Impact Spotlights

Lighting The Way: A Conversation With Harish Hande

February 10, 2015

Access to sustainable energy has been shown to improve the quality of life for both rural and urban populations by allowing them to enhance their livelihoods, and also address basic human needs, such improving health outcomes and educational success.  Achieving this impact requires more than great energy technology delivered in a uniform way to all clients, it requires that the technology that is delivered ties to the livelihoods and needs of those communities with appropriate means of financing. 

Since 2007, The Lemelson Foundation has been supporting SELCO India to provide reliable energy to the underserved households in rural India. Through their work SELCO has seen that there is a very strong connection between sustainable energy, livelihoods, quality of life, reduction in poverty, enterprise creation, asset building and environmental sustainability. SELCO has pioneered numerous processes in terms of business models, utilization of technology and financial innovations – thus making solar energy affordable to the poor.  Through sister organization SELCO Foundation, The Lemelson Foundation has been working with SELCO Founder Harish Hande to explore how to go deeper into the economic strata to prove the connections that sustainable energy has with other parts of the ecosystems and the complexity of the communities served. 

We sat down with SELCO co-founder Harish Hande to discuss impact inventing, entrepreneurship, and the transformative effects SELCO’s work is having in India and beyond

Entrepreneurs use SELCO solar lights

LEMELSON FOUNDATION: Explain the work that SELCO does. What is the organization trying to achieve?

HARISH HANDE: If you map the world’s economic poverty and then map its energy poverty, the two maps line up quite well. It’s sad, but true. Worldwide there about 2.7 billion people who have to survive on two dollars or less per day, and 2 billion people or so who live without access to reliable energy. So we were crazy enough to ask: “Can expanding access to sustainable energy also be a way to alleviate poverty?” We started with solar energy as our primary focus and have expanded from there.

Our ultimate goal is not simply to provide access to energy. It is to use that access as a means of helping the poor in our society build tools, skills and the ability to participate fully in the world.

LEMELSON: Part of SELCO’s success can be linked to the fact that it sees those at the “bottom of the pyramid” not as a constituency in need of handouts or charity, but as consumers and business owners. You view them as an important, if overlooked, market segment, correct?

HANDE: Yes. When we started SELCO over 20 years ago, our philosophy was to build organization that could help dispel three myths. The first myth was that that poor could not afford technology. The second myth was that the poor cannot maintain the technologies. And the third myth was you cannot run a commercial organization while trying to meet social objectives.  We believe the poor need to be looked at as equals and stakeholders, not as beneficiaries, but as partners, as employees, as colleagues. They deserve the same rights and respect as any potential shareholder in an enterprise. So for us, having that view was the only way to create a holistic and sustainable organization – one that is environmentally sustainable, social sustainable, and financially sustainable. 

LEMELSON: How are you making a difference?

HANDE: One big way we add value is by looking at problems in the marketplace and determining how, or where, the poor are being overlooked. We do that by trying to determine if failures are due to a technology issue, a finance issue, or a marketing issue.

LEMELSON: Can you give me an example? 

HANDE: Sure. We can create a brilliant solar powered sewing machine which helps a tailor produces eight shirts a day instead of, say, two shirts. But if there is no market mechanism to sell the extra six shirts, or no demand for those shirts, the technology is an unnecessary debt to the poor tailor trying to use it. It is not worth her buying the sewing machine. We aim to get all of those problems on the table, helping the tailor find ways to pay for the machine in a manner she can afford, while at the same time building a market for her shirts. It is only then the chain gets completed for the poor to get out of poverty.

LEMELSON: So it sounds like the “invention” is not just about the solar technology powering the sewing machine, but also about the financing model as well.

HANDE: Solar energy is no longer new. When most people talk about solar energy, they focus on solar panels and solar batteries. But for us, that’s not the issue. We see solar as a catalyst, but it is not our critical perspective. We work a lot on different methodologies, and financing is a big one. That is the inventiveness of what we do.

Let me give you another example. Many street vendors in India need the ability a light in their cart or stall, so they can remain open beyond sundown. Paying 300 rupees a month for a solar powered lamp is prohibitively expensive. But paying 10 rupees a day is fine. It’s affordable. The monthly totals are the same, of course, but the traditional financial products are not geared toward the vendor’s cash flow, which is on a daily basis. A simple modification of the financing makes a so-called “expensive” product more affordable for him. It can make the difference between success, and failure. That’s where we try to help.

LEMELSON: What are the qualities of an effective entrepreneur? 

HANDE: To be a successful entrepreneur you need three things: passion, common sense, and sensitivity. If you are passionate enough, no barrier will stand in your way – even in a country like India where you can run into lots of barriers from family, from the bureaucracy and many other areas. Next you need common sense to clearly see the problem you are trying to solve. If you can’t understand the challenges your customers are facing, you’re not able to create the right solution. And finally you need sensitivity. If you are talking to clients, especially those at the bottom of the pyramid, you need to be sensitive to what they’re telling you and able to read between the lines. 

LEMELSON: What does success look like for SELCO? Where will your organization be focusing its energy a decade from now?

HANDE: Many of the world’s biggest problems that we are trying to solve today – especially those related to energy access – have to be solved in the next 15 to 20 years. So if we are still growing and working on the same set of problems 10 years from now I will be a little scared, frankly. But if we do our jobs right, the SELCO Foundation’s energy work should slowly taper down, and we should look toward addressing other big problems, perhaps water scarcity. Hopefully in the next 10 years, we will have helped create a useful range of solutions for different segments of society. Ultimately we want to be a laboratory of innovation for the poor in the world, and a generator of ideas, of solutions. India itself is a paradox. We are an overdeveloped and an underdeveloped country, all at once. That makes us a microcosm for many big problems that exist in the world. And with that comes a big responsibility…

Learn more about SELCO at www.selco-india.com and the SELCO Foundation at www.selcofoundation.org