets hundreds of internship applications from masters’ and PhD students every year but very few are Indians. Of the 300 applications last year, five were from this country. “I’ve now resorted to guilt-tripping parents and students when I speak to them. In the next 10 years if you complain that Americans and Europeans know more about India than you do, then you are to blame, I tell them,” Hande says

“How do I tell kids that we are all part of the same society? That they need to learn from each other to create some sort of social equity?”

At Selco at least, they try to break these barriers. Nearly 85% of Selco’s employees, including chief operating officer Mohan Hegde (a practising folk artist on weekends), come from rural India. Hegde and K. Revathi, president, have been running the company since 1 June when Hande retired as managing director to take charge of the Selco Foundation, the company’s think tank. All the brainstorming for solutions and innovations to help fight poverty takes place at the foundation. The business side executes the ideas and the company’s incubation cell teaches entrepreneurs how to replicate these successes across India (four projects are already under way in Manipur, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh; Selco is helping 25 more entrepreneurs raise funds).

Formal qualifications are not a prerequisite for any job at Selco. Twenty-eight-year-old Raghu, who greets me when I arrive and gets us tea at the Selco office in Bangalore, started out as a driver and now handles administrative duties. “He’s going to be a branch manager by the time he’s 32. That’s our goal for him,” says Hande. In rural areas they joke about Selco’s hires: Are you part of the laptop or the non-laptop crowd?

Hande checks all the boxes of someone who truly believes in sustainability. He doesn’t own any asset, he says he has about three-four pants and shirts, he borrows his father’s 1994 Maruti 800 when he needs a car, and his daughter Adhishri was 8 when she first started saying: “Is it needed or is it wanted?”

He got his cues from mentors like Neville Williams, his co-founder and a solar energy pioneer who made it to the CIA watch list after a trip to Vietnam to protest the “American War”; from photographer Jon Naar, who was a British spy in World War II; and from Paul Maycock, who predicted way back that the cost of producing solar energy would plunge by 2015. “These are guys who talked about sustainability in a very different manner. I miss their passion. Now you go to a meeting and it’s all about ties and suits.”

Hande sees the poor as asset creators, and not as a bottom of the pyramid sales opportunity. “Don’t sell to the poor. That’s our fundamental rule. And if you’re selling to the poor, make sure that the value you’re giving to the poor is much more than the monetary value they give you back,” he says.

So when Selco representatives found that 32 Sidi families in rural Karnataka spent more money annually on candles, kerosene and to charge their mobile phones than it would cost to set up a simple solar system, they had to fix this. No bank was willing to lend the money to these families, so Selco offered a 100% guarantee on their behalf. Six months later, the bank reduced this guarantee to 20% as the payments were regular. “The best response was from the Sidis,” says Hande. “They said, light is great but once the solar loan is done, I will take a loan for a sewing machine.” They had become bankable.

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