The HumEnergy Learning Experience – Part 1

by Karan Javaji, BA’ 14 (10/18/12)

Karan Javaji, BA’ 14

HumEnergy is a social enterprise that aims to provide a source of income and electricity in off-grid villages in India through human powered electricity generators. The goal of this project was to do preliminary fieldwork and carry out initial pilot tests to gauge the viability of HumEnergy.

The initial business model I conceived for my business, HumEnergy, was to set up kiosks of pedal powered electricity generators in off-grid villages in India and to pay people per unit of electricity to pedal and generate electricity. Electricity would be stored in batteries which would be rented to the surrounding households. The work I did over the summer focused on addressing this central question: was this a viable model?

I did extensive research at Cornell prior to the summer to try to answer this question. To further this research, I received a Cornell McKinley Grant which enabled me to engage in fieldwork.  Through an introduction provided by Monica Touesnard, the associate director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, I was able to participate in the Acara Summer Institute, ultimately transitioning my business from assumptions to actualities. I prepared for my fieldwork by using IDEO’s Human Centered Design Tool Kit that was distributed by the Acara Summer Institute.

My summer experience began with fieldwork.  I spent more than two weeks (May 25th- June 10th) in a rural town called Bagepalli in Karnataka, India, visiting neighboring villages.   Having been introduced to the village leaders (Panchayat), I was able to hold group interviews with the villagers. 

Some interesting insights from these group interviews:

1.       Though these villages were incredibly under-electrified, electricity was not the primary concern of the villagers. Their main concern was water to irrigate the fields.

2.       The minimal (about 2 hours per day) electricity that they received for agricultural activities was free as per state provision. But they were ready to pay a lot of money for more electricity that could be used to pump water and irrigate the fields.

3.       They didn’t care as much about electricity in the households. However, when we individually interviewed some women, they said their primary concern was electricity at night to provide lighting for their children to study.

4.       Not a single household paid for their domestic electricity. However, only agricultural electricity was free which meant they were breaking the law by stealing from the grids in order to power their homes. They said that they did this because they didn’t receive enough electricity and that the authorities wouldn’t dare prosecute them.

5.       There are very few employment opportunities. Even the few who had jobs knew that in a month or so they would have to look for new jobs because of the seasonality of agriculture. They often travelled very long distances for daily wage jobs.

6.       Educated youngsters migrate into the big cities.

7.       The daily wage was about Rs. 150, much greater than the Rs. 80 that I had earlier estimated


Although I am from India, I gained significant understanding about life in these villages.  I had never spent two weeks in places like this much less with the intention of purely understanding the local way of life.

After this insightful fieldwork I was fully prepared to begin my time at the Acara Summer Institute, an incubator program organized by University of Minnesota. Its goal is to equip social entrepreneurs at the ideation stage with the knowledge and tools to implement their business idea. My experience at the Institute was exceptional. I met many different social entrepreneurs with fantastic ideas. Moreover, there were some great guest lectures by leaders in the social entrepreneurship field in India. We had the opportunity to get pro-bono advice from them.

After rigorous mentoring on the business model, I came to the conclusion that my initial business concept for HumEnergy was not viable because pedal powered generators are not efficient and hence not a big economic incentive to people pedaling.

Thus, I developed a new model: franchising human powered cell phone charging stations to local entrepreneurs in off-grid villages. This removed the efficiency problem of big pedal powered generators because one only needs a small amount of electricity to recharge cell phones. Out of an estimated 400 million people without electricity in India, more than half of them own cell phones. This gap presents a tremendous opportunity for a social entrepreneur.

Coming soon: The HumEnergy Learning Experience – Part 2.  I will talk about how I implemented my pilot tests for the new model.