Monday, January 17, 2011

field report from Ranikhet

I have just stumbled into my apartment at 4 am after an overnight train from Ranikhet, Uttarakhand. I spent the week visiting the communities of the Gagas river basin on a field visit to check out the progress of a newly formed partnership between LaBL and GrassRoots, a Ranikhet-based nonprofit. The trip was spectacular -- what more could one ask for than a field visit set against a background of the snow-capped jagged peaks of the Himalayas looming green terraced hills and in the distance.

Kalyan and Anita Paul, GrassRoots’ founders, seem to have their hands in every type of community development project– from solar lantern charging stations to biogas plants to water sanitation to women’s artisanal cooperatives. We sat drinking chai on the office deck, Kalyan in his trademark blue wool hat and Anita wrapped tightly in a woolen shawl, a blossoming pink cherry tree over our heads and the majestic Himalayas rising beyond. Kalyan smoked his cigarettes and told us the history of their work in Uttarakhand.

Grassroots is focused on communities surrounding the 14 gadheres, or tributaries, of the Gagas River. The area includes roughly 360 villages, totaling 20,000 homes. As I listened to Kalyan’s explanation of Grassroots’ operations I was struck by two defining characteristics of their approach – which likely explain the nonprofit’s success in the region. First, Grassroots requires full participation of the community before beginning any project, established by a 100 rupee deposit from each household. Though they rarely achieve this participation at the outset, Grassroots builds community support by tapping into existing peer groups within the village to create women self help groups (SHGs). Every woman is involved in a peer group, and therefore becomes a member of an SHG; by accessing each woman in the community, Grassroots effectively gains access to each household and eventually builds the community-wide participation necessary to move forward.

The other defining characteristic of the organization’s approach emerges with the second phase of implementation, during which villages develop “micro-plans” and set priorities. Grassroots is heavy-handed in its requirement that villages follow only their method of implementation. It’s a sort of “we know best” attitude, but the reality is probably that they do have far more knowledge on these projects than the village organizations – at least with respect to biogas plants and water sanitation systems. It seems to be working for them. Furthermore, I don’t think GrassRoots' approach is overly centralized; they have already split off two other organizations as separate entities receiving Grassroots support.

We headed into the villages, hiking through fields and low hills, passing baby goats and cows and water pumps with the Grassroots logo engraved on the front. The temperature rose as we headed lower into the valley and the late afternoon light made the villages glow.

Now, on to the solar lanterns specifically. One of the most interesting aspects of Grassroots’ implementation of ten LaBL charging stations is that they have abandoned TERI’s flagship rental model and are selling the lanterns for a subsidized rate of 700 rupees each. The lantern owner then pays a nominal fee of 8 rupees per month to charge the lantern. As Kalyan explained, community members were far more interested in owning – and caring for – their own lantern, rather than renting any one of the twenty lanterns at the charging station each day. The upside to this is that lantern owners have a greater incentive to care for the lantern; the downside is that they have fewer ties to the entrepreneur running the charging station and come less frequently to charge their lanterns (particularly because they do receive some grid electricity and rely on the lanterns only to supplement during blackouts). Apparently it reduces the lantern's battery life to go for periods longer than two days without charging it.

The biggest observation I took away from visiting Grassroots’ villages is that self help groups are where it’s at. Kalyan and Anita agree, and intend to rely almost entirely on SHGs in moving forward with more charging stations, choosing a representative of each SHG to run the station and rent out the lanterns to other members of the group. The advantages of this model are numerous; most importantly, tapping into SHGs means taking advantage of existing trust networks. The costs are transparent and information channels deeply grooved. Furthermore, the financing capability is built in; consumers who can’t afford the upfront costs can borrow from the SHG, and the entrepreneur has access to the SHG fund to withdraw or input maintenance funds, etc. I’d like to keep looking at this thread – I’ve heard so often in the past few months that microcredit is critical to effective lantern distribution, but MFI partnerships have yet to be successful. SHGs seem to offer a strong alternative.