Toffee and the Solar Entrepreneur-Part II

As a teen, I spend long summer days trying to decode Dostoyevsky and his novels. As I recollect my Orissa exposure visit, there is a quote from Dostoyevsky’s novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ that comes to mind- “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for”. This quote got me back to my philosophical musings on ‘Service’ in the development sector. In my previous blog, ‘Toffee and the Solar Entrepreneur- Part I’, I narrated the tale of Toffee, the dog and the value of ‘Service’ in remote rural areas through a social enterprise called Urjaa Samadhan. While on this exposure visit, I also got a chance to interact with the founders of two social enterprises- Batti Ghar (1) and Abha Innovations (2) . Through conversations with the founders of these enterprises, there was a common theme that ran across- redefining ‘service’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’ in the development sector. This is where Dostoyevsky’s quote comes into the picture-these enterprises have found something to live for and redefine human existence especially in remote rural areas. These young social entrepreneurs are in that phase of life where they are trying to discover processes and models of sustainable energy and livelihood solutions in Orissa. They have been trying to incorporate and emphasis the ‘service’ component into their enterprise in order to capacitate and make local communities self-reliant. Batti Ghar hopes to develop a holistic and sustainable ecosystem that would encourage young entrepreneurs to thrive and come forward to innovate and create sustainable social enterprises while Abha Innovation hopes that its customized products according to customer needs and a good service back up will have the desired change in a rural market.

Picture1: Palak Aggarwal (right) co-founder of Batti Ghar during her stay in the villages of Orissa
Picture1: Palak Aggarwal (right) co-founder of Batti Ghar during her stay in the villages of Orissa
Picture 2: - Prasant Biswal, co-founder of Batti Ghar during a conference in 2016
Picture 2: – Prasant Biswal, co-founder of Batti Ghar during a conference in 2016
Picture 3: - Prateek Rath, co-founder of Abha Innovations
Picture 3: – Prateek Rath, co-founder of Abha Innovations

But there is a twist to how each of these enterprises look at ‘Service’. Co-founder of Batti Ghar, Prasant Biswal recounted his experiences with the development sector where he mentions that for years ‘service’ to society meant charity. But for Batti Ghar it means taking a new approach and changing this notion of service. He recounts the famous proverb, ‘teach a man to fish instead of giving him a fish’ and thus for Batti Ghar, ‘service’ means contributing towards making a community and collectively a society self-reliant. It is largely about creating sustainable processes for long-term impacts. For Prateek Rath, co-founder from Abha Innovations, service is about learning local mechanisms and process in the solar industry in order to create a valuable service to a larger community. These ideas on service got me thinking on how modern day social enterprises are breaking the old and conventional meanings on service especially the charity one in order to recreate interventions and solutions that are sustainable, valuable and long lasting for those at the bottom of the pyramid.

Though it might sound fancy, noble and endeavoring to start a social enterprise especially while beating the un-treaded path it is never easy and the challenges are enormous. For Batti Ghar that is trying to use an unconventional approach to solve one of the most grappling issues of livelihood for marginalised communities especially in Orissa which has existing traditional solutions to address this sector and it is very difficult to enter this domain and operate. Prasant mentions that the ecosystem required to innovate new solutions hardly exists in the state and neither is there any support system especially funding for young generation not-for-profit organisations. For Abha Innovation, operational challenges are the biggest hurdles where hiring and training formal sales people, pricing and defaults in payments for the products delays the functioning of the enterprise. Transgressing from charity-based models to a commercial enterprise with a new approach in the development sector is always not easy especially when trying to keep service as the main motto.

But despite the challenges and hurdles, these young entrepreneurs are inspired to continue their works of change and each one has a tale that keeps them motivated. Prateek smilingly tells me that growing up in the district Koraput, Orissa and seeing the living conditions of people here especially those with no access to electricity inspired him to continue with his work in this sector. For Palak Aggarwal, co-founder of Batti Ghar, her biggest inspiration as an entrepreneur was her father. As a child she observed her father (he used to manufacture and trade wires used in house wiring) who was an entrepreneur. He was always content selling less but a quality product to his customer and was happy with the thought that if someone used his wire in electrical connections it would never lead to a short circuit. This made her realize a ‘business with a value’ and not just profits. This thought keeps Palak content with her work in Batti Ghar. She goes on to further state that this ‘business with a value’ is now fashionably called a ‘Social Enterprise’ and people who run the show are called ‘Social Entrepreneurs’. Her other source of inspiration is the state of Orissa itself where she hopes to revive the entrepreneurial spirit of the ancient Orissa culture. Prasant narrates a tale where one of their entrepreneurs called him up from the Orissa hinterlands to thank Batti Ghar for the technological innovation ‘Solar Puncture Wala’(3). This innovation has enabled the entrepreneur to earn Rs. 500/- a day. This gives the team at Batti Ghar immense happiness and motivation as it has enabled them to contribute in a sustainable way where renewable technology can provide service to so many people in a day.

