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Toffee and the Solar Entrepreneur – Part I

On the bus ride from Koraput (1) to Bhubaneshwar, staring into the night sky while the warm wind blew across my face, I tried to tune myself to a long nine-hour journey through the winding Eastern Ghats. I visualized my two overwhelming days in Koraput: the rivers meandering through the hills while the forests taking on the shades of summer; the tribal folk graciously tendering to their vegetable fields; employees from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and National Aluminum Company (NALCO) and tribal folk from the nearby villages immersing themselves into life’s daily routines in the markets of Koraput and Semiliguda; and the delicious Oriya and Andhra food that I got to savour along the journey. But as I kept staring into the dark forests that night, there was just one picture flashing across my face: “Toffee”.

Picture 1: - The famous glass idlis in Koraput district

Picture 1: The famous glass idlis in Koraput district.

Picture 2: - Pakhal- a traditional Oriya dish.

Picture 2: Pakhal, a traditional Oriya dish.

I met Toffee earlier that day along with his truly inspiring friend, Binduji. Binduji is a solar entrepreneur in the town of Semiliguda, Koraput, Orissa. An experienced technician, Binduji can repair anything from a television set to all kinds of solar products. And Toffee’s story just happens to be one related to his entrepreneurial adventures. On one of his servicing journeys in a remote village, Binduji had to repair a television set. However, the family could not afford to pay Bindjuji. Instead they gave a pup to Binduji. Though monetarily they could not afford the service cost, the family valued Binduji’s service which is something rare and not easily accessible in remote areas. And puppy Toffee and Binduji share a rather cool relationship and I would like to call it the “Bond of Service”.

This got me thinking on the importance of the service market in rural areas and how new and innovative solutions would be required to fill in the gap of accessibility to such services

Picture 3: - Toffee wagging his tail as I enter the Uraja Samadhan Super Servicing Center (SSC) in Binduji’s house, Koraput, Orissa

Picture 3: Toffee wagging his tail as I enter the Uraja Samadhan Super Servicing Center (SSC) in Binduji’s house, Koraput, Orissa.

I visited Orissa to meet members from Urjaa Samadhan (this actually means “Energy Solutions” in Oriya) to understand how the solar servicing market functions for rural areas. I hoped that this visit would allow me to understand processes and mechanisms in solar repair and maintenance and to take back the newly acquired knowledge to my host organisation Manthan and initiate the setting up of a similar system in order to bring in a longer lasting impact of solar systems.

Picture 4: Binduji at Urja Samadhan’s SSC in Semiliguda, Koraput, Orissa

Picture 4: Binduji at Urja Samadhan’s SSC in Semiliguda, Koraput, Orissa.

According to initial reports there are over two lakh solar products in Orissa alone, out of which 50% have been dysfunctional (2). Repair and maintenance has been issue especially in remote rural areas that have limited access to market resources. This is resulted in many villagers resorting again to fuels like kerosene. Hence the very objective of distributing clean fuels is defeated. Due to the dysfunctional nature of technology especially solar, many grass root organizations have been reluctant to adopt it because of the unreliable repair and maintenance services or unavailability of spare parts.

Thus the need that Urjaa Samadhan found was to provide services to existing renewable energy technologies. Urjaa Samadhan thus started as a social entrepreneurship endeavor dedicated to bring improved servicing solutions to populations in rural areas in order to have a longer impact of solar products while supporting the livelihoods of small-scale repair maintenance providers. Binduji is one such solar entrepreneur who was identified by Urjaa Samadhan to bring in the last mile service.

Picture 5– Binduji in his kitchen garden in Semiliguda, Orissa

Picture 5: Binduji in his kitchen garden in Semiliguda, Orissa.

While in Koraput, I got to visit some of the systems that were dysfunctional. Villagers from Sundiput and Malifungar had come to know about Bindhuji’s expertise of repairing any electrical system and requested if he could repair their solar water pumping system. His services enabled the villagers to enjoy the benefits of a system that was dysfunctional for months.

Picture 6:- Sundiput Village, Semiliguda, Koraput, Orissa where the community solar pump stopped working and Binduji repaired it

Picture 6: Sundiput Village, Semiliguda, Koraput, Orissa where the community solar pump stopped working and Binduji repaired it.

Picture 7: Malifungar village, Semiliguda, Koraput, Orissa where Binduji repaired the community solar pump. Here it is seen that villagers are using the pump for multiple purposes post the repairing of the pump.

Picture 7: Malifungar village, Semiliguda, Koraput, Orissa where Binduji repaired the community solar pump. Here it is seen that villagers are using the pump for multiple purposes post the repairing of the pump.

Picture 8:- The Urjaa Samadhan team at the Super Servicing Center (SSC) in Semiliguda, Koraput, Orissa. From Left to Right- Pradeep Sahoo (Project Co-ordinator), Binduji (solar entrepreneur in Koraput); Sagar Mahapatra (Co-founder of Urjaa Samadhan)

Picture 8: The Urjaa Samadhan team at the Super Servicing Center (SSC) in Semiliguda, Koraput, Orissa. From Left to Right: Pradeep Sahoo (Project Co-ordinator), Binduji (solar entrepreneur in Koraput); Sagar Mahapatra (co-founder of Urjaa Samadhan).

The need to fill in the space for repairing of solar technology has become important, especially in rural markets that are incapacitated to deal with any new technology. Thus the need for “SERVICE” oriented start-ups are essential to bridge the growing technological dysfunctional gap. The main aim of Urjaa Samadhan is to enable and support local technicians and help them to immerse into to art of repairing new solar technology while also enabling to start their own business. This has helped to create a network of solar entrepreneurs that offer accessible servicing and repairing options.

Urjaa Samadhan and the beautiful story of Toffee made me reflect on our fellowship motto “SERVE, LEARN, LEAD”. To serve is a value that enables individuals to bring about a sustainable change and make a difference to those at the bottom of the pyramid. It is service that drives Urjaa Samadhan members and individuals like Bindhuji to learn about the challenges in the development sector and lead innovative solutions to bring in that change.
To leave us with a quote by Rabindranath Tagore: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy”.

(1) Koraput is a district to the south of Orissa that shares a border with Andhra Pradesh.
(2) Urjaa Samadhan, “About Us.” UrjaaSamadhan.com, n.d. Web. http://www.urjaasamadhan.com/about-us.php. Figures were shared with me by members of Urjaa Samadhan.

Thanks to Sagar, Pradeep and Binduji from Urjaa Samadhan for sharing their experiences on solar servicing for the rural market. I would also like to thank the America India Foundation (AIF) for supporting this Exposure Visit.

2 Comments
  1. tapas parida

    Great effort by urja samadhan and superbly described.

  2. Timothy Hefflinger
    Timothy Hefflinger

    It was startling to read how many solar projects are dysfunctional in Orissa – 50%. Thanks for drawing attention to this big technical need! Your reporting is excellent, Denise!

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