India's Green Entrepreneurs
Meet the women promoting a clean energy revolution in rural India
Power cuts remain a common occurrence across India, including in the village of Samudrwani in western Maharashtra state.
Seated inside his open-front general store along the village's dusty main thoroughfare, Nivartti Dhavale recalled how rolling blackouts a few years ago would bring life to a standstill.
"There would be no light for eight hours. I would have to close my shop early. It's what many people here did, "he said. "Now the cuts don't last that long, but they still occur often."
That's why, when a woman in 2013 in his community began selling solar lamps, he was among the first in line - shelling out 1850 rupees ($27). It's a purchase he doesn't regret making.
"It has helped in many ways. I can charge my mobile phone with it. I take it to my farm. Even my daughters use it when they do their homework," he said.
Over 200 million people remain unconnected to the electricity grid in India. In northern Bihar state, for example, more people live off the grid than on (according to the 2011 census, 82% of its population had no electricity).
The current power minister Piyush Goyal has said this is a "serious concern for us as a nation", with his government making it a top priority to light up more homes.
But being connected doesn't guarantee a steady supply of power, and that's why many rely on a back-up, whether it is manufacturing plants run by multinationals or people like Mr. Dhavale.
Often manufacturers turn to diesel while local community members use kerosene lamps for lighting - both of which contribute to global warming.
India today is the world's third top polluter behind China and the United States. That's why a shift to clean energy has become the need of the hour.
Greener alternatives like solar technology and biofuels have become much more accessible and cheaper. But village communities are simply not aware of these technologies, and access to products like solar lanterns and clean cookstoves is limited.
To address this, Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), backed by funding from U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), helped support women launch clean energy businesses in rural underserved areas of Maharashtra and Bihar.
The program was also rolled out in parts of Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria, strengthened by NGOs in each country.
Called the Partnership on Women's Entrepreneurship in Clean Energy, or wPOWER, the program in India recruited and trained 1,010 women. They learned:
- the difference between conventional and renewable energy
- the benefits of clean energy products, like convenience of use and cost savings
- how to market, promote and sell such products
- customer service skills
- after-sales servicing
Why women? The simple answer is because in households across the globe, women are often the primary energy managers. When modern sources are not available, it is women in rural settings who collect wood or cow dung to use as fuel for traditional stoves.
They cook in smoky kitchens and suffer from poor health through indoor air pollution that is generated. And it is women who walk miles to fill a can with kerosene.
"Women can play powerful roles in creating clean energy awareness and availability," said SSP's founder Prema Gopalan.
"At the same time, they are also entrepreneurs, which helps empower them and provide an additional source of income," she added.
SSP selected women possessing some prior business experience, like Bebi Tamboli, who sold Mr. Dhavale his solar lantern.
Before becoming a clean energy entrepreneur, she was already running a tailoring enterprise as well as operating her own tiny shop selling snacks and personal hygiene products.
After her training, the first thing she did was to gauge who could benefit from what she was selling. Like other trained women, her stock included three different solar lights, a smokeless cookstove and a water purifier.
"Most people here do not have toilets in their house. We go outside," the 37-year-old said.
"Women go in the dark to avoid attention, but in such circumstances it can be dangerous. So I went to my neighbors and told them how the solar lamps could help."
The program involved teaming up with manufacturers of clean energy products.
For these companies, the wPOWER project was one way to reach potential new customers - a "direct reach to the rural last mile," said Sunil Samarth from d.light, makers of the solar lamps the entrepreneurs were selling.
He added that over 8,000 of its units had been sold via the trained women, who take a small commission on the sales they make.
It is estimated the entrepreneurs, locally known as "urja sakhis", have increased their incomes by 33 percent.
In addition, many feel a greater sense of empowerment, with the job enhancing their social image and status.
"I was trained to repair some of the products I was selling. Because of this I now help my husband - who is an electrician - with his business," she said.
"I make sure I do the repair work at my home. I don't do it in front of customers. That way it's a secret and they keep on coming back for my help," she added, breaking into laughter.
Swayam Shikshan Prayog formed in 1993 to assist in reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake that year in Maharashtra. Today it focuses on empowering rural women socially and economically by offering new skills to form alternative livelihoods amid a changing climate. Its programmes have been implemented across 2,000 environmentally vulnerable villages across four Indian states - Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Bihar.