Lighting up lives

Light for education initiative of SELCO has helped students who don't have continuous access to electricity.

The first thought that crossed Allabaksh Nadaf’s mind while watching a demo on solar lights was his wife Riyana’s struggle with the electric roti rolling machine. Due to frequent power cuts, the machine failed to help her encash the demand for the fine rotis she prepared. After the demo, SELCO Foundation’s staff returned with a new idea and it was just a matter of time before the machine turned solar. Apart from increasing productivity, the improved design helped enhance the efficiency of the machine.

Inclusive programmes

And in Allabaksh, SELCO Foundation saw a brand ambassador. Based out of Neginhal village in Bailhongal taluk, Allabaksh now travels across North Karnataka with SELCO’s demo van that exhibits solar-powered livelihood products such as sewing machine, roti rolling machine, photocopy machine, blower, milking machine, butter churner, etc. Along with creating awareness about the sustainable energy solutions that could lead to the well-being of people, he also trains people to operate the products and provides maintenance service. His conviction about these innovations has enabled him to make an impact on people, bringing more underserved communities into the fold of clean energy. He is one of the many inspired individuals striving hard to realise the foundation’s objective of bridging the gaps in healthcare, education, livelihoods and well-being through energy-driven solutions.

An extension of SELCO India, a social enterprise that has been brightening rural lives through solar light revolution, the foundation seeks to improve the quality of life of the underprivileged, both in rural and urban areas, through socially, financially and environmentally inclusive renewable energy solutions. Take the instance of electricity-deprived migrant community living on the outskirts of Arani village in Nagamangala taluk. Solar lights were installed in their huts three years ago. “Now we get five extra hours in a day,” quip Krishnappa and Yellamma.

It was SELCO’s chairman, Magsaysay award winner Harish Hande’s vision to make a larger impact by developing a clean energy innovation ecosystem in Karnataka and other states in the country. “Lighting alone cannot break the cycle of poverty. Thus, we are pushing for more livelihood solutions. As one goes deeper into the economic strata of society and pushes for more interventions linking livelihoods and solar, society also becomes more open to sustainable energy linked solutions,” he says. 

SELCO’s extensive network, developed over decades, has enabled it to reach out to the most remote places in the State. One such village is Tulasikere, located deep inside in the forest ranges of Male Mahadeshwara Hills. Solar is the only means of energy here. The solar-powered flour mill installed recently has brought smiles on the villagers’ faces for whom most of the basic facilities lie eight kilometres away. Under the Light for Education concept, students are given portable solar lights.

A few yards away from the school is SELCO’s livelihood centre with solar-powered sewing machines. In spite of increased productivity, the youngsters here are struggling to make the most of this opportunity as they have very limited access to the market. “Any livelihood intervention will make sense only if market linkages are developed. We strive to work with partners with expertise in market linkages to solve this issue. There are several non-governmental organisations who have spent decades working on market linkages and we hope to partner with them,” says Harish.

Appropriate interventions

Mahadevi Shrishail Kotagi’s is a classic example of how an appropriate intervention can change the course of one’s life. She has been into tailoring for the past 18 years and the strenuous work resulted in health problems forcing her to give up the occupation. “The future looked bleak. That was when I was approached by SELCO through Shri Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project of which I am a member,” recalls Mahadevi. Soon, a solar motor was attached to her sewing machine.

“The cost was Rs 24,500. But looking at our financial predicament, SELCO gave a subsidy of Rs 7,000. As I had only Rs 2,500 with me, I took a loan of Rs 15,000. My work efficiency improved considerably and I could repay the entire loan amount in just three months,” says the proud entrepreneur. More than two-and-a-half years have passed since, and she hasn’t faced any health problems. 

“Donations don’t offer a long-term solution to poverty. We should provide opportunities for the underserved people. This brings in a sense of ownership to them and makes the effort sustainable. Instead of charity, we try to walk alongside and try to empower them. That is where social entrepreneurship gains significance,” says Mohan Hegde, the chief operating officer at SELCO. In fact, the company’s relentless efforts made the banks consider solar as a priority sector loan two decades ago. There are many options including flexible repayment and easy bank linkages to make these programmes inclusive.

From the identification of the problem to the implementation of customised technology solutions, the foundation works at different levels and with various stakeholders, including technology providers, donors and grassroots organisations. While the field staff generally identify the areas which need intervention, people also approach the team for a solution. “From a newspaper report to a conversation with a hotel owner, we get inputs from several sources. Each employee of SELCO is sensitised and encouraged to discern hurdles that limit people’s growth,” says Mohan.

While SELCO Foundation acts as a laboratory of innovations, SELCO India enables implementation of solutions, and both the organisations work hand in hand to deliver exceptional customer service. Roti entrepreneur Sumangala Patil acknowledges that the efficient service is one of the major reasons for the popularity of these products. “They get the machine repaired within 24 hours irrespective of the problem.”

Apart from livelihood products, SELCO ensures well-being of the underprivileged by constructing improved temporary houses for migrant communities and slum dwellers in the cities, installing mini-grid systems in remote places, setting up integrated energy centres that provide services such as lighting, mobile charging, battery charging, printing and purified water, and installing solar units at health clinics.

The interventions of SELCO don’t stop there. To improve the quality of classroom education through digital content, the foundation, in collaboration with Menda Foundation and Children’s Love Castle Trust, has been implementing e-Shala, a digital education programme, backed by solar-powered infrastructure, in over 1,500 schools across Karnataka.

Harish feels that there is a big scope for clean energy. “Combination of academic institutions, banks, the private sector, the youth and favourable government policies can scale up the sustainable energy interventions leading to the reduction in poverty. Wind, biogas and pico-hydro are other potential sources of clean energy.”

From a migrant community struggling to get proper shelter amidst high-rise buildings in the cities to a blacksmith making agricultural tools, SELCO has brought a positive change in over 6,50,000 households across India through sustainable energy innovations and enterprises.

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Lighting up lives

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