Managing Director, SELCO India
Harish Hande is a social entrepreneur and the managing director of SELCO India, a solar electric light company which he co-founded in 1995 with Neville Williams. Dr. Hande earned his Doctorate in energy engineering (solar specialty) at the University of Massachusetts (Lowell). He has an undergraduate degree in Energy Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. Dr. Hande received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2011.
SELCO has pioneered energy access to families living below the poverty line through a combination of customized energy service systems, innovative financing and an understanding of market needs of different user groups.
Short Interview with Dr. Harish Hande
What prompted you to become a social entrepreneur?
There was no definition of social entrepreneurship in the early 90s. While I had an engineering degree, I felt that it was merely a tool. Degrees often detract people from following their heart and do something what they really want to do. A turning point for me was a trip to the Dominican Republic in 1991 where I saw how people used solar energy for energy access and poverty alleviation. I then realized that I wanted to do something in the socioeconomic space.
What is SELCO’s business model and what was your biggest challenge during the initial years of business?
The SECLO family today includes 3 financial shareholders, 191 employees and 150,000 houses that we have served. For us, the end user is equally important as the financial stakeholder. It’s an inter-linked value chain. Our ability to identify and address the specific technology and financing needs of our customer is one of our greatest strength.
One of the key challenges in this space is the lack of ecosystem, particularly for non-English speaking entrepreneurs. We have to move away from the PowerPoint presentation mind-set and build capacity of people in the rural areas who can play a critical role in the clean energy revolution the way farmers did in the green revolution. SELCO started a new initiative called “SELCO Labs” in 2009 to address this challenge. SELCO Labs provides support to entrepreneurs who are technologically inclined and works with other stakeholders to develop new clean and sustainable technologies for the rural poor.
How has the market evolved over the years?
The market, unfortunately, has been defined from the product point of view, instead of service. It is important to define the service for the poor. What use is innovation if it is not need-based? There is no dearth of technology options available in the market today, what is lacking is the ecosystem that will support and sustain it. For example, we might provide lighting to a basket weaver. The person might be able to extend his or her working hours but what beyond that? Do they have a regular supply of raw material; do they have a market to sell, etc.? We have to focus on need-based financing and technology and build capacity of end users to scale up successful initiatives.
What role can solar power play in energy access?
Decentralized solar power has a greater impact than just better health, social development, etc. There are many other co-benefits. For instance, rural people now have bank accounts due to solar financing schemes. This serves as a stepping stone to economic development as the people can take additional loans for their housing, business, etc. Decentralized systems also play a critical role in ensuring energy efficiency as you can customize the product and service on need-basis. In addition, people tend to use it in a “disciplined” manner unlike in a grid connected scenario where there is more consumption and wastage.
If you had three wishes for the clean energy sector, what would they be (They could be related to policy, technology, finance or energy access).
I would like to see innovation happen not just at not product level but also at finance, service and ecosystem. Another thing that often comes to my mind is that women are always typecast as being end-users. Why do we not talk about women being service providers or entrepreneurs? Gender issues must to be addressed in the entire value chain of energy access.