Building a new culture: ‘Practicing sustainability’ through UNLEASH

I had got introduced to the word ‘Practice’ when I had joined a new momentum that the world had begun to see of creating generalists rather than specialists in name of a Masters Course in Sustainable Development Practice. The global course — MDP (Masters in Development Practice) was started by Columbia University and in India TERI University became a pioneer to start it. To my fortune, I was part of this global movement that stressed upon the word ‘Practice’ and for two years our Professors really ingrained the words ‘holistic’, inclusive development’, ‘sustainability’, ‘participatory approach’, ‘replication’ and ‘inter-disciplinary’ in us.

Theoretically for two years I had learned about the word ‘Practice’ but it was the first time I had put it in use when I designed and developed Project ‘Vendors of Change’ with my friend; born out of a conversation with a vendor, who expressed his desire to have access to light source in evening. Having, failed to find an existing solar lamp that would best suit vendor’s need; through group discussions with vendors their lighting needs were understood and with help of a local solar assembler, a new structured solar light, addressing their need was made. Initially vendors were apprehensive of investing in solar, to make vendors sure the technology is robust, a corporate was convinced to give a grant to do a pilot test run and also got volunteers on board to help with the pilot.

Vendors of Change was featured in Road to Rio in 2012

Soon after implementing the project, I had questions in my mind like: how will the users reach out or connect to the supplier, in case of technical glitch. How do I train them? How do I link them to financial institution? Exit strategy? Was manufacturing of solar panels sustainable?

5 years back I wasn’t able to address the questions, but what had triggered in me was the concept of designing projects end-to-end. Of seeing what kind of ecosystem was required for a solution to thrive in market and trying to see how a project could be socially, environmentally and financially sustainable.

Soon after implementing my first project on ground, I got confidence and found myself staying in a mud hut somewhere in middle of Karlapat Sanctuary with Kandha tribe (one of the primitive tribes) in Kalahandi district of an eastern state Odisha (India).

Village meeting

I stayed in the forest for nearly three years and put in efforts to establish Swasthya Swaraj Society — a health based organisation and Tribal Community Lab of SELCO Foundation where I implemented energy access ecosystem for interior villages.

I started off as an advocate to link energy and human development — I strongly believed in using renewable energy for access to light and slowly over years I shifted my focus to productive use.

Here are two cases that describe my work and also show how with time I shifted my focus from practical needs such as lighting to strategic needs such as directly linked to income.

Case 1: Durjudhan Majhi: From leprosy patient to a budding entrepreneur

Seeing Durjudhan over two years from a leprosy patient to a budding entrepreneur has been the most satisfying experiences I have ever had. Due to erratic supply of grid in his village, Durjyudhan struggled to take leprosy medication in the dark. He had seen a Urja Gram Kendra (a centralised, solar powered independent service center headquartered in an operator’s house of another village — spaces where services like lighting and mobile charging are provided in exchange for daily/monthly rent) that I had established near his village and he contacted us to replicate the same in his village. With his help, we entered the village and designed a model suiting his village needs. He was chosen as the operator by the village and also trained in to repair and maintain solar lights and called as Solar Doctor in the villages. Only after few months he emerged to be a trainer of all the operator’s and started to conduct trainings. It was beautiful to see Durjyodhan blossom throughout this journey. He also expanded his light rental business to other villages, turning out to be a true entrepreneur and was then also called as Solar Saathi! From being an entrepreneur who provides lights on rental, Durjyodhan insisted not only in training him to repair solar lights but also creating supply chain of spare parts and putting in place mechanisms to ensure smooth functioning of the project. He challenged my notion of designing projects with cultural understanding when he included local practices such as the barter system into design to make the project sustainable. He has been a great mentor on field pushing me to think what is needed to complete an entire ecosystem.

Durjyudhan Majhi — Village Energy Entrepreneur

Case 2: Ratho Duria, From unemployed to an being an entrepreneur!

Ratho Duria made me realise it is not only a new idea that is adequate by itself to lead to implementation…it must be taken up by a strong character and implemented by his influence. And Ratho proved and continues to showcase his determination to solve one of challenges the community faced. It made me wonder why would we not call him a social entrepreneur — he saw a business opportunity and solving a social issue. It made me to think what it will take for the sector as in whole to be able to realise these small social entrepreneurs and their contribution in a bigger way.

In my 3 hour long bus rides I started noticing a pattern everyday — people in this block were travelling 50–100 kilometres and spending approximately Rupees 300 (half of their monthly income) including wage day loss, transportation costs and food costs to avail services like photocopies, printing, scanning, photographs, etc. for various purposes like opening a bank account, land registry, etc. Jan Samadhan Kendra (Community Service Centre), launched in February 2015, was designed and developed as a solution to these issues. A solar powered independent service centre run by an entrepreneur was designed to provide services depending on the needs of the people from the area: photocopying, printing, WLL phones, employment related news, lamination and internet access, getting photographs clicked for bank documents or opening accounts, hiring the photographer to cover festivals/weddings etc. The centre was strategically located so it became a hub for the underprivileged, to access services that were either difficult to obtain or unreliable. It also became a centre to promote the use of alternative energy and educating the users. The centre was designed to best suit local environments and situations such that every aspect of it can be sustainable. Recognising the impact and efficacy of the project, a tribal youth replicated it, about 100 kilometres away from the first centre. And that’s where I realised what the jargon ‘replication’ actually meant. But in real terms the word means something else in practice.

