Harish Hande and Neelima Mishra won this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award. The jury, while selecting Harish, said the award is for his pragmatic efforts to build an enterprise that brings affordable, and sustainable electricity to rural population.
Sopan Correspondent/New Delhi
Harish Hande is on a mission - to enhance the quality of life of underserved households and livelihoods through sustainable energy solutions and services.
An engineer by profession, he co-founded to the Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO) to fulfil his dream to use the potential of solar energy to solve energy utility issues.
India has been blessed with abundant electricity yet solar power accounts for only 8 per cent of the total electricity generated. Statistics say that 56 per cent of the rural households in the country have no access to electricity.
In such a scenario, SELCO designs and installs Photovoltaic Solar Home Systems which provide electricity and enable the use of energy during, both, the day and the night.
SELCO aims at empowering its customers by providing a complete package of the product, service and consumer financing. For every rural household, the technicians propose a customized lighting plan after making a note of their activities.
SELCO provides finance to 85 per cent of its customers through Grameen Banks, Microfinance Institutions and Co-operative Societies. It also provides doorstep servicing.
As of now SELCO provides electricity to 16 districts in Karnataka and a few in Gujarat and over the next four years, it plans to expand its operations to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra.
As a result of its efforts, SELCO has been successful in increasing productivity of the electrified households, creating pivotal financial schemes for solar electrification, generating awareness about solar energy and improving the quality of life of rural people. It has been awarded the Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy in 2005 and Ashden Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2007. A persistent myth is that the poor cannot afford the best technology, nor are they able to maintain and use it productively. In India, where nearly half of all households do not have electricity, this myth has stood in the way of spreading solar technology and its benefits - cost-efficiency, clean energy, mitigation of climate change, and improvements in the quality of life and livelihood among the poor.
Harish Hande, a young engineer from Bangalore, is disproving this myth. Trained in energy engineering, with a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, he could have chosen an easier career path, but he did not. While a graduate student in the U.S., a visit to the Dominican Republic inspired him with the idea that a decentralized approach in the spread of solar application-using small-scale, stand-alone installations instead of large, centralized thermal stations-is best for reaching poor, remote villages where the technology is most needed. Returning to India, he decided to live with villagers to understand their situation first-hand. This convinced him that, in diffusing a technology, it is not just the product that matters but also the social realities which technology seeks to change.
Putting this belief into practice, he established Solar Electric Light Company-India (SELCO) in Bangalore in 1995. SELCO's principal product offerings were solar PV lighting systems, water heating systems, and cook stoves to meet the needs of the rural poor. After five difficult years of operation, the company started to net a profit. When it did, pressure from investors forced the company-against Hande's wishes - to expand through a franchised dealer network. The ill-considered expansion, combined with rising world prices in solar gear, seriously hurt the company's finances and diverted it from its social mission of helping the poor. It was a painful but invaluable lesson for Hande. Facing collapse, he repositioned the company, separated from his business partners and "with the help of the International Finance Corporation and new, socially-minded investors" restructured the company and refocused on its social mission. While SELCO remained a for-profit business, it strengthened its purpose as a social enterprise, measuring performance by how it creates social capital instead of simple financial profit.
SELCO has since demonstrated that indeed the poor can afford sustainable technologies and maintain them, and that social ventures can be run as successful commercial entities. SELCO adopts a triple strategy for reaching the poor, a strategy of "customized products," "doorstep financing," and "doorstep service." It designs and installs solar technology applications based on each customer's specific needs, whether a two- or four-light system for the home, head lamps for night workers like midwives and rose pickers, or electricity for sewing machines. To enable the poor to access the technology, SELCO has pioneered in linking the sale of solar technologies with credit institutions, like rural banks, cooperatives, even self-help groups. Taking service to the "doorstep," it trains customers in maintenance and provides prompt, personalized help through its wide network of service centres.
SELCO is more than just a technology provider. Treating the poor as partners instead of mere consumers, SELCO builds their confidence as it assists them in accessing and using technology to better their lives. Poverty reduction is central to its goal. Hande says, "Until the poor become asset creators, we are not empowering them."
To date, SELCO has reached more than half-a-million people by installing solar lights in 120,000 households, micro- enterprises, and community facilities. Already one of the largest solar technology providers in the India, SELCO still has a huge market before it. But Hande has learned his lessons well: he will not sacrifice the development process for numbers, or his social mission for rates of return. Modest and unassuming but intensely determined about his work, Hande says: "India has a fantastic opportunity to solve two huge problems- reduce poverty and combat climate change. This is India's chance to combine and address both issues in a holistic way."
In electing Harish to receive the 2011 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his passionate and pragmatic efforts to build a social enterprise that brings customized, affordable, and sustainable electricity to India's vast rural population, encouraging the poor to become asset creators.