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Energy access for all needed for "true democracy" in India

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 April 2018 19:35 GMT

Vendors sit under umbrellas inside a wholesale flower market in Bengaluru, India, April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Abhishek N. Chinnappa

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"The poorest spend a much higher proportion of their income on energy"

By Astrid Zweynert

OXFORD, England, April 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian street vendor taught Harish Hande his most important financial lesson and sent him on a mission to create affordable energy solutions that work for the poorest people in the world's largest democracy.

Too many innovations ask the poor for a relatively large sum upfront, for example for solar panels that they can ill afford, said Harish Hande, co-founder of Selco, which has pioneered the delivery of decentralised solar energy to the poor in India.

"The street vendor told me: I can't afford 300 rupees ($4.60) a month, but 10 rupees a day I can manage," Hande told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday after receiving the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

By providing the street vendor with solar lighting that he could afford - by paying a small amount every day - Selco helped sustain a micro-entrepreneur, he said.

Some 240 million Indians have no access to power and millions more in the country of 1.2 billion live with spotty supplies of electricity from an unreliable power grid, according to the International Energy Agency.

"The poorest spend a much higher proportion of their income on energy, because they can't afford to buy solar-powered machines and lighting, so they keep using kerosene, which is expensive, dangerous and bad for the environment," said Hande.

Hande has been on a mission for more than 20 years to change that by working directly with people in villages, towns and cities to find out what technologies they need and how they can finance them.

"A one-size-fits-all approach won't work - if you're a blacksmith your needs are different from a roti maker. But that is not well understood. So we ask people, 'what exactly do you need in your home or to run your business?'" he said.

Access to reliable energy is not just about providing electricity, he said.

"It's a catalyst for true democracy in India, for providing business opportunities. With reliable and affordable energy, everyone has the chance to run a business," he said.

Hande has turned the business into an umbrella of organisations, each tasked with addressing gaps in energy access through marketing, selling, installing and servicing products in homes, schools and health centres across India.

Hande estimates Selco has reached 7.5 million people in India, and the model is being replicated in the Philippines and Tanzania.

($1 = 65.2800 Indian rupees)

(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert , Editing by Katy Migiro.(Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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