Profile: Sameer Nair – Gram Oorja – East Africa

What is your off-grid energy business? Can you give a brief overview? How long have you been working on this business?

Gram Oorja electrifies un-electrified villages in remote areas of India using mini grids. Each home is provided a metered connection that can be used by the household for its electricity needs varying from lighting, mobile charging to small commercial applications like water pumps, flour mills, etc.

What inspired you to start working in off-grid energy?  Are there any key people who inspired you to work in this area?

Gram Oorja was co-founded by 3 of us who had worked several years in the corporate sector and were keen on starting up an enterprise that helped solve a key social problem in India under a commercial framework.

Have you lived in a off-grid community?  What is something you want people with reliable energy to know about growing up off-grid?

All the founders were raised in large urban centres of India and as such have not experienced challenges during their formative years. However, they were involved in social activities in remote villages during their adult life and as such have a sense of the magnitude of the problems caused by lack of electricity.

What are the main things you have learned while working as an entrepreneur in off-grid energy? Your biggest success and biggest failure? Key epiphanies or turning points?

The biggest learning is that problems of electricity access across the different regions can have vastly different reasons, hence multiple approaches are needed to solve the problem. Some areas lack electricity despite being close to electrified areas because of the socio-political issue, other areas lack access because of the difficulty of access. Our biggest success has been our ability to convince communities the importance of taking ownership of the project and making sure they are able to create economic sustainability through tariff collections. On the other hand we have not been able to enhance commercial activities at the villages to the extent we had imagined

-What has surprised you most about working as an off-grid energy entrepreneur?

-What has been most difficult/most rewarding?

Our team works extensively in areas that have no electricity at all. Given the remoteness and lack of easy access, even transporting material to this kind of locations pose huge logistical challenges. Building an implementation team that is motivated enough to live in remote villages, where basics such as water, sanitation and lighting are totally absent can be a huge challenge. Over the years the most rewarding aspect has been our ability to train people from these villages on solar technology and employ them to be part of Gram Oorja to help us in implementing similar projects in totally different geographical areas.

If you could share some wisdom with yourself 3 years ago, what would it be?

Create enough successful demonstrations of your business model before engaging with policy makers, otherwise the time & effort spent in engaging them can affect your ability to implement projects on the ground.

Where do you hope to be 3 years from now?

In 3 years from now, we hope to have demonstrated in at least 200 + villages that a community-based tariff collection model for off grid energy helps to create long term sustainability. We also hope to have a large number of villages demonstrate a significant improvement in their economic well being as a consequence of electricity access.

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