The vision – energy as a catalyst

Simon Desjardins

We’ve heard in this issue of Alliance from some of the key stakeholders working on scalable ways to provide energy in Bihar. But what does the future of decentralized energy provision in this state look like? I think we’re getting towards a point where growth of existing business models won’t be sufficient for commercial viability, where scale is not enough.

Those of us familiar with this sector will be equally familiar with the ubiquitous photo of a young child studying efficiently and safely in front of a beautiful CFL or LED light. The assumption is that simply providing light to that child will improve their educational prospects. But the reality is inconvenient. If the materials studied and the school attended by that child are poor (which is the norm in Bihar and indeed in most rural areas throughout the developing world), is that light likely to improve the educational outcomes of that child to a significant extent? Let’s not kid ourselves.

Leveraging mobile phones?

The examples we’ve profiled in this issue provide mobile phone charging as an add-on service to energy provision. Mobile phone penetration rates in rural Bihar are astoundingly high, and users are unquestionably benefiting from their use in significant ways. But could we leverage those freshly charged mobile phones to a much greater extent?

In fact, we’re just scratching the surface of what energy can provide to rural customers. People aren’t interested in the electricity, after all. They’re interested in the services that they can get as a result, whether it is longer opening hours for a shop, a safe walk home from the field at night, or using a mobile phone. But it’s the potential step changes in education and healthcare delivery resulting from reliable energy provision that I’m particularly excited about. Here are two examples.

First, let’s get the free world-class educational videos of the Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) translated and delivered on to the mobile phones of every customer. Indian innovators like Jigsee (www.jigsee.com) can help with this (in fact we’re already working on a partnership with Husk Power). Not every video will be appropriate for mobile phones, but many will be. This won’t make the business model more complex, because the energy companies will simply act as messengers delivering free content. At the same time as a customer pays for their energy product or service, a database of videos can be transferred to their phone via Bluetooth or they could be given download instructions, for example. If videos like this are already being used to bypass the dependency on low-quality local schools in the US, why not do it in Bihar?

The same concept applies to healthcare. Bill Gates’ trip to Bihar in March launched his foundation’s new work on decentralized healthcare provision in the state. The proposed network of rural pharmacies, telemedicine services and radio-based awareness-raising activities all depend on energy and will require networks of trusted organizations that are already in touch with consumers. What if Husk Power, Project Dharma, d.light and Greenlight Planet (and others) could be part of those networks, and their customers given free access to those services?

Broadly, I think that rural energy provision that directly enables the delivery of high-quality education and healthcare services will lead to better business models for the companies providing that energy. My guess is that it will lead to increased customer loyalty and accelerated penetration of that provision because the companies will be providing many more services of value to the customer.

Crowd-accelerated innovation

In a world where different categories of funder are playing complementary roles in scaling up energy entrepreneurs, and where that energy provides a multitude of valuable services, the potential for what Chris Anderson of TED describes as crowd accelerated innovation in the energy sector in Bihar is real. This concept, which was born out of the proliferation of web video, requires three key ingredients, according to Chris: a crowd with a shared interest (the bigger the better), light (seeing what the best people in that crowd are capable of), and desire to innovate. In a Bihar where an increasingly large number of consumers are benefiting from modern energy services and are increasingly connected, visible to each other, and excited by the related services they are receiving as a result of that energy, we might well experience this phenomenon in the future.

For those who think this future is decades away, think again. Many of the basic technologies, business models and entrepreneurs required to do this are already there. We just have to connect the dots.

Let’s make it happen.


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