JY Day 3: Powering Rural India

We stepped off the bus that had taken half the yatris to a small village near Hubli, Karnataka.  We huddled around a tree to drink chai – a much-needed energy recharge after the 5 am wake-up call.  Three men from the village sat by the tree silently, staring at foreigners and Indians from all over the country.  To their surprise and many of ours, cameras started snapping at them without permission, as if they were tourist attractions to be documented.  After our chai, we continued down the village, past the primary school and a few acres of farmland which was growing sugarcane.

We entered a front yard which housed a cow and a puppy, and the house’s owners graciously invited a group of 30 yatris into the house.  It was a beautiful home, significantly cooler from the exterior mud walls and wonderfully clean.  For those who know me personally, they will have guessed that the latter really pleased me after two days on a train.  The wife and husband spoke to us about the solar lights they had bought from SELCO.  The village was well-managed by the panchayat, and received 6 hours of electricity from the government on a daily basis.  For electricity needs beyond that, SELCO had partnered with the panchayat to help them get loans which covered 80% of the lighting cost.  The families paid back the loan in small installments each month.

It was a simple, yet innovative idea.  A few more hours of low-cost, sustainable electricity at night allowed people to work longer hours, and children to study in the evenings.  Along with directly selling electricity to families, SELCO has created some innovative programs to address the lack of electricity in rural India.  They partner with certain schools to provide solar lamps to children, but they must come to school every day to charge the lamps.  This has increased school enrollment and attendance in areas where the program runs.  SELCO’s other program employees entrepreneurs who serve as battery chargers for street vendors.  They go to a vendor when the sun sets, provide them with a solar lamp and a battery for Rs. 20 for night, and return to obtain the lamps a few hours later.

Simple ideas that create more opportunities for individuals – that’s what the social enterprise is about.  After learning of SELCO’s innovative idea, their focus on core values on serving rural Indians, and seeing the impact in person, I had a lot of questions in my mind.  The company provides a valuable service, but it’s healing a symptom of poverty.  What can it do at a larger level that uses electricity in a way that economically builds communities? How can a solar power company change how a community utilizes its resources and help create income in a sustainable way?

I have my own, but I would first love to hear your thoughts.  Please post your comments below.

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