January 5, 2010
Returning to the villages in the Koraput District in southern Orissa after a year was quite an experience. We distributed 260 lights to the villagers, which was 10 more than our goal of 250 and almost a 100 more than last year’s 162. To say the trip was a success would be an understatement. In addition to getting the lights to the villagers, we were able to revisit the beneficiaries of last year’s project and collect data about our first deployment. We were also able to lay the groundwork for future deployments which won’t require one of us to be present. This means an even higher percentage of donated funds will be put directly towards the purchase of solar lights.
That we were able to distribute 260 lights in eight days, compared to the two months needed last year for almost 100 less lights speaks to the steep learning curve we’ve experienced. I may have previously mentioned (and if I haven’t, I’ll do so now) that one of the biggest obstacles we had last year was not convincing the villagers of the value of the lights, but convincing an NGO to work with us on our distribution model. They all said it wouldn’t work and that the villagers wouldn’t pay for the lights. Well this year we had none of that. Our NGO partner, SOVA, had seen firsthand how successful our initial project had been and was eager to support us on our second one. The very thin grapevine between the neighboring villages meant a lot of households, learning of the lights’ benefits, were eager to get a light of their own. So we had the customers and we had the support of respected local NGO; once the logistics of shipping were finalized, the distribution went rather smoothly.
One of the reasons we were able to get so many lights into the hands of so many villagers in such a short time was the access to SOVA’s volunteer network. Most of the villagers worked in the fields during the day and the distance between villages was too great to visit more than one per night. To get around this issue, we left lights with multiple volunteers who were able to distribute the lights simultaneously. When we met with the volunteers on that last day, we were a bit anxious to hear how distribution went without direct Beyond Solar supervision. As we sat listening to them speak, we realized just how great the need is. Even after all of the lights were “sold” more villagers continued to show up. “The villagers are very happy,” one volunteer told us. “But they need more… 500 more lights.” Once again, the only issue was that we had more customers than we did lights!
The villagers requests for more lights means we have a lot more work to do but it was the villagers who had used the lights for a year who really encouraged us that donors money was well spent. All of the benefits previously mentioned were verified: longer working hours during the day and little to no money spent on kerosene meant more disposable income for food or medical emergencies. Children are studying now at night and village leaders are routinely meeting at night to discuss issues facing their community. The villagers are protecting their crops during the evening and protecting their families by providing them with cleaner air and removing the threat of open fire. The payments made for the lights were deposited into the village development committee and later used to invest in mushroom cultivation projects and to keep money on hand for medical emergencies. I could go on and on, but one Puki villager summed it up by simply saying, “We are so grateful for you providing these lights. They’ve changed our lives.”
Hearing that one comment made the trip all worthwhile, and I hope it makes every donor feel the same way. Without your support, none of this would have been possible. Thank you so much.
December 15, 2008
It’s always nice to accomplish more than what is expected of you. So after deploying the last of our 162 lanterns, I returned to Delhi to hear the CEO of the lantern manufacturer tell me that the odds were in fact against us.
Trevor and I held steady from the beginning that through the avoided costs of kerosene and the increased productivity as a result of extended working hours, these lights would pay for themselves. Making the idea a reality was not easy, and perhaps the CEO had a point. New to development work, Trevor and I spent hours debating execution strategies only to find neither of our ideas were applicable. Shipping and logistics became a monster in itself. Complicating matters more was the routine call from our NGO contacts that our idea wouldn’t work: they told us the villagers were too used to handouts and wouldn’t pay. All of this on top of the typical issues associated with traveling in India, such as translation difficulties and recurring stomach irritations. Your average cubicle job it was not.
But the challenges are what make the end results so much more rewarding. Providing tools that will allow the villagers to live more productive and healthy lives as well as injecting funds into the village that will provide capital for further development has made it all worth while. Aside from the immediate impact to the 162 households that save money on kerosene, have light to work and study, and breathe cleaner air without the threat of fire, what excites us most is that with the proper amount of fine tuning, the process is repeatable. More importantly, it’s scalable. At time of writing, all of the villagers have been up-to-date with their payments; the data is supporting our hypothesis.
Trevor and I are both back in the States now, and are working on a video that will capture our efforts in a more visual medium. We plan to issue a press release in the upcoming weeks that will hopefully result in more exposure. As Beyond Solar looks toward the future, our deployment process is one that, along with our partners, can be executed without returning to India. So our current goal is to do an annual fundraiser where we can have lights shipped to our partners and deployed.
