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Lighting a billion lives

Ramesh Narayan

Erratic electricity supply and plenty of sunlight makes for a great opportunity to market solar power..

When Dr Rajendra Pachauri of The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) told me one day, about a year ago, that close to a billion people on this planet live without any access to power at all, and that about 400 million of them lived in India that is Bharat, I could scarcely believe my ears. If I didn't know that he was the recipient of the Nobel Prize as Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I might have even dismissed it as a mistaken statistic. Remember, I was a part of an industry that had created a communications campaign called ‘India Shining' just a few years ago. The cruel irony was inescapable.

All this ran through my mind over the last two weeks as the world's leaders assembled in Copenhagen and tried to apportion blame for the right royal mess they had gotten the world into, and spent hours negotiating how best to save the world at the least cost to their respective countries. As green warriors battled to raise awareness about critical issues concerning the environment that really affect each and every one of us, one wonders whether the true impact of just how bad things are has actually percolated down to the psyche of the masses. In my opinion, years of awareness-building with metaphors such as the polar bear, the orangutan or the tiger to symbolise the larger environmental issues of global warming or the destruction of the rain forests have not made much mass impact. The reasons for these are many.

On the one hand, media would devote reams of newsprint (recycled or otherwise) to environmental events that have already taken place. The ready examples are Hurricane Katrina in the West or the 26/7 deluge in Mumbai a few years ago. Yet, the media faces a constraint in devoting the same space and time to issues that are not imminent, or certain, or both. On the other, how many of us (who are not animal lovers) would relate to the metaphor of a polar bear or an orangutan which we most likely have never even seen? Add to this the effort of the media to present a balanced picture to its readers or viewers. We all know how particular responsible editors are when it comes to presenting both sides of the coin. This very objectivity ends us in something that has scientific consensus on the one hand and on the other, a minority viewpoint at best, or an inspired bit of sleight of hand by interested parties getting equal prominence in the media, and therefore in the minds of people. Having said this, the need for greater awareness about global warming and urgent steps to tackle this problem at various levels has never been as urgent as it is now.

Coming back to Dr Pachauri, he dreams expansively. Great leaders mostly do. Dr Pachauri dreams of capturing the power of the sun, encasing it in solar lanterns and taking these to light up the homes and the lives of the 400 million people who do not have any access to power in the villages of India. And he has been working hard to achieve this. His organisation, TERI, has mapped the villages, identified local NGOs who can physically do the work on the ground, developed manufacturers and suppliers of these solar lanterns and work is well under way in many villages. Of course, the gargantuan job needs everyone's help and that is where the India chapter of the International Advertising Association (IAA) chipped in along with media. To the advertising fraternity, there was a ‘product', in the shape of the solar lantern. There was a ‘market' in the form of the approximately 400 million villages. There was a ‘distribution system' in place, courtesy the NGOs. Now, could effective communication and media support carry this message to the hearts of those Indians who are better off, and help raise money for TERI to light a billion lives?

To its credit, the industry rallied to the cause. A national contest was announced courtesy the media and 113 entries were received. Some of the best creative names including Agnello Dias, Bobby Pawar, Abhijit Awasthi, Josy Paul, Adrian Mendonza and Preeti Vyas along with Sam Balsara, Goutam Rakshit and Rahul Welde gave their valuable time to judge these entries and shortlist five. These five were, in turn, placed before an elite jury consisting of Rajendra Pachauri, Kumarmangalam Birla, Nitin Paranjpe, Jaideep Bose, Pradeep Guha, Shobaa De, Farhaan Akhtar and Piyush Pandey. Water Consulting, a division of Mudra, was given the Creative Lantern award and were commissioned by the International Advertising Association to develop a print and TV campaign for release.

The media was taken into confidence at this stage and what was to be probably the largest ever public service campaign attempted by the advertising industry was planned. The approximate media spend was to the tune of Rs 3 crore. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the campaign in terms of actual money raised but the awareness levels of this very important issue were definitely raised considerably. And the advertising and media community proved they had a heart that beat loud and clear for a good cause.

Marketing the sun

While Dr Pachauri's solar lantern delivers a rather bright 12 lux of light and is supplied free of charge to villages that have been identified for the programme, there exists a huge commercial opportunity to sell solar lighting in semi-urban and rural India. As we are painfully aware, even where power connections exist and people are considerably better off than those being reached out to by Dr Pachauri, power supply is erratic at best and marginal in most cases. With the exception of Mumbai (I wonder if we Mumbaikars are aware of this exclusive blessing) there is no part of India where power is available 24X7. With sunlight available in plenty and a huge need in place, one can safely assume that the future of those who are manufacturing and supplying solar equipment promises to be rather bright.

Mayank Sekhsaria is a young man who has returned from the US with a dream of making it big by manufacturing and marketing solar lamps. His lamps, branded Sun King, are light, small and relatively inexpensive. Sure they supply just 6 lux, but Mayank believes that is more than enough to fulfill several purposes. His marketing team, which obviously uses more direct selling techniques than mass marketing, has been establishing a presence in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar and some eastern States. He is setting up a large sales force to go into the villages, recruit local entrepreneurs and convert them into local sellers.

To become a local seller, all you need is evidently a will to sell, and an investment in two pieces that retail for Rs 850 each. Mayank is also interacting with self-help groups and women's groups at the bottom of the pyramid to motivate them to brighten up their lives in more ways than one. His rugged lamp even floats in water, he says, and the lightness of the piece enables him to use the old India Post network to transport his wares to the deepest parts of rural India.

People are waking up to the benefits of solar power and actually discovering different ways to use the solar lamp. One customer uses it as a cycle lamp and then positions it in his hut as a room light. The possibilities are endless. The little lamp, which is apparently five times brighter than a kerosene lamp, pays for itself in just 6-8 months with the savings in the purchase of kerosene alone. The one-year warranty is a bonus. And the reduction in pollution, the reduced safety hazard and cost savings to the exchequer in highly subsidised kerosene is the icing on the cake.

Mayank's experiment with a local Rotary Club in Mumbai to provide subsidised solar lamps to a village just a couple of hours away from this megapolis could be the precursor to many similar CSR initiatives that could be taken up by corporates and NGOs. It's a win-win situation all around. The villager could get clean sustainable renewable energy either free of cost or at a marginal cost and the corporate or NGO would be not just paving the way for social transformation but could also do their bit to save the environment. Why, I ask Mayank, does Green Light Planet (his company which is jointly owned by him and two youngsters in the US) import the lamps from China and not manufacture them in India itself? His answer is that some of the critical components, such as the LED and the lithium ion cell, are not permitted to be imported, though the Government allows import of solar lanterns or lamps in their totality. One hopes the Government will look into this anomaly and set it right.

Meanwhile, the whole of India is a market for solar-powered devices. And Dr Pachauri has miles to go, and all thinking citizens should have promises to keep and help realise his dream of lighting a billion lives.

(Ramesh Narayan is a communications consultant.)

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