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.
October 8, 2009
I know it’s been a while since our last post, but I promise that our silence does not mean inaction. Quite the contrary. Over the last months, a handful of exciting things have happened: we were included in a very creative and selfless fundraiser where a Bride and Groom requested Solar Lights as wedding presents; we expanded on the partnerships that were started last year; we learned that the Koraput villages where we worked in 2008 have repaid 100% of the Solar Loans; and to top it off, we sent lights to 200 more families. We also received a particularly inspiring letter from a friend who visited a village where Beyond Solar distributed lights last year. Read on…
I took a trip to Puki village this morning and one of the first things I noticed was all the solar panels charging on the tops of the huts. I got to speak to Dalimbo Khosla, one of the purchasers of your lights. He was very friendly and happy to talk to me about the light. Anyway, most of the things he reported I noticed you already have posted on your site (being able to see the insects in the food, saving money from kerosene, children reading at night, adults being able to do household works (pounding the grain) in the evening so they can all earn their daytime wages, the ability to fetch missing goats & sheep). There were, however, a few other things he discussed and a couple other observations I had that I thought I would share with you.
I wouldn’t call Dalimbo ‘elderly’, but he is definitely getting ‘up there’ in his years and he mentioned his eyesight was starting to fail him. I imagine a good optometrist is hard to find in Puki. So the brightness of the d.light lamps versus the kerosene lanterns he was using was especially valuable to him. He was laughing about how at night he couldn’t see any of the things in his home – pots, cups, rags, mats until he got his solar light (which, by the way, he has displayed in his home like a prized possession and it looks like new).
I also want to make another point – you probably gathered this already in your trips to the field but I’ve heard it enough times that I’ll mention it here anyway. In almost every village I’ve been to so far, they’ve complained about the constant kerosene shortages in addition to the spiking costs of kerosene. Many times villagers would have to face a total black-out at night when there wasn’t any kerosene available. Not to mention the rising prices taking a severe toll on their livelihoods. Now, they have a light source they can rely on…and it really does make life easier for them.
Next thing that was interesting was that they claimed to use the lights at night to gather, sing and dance. Most of the villagers are day laborers, so the village is quite empty during the daytime. Its nice to think they are able to gather together in the evenings, enjoy each other and do their cultural activities. It must strengthen the bond of the community, prolong their unique traditions and it seems to be one of their biggest life pleasures.
The last thing I asked him was if any of the villagers ever argue over the lights. He shared that there are some villagers who are angry that they didn’t buy any while you were here and that now they’ve lost their chance. They have saved the money and are very anxious to get their own lights. Dalimbo has also saved money for another light, as he would like to keep the current one inside the home, and procure another for roaming around the village at night. As I was leaving,
there were some people there from a neighboring village saying that they are upset that their village wasn’t given the opportunity to purchase the solar lights. Clearly, the word has spread and everybody wants to get in on it. Your future customers are here.
I want to say kudos to you, your partner and your donors for doing this project. I know you & I had discussions while you were here about what the impacts of the lights would be and I promised I’d get myself out there and find out. Well, I finally did and I am really blown away by the impacts of the lights. Those villages I’ve visited without the lights clearly struggle in the evening and when asked, their biggest wish is to one day have electricity. For the villages where you have
offered lights, they have made one giant (and environmentally responsible) step forward.
Oh, and in case you were wondering whether or not you should continue to raise funds, whether the lights really are making a difference, I’ve got to say a big YES! YES! YES! I know you said yourself you’re not much of a ‘do-gooder’-type person, but damn, you’ve done good.
All the best,
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.
October 22, 2008
I arrived in Dehli last Thursday and it’s been an interesting adjustment thus far. Trevor is clearly the Indian veteran here with over 2 weeks under his belt. But the prevalence of English speakers and their willingness to help has made the transition a bit easier.
I’ll get another entry out about my thoughts and observations on India; this will just be a quick update describing our progress thus far in regards to our objectives.
Outside of the solar lighting company, D.Light Design, we have two contacts that are facilitating our deployment of lanterns to the villages in Orissa. Pranjal is a director of some sort at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (An ashram, from my own observation, is a place to study, meditate, and learn how to live simply. Though some of them are religious in nature, this one is not.) His exact title is unknown, but Trevor and I have given him the unofficial role of “Guru,” owing to the extraordinarily calming influence on everyone around him…as well as a small harem that continually follows him around. He also is the only Indian person I have seen that wears shorts.
The other is Joe, the executive director of Gram Vikas, a well established NGO that has already worked on numerous development projects throughout the area. Joe is somewhat of a big-wig, as foreign governments are flying him to speak at big conferences on sustainable development. But he’s extremely down-to-earth and quite a jokester.
So on Thursday the 23rd, we’ll be flying with 48 solar lanterns (they come in boxes of 12) to Orissa to deploy in Pranjal’s village. Seven to ten days later, 96 units should be arriving at the Gram Vikas headquarters and we’ll head up there to start distributing those. Personally, I’m extremely excited to get out of the city and into the villages so we can start putting into place what we’ve set out to do all along.
October 13, 2008
Holy Cow! (Figuratively speaking, not literally) -This place is cool….India is by far the most fascinating place I have ever seen. It could be the unrelenting heat, the spicy foods, the incessant sound of car horns, the cow cruising in the back of a rickshaw taxi, or maybe, just the mere fact that today I saw two people and two goats all riding on the same motorcycle; whatever it is, it’s difficult to articulate. In short, I can say that there hasn’t been a dull moment.
Last week Pranjal, one of our partners, and I flew to Vishakaputnam and from here we hired a driver to take us to the Koraput District of Orissa. After five hours of what I consider to be, undoubtedly, the scariest car ride of my life, we finally made it to Koraput. Once we arrived in the small dusty little town, we picked up three other people and suddenly Pranjal, without explanation, stepped out of the car and said “I’ll see you there”. Nobody spoke English, and at this point I still wasn’t sure where exactly “there” was.…needless to say, it made for quite an awkward car ride.
After driving for about 15 minutes on a dirt road the car pulled over and we hopped out in the middle of what looked to be nowhere. The three guys picked up the luggage and we proceeded to quietly hike for about one mile to the water where a boat was waiting to take us to the village.
Finally after ten hours of travel we had arrived. The place was absolutely breathtaking. The only building in site was the volunteer housing, which sits on a 30 acre organic farm in the middle of the Indian “tribal” land.
The accommodations were simple, yet much more than I was expecting. There was running water, solar electricity for lighting, a bed and fresh hot food. Overall, the only difficult adjustments for me were the organic vegetarian diet and the absence of toilette paper. I knew the place was just fine, but it wasn’t until the next morning, during my first visit to the villages, that I fully understood how good I had it. The next few days would be eye opening.
Walking into the village for the first time was similar to arriving at a party where nobody knows who you are. At first the villagers stared with curiosity, then gathered with interest and finally, once we explained our intent, offered a much warmer reception.
I spent most of the first day going from village to village, speaking with the people, observing the local dynamics and playing with the kids.
From my short visits with the villagers, I was reassured that we are truly filling a gap in these people’s lives and that they are extremely grateful for the support. So thus far, I think it’s fair to give the project two thumbs up!