The Problem of Energy Poverty
“There are more than 300 Million people in India without access to electricity from the grid. Clearly, the problem is huge” says Bhushan Trivedi. He founded Piconergy in January 2015 to solve what he refers to as ‘The Problem of Energy Poverty’. People suffering from energy poverty are typically from the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) and have to rely on expensive, polluting and inefficient sources of power- Kerosene lights, Oil lamps, Candles, AAA batteries and rented bulbs. “These sources of light work out to be several thousand percent times more expensive than what you and I pay as conventional grid users”, Bhushan remarks explaining the severity of penalty the poor have to pay for being poor. Living in energy poverty has multiple adverse effects on the poor. Not having reliable & affordable lighting severely hampers the daily lives of several households and curtails the ability of micro-enterprises to conduct economic activities thus stifling their socio-economic development. Further, use of polluting sources negatively impacts the health of children and women alike.
Bhushan knew he had to do something to address this problem. He put on his social entrepreneur cap and quickly realized that the optimum solution lay in offering basic lighting to the poor that is clean, affordable, reliable and functionally designed to suit their specific needs. After 3 iterations to the original product design based on extensive end-user surveys and discussions with more than 50 households, he came up with Helios- A solar PV-powered lighting and mobile phone charging solution. “We provide a sturdy battery box along with our solar product so that it can be easily mounted anywhere. Also we offer them protection plan that allows them a maintenance service on-demand thus helping them get maximum value on their purchase” says Bhushan. Piconergy offers different lighting options to different segments of customers depending on their end use.
Bhushan is a quintessential big city bred person. Having grown up in Mumbai, he never knew about living with minimal or no electricity. During his stay in a rural area near Mumbai for his mechanical engineering course Bhushan closely witnessed the lifestyle of the local people and the daily challenges they faced due to lack of electricity. This led him to be interested in renewable energy as the way to the future. After graduating from his engineering college in 2010, Bhushan joined a solar energy company based in Mumbai as a Manager for their solar water heater projects. Here he learnt the nitty-gritties of solar business. However, most of his clients included companies that looked at solar energy more from the perspective of compliance and long-term investment than from a social or environmental angle. Soon Bhushan realized that he needed formal education if he had to pursue a career in energy and environment. In September 2011 he flew to the UK to study MSc in Environmental Assessment and Management at University of Salford located in Greater Manchester. His first real exposure to social impact came when he started working with Orbis Development Partners in October 2012 on their solar projects in Myanmar. It was during this stint that Bhushan witnessed the potential of a market-led approach to solve social challenges.
“I never wanted a 9-5 job for myself. Instead, I loved being on the ground coming up with energy solutions for the masses” says Bhushan recalling his motivation to start Piconergy. “Market-led social entrepreneurship model always fascinated me over one based on charity because it’s more sustainable in bringing about change” he further adds. In early 2014, Bhushan conceived the idea of Piconergy. However it was in early 2015 that he made his first sale; after one full year of meeting several street vendors and communities, understanding their problems, designing possible solutions and convincing his target audience. He was the only person in Piconergy throughout its first year. “After selling 3-4 units of my product, I posted some photos on Facebook and soon people started showing interest in working with me” he says while explaining how he built his team of volunteers.
Bhushan with one of his enthusiastic customers- Kishan Patil who stays on a road-side shanty. Solar product placed on the roof of the bus stop for charging.
Bhushan with Patil family. Helios bulbs light up their modest dwelling.
With full-time staff of 2 and a team of several volunteers who offer their services on rolling basis, Piconergy has sold more than 50 units of Helios in underserved pockets of Borivali and Kandivali (Western suburbs of Mumbai) and a village in Rajasthan since its inception in January 2015. Having market-tested its product, Piconergy now intends to expand throughout Mumbai in coming few months. For this purpose it intends to partner with distributors in different parts of the city. “We are looking to select people from the urban BOP and train them in business skills to make them micro-entrepreneurs in their neighbourhood. We are particularly keen to work with women from marginalized sections” says Bhushan explaining agents of CARE (Clean, Affordable and Reliable Energy) program.
In the next 5 years Piconergy plans to offer its product to remote rural areas of Maharashtra where the problem of energy poverty is even more acute. Its mission is to introduce more products based on CARE to cater to the needs and aspirations of the poor. Bhushan sums up succinctly, “My vision is lifting millions out of energy poverty and catalyzing their socio-economic development at minimal environmental cost.”