During a World Bank project in Afghanistan, Ranganayakulu Bodavala found the burns ward in primary health centres and hospitals filled with children who were injured from using lamps lit with aerofuel. “The Afghan government does not provide subsidy on kerosene, unlike in India, and people there use the highly inflammable aerofuel after adding salt to prevent the lantern from exploding,” says Bodavala, a Takemi Fellow from the Harvard School of Public Health, with a Ph.D in information systems.

Deeply disturbed that an estimated 3,000 children had lost their lives due to burn injuries, he quit his World Bank job and launched an NGO called THRIVE (Volunteers for Rural Health, Education, and Information Technology) in 2001 at Chintapally, in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh. His aim: to see that every needy child in a developing country owned a solar-powered study light — “a cost-effective, pollution-free and safe lighting solution for the scores of children who have no access to electricity.” Using his own money, combined with UN funding, he bought and supplied 20,000 solar lamps in Afghanistan. Within a year, most of them stopped working as they were of inferior quality. This prompted him to set up a solar LED (light emitting diode) manufacturing unit in 2007.

Thrive Energy has pioneered the development and deployment of portable, low-cost and chargeable solar home lights. “I wanted to make solar LED lighting and photovoltaic solutions for rural communities,” he says, adding that the company has supplied close to 1.8 lakh units to 15 countries outside India and 5.5 lakh units within the country.

Not content with this, he launched the One Child One Light (OCOL) trust in 2009, utilising CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds and Thrive Energy’s profits.

“Kerosene lamps give out carbon monoxide, which causes respiratory distress. Besides failing to provide even lighting, they pose a fire hazard due to kerosene spillage,” says Bodavala.

The 10-member OCOL team adopted a two-pronged approach — spreading awareness on the perils of using kerosene and other fossil fuel-powered lamps; and popularising the solar-powered study light through social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Partnering with governments and other volunteers, the team visited schools and homes to educate children, parents and teachers. S.M. Saleem, Deputy Commissioner of the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sanghatan, Hyderabad, is keen to promote the project in the Sanghatan-affiliated schools, says Beena William of OCOL.

The trust has successfully reached out to more than four lakh students within and outside India. Schoolchildren in remote areas of Andhra Pradesh now study with a solar lamp. Meanwhile, their compatriots in big cities have helped raise funds for the project.

Std X student M. Bhagyalaxmi of Anumalaveedu, in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh, is now confident of scoring well in her Board exams: “I use the light for 5-6 hours every day. I was able to score 70 per cent in Std IX. I scored only 60 per cent the previous year, when I did not have a solar light. When I am not using the lamp, my parents use it.”

Staying at the social welfare hostel in Anumalaveedu, Jaya Ram Gopu, a Std VII student, is glad to use the solar lamp during a power outage: “Earlier, I used to sleep during load shedding but now I am studying well with this light.”

Thanks to Bodavala’s campaign, Chhattisgarh announced a policy to eradicate the use of kerosene lamps and help citizens switch to solar LED systems. It has supplied nearly 32 lakh solar LED lamps to needy homes.

In Manipur, Thrive Energy supplied nearly 2.8 lakh lamps to women through microfinance agencies supported by the Friends of Women’s World Banking India. Productivity, education and quality of life improved dramatically.

After a 16-year stint as public health consultant in World Bank projects in India, JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) projects in Uzbekistan and Malawi, and UNICEF projects in Afghanistan, Bodavala has since 2002 been involved with rural development in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Maharashtra.

His interest lies in the simple technologies that can make life better, safe and productive, especially for women and children. He firmly believes that the development of a nation cannot be gauged by the number of rockets it sends into space but by the quality of life its poorest citizens lead. “It’s a shame for the government in the 21st century to let families live in darkness when the available technologies are so simple, proven and low-cost,” he asserts.

Spreading the glow

Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company Dr Reddy’s Laboratories has partnered with Thrive to provide 1,500 solar lamps to poor rural children under ‘Project Deepam’. About 300 employees pooled together Rs 1 lakh to provide about 500 solar LED study lamps in five government schools in and around Bachupally, Andhra Pradesh.

IITian Chetan Solanki’s Education Park initiative, as part of the One Child One Light project, aims to provide study lights to at least one lakh children in Bhikagaon, Madhya Pradesh, at subsidised rates.

International Paper (formerly Andhra Pradesh Paper Mills) has an MoU with Thrive for three years to provide solar LED study lights to poor students in seven coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh. It has distributed 1,250 lights already and has plans for 3,000 more in the current financial year.

As part of the Joy of Giving Week in October 2012, Hyderabad-based Sonata Software tied up with OCOL to provide solar lights to 60 children of the Hyderabad Council of Human Welfare, a shelter for orphans and runaway children. Sonata employees also distributed 160 study lights to students of the Rasoolpura government school in Secunderabad, besides giving 76 lights to company support staff.

In a new light

Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, reportedly said “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left.”

In India, an estimated 130 million children depend on kerosene lamps for studying in the absence of reliable electricity supply. According to the 2011 Census, 88.4 per cent of homes in Bihar use kerosene lamps, followed by 75 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, 70 per cent in Assam, 57 per cent in West Bengal and 66 per cent in Jharkhand. An Indian household, on average, spends Rs 900 a year on kerosene, which is subsidised by the Government.

Nirmala Devi living in Jais, Uttar Pradesh, used to wake up at 3.30 a.m. to milk her buffalo by the light of a kerosene lamp. One day, the buffalo kicked the lamp and the cattle shed caught fire. The buffalo, which had been bought with a bank loan, ran away in fear while Nirmala helplessly watched her entire house burn down. Today, with a solar lamp from Thrive, she has slowly rebuilt her life after getting back her lost buffalo.

Energising the rural poor

Thrive Energy’s manufacturing facility at Cherlapally, in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh, is run entirely on solar energy. The rooftop solar panels generate 60 kilowatts of power. “We use normal electricity supply only during incessant rains,” says its founder, Ranganayakulu Bodavala. Of the 200 employees, 160 are women. Continuous improvements in materials, cost reduction and improved financial models have helped Bodavala reach out to 7.3 lakh poor households within India and abroad. “Solar LED study lights provide about 150 lux of evenly distributed light output compared to 2-3 lux from a flickering kerosene lamp. These LED lights use a NiMH (Nickel-metal Hydride) battery, which can be charged either by using the 1-watt solar panel provided with the unit or by an AC mobile charger or by a solar-powered bulk charging system. They ensure consistent and quality lighting even after many years of use,” says Bodavala.

Thrive Energy received the 2011-12 Emerging India Award constituted by CNBC TV18 and ICICI for the “Most Socially Responsible Organisation”. It also received the Development Marketplace Award from the World Bank for providing 200 villages with non-kerosene light sources, and the Lighting Africa Award from IFC and World Bank.