Last year, Leisang, a small village in Manipur made news when it was declared as the ‘last Indian village to be electrified’. However, news reports spoke about how the electricity supply in the village is erratic.
Additionally, another news report spoke about how increase in mining activities for coal, setting up for power plants and distribution companies has not translated into improved grid supply due to the sector being debt-ridden.
In this context, the only solution is renewable sources that are widely available and can be easily harnessed. And, what can be better than solar energy?
Greenlight Planet, a social enterprise based out of Mumbai, was founded in 2009 based on the understanding that there are a lot of villages which still did not have access to electricity and that there was a need to make it accessible but in a cleaner way.
The startup was founded by Patrick Walsh, Anish Thakkar and Mayank Sekhsaria who believe that everyone deserves affordable energy. They wanted to reach their goal by developing a solar lantern that could run for long hours and provide a source of light especially to the rural dwellers.
They finally came up with the ‘Sun King Lantern’ which can run for 30 hours straight! They further developed this lantern in different models. Furthermore, Greenlight Planet also introduced home lighting systems, that come with appliances like fans and televisions, all of which are solar powered.
Since they began their operations, the social enterprise has sold over 12 million products globally impacting about 54 million people across 65 countries! In India alone, they have impacted over 24 million people through their solar products.
To own Greenlight Planet’s amazing solar products, click on this link here.
From Students to Social Entrepreneurs
Patrick, Anish and Mayank met when they were studying at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Patrick was pursuing a Bachelor’s in Economics and Engineering Physics from the university. While Anish was studying Electrical and Electronics Engineering. Mayank, on the other hand, was pursuing an Electrical Engineering degree with Technology and Management.
In 2005, Patrick took part in an internship program in Keonjhar, Odisha as a volunteer for ‘Engineers Without Borders’, a non-governmental organisation. Here, the organisation was working on developing village electrification solutions and he was a part of that team.
The trio, understanding the situation on the ground, decided to develop an affordable and reliable solar lantern. They understood that there was a need for a cleaner energy solution as the kerosene lamps that were widely used in the rural areas were dangerous for villager’s health and did not provide adequate light. Hence, they decided to make solar lanterns available in the rural marketplace so that the accessibility issues related to electricity could be curbed.
They consistently worked on the solution until their graduation in 2007. Once they received their degrees, Patrick headed to China to develop their lantern and Anish got a job at ZS Associates, a marketing concern run by Prabha Sinha while Mayank joined Google.
For two years, Patrick worked at developing the right product, while Anish and Mayank worked to raise capital. Finally, Prabha Sinha from ZS Associates went on to invest in their fledgling venture. With this investment, Patrick found the right economic zone in Shenzhen, China to build his innovative design and the Sun King lantern was created.
Now, they have different versions of the same lanterns for different functions. The Pro 200 version for example has a light runtime for 72 hours and has mobile charging capability. Similarly, in addition to the charging facility, the Pro 300 provides 100 hours of light, while Pro 400 is 40 times brighter than a Kerosene lamp.
For urban users as well, these lanterns have been useful says Abhijeet Mhatre, the founder of ‘Let’s Camp Out’, an outdoors camping and trekking company which is about 10 years old.
“We have been using Greenlight’s solar lanterns for over eight years now. The products are rigid and designed to last for a long time. Our oldest lamp which continues to work was bought when we first started buying from them,” explains the 40-year-old.
Abhijeet informs TBI that they have bought about 1000+ Greenlight products. Additionally they have also bought 500+ lanterns, which they donated in about 12 villages across Maharashtra.
The different versions of the home lighting systems introduced by Greenlight Planet, bring energy into your homes and come with solar light fixtures, tube lights and even televisions. They even provide the solar panels which collect and store the energy.
Brightening Lives in a Cleaner Way
When it came to making their innovations accessible to the rural masses, the social enterprise depended on persons based in these areas who would carry out door-to-door sales. Later, in 2012, the social enterprise started partnering with Micro Finance Institutions (MFI) to make the lanterns available to the folks living in these villages.
These MFIs would provide collateral-free loans to buy the solar products. The villagers could take these loans once they organised themselves in Self Help Groups (SHG). “Because of the joint liability of the group, 95 per cent of the loans would be recovered in time, making the whole process of adoption of these products much easier,” explains Sahil Khanna, 27, Partnerships Business Leader for Asia.
Sahil says that NGO partners are another channel through which their innovation is made available to the rural folk. “Through the outreach programs of our NGO partners, we are able to reach out to more and more off-grid villages,” explains Sahil who has been working with the company for over five years now.
Currently, the social enterprise works with 50+ NGO partners. Chirag foundation launched in March, 2010 is one partner that Greenlight Planet has worked with for over nine years now.
“We identify dark villages across the country make solar lighting systems available in these villages.Greenlight’s home lighting systems which come with solar panels, bulbs, a mobile charging port and portable solar lanterns are what we have installed in the villages,” explains Pratibha Pai, founder and director of the Chirag Foundation.
The NGO has been reaching out to the remotest villages in India making electricity available through solar power. They have lit up about 18,000 homes across 454 villages, out of which 11,470 households have been lit up through Greenlight’s systems.
Greenlight also scales their operations through CSR projects. “We identify local NGOs in a particular region, put the companies in touch with them. The NGO then after receiving the funding, takes our innovations and installs them in the rural homes,” explais Sahil.
Through these channels, Greenlight’s innovations have also reached the forest departments in various states like in Nagaland. They’ve also ended up working with the Indian Army in Ladakh.
Additionally, the social enterprise is involved in direct sales too. They have close to 15,000 retailers and 300 distribution partners across the country who sell their products.
Another model that they follow is the ‘Pay-as-you-go’ where a user can get the home lighting systems in place at their houses. Thereafter, they can keep paying for the system in installments until they have fully covered the cost of the unit.
“A lot of people don’t really know about these systems. So, we have about 5000 energy officers on the ground who explain to the people about this ‘Pay-as-you-go’ option. People can opt for a daily, weekly, monthly, programme for payment. The energy officers on the ground to ensure that the system is installed and the bill is paid on time,” explains Sahil.
Sahil claims that as of now, Greenlight Planet is the largest ‘Pay-as-you-go’ company in the world.
Overcoming the Rocky Terrains
Despite all the strides that the social enterprise has made in the past 10 years, there have been several challenges that they have encountered.
“I think there are several areas not just in India but across the world that really need access to light. Reaching these areas with bad networks or roads is a big hindrance to accessibility for the communities that live there. The concentration of our NGO partners in these areas as well is not quite dense and this is a real challenge,” explains Sahil.
But, the social enterprise is trying it’s best to discover such areas and having energy officers on the ground is helping them in a big way.
Sahil says that for areas that are difficult to access, they are too dependent on their NGO partners in these areas. He wishes that in the future, they are able to access these areas on their own without having to depend so much on their NGO partners.
“Awareness on high quality solar products is also something that needs to improve among the customers. People expect products to be cheap but low quality products are priced almost 40 per cent lower than counterparts of better quality,” explains Sahil.
Regardless of these few roadblocks, Greenlight is marching forward undaunted with fresh plans.
They are introducing new solar televisions for which pilots have already started in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. Also, their solar fans are being upgraded for better specifications and they’re working on introducing solar inverters as well.
“In the end, we want our products to enhance the lives of those communities across the globe by helping them access energy in the cleanest way possible. They will be the benchmark and lead the way in reducing climate change by showing how we can consume power differently,” says Sahil, signing off.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)