09 October 2008

Harish Hande ~ Sustainable Energy Venturing!

I was delighted to have SELCO co-founder Harish Hande join us in our MIT Development Ventures seminar today. SELCO started by deploying solar photovoltaic electric lighting systems in underserved and especially rural areas -- basically a 10 Watt panel, battery, charge controller, and lightbulb. This very modular basic system can be expanded by just buying more panels and components. Such systems enable a growing suite of accessories like TV's, radios, fans, and other consumer goods. He told of the frugal early days with almost no capital, running out of money, and personally installing every solar electric system. Harish also described several operating challenges, including the market-interfering consequences of European solar panel subsidies and incentives. And he shared the really interesting business opportunity where SELCO sells to entrepreneurs who charge up batteries by day and rent their use for light at night to a growing set of customers -- e.g. hawkers in the bazaar, midwives helping deliver babies, rose pluckers who cut bulbs before dawn, and many others. Nearly a dozen Micro-Finance Institutions (MFI's) such as SEWA -- the Self Employed Women's Association -- play a key third-party role by loaning the money allowing the entrepreneurs to purchase the systems. Founded in the mid-1990s, SELCO now has some 150 employees in nearly two-dozen service centers in Southern India, and has an installed-base of over 100,000 solar electric systems in households, organizations, and businesses. The next phase of growth has Harish and colleagues thinking even more creatively and holistically about supplying sustainable energy solutions across the board -- including biogas, alternative cooking fuels, more efficient stoves, and beyond. One example of out-of-the-box thinking is their Light & Knowledge program where they give a few practical books to read along with each solar light installation -- that way the kids and parents have immediate access to ideas; it's part of the purchase! Stay tuned for more news from Harish and SELCO! In the meantime, check out this Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy video...

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