04 June 2015 15:34:56 IST

Help others, make money

Young entrepreneurs are cashing in on clean solar energy and changing the eco-system too

Want to make some money? Of course, you do. Okay, read on.

You know the best (cleanest) way to make money is by helping someone so that he ‘returns’ your ‘investment’ with tears of gratitude in his eyes and a ‘thank you’ on his lips.

Here is what you do. Visualise this. You are visiting a temple in a small town. It is just getting dark and outside the temple sits a woman selling flowers. She is hoping for a little more business. Once the light dies out, she has to pack up and go home, or struggle with a petromax lamp that may guzzle more rupees worth of kerosene than what she makes by its light.

Your heart bleeds for her. What do you do? You buy a few measures of flowers and are delighted to see the smile on her face.

Solar power

But here is what you can do better. Give her a solar-powered lamp. It charges itself by day during the sunlight hours and gives out light when switched on. But it is no gift. She has to pay you month on month till you have recovered the cost of the lamp and made a handsome profit. Nothing wrong here, because, by the light of your lamp, her evening business is bustling, her income goes up and she pays you a small part of it. After she has paid you off, the lamp is hers, and you have made your money.

Imagine starting a small business. Instead of just one flower vendor, you provide lamps to, say, a hundred sellers of flowers, tea, eatables, vegetables, iron-wallahs…! They all make more money with your lamps, and you get a steady income.

This is not some imaginary anecdote. In the recent past, hundreds of entrepreneurs have emerged, whose business it is to provide solar-based lighting or energy and make money.

Rental model

I know of a chap in Ramanathapuram district (southern TamilNadu), who has put up a shed with a solar panel on top of it. He charges tens of lamps by day and rents them out for the night. For ₹2 a night, the villager has light at home — his wife can work better, his children can study — and the entrepreneur gets a regular income.

At a slightly higher level, there are entrepreneurs who build a small solar power plant in a corner of the village and cable up, say, 100-odd houses, supplying power to households, and getting paid for the energy. The household would otherwise spend ₹300 on kerosene lamps; it now pays the entrepreneur ₹150 a month, saving the other ₹150. Our entrepreneur gets ₹150 each from 100 households, a decent ₹15,000 a month.

Where such “micro-grids” have come up, we have seen the social impact. It helps transform the lifestyles of the villagers, reduces their drudgery, their children study better, women work more easily and inhale no kerosene smoke….

Decentralised energy

That is the power of ‘decentralised energy systems’. And that is what has the highest social impact — the biggest bang for the buck.

It has the potential to transform India in a very quick time, in a clean, non-polluting way. Thousands of villages in States such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, which had never seen electricity, are now getting solar-generated power in their homes.

A whole new ecosystem is developing. The entrepreneur, who either sells or rents lamps, or builds solar plants and provides energy, is financed by a micro-finance institution which, in turn, is funded by a bank. Various business models have developed, or are still evolving. The problem, as is often the case, has been in scaling up — it is easy to sell lamps to 50 vendors or electricity to ten villages. But when you want to raise the 50 to 500, or the ten to 200 — trouble! Costs of running the business go up, the entrepreneur is not able to absorb defaults in payments….

Nevertheless, on a small scale, it is nice to help others and get (financially) rewarded for that! Who knows, maybe one among you might be able to crack a new business model that is scaleable and risk-free!