HOW IT WORKS
When people join Rural Spark they get a kit which includes a solar panel, a router, 12 USB- chargeable lamps, an energy cube (the battery pack) and two USB-chargeable bulbs. The router supports up to two 40 watt solar panels and one AC to DC adapter which can be connected to the solar grid for charging. “Once the router is charged, it can charge other devices, including the energy cube, which can be used on cloudy days,” explains Shahzeb Yamin, a company field expert.
Rural Spark’s first product, the energy entrepreneur kit, is expected to be launched at the end of this year. All the components are made in India. LED bulbs are manufactured in collaboration with the Sahasra Electronics Group in NOIDA and solar panels with Thrive Solar Energy, Hyderabad. Unlike the pilot phase where the product was directly rented or loaned to the customer by Rural Spark, the company is now looking for distribution partners who will buy the kits (priced at approximately Rs 20,000 each) in bulk and then supply them on rental basis to the villagers. The kits will operate like set-top boxes, functioning as long as the monthly rental has been paid. Villagers can also buy the kits on a loan.
The kit in use
WITH INCOME COMES GOODWILL TOO
Besides providing energy, Rural Spark would like to empower people socially and economically. “Most families in our pilot area are dependent on agriculture and it is important to help them sustain during difficult times. One crop failure can lead to farmer suicides, oppression of farmers by moneylenders and other problems. A probable solution is to create additional sources of income. This is exactly what our technology is envisioned to do,” says Yamin. In the testing phase in Bankey Bazar, the customer could rent these energy kits for Rs 400 per month and further charge fellow villagers Rs 2 and Rs 5 to charge a light bulb and a mobile phone, respectively, for a day. This became an additional source of income for the customer.
But for some, like Rita Kumari, field executive as well as a local energy supplier in Bankey Bazar, the growth has not been just monetary. Her village didn’t have electricity until 2014. When Rural Spark came here in 2013 with their bulbs, it was a novelty. She was then working with a self-help group which dealt with micro-financing. After seeing a demonstration of the energy kits she started working with Rural Spark. “For me it has been more about gaining respect, making friends and interacting with a large number of people. With it, my attachment to the village has also grown,” says Kumari.
A well-lit meeting of a women’s self-help group
BUSINESS, À LA INDIA
The company has steered clear of dealing with the government directly. In Mertens' experience doing business in India involves a lot of bureaucracy. “This does not mean it is difficult, but things can take a lot of effort and time. There are days when we wonder how to get things done, but eventually it happens. For example when we arrived here, we called the telecom operators for the fibre optics internet connection in our area. After making many calls and being misled, we were eventually told that the fibre optics network wasn’t available in our locality. Imagine our surprise then, when in a few hours, an engineer from the company came to provide us with the connection!” Another issue has been banking. In his experience, it takes six months for money to be transferred from the Netherlands.
Interestingly, while they were testing their first kit (which didn’t come with a USB cable) they found the villagers charging it by shaving off the wire and connecting it to a power source. “When we saw this, we realised that we had to provide the cable too.” So, for Rural Spark’s Dutch entrepreneurs, it has been a complete learning experience.
Adding value to villages
With their first product set to be released, Rural Spark has already charted its future course. “We would definitely like to expand but our initial aim is achieving near perfection in our present pilot with constant product improvisation and refinement of the model. We are now primarily looking at reaching out to more villages in Bihar. Next, we plan to focus on Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand“, elaborates Marcel van Heist. The larger plan is, of course, to bring about an energy revolution in rural India.