The entrepreneur in question, Harish Hande, is founder of the Solar Electric Light Company of India, aka SELCO. Hande is a graduate of India’s elite Indian Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts, and unlike many electrical engineers, he decided to focus on the socioeconomics of implementing technology rather than the technology itself. After graduating, he launched SELCO in 1995 and soon found a fantastic investment partner in E+Co., an innovative international development organisation specializing in social entrepreneurship.

Hande will tell anyone who will listen that he built his company to dispel three myths. He was interviewed recently by the Indian Express newspaper, and here’s how he explained it:

"The fundamental premise in founding SELCO was how to balance social, economic and environmental stability at the same level. And to destroy myths like the poor can’t afford technology, the poor can’t maintain, and thirdly that you can’t run a commercial venture while trying to meet social objectives."

Hande rejected the idea that renewable energy was too expensive for the hundreds of millions of Indians with no household electricity at all, dispelled the notion that the poor can’t manage a small loan and keep their power system running, and demonstrated that a development project could also be a profit-making enterprise.

Since its founding, SELCO has partnered with small banks throughout rural India to bring electricity to more than 100,000 village homes that had never before glowed with electric light. The villagers themselves own the systems and pay them off through flexible microcredit loans. This novel approach has allowed electricity to reach villages that previous top-down electrification schemes failed to reach. One of the best SELCO stories is about how the top graduate for 2010 in the state of Karnataka — home to Bangalore, the high-tech hub of modern India — was a young woman from a village lit by SELCO solar panels.

Along the way, SELCO has uncovered a kind of math that you can only learn if you really get to know the world’s poor. The story Hande told me a few years ago was about a villager who ran a market stall. She couldn’t afford a solar panel if the loan repayment was 300 rupees (Rs) per month, but she could manage it at Rs 10 per day. This would seem to be the same thing, but for the woman, it was two different financial systems. As Hande explained, the woman never had the means to save up the Rs 300 to make a lump sum repayment, but in her day-to-day work she spent Rs 15 on kerosene. Eliminate that expense with a solar panel, and she can pay it back from her kerosene budget.

"Everybody sits in Delhi and says, 'Solar energy is expensive, we need to subsidise it.' They don’t look at the fact that there are various other parameters and an ecosystem that needs to be built. Today as we say, solar energy is expensive for the rich and affordable for the poor."

The trouble, you see, isn’t with renewable energy. It’s more basic — it’s how we count.

<i>By Chris Turner

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