Ratho Duria — Entrepreneur

While I strongly started out as an advocate of solar light and with strong belief in this sector, I have took a step back, quit my job what I had started out feeling “my calling” to reflect on what I had seen, people who I had come across, ways they influenced me, what I wanted to carry with me further, what I wanted to leave behind. All the learning’s and my experience of staying and working with various community’s for past 3 years was too intense and needed a break to absorb and reflect on my own actions and inactions.

My stay in Kalahandi forest amidst the Kandha tribe made me imagine life of San tribe in Kalahari desert through the movie ‘Gods must be crazy’. After I had quit my job, I got an opportunity to participate in International Development Summit in Kalahari desert hosted by Design Lab of MIT University and hosted by These Hands in Botswana. I was part of the team where we designed a tool to crack the infamous indigenous nut, Morama, grown only in the Kalahari Desert for the San tribe as a livelihood creation opportunity. The team not only worked on technology but also built a business model around it for the local level entrepreneurs to run a sustainable venture and introduced them to a new product by making coffee with their nut, morama.

Three years, challenges of living in Sanctuary were many and varied; physically and emotionally draining. From the long three hour bus rides to reach villages, long walking hours on foot without water and food, very limited public transportation, insecurity due to the area being affected by left wing extremism and malaria, extreme temperatures (summer — 48 degrees and winter as low as two-three degrees), learning not only a new language but also an unwritten local dialect to be able to communicate, no proper place to live initially coupled with no communication facility of whatsoever. But the graciousness of the Kandha tribe in accepting me, giving me a space to live in their communities on unannounced days, food that they have cooked for me, for all the grains, mangoes, tamarinds and chickens they have offered me during late evening meetings, the trust women have showed by sharing their personal and community level issues have been way overwhelming than any challenges on the field. It’s only living with these communities…I have learned…there is really no joy greater than the joy of sharing and giving!

Crossing streams and rivers to reach villages

They also taught me what ‘practicing sustainability’ really meant right from how the kids made toys from scrap to men using old mosquito nets for fishing and sometimes as bandages. The stay with them ingrained the concept of ‘practicing sustainability’. The songs, the odes the literature they have… spoke of how their ancestors preserved nature. Both tribes showed how they had imbibed sustainability in their lives and how they continuously practiced it.

In both places Kalahandi (India, Asia) and Kalahari (Botswana, Africa) with both tribes Kandha and San; my belief of using technology for livelihoods and quality of life strengthened which made me co-found The Batti Ghar Foundation in 2016; with idea to work primarily on developing technological innovations for enhancing/creating livelihoods and promoting them through local entrepreneurs to bridge socio-economic gap. The mantra of Batti Ghar is “to create a climate positive economy at the bottom of the pyramid through sustainable technology innovations and entrepreneurship”.

Though we registered ourselves as a non-for-profit but our core value comes from the lesson of an old English proverb to teach a man to fish instead of feeding him a fish i.e. practicing sustainability.

In one year of operation we have been able to come up with two products: Solar Puncture Wala (a solar powered air compressor to provide pressure in vehicles in rural areas) and Solar Cane (a solar powered cart to run sugarcane and other fruit juice machine) — both the products focus on using sustainable technology for livelihoods.

Solar Puncture Wala by The Batti Ghar Foundation
SolarCane by The Batti Ghar Foundation

Solar Puncture Wala was chosen by SDSN of United nations as one of the top 50 global solutions across the world by youth. And it is through the SDSN network I came across the opportunity to be part of UNLEASH Innovation Lab.

1000 talents from across the world will meet in Denmark to co-create disruptive solutions and services for the most complex challenges that the world is facing as of today. This cadre will be part of a new movement which the world is yet to see and being a development practitioner for past 5 years I am so honoured of being part of the founding class of UNLEASH Innovation Lab. We at Denmark will redefine how SDGs can be achieved by creating innovative, scalable, sustainable, inclusive and holistic solutions.

This Lab will take place till the culmination of SDGs target for 2030 every year in a new country. And for me it’s a culture it will build of bringing different stakeholders together to practice sustainability. What makes me so excited about it is the promise of using local lense i.e. using host country’s traditions and ways of life to kick start new discussions to generate new ideas to achieve the global goal of Sustainable Development. Its the same ideology that we at The Batti Ghar Foundation (www.battighar.org) have and is reflected in our logo which has been embellished with seventeen illustrated colours in sync with seventeen Sustainable Development Goals spearheaded by United Nations to remind us of our goals in a local geographical region in conformity to the agenda of transforming our world.

And I see this as such an exciting opportunity to collaborate and learn from peers and take time to reflect back on our actions and inaction. As I often say, my journey is a reflection of all people I have met and I can’t wait to see how my thought process and my passion for SDG 7 — Clean energy is going to evolve when after few weeks I would have absorbed the learning’s from people all over the world! *Soo excited*