Learning under a Rural Spark lamp
Let There be LightText Ashlin Mathew
Electricity is a basic necessity of life. But most of India’s villages have still not been electrified, and in those that have been, the constantly fluctuating domestic voltage makes electricity-dependent functions difficult. Studying under the street lamp is not as romantic as it is made out to be and neither is an everyday candle-lit meal. Rural Spark, a Dutch company, believed that some of these energy problems could be solved.

START TO SPARK

Rural Spark builds solutions which allow people to generate, share and use energy in a smart way. In turn, the larger energy network becomes reliable, efficient, profitably distributed, and grows autonomously. We see that the world is moving towards a smarter energy infrastructure in which the role of the user becomes much bigger. Whereas in developed countries, it is hard to convince the user to get actively involved in his energy network, in India, which has the largest population without access to electricity, people are extremely willing to play a role in developing their network,” says Evan Mertens, one of the founding partners of Rural Spark, along with the van Heist brothers, Marcel and Harmen.

 

For Rural Spark, the journey has been three years too soon. “All we came with is a vision. After college, I wanted to do a project in the energy segment. Harmen and Marcel’s mother had been collaborating with an organisation in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. So the idea of India wasn’t new to us. In 2010, we began testing our prototype in Jabalpur, and kept travelling back and forth between the two countries till 2013”, recounts Mertens, who holds a master's degree in energy efficient building services. In 2013, the three decided to move to Delhi. The first two years were spent on market research and prototyping different solutions in 100 houses in the state of Bihar. A partner with a good outreach in the region was required and Rural Spark collaborated with Basix India, a livelihood promotion institution active across 17 states, in jointly implementing the project in Bihar’s Bankey Bazar block. Over the years the company conducted pilots in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. However, Bankey Bazar, comprising 91 villages and 12 panchayats (village committees) in Gaya district, is the ongoing pilot.

The sparks behind Rural Spark: (left to right) Evan Mertens, Marcel and Harmen van Heist

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

LOOKING AHEAD

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.