Light and Life in Rural India

We spent two days in villages in the District of Udupi in the State of Karnataka meeting with our sales agents and visiting homes where the Duron Solar Home System was in use.  We were there with three of our investors who had already spent a day in Bangalore at our headquarters reviewing the business and now wanted to see the system in use in the field. We chose Udupi, since it was “only” a ninety-minute plane ride to Mangalore and another ninety-minute drive to the town. Most of the installations were within 30 minutes of the town itself.

The State of Karnataka is reasonably well electrified. One has to travel deep into the rain forests to find an area without wiring.  Almost all of our systems in this state are in homes with electricity from the grid.  However, because of the uncertainty of when power is actually available and the cost, the villagers are interested in alternative power sources.

The grid in this area gets its power from both hydro and coal-fired utilities.

In the dry season the hydropower is less available because of low water levels.  What is available from whatever source gets diverted to the industrial sector. These are usually scheduled diversions that occur when the light is most needed, i.e., when it is dark. In the monsoon season, which is just beginning, the grid itself has more power delivered to it, but the violence of the storms causes unscheduled outages from lightning or power lines falling, which can sometimes produce two or three days without power.

The alternatives are kerosene lamps, diesel generators, inverters drawing power from the grid when it is available and storing it in batteries, or alternative energy sources, primarily solar, tied into a battery and lighting system of some sort. The Duron system is one of the latter. Cost, reliability, maintenance and simple knowledge of its availability are the primary factors determining which alternative is chosen.  Kerosene lamps are ever present as the ultimate fall back when all else fails.

The visit, while terrifying and certainly rugged for us Westerners, was exciting and gratifying. I say terrifying, because any time one is on the narrow roads with all forms of traffic moving in all directions, the near-death confrontations of two or more vehicles and an occasional animal seem continuous and only Providentially resulting in no accident.  The ruggedness comes from the climate, the accommodations and the rural nature of where the customers are, combined with the uncertainty of the ultimate outcome of drinking all the chai and eating the snacks offered by the owners of each of the homes we visited.

The excitement and gratification came from seeing the diverse ways in which the system is changing lives. A few examples:

A young tailor keeps the solar panel, the power pack and one of the three LED lights that come with the system at his small, unelectrified shop at the intersection of two roads near his village. He sits in front of a pedal-powered Singer sewing machine of uncertain vintage, making and repairing clothing for his neighbors. The single light is used to extend his workday by two or more hours, increasing his income. When he closes up his shop, he locks the solar panel inside and brings the portable power pack home where he has the other two lights mounted for use by his children to study and his wife to cook.  He is probably a customer for a second system when the income from his increased business and the cost savings from using solar as his power source allow a purchase.

A woman living far away from neighbors and help tends her very sick sister. The two of them are the only occupants of the home. She says simply that she needs light for her sister all night. Kerosene is not healthy for her sister and not easily available to someone with no ready form of transportation to replenish it.  And the grid is not there when she needs it.  It doesn’t hurt that the system also has a cell phone charger, which does mean, in an emergency she has a working phone to reach someone.

A large family, living in a quite beautiful and well-kept 150-year-old home, has the three lights each installed above a desk that is used for reading and study by the children and probably some of the adults. This is a traditional home with electric lighting but much of what seems a throwback to an earlier era. The kitchen has a wood cookstove and there are many other traditional elements as well. The family can clearly afford more amenities, but I would surmise that they are savers, not spenders.  The placement of the lights in specific reading areas may indicate that the saving relates to the children and their educational opportunities. Solar lighting eliminates most excuses for not studying as well as ultimately saving money. Here, we were offered and ate freshly cut jackfruit. It would have been pleasant to spend an afternoon with the family, understanding more about their history and their current lifestyle. Our sales person had another important visit she wanted us to make, though.

This was our best sales person in the region—a senior member of a local self-help group with a personality and an element of persuasiveness that made her a natural Dale Carnegie graduate without having taken the course.  We were an out-of-place group of three Americans, three Spaniards, and two other senior Indian executives of the company. She felt it was an auspicious occasion. Our visit was to her temple. She was feeling very happy about having us there and wanted to perform a Puja (look it up) in thanks for the good feelings and the success she was having. It was quite an honor for us and clearly very important to her. As recognition of her success it certainly beat the classic over the top celebrations for the best producers that I experienced in my years in the financial industry. I will participate in a Puja every time I visit the area if it is the motivator of success for our producers.

These producers are changing their neighbors’ lives. The selling process has a bit of a feel of Avon calling, but the product lights up faces in a different manner.  What a wonderful experience.

This entry was posted in Alternative Energy, India and tagged , , , , , by Jack Rivkin. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jack Rivkin

Jack Rivkin retired in 2008 as EVP, CIO, Head of Private Asset Management of Neuberger Berman(NB) and from NB's Executive Management Committee. He was also on the Lehman(LB) Council on Climate Change(CC) and the NB CC Fund Advisory Board. He has been engaged with the United Nations and other entities on policy issues related to Private Capital and CC. He is an Associate Fellow of the Asia Society. He has continued on the NB Mutual Fund Board and with his CC responsibilities. He began his investment career in 68 as an analyst at Mitchell Hutchins(MH), and became Director of Research(DOR) there. After Paine Webber(PW) acquired MH, he served as DOR; CFO of PW; CEO of PWMH-the equity trading and investment arm of PW; Chmn of MH Asset Management and President of PW Capital. 87-92 he was DOR and, subsequently, Head of the Worldwide Equities Division of LB. 93-95, he served as a Vice Chairman and DOR at Smith Barney (now Citigroup). He was an EVP with Citigroup Investments 94-01, responsible for private equity investments. He was also an adjunct professor at Columbia University teaching a course in Security Analysis. He joined NB in 2002. He is the co-author of “Risk & Reward—Venture Capital and the Making of America’s Great Industries,” Random House, 1987. He is a regular guest on various media. He is the principal subject in a series of Harvard Business School cases describing his experience as DOR and Equity Head at LB. He has served as a director of a number of private companies and the NYSSA. He is currently a director of Idealab, Dale Carnegie, Operative, World Policy Institute and other private companies. He is a member of the Economic Club of NY, the Anglers Club, Theodore Gordon Fly Fishers, and a lifetime member of Trout Unlimited. He continues to be an active private equity investor when he isn’t fly fishing. Mr. Rivkin earned his Professional Engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines and his MBA from the Harvard Business School

4 thoughts on “Light and Life in Rural India

  1. Jack: you have written a very evocative description of rural life in India and how something as “simple” as solar powered lighting can change lives in dramatic ways. It reminds me of Bob Caro’s description, in his first book on LBJ, of rural life in Texas without electricity. Grindingly hard, farmers trapped in a never-ending cycle of hard labor, never able to get ahead.
    Good work: thanks for bringing it to us.

  2. The Rural Electrification Act, which was one of Lyndon Johnson’s earliest achievements as a congressman, changed the path of the economy in the United States and certainly changed the lives of those living in Rural America. This action combined with many other laws passed under LBJ’s aegis, e.g., the Civil Rights Act, make him a hero in my mind in spite of the disaster of the Vietnam War. “Power to the People” has a much better literal meaning than the way the slogan has been used by some.

  3. Jack – Great blog. Thank you for sharing such rich experiences and insights. Is this system being utilized in natural disaster relief efforts?

  4. Reblogged this on ContraCarbon and commented:

    This is an old post on rural life in India and solar lighting, that I am reposting for those who have signed up recently. It is still a valid view of what is happening ( or not happening) with power and what life is like in rural India.

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