Friday, October 27, 2017

Is Rent-to-Own Solar Power the Answer?

A Canadian entrepreneur is using a business model familiar from ’70s daytime TV to get Indians to embrace solar
By Jason Overdorf -- SMITHSONIAN.COM
(September 2016)

Dressed in a teal green dhoti and a white undershirt, 63-year-old Kisan Singh chuckles when he’s asked how many hours of a typical day the village of Ranchi Bangar gets electricity from the power grid.

“At night, light comes from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., so we can watch television and run the refrigerator and water pump,” he says, with a lopsided grin. “In the daytime, it’s anybody’s guess.”

Retired from the local government irrigation department, Singh lives with his son, daughter-in-law and grandsons in a squat brick house about 100 miles southeast of India’s capital, New Delhi. It’s a simple four-room dwelling—practically windowless, with brick walls and bare concrete floor, a few pots and pans stored on shelves, and plastic lawn chairs and nylon cots as the only furniture.

When it comes to green energy, however, the little house could well represent India’s future.

For a little more than a year, the family has been supplementing the sporadic electricity the village gets from the grid with solar energy, thanks to a new pay-as-you-go business model pioneered by Canadian entrepreneur Paul Needham and his company, Simpa Networks. Call it “rent-to-own solar.”

Needham is a serial tech entrepreneur whose online advertising company BidClix made its way into the portfolio of Microsoft. As a doctoral student in economics at Cambridge, he was obsessed with the reasons customers will shell out for certain products and not others. One of the questions that always bugged him was, “Why don’t I own solar panels?” The reason, he determined, was the high up-front costs.

Imagine if mobile phone service was sold like solar energy. From an operator’s perspective, it would have made great sense to try to sell customers 10 years of phone calls in advance, so as to quickly earn back the money invested in building cell towers. But the person who suggested such a strategy would have been fired immediately, Needham says.

“You want to charge people for what they value, not the technology that’s providing it,” he says in a telephone interview.

Realizing that the poorer the consumer, the more that axiom holds true, Needham teamed up with two microfinance experts about five years ago to develop small solar house systems for sale in India on a pay-as-you-go model. Today, they’ve installed systems in more than 20,000 homes and created 300 full-time jobs, as well as opportunities for 500-odd technicians and “solar entrepreneurs” who sell services based on having electricity in their shops or homes.

With $11 million in financing from various venture capitalists, as well as organizations like the Asian Development Bank and USAID, the company is scaling up fast—now growing its customer base by around 10 percent a month. The target is 1 million solar rooftops in rural India by 2019. With a little tweaking, the model could work in other developing countries, even in sophisticated markets like the U.S., Needham says. It’s actually been applied with some success in the U.S., he explains, but companies face issues due to the financing side of it. Entrepreneurs have to invest in equipment up front and only realize payments over time, so it’s easy to go bust if they don’t have enough capital.

Simpa’s solution borrows from prepaid cell service and the “rent-to-own” schemes notorious for fleecing poor Americans desperate for a television—turned to a good end.

With the most basic system, customers get a 40 watt solar panel, a 26 amp-hour battery, two LED lights, a 15-watt electrical outlet for appliances and two ports to charge or power USB devices—all of which operate using direct current (DC), so no inverter is necessary. The blue rooftop panel is about the size of a card table, angled toward the sun. The meter looks a bit like a car battery, with an e-ink readout to show how many “days” balance is remaining. It comes with special LED tube lights, about half the size of the schoolroom fluorescents we’re used to, and a freestanding electric fan.

It costs about $270 to buy the system outright and get free electricity for an estimated 10 years. But most customers choose a pay-as-you-go contract that allows them to purchase the kit in monthly payments over two or three years. Over three years, that means paying an extra 50 percent for the system. But the small payments are easy to manage, and the arrangement makes customers confident that the company will keep the equipment working, so as to get paid. The pay-as-you-go system also features on-site service and an extended warranty.

That’s proven to be vital, because do-gooders and fly-by-night companies alike have in the past failed to maintain systems installed with loans or charitable funds, sowing general distrust in solar, Needham says.

