“I want to inspire the youth to change the face of rural India”: Dr Harish Hande

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While there are many who win honours and accolades in their life, very few are modest enough to share the credit for their achievements. Dr Harish Hande, managing director, Selco Solar Pvt Ltd, has empowered more than 20,000 rural households with his solar solutions. He attributes the success of Selco to his colleagues who have been constantly working on innovative solutions. Currently, Selco, which is one of India’s leading solar technology firms, has earned revenues of Rs 160 million and a profit of Rs 8 million, with projected revenues of Rs 240 million by 2013-14 and Rs 300 million by 2015.

 Dr Hande has won a number of awards like Asia’s prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2011, Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy, Accenture Economic Development Award and the world’s leading green energy award from Prince Charles – all in 2005. In 2007, he won the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award, before going on to win many more. Currently, Dr Hande wants the youth to take up his solar lighting model to each non-electrified region in the country. In a conversation with Nitasha Chawla of Electronics Bazaar, Dr Hande gets candid about his vast experience in rural areas and how these have shaped his life.

Dr Harish Hande, managing director, Selco Solar Pvt Ltd

Monday, October 22, 2012: I had a secular upbringing

I was born in Handattu, Udupi district in Karnataka in 1967 and raised in Rourkela, Orissa. My father worked in a steel plant as an electrical engineer and my mother was a housewife. I have an elder sister and we both have had a secular upbringing. The kind of cultural mix Rourkela

offered us was very different from other cities of the country. Being a cosmopolitan town, there were people from various backgrounds, classes and religions, but nobody discriminated against each other.

I studied at Ispat English Medium School, which also taught me to treat everyone equally. There was no discrimination between girls and boys so I have grown up in an environment that provided equal opportunities for all.

It was either IIT or nothing

I was very weak academically until Standard 8, failing in most of the subjects continuously for four years. But as I had generous teachers, I got conditional promotions four times! It was in Standard 9 that I got interested in studies when mathematics and science became more logic-oriented. My classmates were really helpful in bringing about this improvement in my academic performance. In my school, rather than being competitive with each other, we used to be concerned about our

AL Gore, former vice president of US(L), presenting Dr Harish Handa (R) with Ashden Outstanding Achievement Award 2007

friends. And that is the reason why I could improve my scores drastically and prepare myself for the IIT entrance exam.

The mindset of people in Rourkela at that time was that if you did not go to IIT, you were not a good student. It was either IIT or nothing. In 1986, I went to IIT Kharagpur for my undergraduate studies in energy engineering. However, it was a culture shock to me. In school, we never differentiated between each other on the basis of caste, religion or gender—we were all friends. But after stepping out of Rourkela, I realised that society was entirely different. At IIT, there was always this competition among students and they were more interested in mugging up subjects, turning themselves into virtual xerox machines, when the best way to study is by understanding the logic behind a subject and its practical implementation.

Today we are not producing intellectuals…

We don’t encourage thinkers any more. This is the problem I have with

Dr Hande with his customers

the education system. It doesn’t teach the practical implementation of any theories. More than for the academics, I liked IIT for the extra-curricular activities. I learnt about hostel management, team work, and I used to play field hockey at IIT.

I got a better understanding of our education system when I went to the US for my masters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I found that there is a huge difference between education in India and the US. India is superior with respect to theory, whereas the US is far better in imparting practical knowledge to its students. For example, if you ask an Indian engineering student to write the equation for the engine of a car, he will do it but if you ask him to fix the engine, he fails to do so. However, a student in the US would be able to do the latter because he would have been given the required practical training.

Sadly, this theory based approach has infiltrated our education system at all levels. In India, we never encourage our children to explore things; we are more worried about damaging the toy or gadget. But in countries like the US, children are encouraged to learn by experimenting with their machines, toys, etc, right from childhood.

Have you ever heard of a street vendor going out of business? This is what I ask the management students of today. My point is that with the most difficult of circumstances and with limited resources, he must be doing something right to sustain himself and not run out of business. For me, the all-time classic social entrepreneur is the street vendor—he never cheats and carries on sustainable delivery. But Kingfisher Airlines, despite possessing the best brains, is in the doldrums. Selco started the same year as Lehmann Brothers. Today, we are here and they are not.

Whenever I talk at a management school, I ask students for the business plan of a street vendor. They have no clue about what to say. I think that the quality of students at these schools has gone down and their thinking processes are not holistic. I criticise the professors for their way of teaching because they are not creating students who can actually think of creating assets and, hence, there is no value addition in the students’ knowledge base.

Dr Hande receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award 2011

The birth of Selco

After completing my masters in 1990, I began my PhD work in energy engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. During my PhD, I realised that it would be useless to write my thesis purely on a research basis, sitting in the US, without looking at the ground realities. Therefore, I planned to visit some of the rural areas across the world with no electricity. These were the Dominican Republic in Central America, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India. On a field trip to a village in the Dominican Republic, I saw a lot of poverty and darkness and the two began to look like the same thing to me. When I came back, I decided to live in a place where I could look closely at the challenges of living in such remote and poor areas and to explore the potential technology had to improve lives, without any urban frills.

I continued visiting more such areas in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India, surviving on my scholarship money, which was Rs 1000 per month.

I decided to go to Anuradhapuram in Sri Lanka with just my scholarship money and a solar powered laptop. For six months I lived in a village with no electricity as I wanted to install solar panels there. I lived among people whose language I did not know. I sat with the temple monks who only spoke Sinhalese, and through continuous interactions I began to understood how the urban elite is simply banking on the patience of the poor.

