Trust, training essential for off-grid energy start ups

Interview with Salinee Hurley Tavaranan, CEO & Founder, SunSawang

Formerly Director at Border Green Energy Team

“We don’t do solar for free anymore. We started charging for it and now it’s working”.

Salinee Tavaranan is trained as a solar engineer. But she’s learned the policy and finance side of the business as well, after more than 10 years of implementing renewable energy systems on the Thai-Burmese border with the nonprofit Border Green Energy Team. In particular, she’s wary of projects that make a large initial investment in equipment without a plan to maintain and repair it. Her focus on financial sustainability led her to create a for-profit business to take over the installation and upkeep of solar-energy systems.

Solar engineer Salinee Tavaranan joined the Thailand-based Border Green Energy Team as director in 2005. At that time, armed conflict between ethnic Karen insurgents and the Burmese government had put tens of thousands of people into refugee camps in remote Thai provinces, and BGET set to work building solar-energy systems for these camps. With financing from partners like Oregon-based Green Empowerment, BGET installed more than 60 systems. The group also trained local people in the basics of maintaining them, and experimented with other forms of renewable energy, including micro-hydro and biogas.

That model, Tavaranan says, was ultimately unsustainable. “After we finished implementation, people started to call us after 6 months or a year,” she says. “Things break, and we realise we don’t have the funding to cover repair or maintenance costs”.

That experience led to a transformation in Tavaranan’s thinking. The humanitarian model of “giving things away for free” made sense in a conflict zone, she says. But it was a waste of time and money to bring in electrical equipment without a plan to maintain it, and the arrival of peace called for more sustainable sources of income. So in 2013 she spun off a separate, for-profit business called SunSawang to focus on building and maintaining solar systems. BGET continues to run training programs and brings in grant money, some of which it uses to hire SunSawang as a contractor. But SunSawang considers the individual households and school that use its systems to be customers, and charges them a yearly fee for five years.

Target village in Mae Hong Son province

So far, SunSawang has sold more than 700 solar lanterns and has equipped nearly 500 rural households with small solar systems that power lights, televisions, electric fans, and mobile-phone chargers. In 2015 alone, the company also installed solar systems for nearly 40 schools, which previously had accessed electricity with gas-powered generators or had no electricity at all. Social impacts include increasing the productivity of women who make handicrafts like clothes and bags, allowing teachers to incorporate videos and computers in school lessons, and helping elderly people with poor eyesight navigate villages at night.

One of the challenges of the for-profit model is trust, Tavaranan says. When villagers hear that SunSawang is a business, they may think the company just wants money. “I think we earn their trust at the beginning,” she says. “It’s about maintenance and warranty”.

But how can the company provide maintenance to remote villages that become unreachable during the rainy season? The answer grew out of BGET’s emphasis on education, and involves training local residents to maintain the equipment. SunSawang currently has three technicians in three separate areas, each with their own equipment and spare parts. These paid technicians check each of the installations in their area once a month, perform repairs as needed, and earn a commission when they recruit new customers.Village meeting-explaining about our project and products in Mae Hong Son

“We hire local people and train them and they don’t just earn money—they feel confident in their skills,” Tavaranan says. “They know how to find more customers and they provide feedback. It’s building entrepreneurs”.

Tavaranan sees several strategic challenges on the horizon. It’s possible that some of the villages her team has worked in will eventually be included in the national grid, which would affect her customers. Meanwhile, other NGOs may show up in the region and give away equipment for free, as BGET used to do. “If we can sustain our business, that would be just a short-term challenge,” she says.

The future holds opportunities as well. Three-quarters of the Burmese population remains without electricity, so SunSawang hopes to expand in that country. Tavaranan says it would be helpful if Thailand legally recognized benefit corporations, or B-corps, as a separate class of businesses. Benefit corporations are mission-driven, and must demonstrate that they are achieving certain social and environmental impacts. Government recognition would help Thai authorities understand SunSawang’s approach, while perhaps decreasing its tax burden.

For the time being, SunSawang remains a hybrid organization, partly dependent on BGET’s foundation funding. But in five to 10 years, Tavaranan would like to see SunSawang be fully self-sustaining. “We hope that we will be a business that can run by itself, so that we don’t need any more funding or investment,” she says. “If we make a profit to invest in other areas, we can put that into BGET projects too”.

How long will it take to get there? “This really depends on how much funding we receive until then”.

—James Trimarco, Writer and researcher

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