Interview with Amit Saraogi, Co-founder and CEO, Oorja
Location: Delhi, India
“We will be able to strengthen local economic development, increasing demand for our solution and bringing jobs into the local economy”
Amit Saraogi spent part of his childhood in Uttar Pradesh, playing amidst the rice fields where his family harvested rice paddy to be processed in their mills. He comes from the largest, most densely populated state in India, or as The Economist memorably put it, a state with a “population size similar to that of Brazil, an economy the size of Qatar’s, and a GDP per head close to that of Kenya”.
Whilst Uttar Pradesh also carries the Taj Mahal as the feather in its hat, it has an agrarian economy. Over 18% of villages in the state do not have access to energy. It “made sense” for Oorja (Hindi for “energy”), a for-profit social enterprise which came together in 2014, to work in Uttar Pradesh and fulfil its high demand for modern energy. Using a more cost-effective hybrid technology of biomass gasification and solar, Oorja relies on agricultural waste as stock. “200 million tonnes of waste is generated in India, with no competing uses for it and low prices,” says Saraogi. “Biomass gasification gives us by-products like the char used in the soil, displacing chemical fertilisers, and water purification, which we need to do more research and development on. We can turn waste into fuel cookies, and palettes for greener cookstoves.” The impact on creating smarter villages is evident, he adds – farmers get a more disposable income, local infrastructure is improved. “The immediate impact is having electricity at home, helping women to feel safe at night, and keeping businesses open a little later.”
Smart meters record consumption rates of businesses and households, following an early tweak in the business model when the team realised that demand was low if they were to work with low-income households only, which typically only needed two connections for LED bulbs and phone charging stations. “A lot of learning comes from observation,” says Saraogi. “We record, for example, the process of how people light the fire to prepare tea. In the last couple of years, quite a few players have moved in – businesses, and irrigation pumps – we factored in generating new income sources, for people with access to energy.”
The team have moved very fast in a small space of time; Saraogi remarks that the ‘gestation period’ was very fast. In 2014, he met co-founder Clementine Chambon at Climate-KIC, which organise summer workshops across three different cities in Europe (Saraogi estimates that around 2 or 3 projects developed out of 150 in this system come to market). The pair met climate scientists and other industry experts, “everyone in the ecosystem who could help vet and plan the idea and technology,” he says. “It’s five weeks of hand-holding, and commercialising the innovations in a laboratory.”
By October 2014, the duo had come up with a business plan. They spent a month in the field with a team of four or five recruits, to do a site selection survey and needs assessment. According to the World Bank, 450 million Indians do not have access to energy or are under-electrified. There were some warnings from stakeholders that Uttar Pradesh could be a difficult state to work in, but Oorja enjoys a relationship with village-level governing bodies and NGOs. “Plus, I have my family network, which I leveraged to get stakeholders,” says Saraogi. “We did field surveys and got a buy-in from their network and corporation. There is a willingness to subscribe to services. There is a demand from local business (who are willing to pay a bit more) and low-income households too.”
Within a year, Oorja had won acclaim and media attention – French-born Chambon, a PhD candidate in biofuels in London, was recognised in the Forbes 30 under 30 list, as an MIT social innovator of year, and a woman of the year in Red magazine. In June 2015 Oorja won a two-year ‘Echoing Green Climate Fellowship’, connecting the company to investors and pro bono lawyers in the UK. Saraogi remarks that especially in the US, there are more partners, since the social enterprise ecosystem is growing. With exposure, funding and resources, Oorja hasn’t had some of the stumbling blocks that other startups have. Its main revenue stream comes from leasing and maintaining the systems.
Oorja is celebrating an important milestone this summer, with the opening of the first clean energy mini-grid in the village of Sarvantara, in the Bahraich district in Uttar Pradesh. Powered at 8 kilowatts, it will reach more than 1,000 people at the ‘base of the pyramid’. The partnership came about with funding from the German government and the equipment supplier BOS-AG. Saraogi outlines a more aggressive growth plan of 250 mini grids in five years, impacting a million people and saving 200,000 tonnes of Co2. “This is the first step towards our mission of democratising energy access to build inclusive economies and resilient communities,” he says later, via e-mail. “We will be able to strengthen local economic development, increasing demand for our solution and bringing jobs into the local economy.”
Along the way, there have been awareness campaigns and training. “People may not use the same terminology as us, but they do understand soil degradation and why it’s happening,” says Saraogi. “We were surprised a lot of farmers knew what the reason behind it was.” Saraogi welcomes Uttar Pradesh’s aim to electrify its villages by 2022. “This new policy is favourable to organisations like ours who are using renewable sources, like biomass or solar, and allow us to operate independently,” he says. “If in future, they make a provision to build the grid, then we’ll be able to feed into it.” Oorja is also promoting a “gender-sensitive approach”, to integrate women deeper into the supply chain, and much of the field research was done with them. “It’s more difficult to get an audience with women – it is a cultural and societal problem, but we want to see them as micro-entrepreneurs.”