SELCO India - Bringing Light To The Rural Poor
Zooming past the lush paddy fields in Udupi, perched on the pillion of a motorcycle, I was whisked off the paved roads to a hamlet of a half a dozen houses tucked away in rural Karnataka. My host, Pravin, a sales technician for SELCO India, allowed me to shadow him on his rounds to his customers. The first stop was at farmer’s home, a three room house at the edge of their small plot of land. Miles away from the nearest town, it did not have access to modern amenities like electricity, running water or phone service.
The young farmer who met us at the door was obviously pleased to see Pravin and proudly escorted us to the one piece of technology in their humble abode. A single wire ran across the wall to a fluorescent light and a wall plug. A transistor radio plugged in provided the only form of entertainment. Outside, above the roof, a rectangular solar panel was perched on a pole, capturing the plentiful sunlight and converting it to electricity that was stored in a battery to be used by this family at night. This simple setup powered four lights in the house – in the kitchen, a bedroom, the hallway and at the entrance – and provided up to four hours of light in the evening.
While completing his Ph. D. at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, Harish Hande was determined to use his training and background in Energy Engineering to help address some of the issues facing emerging India. After a short stint in Sri Lanka, Harish chose to set up initial operations to provide solar electricity in rural Karnataka. Together with Neville Williams, Harish Hande founded SELCO India in 1995 with the intention of providing renewable energy to underserved parts of India. By focusing on the needs of the rural customers and emphasizing customer service and quality, SELCO India has grown to over 25 centers covering three states and providing sustainable electricity to over 75,000 homes and businesses.
SELCO India’s basic home kit consists of a solar panel, four compact fluorescent lights, a rugged battery and a charge controller and costs around Rs. 15,000 to 18,000 ($375 to $450). Working with local rural banks, SELCO provides innovative financing packages that make it easier for the rural customers to pay back. For example, the farmer I visited made twice yearly payments, usually after he harvested a crop, and expected to pay off his loan in five years. In addition, some banks provide solar customers with an additional discount of 5% off their loan rates, which run from 12 to 15% per year.
For many rural customers, SELCO’s solar solutions don’t just provide basic creature comforts at home but are key to additional income opportunities. Visiting another hamlet that was off the beaten path, I was introduced to a family that had also installed a SELCO solar light system. These houses were closer to urban Udupi and the family income came from making ‘beedis’, the hand rolled Indian cigarettes. With the demand for beedis dropping, the family has now been able to take advantage of their solar illuminated kitchen to augment their income. This industrious couple is up at 4 am each morning to roll out several hundred ‘parathas’ that they then sell to the restaurants when they open.
On a larger scale, SELCO has helped setup a solar powered lighting business in the small village of Kundapur. Every evening a rural entrepreneur visits each of the stalls at the local market and rents out solar powered lights to the merchants. Round midnight, as the markets close, he comes around and picks up the expended lights to recharge them during the day. By providing bright, non-polluting lighting at a cost lower than the typical kerosene lantern, this entrepreneur has over a 100 clients and a steady income stream.
With over two billion people lacking reliable access to energy, SELCO believes that there is an opportunity to provide affordable, renewable solutions to address these problems. By focusing on the customer’s needs, providing a quality product, delivering responsive customer service to even the poorest customer, and coming up with innovative financing options, SELCO believes they can continue to grow and provide sustainable solutions for their customers. Their success has been recognized both in India and abroad. SELCO India was awarded the 2007 Ashden Award (also known as the Green Oscars) for Outstanding Achievement. In addition, Harish Hande was named 2007 Social Entrepreneur of the Year in India by The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation.
You can learn more about SELCO India from their website at
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SELCO India field office in Udupi, Karnataka
Solar Panel on Roof of Village home
Solar powered Fluorescent lighting in Village home
Solar powered lights for hawker’s stalls