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Lokvani Talks To Magsaysay Winner Harish Hande

Ranjani Saigal

Dr. H Harish Hande, Managing Director, SELCO-India,   was awarded  Asia's prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for 2011, also sometimes referred to as Asia's Nobel Prize.  Dr. Hande earned his Doctorate in energy engineering (solar specialty) at the University of Massachusetts (Lowell). He has an undergraduate degree in Energy Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. Dr. Hande serves on the boards of many organizations, both national and international.

Dr.  Hande co-founded SELCO INDIA, a social venture, to eradicate poverty by promoting sustainable technologies in rural India. With its headquarters in Bangalore , SELCO has 25 branches in Karnataka and Gujarat. Today SELCO INDIA has installed solar lighting systems in over 120,000 households in the rural areas of these states.

He has won the Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy 2005 and Tech Museum Award 2005. Harish has also received the world’s leading green energy award from Prince Charles in 2005. In 2007 SELCO INDIA won the Outstanding Achievement Award from Ashden Awards.   Harish Hande was named the Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation. He was also the featured attendee and speaker at the Clinton Global Initiative 2007.

In 2008, Harish Hande was chosen by Business Today as one of the 21 young leaders for India’s 21st century. In mid 2008, India Today named him one of the 50 pioneers of change in India.

Harish Hande will be the keynote speaker at TIE-SE's Forum for Social Entrepreneurs to be held on Oct 1 , 2011 at MIT.
Congratulations on winning the Magsaysay award.   What do you hope this award will do for you and your cause?
The award really means  a lot for our  organization—maybe not so much for the work we have done so far but for the concept that we are trying to push. If 500 million people have to come out of poverty, enterprises need to look at social, environmental and financial sustainability at the same level. It cannot be one over the other.
The citation on the award specifically refers to the concept of “Social Enterprise” which is very exciting to me. I hope the award and the attention brought to social enterprises will enable me to help other social entrepreneurs as they seek investment to bring new ideas to lift people out of poverty.  There has to be a paradigm shift in the mindset of the investors.  We also need to implement changes in policies that can help create sustainable enterprises.

How did SELCO come to be? What has been the reach?

After my undergraduate at IIT  Kharagpur, I went to the US to do my masters and Ph.D. But during my Master’s, I had a chance to go to the Dominican Republic in 1991 to visit Richard Hansen's work, and I saw very poor people using solar for lighting.  Richard has been working in this year since 1984. It immediately inspired me to think of this solution for India.   Then, during another of my travels, I met another pioneer in the field of solar, Neville Williams.  We joined hands and started Selco  in 1993 . It was classically a social enterprise, though the term was not even invented at that time. We finally registered in 1995.
Selco has reached some 120,000 houses and our target is to reach 200,000 additional clients in the next three-four years. We raised equity money some three years ago. We are structured as a company, but all our investors are not for-profit, so all the profits go back to the organizations. It’s a classic social enterprise, not a company, not an NGO (non-government organization) in many ways.
What is the secret to success of SELCO?
We work hard to understand our customer and provide an individualized solution for each customer. We try to address the need rather than the want of each customer.   To be successful in this market we need to not only understand the requirements of the product but also be able to couple it with individualized financial package that can make sense for the consumer.

I also believe our non-hierarchical organizational structure is key to our success.  Whether you are a technician or a manager everyone has an equal right to put forth his or her ideas and run with it.  I am convinced this is certainly an important aspect of our success.
What makes a successful Social Entrepreneur?  What areas of opportunity exist? Any advice you can offer for social entrepreneurs?
If people have a passion for making a difference rather a romantic idea of making a difference they will succeed. Working in the space is very difficult. Romance can die quickly but passion survives.  The best space to pick is the one you are passionate about. For me it was solar energy.  In the beginning I would recommend not seeking too much funding. You first need to learn what the business is all about. Working with little or no funding will help people think  in innovative ways and that innovative thinking is critical for social entrepreneurs.  Be prepared for a lot of challenges.

Many foreign-born people of Indian and non-Indian origin seem to take an interest in Social Enterprise. How do they fare in India?

Social enterprise amongst Indians and foreigners is a concept that is gaining ground. Many are very successful and so many others struggle.  While certainly being an Indian in India has some advantages, foreigners sometimes have an edge in some areas. For example Indian education does not encourage innovative thinking. Sometimes foreign graduates are more adept at coming up with solutions. Indian engineers are very good with equations but hands on experience is lacking. My IIT education allowed to be good at solving equations but creating a real design was not something I was trained on.

It is also very important to not think hierarchically. Some foreigners  do better than some Indians when the notion of hierarchy based on education level and other parameters often comes in the way of working with the customer. Unless the customer feels that you are his or her equal it is very difficult to understand their issues and provide solutions.
Any special message for our readers?

Most of our lives are subsidized on the back of the poor. I am a complete subsidy product. My IIT education was paid for by taxpayers in India and my masters was paid for by US taxpayers.  It is time that we modify the business models so that all people of the world live a better. This is very possible but it requires a paradigm shift in our thinking.  Unfortunately in the recent past the term “bottom of the pyramid as a customer base” idea has become popular.  This does not see the poor as asset creators and hence does not have business models that can help reduce the financial divide. The sustainability of the world depends on the modified business models that looks at the poor as asset creators and I hope all of us can do our part to bring that paradigm shift.

Thank you  for your time

Thank you.

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