“When the batteries need to be topped up or there’s a little problem with the wiring, those systems just stop working,” he says.

With the pay-as-you-go scheme, customers typically pay 15 to 30 U.S. cents a day to power a fan, three lights and a mobile phone charger. They can see how many days they have remaining by pressing a button on the keypad of their meter, and call a customer service rep to take a top-up payment anytime, with cash-back bonuses for bulk purchases. About 10 percent choose to buy the system outright after six months or so, Needham said, and everybody is attracted to the idea that their payments are going toward a purchase.

“What we found was that most people wanted to own the equipment themselves; they didn’t just want to keep paying to use it,” Needham says.

Apart from helping India in its battle to lower greenhouse gas emissions and relieving the strain on its overburdened power grid, the business could play an important role in reducing poverty, he believes.

Worldwide, approximately 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and another 1 billion have extremely unreliable access, according to a Simpa case study. The poorest spend up to a third of their income on kerosene and access to third-party electricity—a whopping $38 billion for kerosene and $10 billion to charge their cell phones. That means over the 10-year lifespan of one of Simpa’s more advanced $400 solar systems, a typical user would have spent $1,500 to $2,000 on kerosene, candles, batteries and phone charging. Meanwhile, they’ll have missed out on economic benefits associated with electrification, including increasing income-generating working hours and improving school performance.

“Before we got the solar system, I was cooking in the dark,” says 26-year-old Anjali Gehlot, Singh’s daughter-in-law. “We were using candles and kerosene lamps. My children weren’t able to study at night or they weren’t able to sleep because there was no fan.”

With temperatures soaring to more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit for almost half the year in Ranchi Bangar, that’s a huge selling point. So much so that Gehlot prevailed on her husband to have a second “Turbo 240” system—the number 240 refers to its two 40-watt panels—installed three months earlier.

In total, the family now pays about $24 a month for solar power—about 15 percent of what Gehlot spends to feed a family of five—as a result. But the added comfort is more than worth that price, she says.

“It’s cheaper than the bill for the grid electricity,” Gehlot says.

And the light always comes on when she flicks the switch.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Checking In: The Roseate, New Delhi

Tucked just off the busy highway linking New Delhi and Gurgaon, the Bird Group’s 50-room Roseate is a surprisingly tranquil and green boutique resort.
By Jason Overdorf
Destinasian (October 2017)

The Look
Separated from the roadway by a towering false-ficus barrier made of elegantly crafted steel leaves, the eight-acre retreat is enveloped by pin-drop silence. More than a thousand trees, landscaped gardens, and a winding reflective pool give it the feel of a fortified retreat—an impression underscored by the high-domed ceilings and twenty-feet-high doors selected by renowned Thai architect Lek Bunnag.
Closer examination, however, reveals bronze latticework and Persian pillars that give the modern, minimalist resort accents that are reminiscent of the style employed by Mughals who built Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal.
Its proximity to Delhi and isolation from the chaos of the city has made it a popular choice for staycations for well-heeled city-dwellers looking to avoid the long drive into the Himalayan foothills. But on the weekday afternoon we checked in, the manicured garden played host to a fashion shoot and an episode of a cooking show starring head chef Nishant Choubey.
The Rooms
Built to impress, the Roseate comes with well-appointed and spacious 60-square-meter rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the canal-like swimming pool or the lush garden. A complementary iPad controls the lighting, window shade, and television, as well as providing a menu of hotel services and activities.
Dominating all rooms are glorious, bespoke mattresses and sumptuous pillows that provide just the right combination of softness and firmness. The separate sleeping and sitting areas make it easy to combine business and pleasure, with the window’s natural light illuminating a comfortable desk with plenty of room for getting one’s work done. But the mood lighting is a bit dim for reading in bed.
The Buzz
With so few rooms, expect a personal touch: every staff member is likely to know not only your name, but your plans for the day. Head chef Nishant Choubey or executive sous chef Anuj Wadhawan will stop by your table with recommendations.
Kiyan, one of the restaurants, offers world cuisine with a tilt toward European classics along with subtly spiced and artfully plated Indian dishes. Meanwhile Chi Ni offers modern Chinese dishes inspired by London’s Kai Mayfair. Now that the well-meaning but idiotic ban on serving alcohol near India’s national highways has been lifted for five-star hotels, guests can grab their choice of tipples at the cozy Iah Bar, where they can even pair their drink with a cigar.
The elegant, all-white Aheli spa has justifiably attracted a dedicated following among local residents. It offers a full menu of treatments including what’s arguably India’s best hammam, as well as a small-but-efficient fitness center that’s enclosed in glass so that guests can enjoying working out “outdoors” in air-conditioned comfort. The Aheli signature treatment combines elements of Shiatsu, Thai and Swedish massage. Enjoy it—or one of the spa’s many other treatments—in a soothing white spa room or under the sky in one of its stunning outdoor treatment areas.
Don’t Miss
Ask the friendly staff to arrange for a trip to the resort’s dedicated organic farm, located less than a kilometer away, for a custom-tailored meal prepared with vegetables fresh from the vine. Here, chef Choubey can work some magic with little more than a fresh bottle gourd or two, a few pumpkin flowers, and a dash of baby spinach. Check for special farm-side food events as well.
Samalka, NH-8, New Delhi, Delhi 110037, India; 91/1133 552211; doubles from US$198 per night

