HIGHLIGHTS

  • He established Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO) India in Bangalore in 1995. SELCO’s principal product offerings were solar PV lighting systems, water heating systems, and cooking stoves to meet the needs of the rural poor.
  • SELCO adopts a triple strategy for reaching the poor, a strategy of “customized products,”,“doorstep financing,” and “doorstep service”.
  • SELCO has reached more than half a million people by installing solar lights in 120,000 households, microenterprises, and community facilities.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his passionate and pragmatic efforts to put solar power technology in the hands of the poor, through a social enterprise that brings customized, affordable, and sustainable electricity to India’s vast rural populace, encouraging the poor to become asset creators.”

 CITATION

A persistent myth is that the poor cannot afford the best technology, nor are they able to maintain and use it productively. In India, where nearly half of all households do not have electricity, this myth has stood in the way of spreading solar technology and its benefits–cost-efficiency, clean energy, mitigation of climate change, and improvements in the quality of life and livelihood among the poor.

Harish Hande, a young engineer from Bangalore, is disproving this myth. Trained in energy engineering, with a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, he could have chosen an easier career path, but he did not. While a graduate student in the U.S., a visit to the Dominican Republic inspired him with the idea that a decentralized approach in the spread of solar application–using small-scale, stand-alone installations instead of large, centralized thermal stations–is best for reaching poor, remote villages where the technology is most needed. Returning to India, he decided to live with villagers to understand their situation first-hand. This convinced him that, in diffusing a technology, it is not just the product that matters but also the social realities that technology seeks to change.

Putting this belief into practice, he established Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO) India in Bangalore in 1995. SELCO’s principal product offerings were solar PV lighting systems, water heating systems, and cooking stoves to meet the needs of the rural poor. After five difficult years of operation, the company started to net a profit. When it did, pressure from investors forced the company–against Hande’s wishes–to expand through a franchised dealer network. The ill-considered expansion, combined with rising world prices in solar gear, seriously hurt the company’s finances and diverted it from its social mission of helping the poor. It was a painful but invaluable lesson for Hande. Facing collapse, he repositioned the company, separated from his business partners and–with the help of the International Finance Corporation and new, socially-minded investors–restructured the company and refocused on its social mission. While SELCO remained a for-profit business, it strengthened its purpose as a social enterprise, measuring performance by how it creates social capital instead of simple financial profit.

SELCO has since demonstrated that indeed the poor can afford sustainable technologies and maintain them, and that social ventures can be run as successful commercial entities. SELCO adopts a triple strategy for reaching the poor, a strategy of “customized products,” “doorstep financing,” and “doorstep service.” It designs and installs solar technology applications based on each customer’s specific needs, whether a two- or four-light system for the home, head lamps for night workers like midwives and rose pickers, or electricity for sewing machines. To enable the poor to access the technology, SELCO has pioneered in linking the sale of solar technologies with credit institutions like rural banks, cooperatives, even self-help groups. Taking service to the “doorstep,” it trains customers in maintenance and provides prompt, personalized help through its wide network of service centers. SELCO is more than just a technology provider. By treating the poor as partners instead of mere consumers, SELCO builds their confidence as it assists them in accessing and using technology to better their lives. Poverty reduction is central to its goal. Hande says, “Until the poor become asset creators, we are not empowering them.”

To date, SELCO has reached more than half a million people by installing solar lights in 120,000 households, microenterprises, and community facilities. Already one of the world’s largest solar technology providers to the poor, SELCO still has a huge market before it. But Hande has learned his lessons well: he will not sacrifice the development process for numbers, or his social mission for rates of return. Modest and unassuming but intensely determined about his work, Hande says: “India has a fantastic opportunity to solve two huge problems–reduce poverty and combat climate change. This is India’s chance to combine and address both issues in a holistic way.”

In electing Harish Hande to receive the 2011 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his passionate and pragmatic efforts to put solar power technology in the hands of the poor, through a social enterprise that brings customized, affordable, and sustainable electricity to India’s vast rural populace, encouraging the poor to become asset creators.

 RESPONSE

The Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation and friends.

Greetings and wishes from my country, India!

It is an honor to receive this prestigious award, named after one of the great visionary leaders of the world. It is very humbling to follow the footsteps of social stalwarts like Ela Bhatt, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Vinoba Bhave and many more. I have grown up reading about these luminaries and have been inspired by their work and sacrifice.

The citation of the Award has emphasized on three very important aspects—social enterprise, sustainable energy and asset creators. These three words epitomize the foundation for a world that is caring, peaceful and equitable.

These are times where material growth has taken precedence over the environment, social well-being and equity. The very foundation of society has become unsustainable. Now the time has come for all stakeholders to inspire and help grow social enterprises which can balance social, environmental and financial sustainability. Social enterprises will help negate the increasing divide between the rich and poor by making the poor asset creators and employers. The increased sense of equality will help create very stable social structures, leading to a much-longed peaceful world.

We, at SELCO, believe that one of the ways to achieve the goal of equity is via the path of renewable energy. And more so, the powerful linkage between poverty alleviation and decentralized renewable energy automatically provides solutions to the ever-growing problems of global warning and climate change—the brunt of which is mostly borne by the poor.

The Award belongs to the employees of SELCO, their families and its many partners who have tirelessly strived in trying to alleviate poverty by making affordable energy accessible to the poor. Today, when more than three billion people rely on no or unreliable energy services and that too from harmful fossil-based fuels like kerosene, this Award comes at a very critical time. The UN Foundation has declared 2012 as the year for Sustainable Energy For All, thus this immense recognition from the Magsaysay Award Foundation will further give impetus to the cause.