Chandrakant Pradhan, Aga Khan Foundation’s Rural Development Programme Officer in New Delhi, managed a project to promote efficient, renewable energy products in remote areas of two of India’s poorest states, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The project was a partnership with Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) and the Aga Khan Foundation in India. Here he tells how he and his colleague John P. Inchakalody, AKRSP’s manager for Alternative Energy & Soil Water Management, began the project, what they learned along the way, and how it has changed their thinking.

Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are two states in India with the largest proportions of their populations living in poverty. We at Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) have worked together for a decade to tackle this problem. When we began our work, a major challenge facing poor rural families was scant and unreliable access to electricity, which limited their livelihoods and access to basic amenities such as drinking water. It also restricted their access to tools such as mobile phones and televisions that open other opportunities. Many households relied on carbon-emitting fuels such as diesel and kerosene to light their homes. They burned wood, farm waste and cow dung in traditional indoor stoves – practices that pose serious health hazards, severely decrease air quality in the home, and pollute the environment.

So we developed a project to help 100 villages escape from “energy poverty,” layering new efforts onto our existing initiatives that support women’s Self-Help Savings Groups (SHGs), agricultural development, and improved access to drinking water and sanitation. AKF (India) initiated the project in 2015 using a community-led model to increase adoption of efficient, renewable energy products in remote areas of both states.

In less than a year, we helped to reduce energy poverty and replace polluting practices. Cooking methods, lighting homes and water pumping for crops and households are now more energy- and cost-efficient using community-based solar-powered systems.

To make the solar energy systems more affordable and sustainable, we bundled various activities depending on our programs. For example, in places where farmers were struggling to irrigate land and access safe drinking water, we connected the solar energy program with our water user groups. Where our work already involved jobs and youth, we trained young men and women how to install, maintain and repair solar micro-grids.

This initiative has thus trained and fostered many village-level entrepreneurs and technicians in solar products, many of them young women who are members of Self-Help Microfinance Groups set up by AKF and AKRSP. This has created new employment opportunities in the villages. We encouraged new designs for energy-efficient, cost-effective cooking stoves as well as village reforestation efforts. The box shows how this integrated approach yielded striking results.

Solar Power Success (to date):
• 5 low-income villages in Bihar achieved 100 percent access to electricity through low-cost, decentralized, micro-grid lighting systems
• Across 24 villages, 100 percent of households use at least 1 renewable energy product
• Entrepreneurs and women’s Self-Help Microfinance Groups have sold solar lamps to 45,000 households
• 98 acres of agricultural land are irrigated using solar power
• 370 households are connected to solar-powered drinking water distribution systems, entirely owned and maintained by community groups
• 400 households use improved, energy-efficient cooking stoves
• Developed 1,482 acres as forest plantations that help offset carbon emissions, contribute to reforestation and incomes
• Trained 59 entrepreneurs and technicians in 100 villages to provide fee-based services to install, repair and maintain renewable energy products

Our Approach to Ending Energy Poverty

In simple terms, the project had four components based on growing local demand for solar energy from four different angles:

• Identify and pilot innovative, low-cost renewable energy products
• Build awareness in the community and create demand for non-polluting renewable energy products
• Support solar power products as income-generating activities to entrepreneurs and women’s groups to sell, distribute, promote and maintain renewable energy products in their communities
• Create awareness about the negative effects of indoor air pollution and environmental degradation, supporting rural households to reforest denuded land

The business partnerships we developed with solar product companies such as U.S.-based d.light and India’s Mitva Solar helped to make the products available and affordable. As a result of this multifaceted approach, rural families adopted solar lamps and lighting systems, replacing kerosene or diesel-powered lamps with clean and reliable light.

With the promotion of clean cooking stoves and the construction of low-cost smokeless cooking stoves designed by village entrepreneurs and women’s SHGs, indoor air pollution and carbon emissions have dropped significantly.

Finally, by switching from diesel- or grid-powered systems to solar energy, farmers’ water pumping and irrigation have become much more environmentally and cost-friendly. The potential to integrate several solar-powered activities (such as water pumping for households and irrigation for farmland) into a single system has created further cost savings.

Inventing Ways to Deliver Solar Innovation

This project required us to be innovative and to ensure full community understanding, appreciation and ownership of technological solutions. After we conducted our first awareness-raising activities, many households were keen to light up their homes with renewable energy but often the poorest households could not afford to install the rooftop solar panels.

Shared micro-grids. To overcome this, we created a community-based, decentralized micro-grid system, where one rooftop solar panel is shared by four households. Since individual energy requirements are low, the 40 watts produced by one panel daily is enough to power the household’s needs for lighting and charging mobile phones. With sharing, the cost becomes more affordable. It costs each household Rs. 2,500 ($35-45) to set up the micro-grid. Operational costs are Rs.250 ($4) per year. The micro-grid systems reduce poor families’ dependence on high emissions and unsafe energy sources, and give many households access to electricity for the very first time.

Students studying under a solar powered light.

Students studying under a solar powered light.

User groups pooling resources. We explored different ways to optimize the sustainability and affordability of the project by integrating more than one solar-powered activity. In the Chakrawe Maniyari village of Bihar many farmers struggle to irrigate land and access safe drinking water. After outlining the benefits of renewable energy and the potential savings, a village-level user group of interested farmers and their families set up a solar-powered pumping system. Subsequently, the group – by pooling funds and labor – installed such a system, creating reliable drinking water for households as well as an irrigation network for 65 acres of land. A similar initiative in Rosanimal, Madhya Pradesh, developed a solar-powered irrigation pumping system that provides household lighting to the entire village.

Training youth as technicians and entrepreneurs. To ensure continuity and foster new income-generating opportunities, we trained 59 young men and women on how to install, maintain and repair solar micro-grids. Today, 45,000 households are using solar lamps sold by AKF/AKRSP-assisted entrepreneurs and women’s SHG members. Children benefit with an estimated 8 million extra study hours annually.

Locally designed efficient stoves. Additionally, more environmentally friendly cooking stoves benefit women by requiring less firewood and emitting less smoke, which often causes serious respiratory problems for women. Through the introduction of a smokeless stove or an energy-efficient stove designed by women Self-Help Microfinance Groups or local entrepreneurs, households are using just half the amount of firewood for cooking; that in turn reduces harmful emissions and deforestation.

Solar entrepreneurs. We have also encouraged members who are keen to earn extra income for their families to sell solar lamps from their homes, like Poonam. She has been able to earn Rs. 2000 ($30) a month by selling solar products. She used some of her earnings to set up a small shop in her home where she demonstrates the benefits of solar products. Poonam has become a well-known and respected member of her community with her new role as a solar entrepreneur, which she carries out with enthusiasm.

Looking Forward

Over the past year we have helped families improve their quality of life by shifting to renewable energy and more energy-efficient systems. Through community activities and adding new initiatives on top of existing programs in ways that recognized demand, we saw broad-based support and adoption of these initiatives. Sustainability is key to a project like this, and through the training of young solar product entrepreneurs and technicians we have helped to assure the project’s enduring impacts. Looking ahead, we are exploring how to increase the local supply and distribution of solar products and support more communities to access the financing needed to set up solar-powered irrigation, micro-grid lighting and drinking water systems.