People are still cleaning sewers by hand in this country — and they're dying

Jason Overdorf, Special to USA TODAY
(October 2017)

NEW DELHI — Chandra Kanta shudders when she thinks about how she will explain her son's death someday to her 6-month-old granddaughter.

Mohanlal Kanta, 22, died from asphyxiation in August while cleaning a blocked sewer line without a gas mask or other protective gear, as required by laws rarely enforced.

“The police came to our house with Mohanlal’s photo and said there had been an accident,” said Kanta, holding her granddaughter on her lap. “They didn’t mention anything about criminal charges against his employer for letting him work in violation of safety rules.

Mohanlal is the latest victim of widely flouted laws that have led to at least 750 deaths across India since "manual scavenging" was outlawed in 1993, including 75 this year. The large human toll casts a light on the deplorable working conditions here — even in the capital.

In 2013, the Indian government increased penalties up to $7,700 in fines and five years in prison for employers who let their workers clean human solid waste by hand or build latrines that require manual maintenance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has launched a massive Clean India campaign that has built more than 80 million latrines to improve public health by discouraging Indians from relieving themselves in the open.

But the plight of sewer and latrine cleaners remains largely unchanged, said activist Bewazda Wilson of the non-profit Sanitation Workers Movement.

“In Delhi within the last one and a half months, we have witnessed more than 16 sewer deaths,” said Wilson, 51. “You don’t think this is a big problem? How can my democracy just keep quiet?”

Indian sewer workers, usually stripped down to their underwear rather than outfitted in protective gear, go down manholes and often spend their days neck deep in human muck using brooms, scrapers and buckets to clean blockages.

Their menial occupations reflect their low status in the Hindu caste system. For millennia, cleaning latrines has been the job of the lowest castes, most prominently the Dalits or “untouchables.” India’s 1949 constitution prohibited explicit discrimination against the untouchables. But social and economic norms have kept them in the dirtiest jobs.

Wilson said unconfirmed reports put the actual death toll far higher than the official count. Yet no one has been convicted of violating the law against manual cleaning in the 24 years it has been on the books, he said.

“We have given the (Delhi) chief minister details of 54 death cases,” Wilson said. “He must arrest these people.”

Mohanlal's death was among a spate of similar fatalities that prompted police to file a case against his employer. The Delhi government offered his wife a government job and provided his family with compensation of about $15,000.

But it’s an open secret that government agencies — in this case the Delhi Water Board — regularly employ contractors knowing they send people into sewers to clean illegally, Wilson said.

Modi's government aims to build 210 million latrines by 2019. But the government has not improved sewage systems at the same pace. Even before the project began, only a third of urban toilets were connected to sewer lines. Many of them dump directly into rivers and canals. That’s already causing environmental problems, in addition to harming the cleaners.

“Urban India is already floating on sludge,” said Mamata Dash of WaterAid India, an aid organization with offices across India. “The problem has only increased many fold.”