In India, SELCO blazes an entrepreneurial trail to bring solar power to the people

Harish Hande wants to make solar power available to all Indians – even the poorest street vendors.

ZUMA Press/Newscom/File
Harish Hande is managing director of SELCO, a sustainable solar-lighting social enterprise in Bangalore, India. Getting street vendors to use solar lights instead of kerosene cuts carbon emissions as well as costs for the vendors.

Harish Hande is democratizing electricity. In India, nearly half of all households lack power. Mr. Hande has made it his life’s work to change that, and he’s doing it with affordable, sustainable technology.

Hande is the managing director of SELCO, a social enterprise in Bangalore, India, that develops sustainable technology to improve the lives of India’s underprivileged masses. In the past 10 years, Hande says, SELCO has increased Indian fuel efficiency, enhanced the financial power of India’s rural banks, and improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of low-income Indians.

In a September talk at MercyCorps in Portland, Ore., sponsored by the Lemelson Foundation, Hande told SELCO’s story to an enthusiastic audience. It was a glimpse into the potential of sustainable technology and the difficulties of motivating charitable service in a profit-oriented culture.

SELCO works to customize products for underprivileged consumers, using sustainable values to cut costs and improve lives. In India, “sustainability is not getting subsidized," Hande explained. "Sustainability is subsidizing other industries.”

SELCO "subsidizes" the work of India’s poor, he said, by providing sustainable technology that boosts productivity and income for poor workers.

For example: Most street vendors in India use kerosene lights, which leave a substantial carbon footprint. Perhaps more importantly, kerosene costs about 15 rupees (30 cents) per day. So SELCO offers these street vendors solar lighting for about 10 rupees a day: a 33 percent personal savings. Those savings can make all the difference for many of SELCO’s clients.

SELCO’s recent success belies the difficulty it had in getting off the ground. According to Hande, his venture is quite unique, making it difficult to gain traction in Indian culture.

First, how do you convince entrepreneurs that values are more important than sales?

Most salespeople “sell up,” meaning they sell to clients who are of a higher socioeconomic standing than they are. But SELCO's sales team “sells down” to people with little expendable income, and Hande feels it's ethically unacceptable – contrary to SELCO's business model, in fact – to sell clients products they don't need. This complicates SELCO's worker training, and in a caste system like India’s, these relationships are all the more difficult.

Another challenge for Hande: recruiting young employees. How do you convince economically minded parents that joining a not-so-lucrative industry is a solid decision? As Hande explains, his “biggest question is, 'How do we convince our parents?’ ” India’s economy is growing fast, developing a success-oriented culture that prioritizes profitable career choices over service-minded work.

And once you’ve convinced the parents, how do you get urban youths to think and care about the rural poor? Satisfying these conditions is key for recruiting what Hande calls "holistically oriented" salespeople who care about what they do and whom they do it for.

Yet despite these difficulties, SELCO is bringing sustainable technology to India’s underprivileged classes, improving their lives, and helping the environment with more than 115,000 new solar-energy systems in the last 15 years. Overcoming the cultural barriers, Hande has found a ready supply of holistically minded entrepreneurs. SELCO’s base has grown quickly in recent years, and the résumés keep coming in.

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