Friday, July 18, 2014

Unlocking the locked ones!

Place for solar in Indian energy sector
With an installed base capacity of ~250 GW (70% of which is fossil-fuel based power), India is building fast on its renewable power generation with wind holding the highest share as of today (8.6% of total installed base capacity). For a quick comparison, US power sector generates ~1050 GW power (4 times base capacity of India) for 1/4th equivalent of Indian population.

Solar power currently holds a minuscule space (1%) in the country with 2.6 GW capacity. However, it has received a recent thrust on account of the National Solar Mission with a target of 22 GW in 2022 (20 GW on-grid and 2 GW off-grid)

Uttar Pradesh (UP hereafter) is the most populous state in India with nearly 200 million people. For comparison, this is equivalent to total population of Brazil squeezed in an area 35 times smaller than that of Brazil. 75% people in UP live in rural areas where there is either under-electrification (prolonged power cuts of anything ranging from 4 hours/day up to 18 hours/day) or zero electrification (so called Off-grid areas). Naturally, this is a breeding ground for social enterprises who are trying to reach these customers through multiple means of solar powered energy solutions. Simpa is one of such upcoming enterprise that promises clean, affordable electricity for a single home.

Need for Off-grid solutions
Needs of under-electrified customers are easier to understand and meet through solar energy solutions since they know the benefits of electricity and consider it as a necessity. Additionally, they suffer the pain of prolonged power cuts and constantly search for back-up methods of power like inverters or generator. Hence, scores of solar solutions have sprung up across the country to meet their needs. Simpa started its journey with under-electrified customers.

However, the real social need and business opportunity lies in off-grid areas where people don’t understand the importance of energy, let alone clean energy like solar power. Their USP though is that no-one has a holistic knowledge about their energy needs or WTP. The reason is simple enough – lack of direct accessibility to nearly 290 million such customers (30% of Indian population) who are spread all across the country and live primarily on agriculture related activities.

Hence, my internship start was ambiguous with never-before envisioned customer mindset. Imagine yourself talking to people who don’t view energy as a necessity, leave alone the importance of clean vs dirty energy source! Below are a couple of pics to give brief glimpse of their homes.
Customer #1

Customer #2
During the internship, my job was to build customer profile and unlock their barriers to adoption of solar energy. Also during the exercise, we had to arrive at the right pricing mechanism and delivery channel to reach and appeal to most of our customers. As part of the exercise, we decided a block (smaller area than a district and contains a population of ~4000-5000 households) as our testing ground. We further narrowed down the focus to a select group of villages to completely understand customer mindset and adoption barriers. Next phase was rapid prototyping and experimentation to unlock these barriers with new innovative experiments that would help Simpa gain instant trust and massive demand in off-grid villages.
My ride for nearly entire internship

Our travel to villages and glimpse of rural UP
Transportation is not easy as one tries to venture into villages from town settlements. Most of these villages do have motorable roads, although some don’t. We did visit a couple villages that were reachable only by two wheelers or by feet. For major part of our field work, this auto-rickshaw and it’s driver were a crucial part of our team. Together, we braved everything from hot winds of summer to cool showers of monsoon.
Sometimes, roads were motorable

Yet, sometimes, they were not!

As soon as we would reach any village, swarm of kids immediately surrounded our vehicle to get a glimpse of ‘what’s inside?’. Since our work required us to make repeat visits to same villages, people would instantly recognize the sole vehicle driving with 4 town folks and murmur ‘Saur urja wale aaye hain’ meaning “the solar guys are here”.

Night demonstrations were one of our powerful tools to get a better understanding of people. At night as we entered any village, we saw pitch-black darkness as people use kerosene oil inside their homes only for supper. Having nothing to do at night, they went to bed early. In these circumstances, doing a night demonstration was like a holy grail when we helped people compare their kerosene lamp with a bright solar-powered white light. There were occasionally issues of safety but none too severe to stop our work or research.
Me & our sales manager doing a night demonstration in a village

Fun moments
I started using local cotton garment that is typically wrapped around one’s head or shoulders to stay relatively cool in hot weather. Below is my pic where I tried to wear it as a turban. Culinary delights in villages were a fun experience that also helped beat the 116 F heat, at least for some time. Crushed ice with sugar syrup and boiled chickpeas with salt and onion were some of these delights that our team savored like premier delicacies. We also occasionally picked up fruits (mangoes and black plum) from trees by the way.
Yup, that was my avatar for 6-7 weeks of hot summer!

Peppermint oil was another exotic discovery that we made for heat relief. Farmers typically grow peppermint right after their sugarcane crop harvest in April and reap it by onset of monsoon. The oil contains copious amounts of menthol (used in our shampoo bottles or hair oil to add cooling effect) and only 2-3 drops of pure peppermint oil is enough to turn a bucket full of water into cool ‘mentholated’ water. Our field technician, who is a farmer himself, got us a small bottle of peppermint oil that we are using even until now to get a refreshing shower every morning (and evening/night).

Crushed ice with sugar 
Boiled chick peas garnished with onion and chillies at a road-side shop

How I unlocked my own potential:
Working at Simpa has been an enormous learning experience due to the fast-paced and exhaustive learning environment of a start-up venture. To say the least, I picked up the little habits of making a plan for next day (in writing). This little mundane activity saves a ton of time when on the field. To give an example, if we travel without a plan, I would end up being led by our sales manager to reach prospective customers. However, with a sketched out plan, we are able to get 30% more outcome from the day. Despite the factors like weather, unavailability of people, traffic jams or poor roads which are ‘typical’ working conditions in rural India, the little planning habit is a lifesaver.

Rapid prototyping and experimentation is another important learning. After talking to scores of villagers, their needs, beliefs and motivations, I designed several experiments to test the behavior, many of which were decided on-the-spot. Also, I was able to stretch my own capabilities. Combination of field work and brain storming did help increase amount of work done per day.

Another learning was that rural customers tell you openly if you do two things: (a) Give them analogies as much as possible and (b) Add jokes in between to help them open up. If customers are not giving information, we tried to inflate estimates. Then, they would instantly tell the right information. These sorts of rapid prototyping experiments were helpful to understand and speak to customers in their own language and in their own way.

A small activity of keeping a pen in pocket every day before leaving hotel helped a lot. Once out of hotel and into rural villages, it’s impossible to find potable water to drink, let alone other things. Additionally, it became extremely useful to jot down epiphanies during travel from one village to another. Last but not the least, the social impact achieved as a result of lighting up lives of 500+ people has left me a lot more humble and committed to do greater good for society.

I would like to end with a confession. This post doesn’t capture even 25% of the fun, learning and social impact that I have witnessed in the past couple months as there has been simply too much to absorb in a very short time. I do hope though that this is a starting point for anyone interested in energy, especially in rural solutions to gain some preliminary insights.

Post written and photos by Rahul Tapariya

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