Imagine having no access to electricity whatsoever, or suffering blackouts for up to fifteen hours each day. That’s the lived reality of millions of people in Nepal, and about two billion people around the world. Lighting, fans, water pumps, refrigerators, machinery – all the conveniences of modern life and the underpinnings of smooth commerce are unreliable or nonexistent. This is particularly detrimental to the 80 per cent of Nepalis living in rural communities who depend on intensive manual farming for their livelihood. Without electricity, water must be pumped by hand from the ground and carried.
SunFarmer is finding ways to turn farmers’ misfortune into a sustainable and impactful business, offering lease-to-own products like solar-powered water pumps that help farmers dramatically increase their incomes. Rather than wait for rains or use diesel-powered pumps which are polluting and expensive to run, SunFarmer’s pumps allow farmers to draw water for free, irrigate more land, and double their productivity by cultivating during Nepal’s 8 month dry season.
Here are some insights from Avishek Malla – President and co-founder of SunFarmer Nepal, a social enterprise delivering affordable solar energy to farmers and rural customers in energy-hungry Nepal – on the joys and challenges of running a social enterprise in the developing world.
What was your journey into social enterprise?
When I graduated from Kathmandu University as a mechanical engineer, still unsure of what I wanted to do with my career, I received a small award from Gyanendra of Nepal, who was at that time the King of Nepal. The text said, “knowledge not used to serve one’s country is knowledge wasted”, and those five words (in Nepali) quite honestly changed the way I think and changed my life. I decided to commit myself to using my knowledge of renewable energy to uplift living standards here in Nepal. At this point I wasn’t thinking exactly about social enterprise, but looking back I see that this was the start of my journey.
When did you first know you wanted to use technology to have an impact?
After my realisation, I turned down an offer for a corporate job in Kathmandu and moved instead to Humla, a poor and mountainous region of Nepal bordering Tibet where the Human Development Index (HDI) is just 0.25. Humla is very remote and at the time it took 16 days of walking to reach the main settlement from the nearest road. People are poor and have no electricity. We worked to electrify villages with solar and install solar hot water heaters. The positive impact on people’s lives was immediate. I knew at this point that I would spend my career finding creative ways to bring technology to the poor in Nepal.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
My family has a business background so I was exposed to it from a young age. My father ran a trading house selling furniture and other products. I was particularly influenced by my uncle who developed hydroelectric projects in Nepal’s energy sector. We would often spend hours late at night discussing ideas for solving Nepal’s energy crisis. I knew the electrical grid would never reach Humla, so knew from early on that I’d want to use solar to serve rural customers.
While studying in Australia, I was inspired by the off-the-grid power systems I saw people using in the Australian Outback. I realised that there was a huge untapped business opportunity for this kind of solar product in Nepal. Previously, people in Nepal thought of solar as a philanthropic thing that was given away by the government or NGOs to light a few bulbs. I had a realisation that this technology could be used to power large appliances in urban areas if paired with battery banks. I came back to Nepal, looked for like-minded people, and teamed up with a few to design and sell solar products for urban use. Several years later after leaving that company, we founded SunFarmer.
What kind of customers use SunFarmer’s products?
We work across a couple sectors, but in terms of our rural customers they are mostly female smallholder farmers. In a sense, our products like solar water pumps disproportionately help women because they save time and energy on manual labor that is typically done by women like pumping and carrying water. For me, making something that people do every day even a little bit easier is a major impact we can have on people’s lives with our work.
What’s the most exciting thing about your role at SunFarmer? How do you stay motivated?
My main objective is to serve Nepal as best I can. It’s exciting that we can make money while working with the technologies and social problems I’m most interested in. When I meet farmers using our pumps and they tell me how much they are benefitting from using them, or even which problems they’re still facing, these kinds of interactions are the most satisfying thing you can get as an entrepreneur.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to start a business in the developing world?
You need to be highly motivated and lay out what you want to accomplish early on. Seizing on a short term opportunity that has the potential to be really profitable but that doesn’t match with your vision and outlook on life is dangerous, because you’re going to have to spend a lot of life energy tackling the challenges. For me, being an entrepreneur in the developing world requires deeply understanding what the customer really needs at a grassroots level, that’s my mantra.
SunFarmer Nepal is a subsidiary of SunFarmer International, a US-based non-profit that forms locally-run solar companies in the developing world. To learn more, visit www.sunfarmer.org or donate here.
This blog is part of a series of stories that highlights the serious efforts people are making to improve lives through energy access. Read the other blogs in the series by:
- Peju Adeosun from Virgin Earth Challenge on the latest solutions to energy access.
- Sameer Hajee from NuruEnergy on developing a sustainable, scalable solution to dirty kerosene.
- Jesse Moore from M-Kopa on powering up Africa’s micro entrepreneurs.
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