The whirring of a printing machine fills a small shop in Bageshpura village in Hassan district. A row of schoolchildren wait patiently for their PDFs to become print. Suddenly, the power goes out, bringing with it sighs of disappointment. But the buzzing of the printer continues to resound. Slowly but surely, customers get their printouts, in the midst of a power outage.
So has a regular workday been for the past six years, says Asha Suresh, the owner of the shop, since she installed a solar-powered printing machine. The investment Asha made in the technology has yielded four times the amount spent, she says.
Solar lamps are used to light the shop, as well as Asha’s home. “We have installed solar lamps in our rooms so that our children can study even if there are power cuts,” she says.
Solar lighting and power solutions have come as lifesavers in numerous rural Karnataka households, where frequent and extended power cuts during monsoon deliver a major blow to small-scale businesses.
Microentrepreneurs such as tailors, blacksmiths, farmers and shop owners lose close to a month of working days due to unreliable power supply during the rainy season. Solar-powered technologies are allowing rural entrepreneurs to work for close to 12 hours a day, even during heavy rains and power cuts.
Due to the viability of alternative energy solutions, several organisations have been focused on solar innovation. One such company, which pioneers such initiatives in rural India, SELCO, has come up with solar solutions to power over 65 types of livelihoods.
Lighting constitutes a major segment, with solar-powered LEDs being used in equipment for fishermen, farmers and cotton field labourers. In the latter case, SELCO designed a handheld cotton-picking machine, fitted with a light. Using the machine prevented injuries that came with manual cotton harvesting. It also increased productivity, helping labourers earn 40% more than they used to.
Solar energy has also been harnessed to power everything from roti makers, to pottery wheels, cotton ginning machines, pesticide sprayers and tailoring machines.
Working in monsoon
The solar-powered machines have been particularly transformative for tailors in rural Karnataka. “During the rainy season, we often have power cuts that last even half a day. We were not able to work without light,” says K Uday Ravi, a tailor from Yelimale village, Sulya taluk in Dakshina Kannada.
In 2020, Ravi invested in a solar-powered motor to run his shop’s six tailoring machines. “It has been raining for the past 20-25 days in my village, but I am able to keep my shop open and work without interruption every day because of my solar-powered motor and lights,” he says.
The reliability of solar solutions has assuaged concerns about automation, encouraging more business owners to invest in solar-powered motors to replace manual, often laborious processes. “We used to press the pedal manually, and this took a lot more effort. This used to give us leg pain, but we do not need to strain ourselves anymore.”
The automation has not just boosted well-being, but also productivity. “Now, the motor powers the machines and we produce about 30% more than we used to.” Ravi adds.
Examples such as Ravi’s have served as motivation in the surrounding neighbourhoods. “As knowledge about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of solar energy increases, more people are open to using it,” explains Parthasarthy C R, Chief Manager at SELCO. The Bengaluru-based rural energy service company has worked with over 2,000 microentrepreneurs in the past five years.
While initiatives like SELCO’s are strengthening rural livelihoods, the uptake for solar energy is only growing slowly. Financing the investment remains one of the main challenges to adopting solar solutions. “The real need is for timely financing, with good rates of interest so that people are able to invest in the technology and generate income and savings,” Parthasarthy says.
Many entrepreneurs have to apply for loans to buy the technology. Particularly with professions like agriculture, sufficient returns are an uncertainty, deterring many.
Such expensive investments need to be utilised to their full capacity, say others. Running solar-based motors and machines is not enough. “In order for solar energy production to be effective, we need to connect solar power production in homes to the main electricity grid. Since this involves a contract with the government, the excess generated power goes to the main grid. Therefore, there is no need to invest in an expensive battery,” says Shrikanth Hegde, a business owner from Sirsi in Uttara Kannada, who has installed 12 rooftop solar power plants in the city.
Others in the Sirsi neighbourhood use solar energy to power food processing machines.
A common thread in solar energy programmes is the emphasis on autonomy. “If we plan solar energy production well, we would never have to construct another power plant in India,” says Shrikanth.
“If I, a middle-class person, am able to generate enough power for five households, a town can easily become independent, with sufficient encouragement from the government,” he concludes.