Universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy has been a primary focus of the development sector and social entrepreneurship, as it is often seen to be the cornerstone of development.
The ecosystem needs to complement efforts of last-mile energy enterprises and understand user needs to transform the lives of the poor. Providing a lighting solution merely because the site was previously un-electrified and assuming that any solution would be an improvement, would have overlooked the specific functions the light could have served for the household. Also, for example, it is unclear whether the basic energy unit — a “two light” plus mobile charging — was suitably designed to meet the needs of each household or to simply slightly improve upon the existing kerosene lamp in terms of lumens and fumes.
Officially, about 300 million people have no access to electricity. And about 700 million people in the country can be termed electricity-poor as about three-fourths of rural households connected to the grid have erratic and less than six hours of electricity supply, according to a centre for science and environment report (2017) on mini-grids. More information here
The failures in this space range from technology, logistics, human error, sustainability, last-mile connections, efficiency and costs. The panel collectively touched upon these failures, often revealing how it was a combination of these factors that led to their failure.
The Importance Of The Ecosystem
Ramasubramaniam V of Village Energy Renewable Systems reflected on his roots as an activist and how this actually proved to work as a disadvantage to him.
“We came from an activist mindset, so we were not interacting with government much, nor were they focussing on what we were doing. To us, our main focus and compassion were for people who were being displaced by big industrial projects. So a lot of issues cropped up, we were not aware of how to manage systems after implementation of the grid and we had assumed that an NGO working in the area would look after management, we were charging low tariffs too because commerce was not on our minds at all, we had rice hullers and flour mills that people used but didn’t pay for.
Eventually, we had to come up with a different product design altogether because we were failing. It started with simple steps like moving equipment closer to villages, as the down time when something went wrong was immense. This change in design for product end use was a very important lesson.”
Losing Sight Of The Process
Thomas Pullenkav of SELCO Solar Light Pvt Ltd also relates a similar misstep, but under completely different circumstances, which almost saw the end of the company.
“Our speciality had been pre and post sales service, we got to know our customers before we sold the product and we had always maintained great after sales service. Solar energy was taking off in a big way in Germany at the time and we were around back then when this boom happened. Until this point under pressure from investors, we decided to move towards a dealer model or a franchise model.
What we realised is that dealers were not invested in this pre and post sales service the way we were, we had mistakenly also assumed that everyone has a passion to help out people who are underserved, but the truth is many dealers just saw this as another business venture and didn’t really care for the finer aspects.
After we adopted this franchise model, which we had committed to for a year, our sales dropped and we were on the verge of closing the company. Eventually, we had to go every branch, explain what had happened and ensure that we would go back to our old design that had favoured and valued the customer’s perspective.”
Piyush Mathur, CEO of Simpa Networks cites a similar failure with his work in UP:
“It was suggested that we should increase our sales commissions to boost sales on our product. We agreed, got carried away and then increased commissions by 40% and our sales doubled. What was happening was that these commissions were being shared across multiple agents. When we visited the field we realised most sales people hadn’t even met the customer. We’ve built systems to monitor what’s happening on the field, but this is a challenge that won’t go away and we deal with it constantly.”
The primary takeaway here was that the enterprise nearly went underwater for not giving adequate attention to the process, a process only thwarted by a reinvigorated focus on quality impact.
Losing Sight Of The End User
Traditional cookstoves contribute to serious health ailments, pollution, are time consuming and switching to clean cookstoves can carry a significant impact.
Priyadarshini Karve of Samviro Enviro Tech elaborates on this disconnect between social enterprises in her field and it’s end users.
“We need to find out what cooking means to these people. It’s not even a case of technology holding us back, but we often find that we go to households and realise these facilities are not being used. More research must go into why this happens. As far as solutions are concerned, it is only after we know what the customer wants that we can decide whether to offer LPG, induction or a combination of technologies that they can find use in.”.
Karve also spoke of a fundamental issue in the mindset of people in the clean cooking space,
“People in the field are more focussed on clean cookstoves, and the technology, as opposed to cooking and how people cook.”
For Raghuram C, such field visits were crucial in adapting technology to the local context,
“If you look at all our wind turbines across the country, some are 7 years old, but all of them are running without a hitch. This is the company we source it from describes itself as the Rolls Royce of turbines. We chose Uttarakhand because during the winters there’s barely any sunlight but there are sharp winds so it’s ideal for wind energy. We realised there was a lot of work to do, this was off grid, off network, off road, to an underserved community of what we can describe as ‘First Time Users’. But what we realised soon was that the conditions required a wind-solar hybrid, because in some months sunlight is so low while the wind cuts through the snow, but during other times it’s the opposite.”
Both these technology centric approaches, without an understanding of the actual need, an ecosystem where checks and measures are maintained to ensure quality, led to the end user getting the short end of the stick.
Playing The Longer Game
Srashant Patara, who currently leads the team that is incubating “TARAurja”, a renewable energy based micro-utility business, expresses a different approach.
“Let’s take the analogy of Cable Television, would you introduce cable to an area where people know of it, or one where you have to teach people what television is? We chose UP and Bihar because people were aware of the power of electricity in such places, how it could benefit and enrich them. The jury is still out on whether this is a ‘success’ or if we took the right path, but in my opinion we jump too soon to conclusions about failure and success. For us, we look at failure and success as a 12–15 year cycle, one where we focus on improving the quality of a product.”
Going by the panelists’ thoughts, the customer’s needs being addressed and developing a quality, end-to-end product that entailed diagnosing and addressing customer needs seemed to be common learning curve for most present.
For more detailed insights on what ensued in the Failures in Energy Access panel at the Impact Failure Conclave 2018, watch the video below.
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