Raghuraman (Raghu) Chandrasekaran, Founder E-Hands Energy
Location: Chennai, India
“Who cares for the poor anyway?”
Along the Himalayan border of India, site of the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict, lie rural villages which Raghuraman Chandrasekaran has ventured into many times. The founder of E-Hands Energy, which brings hybrid solar and wind energy to rural Indian villages, worked in the inner Himalayas during his first entrepreneurial venture, providing wireless telecoms. “The villages remain generally disconnected, from Afghanistan to Tajikistan all the way down to Myanmar,” says Raghu, as he is known as, blaming revenue interest to be in more densely populated areas of India. “We still need to provide for rural operators,” he says, adding wryly: “Who cares for the poor anyway?”
After working in the corporate world, Raghu realised his true calling lay in being an entrepreneur. Plus, his conscience was bothering him. “I wanted to help the poor, it was haunting me. So I jumped into it – this time in energy access and energy poverty; 1 billion people worldwide don’t have access to proper electricity, and over 300 million people are affected in India.” Why go back to the Himalayas? “I chose an area where we could have the most impact, compared to other companies which were setting up in different parts of India,” he says. E-Hands Energy has impacted around 12 villages in total; almost 70% of people live in rural India. Since 2009, the company has installed its own micro wind turbines and provided renewable energy solutions to schools, households and in agriculture. “Everything is off grid. It takes 10 or 12 kilometres to reach the villages. We’ve been quite successful in bringing these communities into civilisation.”
A 10-kilometre trek past a river leads to Kalap, the first village where E-Hands Energy launched. Solar electricity can benefit an entire belt on the Indo-Tibet border into forming small self-sustaining economies, such as in tourism. “A trekking package is already on offer in Kalap, and we have sent solar lanterns there. Now we’re looking at solar-powered tents to keep tourists heated in the colder months, since it doesn’t snow here. There are so many European tourists, teachers, civil servants or the like who want affordability and, of course, access to electricity. If solar energy can power a washing machine or a drier, even more funding agencies would be interested in talking to us.”
When it comes to competition, Raghu quotes Muhammad Yunus, who once chaired a meeting of energy access companies locally. “He told us to stop competing!” laughs Raghu. “I’d say there are about two dozen other pure off-grid companies around, and I agree with Yunus – we have to work together, in this spirit.” Nonetheless, Raghu would like to expand into Uttarakhand and Nepal, where E-Hands Energy sent around 600 home lighting systems after the devastating earthquakes of 2016.
An important thing to think about is what poor people should do once they have access to energy, asks Raghu. “Everyone talks about it,” says Raghu, “but we don’t just want people to sit down and watch a Shahrukh Khan movie. Children study more, women are healthier and have more time, but can’t it also lead to income generation? We want to investigate how electricity can help people in every village we go to.” 30% of villagers in the E-Hands portfolio cannot afford their electricity usage, despite their initial enthusiasm in the early months of solar electricification. “Other companies tend not to talk too much about this issue. Even 200-300 rupees (3-4 dollars) is hard for someone who has never had to spend on light. That’s why I am looking at an income generation scheme. More donors and investors need to know about this next level of amplifying energy for people’s livelihoods.” To continue on this path of affordable, sustainable business, Raghu would like to start integrating economic activity with energy access. “It’s an exciting path, and we want to take a stake in village-level enterprises, bakeries, with solar ovens, and so on.”
Initial challenges with the technology came with the quality and cost of imports from countries including the UK, Germany and South Africa, which India has a trade agreement deal with. Most of the products came for a more ‘sophisticated’ customer, being dust or moisture-free, and thus not suitable for a Himalayan climate. Raghu now works with Bangladesh-based company Solaric; the transport is more direct, the duty is almost zero, and the product is more robust. “Plus, when Thomas Edison discovered electricity, it was the direct current (DC), which is what Bangladesh supplies. Most of our TVs, computers, phones and modems only require this DC power, which is what solar supplies.” Raghu is proud to see that one village in the Himalayas is now running on DC power. In conjunction with Henkel in India, E-Hands Energy brought solar grids to over 1600 students at schools in the smart villages of Guraad and Zari, and 150 villages living in households at Kochesapada.
If there is one thing Raghu would go back and change about E-Hands Energy, which is one of the few enterprises on the Ashden Award 2017 longlist. it would have been to raise more money earlier. “We’re in this situation of perpetual bootstrapping, so I probably would not jump straight into action if I could do it again. Funding is the real problem – applying for soft loans is not easy, the amount of time spent on applications and grants.” Raghu has created a business model where rural energy electrification is subsidised by providing solar services to rural banks or micro finance institutions. “They all have problems with energy availability in rural parts of India, and there is unreliable power, so they use diesel generators.” Raghu advises banks not to open new branches with diesel generators, since solar is a no-brainer. “Solar beats diesel hands down, and a lot more people are listening.” We’ve reached around 400 branches of cooperatives and banks who have made the switch, so it’s a triple bottom line; they would otherwise have invested in diesel. We save carbon footprint, it’s cheaper and more reliable.” Raghu says that as the banking business is growing, the company will be profitable soon. “Investors can bet on us, and the money we put for smart villages will come back over a longer period of time.”
Raghu also needs to be convinced that pay-as-you-go technology will be useful in villages, since it is costly to install per household, despite its obvious advantage of scalability of usage. He is looking forward to finding out more about an affordable demo which is being created by students at Stanford University’s SRI research institute. E-Hands Energy aims to reach 10,000 families by 2019 through an affordable solutions. This year we will actually deliver energy to 400 households in 16 villages through the business.–Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee