Friday, August 22, 2014

Stories of Change in Rural India – It’s Happening!

I would like to share stories of three rural households that we (I and my teammates at Simpa Networks) visited in summer and how our solar solution made a visible impact in their daily lives.

Ameena Begum (The smart, outspoken family leader)
Customer #1: Ameena Begum (seated on chair) and her kids
Ameena’s husband is a milkman. They are daily wage earners with a small, but steady flow of income along with a small farmland that provides seasonal income from food crops. They have 4 young kids who are enrolled in the village school. Their house has two rooms (brick walls and roof) and an open space split into dining room, kitchen and washroom.

Ameena is a smart outspoken woman who is actively involved with a women empowerment NGO and is the decision-maker in house. She is an informal woman leader in village and is capable of rallying other households if she believes in a cause. For lighting needs, they used kerosene oil lamp at night during dinner. Kids were not able to study at all after dark. Also, they didn't use any fan. Their monthly energy bill was ~4$/month.
When we visited the family, they took keen interest in our solar solution. We explained them the benefits of clean energy and cost economics. They instantly agreed for installation. After couple weeks, we visited them again to understand how they were benefiting from it. Ameena shared that her kids are now able to study at night. She also uses one light as a night bulb. Her kids use fan entire day (10-12 hours), which is a no-brainer given the sweltering 110 F summer heat in UP. Additionally, Ameena is a big supporter of solar energy and actively spreads the word about it in the village. She actually helped us get 3 more customers in her village. Also, she helped us understand psyche of people in her village. She narrated how people in her village are afraid of government instalment schemes (solar energy solutions available on monthly payable instalments that user gets to own after 5-7 years) as they have had incidents of ‘sarkaari log’ (meaning government folks) taking away their belongings and livestock for non-payment of instalments.

Ameena and her kids understanding usage of solar lighting system from our technician
Girija Shankar (Young family bread earner)

Girija Shankar is a young farmer-cum-daily wage earner who supports 6 members, including his parents and family. He is in his early 20’s and has a small 1-acre farm. To boost earnings, he visits Lucknow city once every month for daily wage labor and stays there for 1-2 weeks (Note: Poor people like him stay under bridges or slums in cities to save rental costs and take home maximum earnings). He is the decision maker in house, but is also influenced by Village Pradhan who lives next door to his hut. His house has two rooms, one made of brick and another with thatched roof. His younger brother and uncle live next door in separate houses.
Customer #2: Girija Shankar
Their energy needs were fulfilled by kerosene oil lamp, similar to most poor farmers like him. They use lamp during supper and spend ~4$/month on energy. His story of using solar energy is bit unique. He saw his neighbours (the village Pradhan) use our solar lights and fan for a month, was very impressed by it and came running to us when we visited the village next time. In fact, he was in such dire need for a better energy solution that he started working more hours to afford our solar lighting and fan system. Once installed, his family’s happiness knew no bounds. Now, his parents use a night lamp at night and his wife and son enjoy the fan breeze in daytime (7-8 hours fan use). They also requested for an EVD-DVD player to watch religious CDs and listen to songs.

Girija Shankar's house (two rooms in the enclosure)
Front entrance to his house
Just for comparison, in summers, the temperature inside one of the rooms in his house (see left pic) can go as high as 116 F. We visited his house in July and started sweating in 30 seconds!! Once he got solar powered fan with our system, his wife and son (who usually stay indoors) were overjoyed and greeted us with black plums (‘jaamun’ in Hindi) on our next visit.

RamLakhen (Respected farmer in village)
RamLakhen is a farmer with 4+ acres of land possession. He lives with his wife and 6 kids (5 sons and a daughter). In his mid-30’s, RamLakhen is not much of a speaker and lives simple life. However, his wife is very smart and outspoken home-maker who leads discussions in family and plays an important role in every decision. They have good relations with villagers and everyone in their village respects the family.
Customer # 3: RamLakhen’s wife with kids
Before using solar, they were using kerosene lamp and a portable lead-acid battery that supported mini-led lights. They were already looking for a solar solution when they met us. Hearing the success story of our product from nearby villagers and live demonstration, they agreed for installation. They have a very progressive mindset as they thought of solar energy to help their kids study at night and avoid toxic fumes from kerosene oil. They also wanted to let their neighbors benefit from solar light. However, we couldn't do it as our light wires weren't long enough to go from point A to B in their large house.

They found an ingenious solution to the problem themselves. By erecting a 25 feet pole inside their house, they fixed the solar light at its top and put a plastic cover (supported by a slipper!) to protect it from rain. The pic below demonstrates their ‘jugaad’ solution.

Their own light tower!                                  Close-up view (notice the light protected by slipper/plastic)

Their family now doesn't use the soot-colored kerosene lamp anymore. In his wife’s own words, “Ab humne mitti ka tel istemaal karna chhod diya hai” meaning “Now we have stopped using kerosene oil for good after using your solar powered lights”.

These are among the many success stories that I saw through my journey with Simpa. To sum it up, I am now personally responsible for getting 200+ people out of using dirty kerosene oil. They have now more time to devote to their work and earn more money, their children get to study in daytime/night and their neighbors benefit too from bright lights. There is a significant environmental benefit as well. Collectively, these people have saved 1 ton of CO2 emissions in the last 3 months by quitting dirty kerosene and opting for clean energy.

These people have been living their entire life in sheer darkness. Yet, they took a bold step away from herd mentality to think about their own and family’s future by adopting clean energy. The hard fact is, the villages in which these people live are not known yet to government or local authorities. In web reports and government databases, their villages either don’t exist or are considered electrified. Moreover, we found hundreds of households like Ameena, Girija Shankar and RamLakhen who live in off-grid villages.
There could be many reasons why these villages are not reported – poor accessibility, political ignorance by state or weaker sense of community. Nevertheless, the message is clear. There are millions in India who need a better way than toxic kerosene to light up their homes. New government at the helm has recognized their needs and has announced a mission to electrify entire country by 2019. Social enterprises like Simpa, with their innovative business model and passionate entrepreneurs, are working tirelessly in rural areas to complete this mission.

Post and photos by Rahul Tapariya.

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