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A businessman's crusade against darkness
BS Reporter in New Delhi
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December 04, 2007

Harish Hande, CEO, Selco, who has been selected social entrepreneur of the year by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation this year, has been in the business of solar electrification since the past 12 years. At last count, his clients numbered 85,000 in 220 villages in Karnataka and 2,000 clients in Gujarat where he started operations recently.

Hande says he is into business only because that is the only way he can take solar power to the largest number of people. That has been his dream and main occupation for the last 12 years when he started doing his Masters and PhD in Massachusets Institute of Technology. His subject was rural electrification and whether solar power makes sense.

He says he came upon the idea during a brief visit to the Dominican Republic as a student in IIT Kharagpur. "Those two hours of what I saw there -- people using and paying for solar energy changed my way of thinking totally. I haven't touched technical applications after that," says Hande.

His strategy for making solar energy succeed has been two fold: doorstep service and doorstep financing. He first started creating solar service centres in all the places he was setting up solar panels.

In addition, he got the centres to identify more potential technicians in nearby villages which were beyond the centre's reach, train them and then help them set up shop.

The second task was to persuade the existing financial network of Regional Rural Banks, cooperative banks to finance the solar panels he set up. "Once that was done, I have been piggy-riding on this network to spread the reach of solar power into the interiors of Karnataka villages," he says.

In Gujarat, a tie-up has been achieved with SEWA and customers are getting financed while being offered solar energy.

Hande admits that solar electrification programmes have been criticised for providing just a single bulb and thus keeping the poor sections from being on a par with other beneficiaries of electricity.

He says that his technicians go with a clean slate to the customer's house. It is not a pre-planned one-bulb scheme being offered. People can opt for one or two or three bulbs and even run an electric sewing machine,. The installations can be done in phases depending on the payment capability of the buyer, he says.

He has the story of a customer who ran away when he was told that three bulbs would cost him Rs 12,000. The technician of SELCO did not give up, says Hande. He went back to the customer, climbed on his roof and put a single bulb in such a way that it lit up three of his rooms cutting the cost by third.

The costs of lighting up houses come between Rs 5,000 and Rs 18,000 he says. "Of course, solar lighting cannot solve irrigation problems of villagers. That needs so much energy that the costs would be unbearable for the villagers," says Hande.

He also is not in favour of a single transmission system catering to a number of customers. "It is so much easier to be modular," Hande says.

He says the idea that drives his business proposition is the Gandhian principle of "production by masses rather than mass production''. And the fact that in Karnataka alone 44 per cent of people have no electricity.

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