Picture 4: - A solar innovation by Batti Ghar
Picture 4: – A solar innovation by Batti Ghar
Picture 5: Solar Cane-a sugarcane machine designed by Baatti Ghar and it runs entirely on solar energy in Bubaneshwar, Orissa
Picture 5: Solar Cane-a sugarcane machine designed by Baatti Ghar and it runs entirely on solar energy in Bubaneshwar, Orissa

So these enterprises gave me a glimpse of service, tales of inspiration and motivation and the challenges they encounter. For each of these enterprises, a social entrepreneur means something and that brings in value to the work they do. Prasant recounts a professor Dr. Lalit stating, ‘NGOs have roots and not grass, government has grass and no roots, commercial entity has on only the fruit, but it is a social enterprise which has grass and also the fruit’. So for Biswal a social entrepreneur is someone who generates value for the people they work for, using resources optimally and creating long term impact. It is about understanding the need, skills, available resources and then designing a solution around it to create a long-term impact. Palak states that a social entrepreneur is someone who works for a larger social good and delivers a value, one who invests in creating those sustainable ecosystems where the solution either a product/process/service will be long lasting than a one-time fix it solution. For Prateek a solar entrepreneur is someone who needs to be proactive not only in sale of the product but also servicing of the same while being able to build a relationship with the customer.
Having worked in the solar energy sector before with academic and grass root organizations in trying to understand the socio-economic impact of renewable energy products my perception of the sector was restricted to a supply side deliverable. But after visiting these social enterprises in the renewable energy sector and interacting with the solar entrepreneurs, I do see that there is a difference in how value for a product or service is created to bring in a long lasting impact. The focus is more on creating a sustainable ecosystem in order to capacitate local communities to take forward these innovations and solutions rather than depending on external organizations to just pump in money, products or services without any long lasting value or change. These two social enterprises have demonstrated how essential it is to continue in the quest of human existence despite all the challenges and work around creating sustainable solutions for local communities.
To end again with Dostoyevsky and one of his ‘White Nights’ quote- ‘But how could you live and have no story to tell?’, Batti Ghar and Abha Innovation have adventured down the un-treaded paths to script stories of change and service in the development sector and it will take them some years to complete an impactful story of change.

Thanks to Palak Aggarwal and Prasant Biswal, founders of Batti Ghar for sharing their views on social enterprises. Thanks to Prateek Rath, co-founder of Abha Innovations for sharing his opinions on the new generation of solar entrepreneurs. And lastly I would like to thank the America India Foundation (AIF) for supporting this exposure visit.

(1)Batti Ghar (meaning Light House in Oriya) is a social enterprise started by Prasant Biswal and Palak Aggarwal that tries to use sustainable technology as a catalyst to enhance or create sustainable livelihood opportunities for farmers, rural artisans and unemployed youth and they hope to establish a full-fledged Live-Tech Lab where technological solutions can be developed from scratch or retrofitted using existing solutions. One of their latest innovations that caught my fancy was the solar powered mobile sugarcane juice cart. This innovation was designed in collaboration with Centurion University of Technology and Management. Similarly they aim is to develop 10 successful technological innovations over the next 3 years with at least 30 entrepreneurs using these technologies.

(2)Abha Innovations is a solar enterprise started by Prateek Ratht that customizes reliable solar products as per the requirements of customers at affordable prices. The main aim is to create, train local and equip solar entrepreneurs to sell and maintain these innovative solar solutions. The uniqueness of this enterprise is that it terms itself as a service, sales and installation organization by establishing a network of trained technicians to ensure quality installation of solar systems, prompt maintenance and service at the customer’s door step. The enterprise also offers financing packages for customers that cannot afford the expensive solar systems.

(3) This innovation is a solar powered kit comprising of a DC air compressor, solar panel, battery, charge regulator and light which is used to provide a type pressure to cycles and motorbikes.

Denise is excited about interacting with diverse people in different environmental, social and cultural settings through her coursework, work experience, volunteering stints, travels and field studies. She believes that AIF and the project will bring in a new set of challenges and learning experiences that will help her appreciate new perspectives and innovative solutions for sustainable development. She wants the fellowship to deepen her learning experiences and enhance her passion and research skills to understand sustainability issues and the inter-relationship between societal and environmental systems. Her greatest achievement is being able to learn and appreciate the everyday lives of people in rural India and she believes that these interactions with people from diverse rural settings will help her during her fellowship journey.

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