Readjusting has been interesting, as anyone who has experienced reverse culture-shock can tell you. Trevor is living in San Francisco and has started a new job with the solar cell manufacturer, Q-Cells. I am back in the Chicago area seeking a position in renewable energy industry.
Beyond Solar would especially like to thank all of the donors who contributed to our organization: without your help, none of this would have been possible.
November 21, 2008
All of the hard work and support that has gone into this project finally materialized two weeks ago with the roll out of solar lanterns to every household in the New Keringa Village. It was truly fulfilling to see a place, that normally falls quiet at sundown, transformed into a bright, colorful and lively place within a matter of hours. The most basic benefits of the light were immediately recognizable; kids were playing in the street and parents gathered outside of the houses to socialize.
There’s so much to tell but the first thing that needs description is how we ended up structuring the program. As we’ve said before, simply giving the lanterns away is not an effective means of empowerment. We’ve learned from various NGOs in India that charity is not sustainable, the pride of ownership is reduced, and typically results in neglect of the donated products. With this in mind, Jeff and I have attempted what we can only refer to as a “micro-finance lite” model. Microfinance, or micro-credit, is the process of lending small amounts (typically less than $1000) to impoverished people for income producing activities. Micro-finance recently came into the public eye when Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his success in “micro lending” to poor villagers, mostly women, in Bangladesh.
What Jeff and I wanted to do was to employ the microfinance model, but without levying the high interest rates (upwards of 30%) that traditional microfinance institutions must impose. Also, we wanted to make sure that the program was available and affordable to everybody in the village.
After hours of debate and some tough negotiations with the community, we finally settled on a program. Beyond Solar has agreed to provide 0% financing for the lanterns. In return the each household agreed to a 20-30% down payment, at the time of purchase, and to make weekly installments of 25 Rupees, or the equivalent of the avoided purchase of kerosene, until the cost of the lantern is fully recovered. Every week, the treasurer from the Village Development Committee (VDC) is tasked with collecting the installment payment from each household. At the end of every month our partner NGO, South Orison Volunteer Action (SOVA) will collect the money.
This is where we diverted slightly from the traditional microfinance path. Rather than collecting the money to recirculate in different villages, Beyond Solar agreed to commit every penny collected to a Community Development fund managed by SOVA. As such, if the village achieves a 100% repayment rate at the end of the 12 months, each family will have access to a revolving credit line equal to the cost of the lantern and to be used for emergency situations or incoming producing activities.
What has been the most interesting throughout this process is that this all of the above details have to be explained to the villagers. They like the lights, but they certainly don’t understand concepts such as investment, access to capital, or payback schedules. This is where we, along with our SOVA representative, Amzad, come in – the sales pitch.
After four separate visits to the village, the final meeting was undoubtedly the most exciting so far. A little mat is laid out for us, we take off our shoes, and the show begins. We start by asking questions, getting them to think about the problems they endure as a result of kerosene. We then start talking about how much their lives can be improved with more light, how much money they can save, how much more work they can do, how the kids can study, and how safety and health can improve.
After three hours of tough questioning by some surprisingly savvy negotiators (the villagers), we ask the final question – “the close” – who wants a solar lantern? People began disappearing and returning with their down payment in hand. Purple thumbprints replaced signatures for those who could not write. After almost an hour, the five boxes of solar lanterns that we had brought were empty and every household in New Keringa was beaming with light!
The following pictures were taken throughout the night. Keep in mind that we didn’t use a flash and nothing has been edited – all of the light is coming from the lanterns that Beyond Solar has provided.
October 30, 2008
Trevor and I have spent a few days in the village, and we’ve included the details of one of the women we interviewed. Her story paints a picture of every day life in the village but we found it was a story of potential rather than pity.
This is Jowallah, a single mother of two, whose husband passed away roughly two years ago. In the 1980’s, when her village was displaced by the construction of a government sponsored hydro-electric dam (ironically the village was never provided electricity), she was allotted one acre of land that provides enough food to last the family four months of the year. Every month, Jowallah receives 200 rupees from her husband’s pension, which equates to roughly 4USD. To fill the remaining nutritional and financial gaps, Jowallah can typically find work breaking stones into gravel, or doing odd jobs in neighboring villages. When the work is available, Jowallah can earn an average income of 500-600 rupees (10-12 USD) per month.
