The HumEnergy Learning Experience – Part II
by Karan Javaji, BA’ 14 (10/30/12)
HumEnergy is a social enterprise that aims to provide a source of income and electricity in off-grid villages in India by the implementation of 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 in these areas and see how best to move forward.
Through fieldwork and feedback, I developed a new business model for HumEnergy- franchising human powered cell phone charging stations to local entrepreneurs in off-grid villages. Read Part I for additional information about my experience reaching this decision.
At the Acara Summer Institute in Bangalore, India, I was introduced to an established company called SELCO that addresses rural electrification in India through solar power. I was invited to spend time at their Incubation Lab in Ujjire, India. This was an outstanding experience. I got to witness first hand ‘jugaad’, a characteristic of Indian rural innovation which roughly means the creative use of resources. During the two weeks I spent at the Ujjire lab, I built a rudimentary solar powered cell phone charger that was a proto-type for my pilot tests. I was also able to identify key off-grid villages.
With the intention of launching a pilot test, on July 13th I travelled to Mudigere district and visited remote villages near Aldur. I was very much taken aback by how remote these villages were. Fortunately we had a jeep that could navigate the rough terrain that was worsened by the rains. The first three days were spent exploring these villages, talking to the villagers and building a relationship with the village leaders (Panchayat). I learned that the villagers travel about 5 km every other day to have their cell phones charged at the nearest village that had intermittent electricity. Moreover, they would pay this person Rs. 5 per charge. It seemed like the perfect test site.
On July 17th, with the support of the local ‘kirana’ (provisions) shop-keeper and the Panchayat we launched our pilot test using the solar powered cell phone charger. We used the solar panel to charge batteries to charge cell phones. We also had a prototype hand crank device to simulate an actual human powered cell phone charging station. For a week, villagers could come and have their cell phones charged for free. We asked the shopkeeper to hand crank in his free time just as he would in the actual business model. The shopkeeper hand cranked for a total of about 2 hours 26 minutes on average per day. During this week, almost all the cell phone owners in the villages (24 people) visited the shop at least once to have their cell phones charged.
From July 23rd onwards, we announced that we would be charging a flat fee of Rs. 3 per cell phone per week and people could have their cell phones charged for unlimited times during the week. We were surprised that we only had two customers. The rest stopped coming and continued to travel to the nearby village with unreliable electricity to pay Rs. 5 per charge. When asked why, some answered that they had friends and family in those villages and sometimes had to go shopping anyway so they didn’t mind travelling. They also said that Rs. 5 per charge was not too much money for them. But when we spoke to the Panchayat, he explained that the villagers probably didn’t like the fact that we are outsiders trying to make money from them. As for the shopkeeper, he was unhappy that he made only Rs. 6 as opposed to the Rs. 50 that we had estimated he would make (though we did pay him Rs. 50 for participating) and didn’t seem interested in continuing.
Through this experience I realized that I needed stronger ties to the community in order for them to trust me in the pilot test. My uncle who happens to be an officer in the forest department suggested that I visit the tribal villages around Nagarhole. I went there on August 3rd and received a warm welcome from the villagers because my uncle was well regarded in these parts. But soon this turned out to be a dead-end for me. The villagers were only looking to please me and were worried that they might offend me. This meant that they even lied if they thought that would make me happy. Besides, only 6 of the villagers had cell phones because the cell phone reception was so bad. When I realized that I couldn’t run a pilot test, I wrapped up my summer project on August 6th.
This summer was a transformational experience. Though I have stayed in rural places prior to this summer, I had never been in the mindset of wanting to learn from everything that I observed around me. It was as if I was suddenly at a whole new level of critical awareness and consciousness about the people around me and the lives they led. The Acara Institute provided me with the tools for thinking about these things and gave me the opportunity to network and learn from a host of peers and experts. In the final stages when I was running my pilot, I was presented with challenges that I had never foreseen. I realized that there is no such thing as an unsuccessful pilot because regardless of whether the model worked, you successfully gain insights about it.
Though I could not be more satisfied with my experience this summer, I would do a few things differently if I could do this all over again:
1. I would have visited off-grid villages rather than poor under-electrified villages in the fieldwork stage. I had thought that the villages I visited would be similar to off-grid villages, but this was a flawed assumption.
2. I would have run the pilot with a human powered cell-phone charging station rather than a solar powered one. I tried to have a simple hand crank prototype built but it was too short notice to be effective.
3. I would have liked to do some fieldwork in North India where electricity needs are quite different. I mostly stuck to Karnataka because of the ease of communication since I’m fluent in Kannada.
4. Would have liked to spend more time on the pilot tests!
My overall conclusion is that my initial model of HumEnergy was not viable. The new model that involves cell phone charging stations seemed viable at first but the pilot tests were not very promising. I have decided to put HumEnergy on hold for the time being and look into alternative solutions to solve rural energy needs.
I would like to thank the people at Acara who were instrumental in guiding me in this project. I also thank the mentors introduced to me via Acara. Special thanks to my friends for accompanying me on my fieldwork visits. My work was supported by Cornell’s McKinley Grant.