First off, a big apology to anyone who has been checking my blog frequently enough to know that I am massively behind in posting. I have been on the road for most of the past three months, and have many experiences and findings to relate. Getting these up quickly is a priority for me over the next few weeks, so I promise frequent posting.
Last month I set off to West Bengal to visit ONergy, a budding Calcutta-based solar lighting company working with communities in the Sundarbans and other remote regions of West Bengal. I was incredibly lucky to be joined by my childhood friend Rachel for the adventure, so together we set off on a 20-hour train ride from Delhi to Calcutta, accompanied by two loud-cell-phone-talking berth mates with overpowering body odor.
We spent a day exploring Calcutta, graciously hosted by ONergy’s founders, brothers Piyush and Vinay Jaju, and Vinay’s wife Ekta. Calcutta was the India I’d originally imagined; crumbling, once-white British colonial buildings sighing in Calcutta’s heat, overrun by tropical flora and poori wallahs stirring boiling pots of oil.
From Calcutta we headed out into West Bengal’s rural villages, accompanied by ONergy’s engineer-cum-tour guide, Mahendra-da, who met us at the local train station and promptly translated Rachel’s name to “Wait-ah.” I was simply “Madame.” The names would stick for the remainder of the trip. “Wait-ah, Madame, please come, you take the ladies car.”
It was my first ride on a local train, and though I like to think myself savvy at Indian train travel at this point, I was entirely unprepared for the life-and-death battle that ensued in the rusting, dirt-encased ladies car. We were early enough to secure seats for the ride out, awkwardly squeezing our cucumber sandwiches past old ladies’ bare stomachs pressing against our knees as we watched Calcutta’s traffic and chaos dissolve into the Bengali countryside.
From the train station we boarded the preferred mode of transportation in rural West Bengal – flat carts (or, as Rachel named them, “pallets”) attached to a bicycle or motorbike, usually over-piled with passengers hanging their feet off the side. Our journey into the Sunderbans involved a bicycle-pulled pallet, a motorized pallet, an auto rickshaw, another motorized pallet, and finally a boat to the island where we would set up residence in the examining room of a local NGO hospital. We luckily arrived at the hospital unscathed, despite no less than four crashes between our motorized pallet and other vehicles passing on the narrow paths.
ONergy employs a “hub and spoke” approach, with three “renewable energy centers” (RECs) that serve as regional hubs for promotion, sales, training, inventory stocking, installation, and after-sales service. Each of these RECs, which are staffed by several locally-based employees (“field staff”), serve as a platform for building relationships with local NGOs and for training local “rural entrepreneurs” (REs) to promote ONergy’s products, conduct commissioned sales, and provide post-sales servicing. I find it’s easier to view the model graphically. Here’s an overview of the company’s model, which as of now includes three RECs in three different regions of West Bengal.
In addition to working directly with the NGO to promote its products, ONergy’s field staff train “rural entrepreneurs” (REs) to sell products on a commission and provide post-sales service to existing customers. REs can be identified by the partner NGO, or by ONergy staff. These REs either engage with the NGO to promote products through the NGO network, or work directly with their local communities to educate potential consumers about ONergy’s products.
ONergy’s model is a hybrid business/nonprofit approach, and the company's success so far can be attributed to the strong, trusting relationships it has established with prominent, regionally-focused NGOs. The approach seems to be working so far, but I wonder about scalability when a business model is highly dependent on the participation of nonprofits, which obviously have a number of competing priorities beyond solar lighting. Still, ONergy continues to grow, and I’m looking forward to watching it expand its impact in West Bengal and other regions of eastern India.