During one of my visits to a village in Karnataka in 1994, my contact at the village told me about a rich areca nut farmer. As I needed funds, we went to him and explained the concept of solar lighting to him. He did not see any benefit in it, so he dismissed it. His 70 year old mother was listening to the conversation and she understood the benefit of my concept. She gave me

Rs 15,000 to secretly install the solar system in her son’s field so that he, too, understood the benefits. We did that in three-and-a-half hours. When night fell, the man saw the field lit up. The old lady established the business model for me. I wrote to Neville Williams, a former Greenpeace activist, whom I had met in Washington in 1993, and my supplier to underwrite 25 more systems for me so that I would repeat the feat. The model has not changed since then. Even now, we do it in every village we go to.

After travelling through rural areas in Karnataka and other countries, I not only understood the energy needs of poor households and communities, but also observed the dynamics of their lives and income generating activities. Therefore, when in 1995, Neville asked me if I could set up a 100 home solar project in India, I did. I then decided to form Selco in partnership with Neville, as an energy services company focused on meeting the needs of people lacking adequate access to energy.

At Selco, we place a lot of emphasis on innovations. The Innovations Department at Selco works to come up with ideas that it views as important for the company to pursue. Of course, going beyond our solar offerings requires Selco to work with partners—local and international, ranging from universities to vendors—that can provide the additional expertise and technology not available in-house.

When we hire people, we go by the talent and passion of a person, not just his qualifications. In my company, I have colleagues who are fourth grade drop-outs and they are heading teams of engineers.

What we do

Selco Solar Pvt Ltd, a social enterprise established in 1995, provides sustainable energy solutions and services to under-served households and businesses. It was conceived in an effort to dispel three myths associated with sustainable technology and the rural sector as a target customer base:

  • The poor cannot afford sustainable technologies
  • The poor cannot maintain sustainable technologies
  • Social ventures cannot be run as commercial entities

By providing solar lights, Selco has been able to successfully empower individuals to run their businesses without dependence on fuel based products for lighting

India’s extensive rural banking system did not financially support solar lighting technology. Selco played a pivotal role in convincing these large commercial and rural banking institutions to finance sustainable energy systems for poor rural households. Since then, Selco has forged partnerships with numerous regional rural banks, commercial banks, NGOs and rural farmer cooperatives to develop financial solutions that match the cash flow of the target client base.

In its nascent stage, it took five years for Selco to provide solar lighting for 500 houses. Creating awareness about the company was not the challenge—the big challenge was generating an understanding about better alternatives to unreliable rural lighting.

Linking income generating activities with energy services has improved the quality of life for several under-served households, by providing affordable channels to procure the technology. That has helped to increase work hours and productivity and, hence, the buying power of the end user.

My wife’s contribution in my life

I got married to Rupal in 1998, whom I had met at the university in the US. She is a Gujarati, born and brought up in the US, and works as a software engineer there. We have two kids—our daughter Adhishri and son Ameya, who stay in the US with my wife. We have had a long distance marriage and I am thankful to Rupal for making it a success. In the early years of our marriage, she would see me once in two years as she knew my life was in rural India. It’s the shared belief in what each of us is doing that has helped us in sustaining our relationship for 20 years. Now I meet my family once in three months.

A long way to go

Selco has received several awards for its performance, which is an achievement of the entire team. When people tell me that I have sacrificed a lot for Selco, I feel my 191 colleagues have sacrificed more than me by working in rural areas. The innovations are done by them; they are behind the thought processes and are absolutely brilliant. However, there is still a long way to go. For us, women’s empowerment is very critical. We have 0.7 million women and children suffering because of the injuries they sustain and the diseases they catch while cooking. Moreover, 50 per cent of the country is still not electrified. There is a lot of work left to be done and even if we are able to inspire 30-40 youngsters to work for the rural people every year, I think that will be a good start.

One thing that you would like to change

In this world

I would want to remove the boundaries that we have created in the world. I believe we are all the same, irrespective of the country we live in and the ‘class’ we belong to.

At workplace

I would like to stop access to the Internet for eight hours a day because the younger generation feels that more solutions are found on the Net rather than on the ground. I would rather wish they went out and talked to people to gain a better understanding of things.

In the country

We need to ensure that farmers get the respect that is their due. They are the ones who have made India self-sufficient in food production.

Any one incident that you feel has changed your life

I was in a rural exhibition when I had first started on my thesis. The labourers there had become my friends but when my friends from the US came to visit me (they were whites), I lost 17 of my village friends because they got to know that I was educated. That was one of the most heartbreaking incidents because, suddenly, my friends had started treating me differently. Therefore, I think that the way we have pushed poor people to think of us as ‘different’ or ‘not one of us’ needs to change.

Any one incident that you wish had not happened

I think I am grateful to all the good and bad incidents that have happened in my life. It is because of some bad incidents that I can take some good decisions today. I believe that the best lessons in life are taught by bad experiences.

Given a chance, what would you like to change in yourself

I wish to have more time so that I can visit more rural areas. I am an inefficient planner and hope to become more efficient with my work plans.

A FEW OF MY FAVOURITE THINGS…

Music: Indian classical

Food: Thai

Book: Books on the environment’s sustainability like An Inconvenient Truth

Dress: Khadi shirt and trousers

Colour: Blue

Historical figure: Mahatma Gandhi

Actor: Rahul Bose

Actress: Shabana Azmi

One person you would like to emulate: A street vendor —he is my hero

Electronics Bazaar, South Asia’s No.1 Electronics B2B magazine

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