[if you missed Part 1, you can read it here]
As the sun rose over the deep green rice fields around us, hundreds of people were walking along the highway and amongst the rice paddies, starting their day – squatting, walking, sitting, and waking. That’s one aspect of India that feels different from nearly everywhere: no matter where you go, it feels like there are always a lot of people going about their business.
1 in 6 people in the world lives in India, so any social issue in India is, by definition, a big one. The Indian state of Bihar, India’s poorest, has a population of 85 million, 80% of whom have no reliable access to electricity, 58% of whom are under the age of 25, and 85% of whom live in rural areas. And this is just one state – with a population larger than the UK, France, Italy, Spain, or Germany – in a country of 1.1 billion people.
When people talk about what will ultimately break the back of poverty – philanthropy or market-based solutions, or some combination of the two – I’m inexorably drawn back to these sorts of numbers. They makes me ask how anything could possibly grow to touch hundreds of millions of lives without some sort of economic engine that works. It feels impossible. The imperative, then, is to find a way to make markets work in service of social change in places like Bihar.
Lighting and cooking solutions are a great place to start, because villagers already spend 10-15% of their income on fuel (for dirty, unsafe kerosene lamps and for open stoves that spew noxious smoke in people’s homes), and because 1.5 million people a year die globally from respiratory conditions resulting from indoor air pollution – 50% more than from malaria.
The opportunity and the need here is huge.
Acumen Fund has two investees that are working to crack this problem: D.Light, which sells solar lights to replace kerosene lamps, and Husk power, which is bringing power directly into people’s homes. So when six-foot-two Gyanesh Pandey, CEO of Husk Power Systems, casually rolled into the (VERY bare-bones) Skylark Hotel in Padrauna wearing shorts, a white t-shirt, and a big smile on his goateed face, I wanted to know how and why he is solving a problem that no one else has managed to tackle.
What comes across quickly in conversations with Gyanesh is that markets are working in a limited way even in Bihar: villagers are buying kerosene, fertilizer, seed, alcohol and clothing, so even people making just a few dollars a day have some small amount of cash that they’re spending. This means that the goal isn’t to wave a magic wand and introduce markets where they don’t exist; the goal is to understand the village-level economy – and the mindset of people living there – well enough to offer solutions that will work to improve lives.
It turns out Gyanesh, who has a BS in Electrical Engineering from IIT Varanasi and an MS in Electronics Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, grew up in a village in Bihar, and he’s quick say, with a twinkle in his eye, “Hey, if I don’t work on these problems, who will?”
Gyanesh started tinkering with renewable fuel solutions for the poor in 2002, and in 2007 he and his partner Ratnesh Yadav set up and funded an NGO, the Samta Samriddhi Foundation, to build one mini-system that would provide power to 2-3 surrounding villages at a price villagers could afford. Gyanesh and Rathnesh figured that if the price were low enough and the reliability high enough, they could sell power and 1-2 lightbulbs to villagers who would be all too happy to give up their kerosene lamps.
In 2008, based on promising early results, Gyanesh and Ratnesh set up Husk Power as a for-profit company, and less than three years later Husk has installed and is operating more than 40 ultra-small systems that are providing power to more than 100,000 people, and Husk plans to grow to 5-10x their current size in the next few years.
(TO BE CONTINUED)