Jowallah owns 1 kerosene lamp that gives off as much light as a small candle. On average, she pays 20-25 rupees per litre of kerosene and consumes approximately 6-8 litres per month. In other words, around 20% of her income is spent on home lighting. To purchase the fuel, Jowallah walks over 4 km (about 2.5 miles) each way and is limited to a ration of 1 litre per trip. Total time lost to buy kerosene is about 3 hours.
When we asked how more light could help her live, the response was surprising and definitely encouraging. Jowallah explained that her last two hours of daylight are often spent preparing dinner, which cuts into the time she could use to make additional money. In a separate interview, Trevor and I learned that with an extra two hours of light per night, the women can make “leaf plates” (literally plates made out of leafs), which they can sell in the nearest city for roughly 10-20 rupees per day, almost doubling their income.
Here’s some video footage of the interview:
Even more surprising, was how inspiring these visits to the villages have become. Jowallah and her neighbors don’t evoke sympathy; they are proud people and very hard workers. They’re held back not by skill or drive, but rather the lack of access to some of the most basic and fundamental tools needed to rise out of poverty. This is likely why the more time that Trevor and I spend with the people in the village, the more value we attach to the solar lanterns. The technology at its core seems so basic, yet we’ve learned the incredible impact a light can have on the dignity and livelihood of the people who use them.
September 17, 2008
What a month we’ve had - It’s only been four weeks since we launched Beyond Solar and here’s a list of all that has happened:
Donations: We have some amazing family and friends! Since august 20th, Beyond Solar has raised almost $9K from only 32 donors. This is fantastic progress and leaves us $6K shy of reaching the $15K goal……we cannot thank you enough.
Technology: We have entered into a partnership with D.Light Design, in which we will purchase 100 units and research new distribution models in return for their assistance in coordinating the on-the-ground efforts in India.
Location: D.Light, introduced us to Pranjal Jauhar, an NGO worker who has agreed to assist us in coordinating the project within a village. Here’s the message that we received just a few days ago:
“The village of Koraput district is in the state of Orissa.(East Coast of the Indian Peninsular). The area comprises of a tribal majority and some dalits(schedule castes). All the people there are poor and have very little money. They live in mud houses. There is not a single person who has a solar light. They all have kerosene lamps.”
And the pics:
Press Release: Last week we sent out our first press release and it was picked up by four different publications. Click here to check it out.
Fundraising Events: We’re doing 2 fundraising events in the next few weeks. The first, in San Diego on September 22nd, is at Jack’s in La Jolla. The tickets cost $30 and include appetizers as well as prizes to be donated. (We currently have gift certificates to Sushi on the Rock, Nicole Miller, and much more).
The second event will be in Chicago on October 2nd, at PJ Clarke’s (1204 N. State). The $40 ticket includes food and an open bar. Jeff’s sister is helping to organize this and is currently soliciting donations to be raffled away. We’ll keep you posted.
If you are in either of these locations, we’d love to see you come out!
Random fact: 780 people from, 33 countries have collectively viewed over 5000 pages on our website – WOW!
So now what? The travel is booked and we are busy tying up loose ends before our departure. Our work hours are slowly transitioning from long days to long nights, as our conversations and email communication gradually shift to the Indian work hours. We have nightly calls with partners and spend the mornings taking care of the small details (immunizations, tourist visas, travel arrangements, mosquito nets, etc.)
It’s strange to think that the wild idea from few months ago will become reality in just a few short weeks. Can’t wait!
August 20, 2008
I don’t have children, nor do I want them right now, but if I did, I’m sure I would be excited, and even a bit nervous on the night before their first day of school. What will the other kids think? Will they make friends? Are they prepared?…..
Well, over the last couple of months, Beyond Solar has evolved into my “baby” and tomorrow the site goes live, or rather, goes “to school”. So you can only imagine my excitement, and admittedly, my nervousness as well.
Jeff and I founded the organization on the belief that solar technology can produce more than just energy; it can produce change and improve peoples lives – in other words – it has value Beyond Solar. In October, we’ll be heading to India for the Shine the Light Project, which will light 50 homes with solar powered technology.
As the success of this project will be largely owed to the people who help along the way, we want to share with them the entire experience from start to finish. This blog will be an account of our progress and will be used to update you as to our thoughts, successes and even the occasional failures.
So Just like the parent who can do nothing more than be proud of their child and hope for their success, I realize that I am left with the same options….time to go to school!