Radha, Solar Saheli of her village Nagli Megha in India.
Being a Solar Saheli
Text by Thomas Deflandre
March 5th 5am, today we leave Delhi to visit small villages in between Alwar and Jaipur with the organization named Frontier Markets. Frontier Markets is a last-mile distribution company with a mission to create an ‘Easy Life’ for rural customers by providing them with access to quality clean energy solutions through a network of digitized rural entrepreneurs, with women at the center of the value chain!
STARTING THE FIRST MILES
A busy day was planned and we were expected at 8:30 in Alwar. According to Google it’s a 2 hours trip but since India is famous for its traffic we took some buffer. We finally reached the city at 10:30 with 2 hours late, where we met Amrit and Pallavi our contacts from Frontier Markets. They explained us we’re going to visit 3 villages to meet several Solar Saheli. Solar Saheli means Solar Friends, they are women who live in last miles villages. They all have received a training about electricity and solar energy to become solar champion and sales representatives in their villages. You’ll see that it goes far beyond sales for those women thanks to interviews below.
First village : Nagli Megha
Our first stop was at Nagli Megha to meet Radha.
She lives in a village of 500 houses where access to electricity is limited and a huge issue. I mean it’s not like they are not connected to the grid, there is one electricity pole but it’s far from reliable, they only have electricity for a couple of hours per day but what is difficult is that they don’t know when and for how long, brief it’s hard to rely on it!
I started to question Radha to get an understanding about why she decided to become a Solar Saheli. Without any doubt she answered: “I want to create impact and bring light to the community.”
We discussed for roughly 30min, we were so glad to have this opportunity to meet her in her house and to get such an interview. I had so many questions but I felt she wanted to move on something else, like excited to share something with us. Indeed she wanted us to experience the dark room!
The dark room is basically her sale pitch. We went in a small room of her house, sat on the floor and she closed the door with a fully opaque dark curtain. I can tell you the dark room was as good as any optical labs we have at Signify.
After 1min of silence Radha asked us to close our eyes and to share our feelings. My first impression was: “we are in the dark so what?” I mean let’s be honest I don’t have any reasons to be scared about a dark room since at any moment, if needed I can use the torch on my phone, so nothing scary crossed my mind at that time.
But then, still in the dark, she explained us what it is to live in off grid rural villages. The entire family live in this room, children sleep on the floor and in the dark they have to continue their life such as cooking, feeding animals outside,…
Then I projected myself into those conditions – take 2min and try to do the same- I realized whatever happen: an insect bites me, I lost something, I want to move from one side of the room to the other,… I’ll be in the dark and nothing can change it.
Suddenly she switched on the torch, what a relief! 2 demo kits (one torch and one home pack including 2 light bulbs and 1fan) were visible and both can be connected to a small solar panel. She explained us this is “sun’s god staying in your house” because you capture sun’s god energy with the panel and then god is in your house to protect you.
To me the dark room is really a compelling story but to be sure to convert visitors, Radha offers them a kit to test for 1day, after that there is no hesitation anymore. The only blocking point is the price 900INR (11€), it’s a budget for any family but even there she has arguments: reduce the electricity bills, reliable source of energy and more important there is a warranty and customer service. Those last miles villages are by definition far away from shops so after sales is a luxury.
Now people come to her home asking how is it possible that electricity never break down in her house. She became really popular in the village.
Becoming a Solar Saheli was a great decision, she can now save money, pay the scholarship of her kids and she was really proud to say that thanks to Frontier Markets she also learned how to use a smartphone. She was really scared about phones before but now she has a WhatsApp with others Solar Saheli and she fills all request orders via a google form. I’ve to admit I was really impressed by how smartphones are part of their daily life.
Before we left she really insisted on how light change people life and she shared the example of one boy who borrowed a torch to prepare his exams, without it he couldn’t continue to learn during the night. Thanks to it, he became major and receive a laptop from his school as a reward. Now the boy wants to become a lawyer!
We heard a lot of hope from Radha. And we wish her all the best in her next step which is to open a electrician shop in the coming years.
Second village : Sinthli
We took the road for roughly 45min of off-road to reach Sinthli, a village of 800 houses where Sahuni was waiting for us.
She has 5 kids and they are the reason she wanted to become a Solar Saheli, to improve her financial situation and provide a great education to her kids. She likes the job so much that she would like to do the same in different countries. But it wasn’t always easy for her, her husband was reluctant with the idea to let her join the program. But when incomes started to grow and he saw his wife becoming popular in the village, he changed his mind.
It’s true Sahini is a kind of rockstar in the village as she said ” I drive away the darkness and bring light into the community”. It helped her to be known and trusted by everyone.
We couldn’t stop there, we wanted to check those words, we needed evidences and therefore we asked to have a walk into the village!
Quickly we found one torch connected to a solar panel at the entrance of a field and then few meters later we found a customer. She bought 1 torch 1 year ago and she likes its robustness and reliability. She most of the time uses it to cook at night or for going outside. She likes it so much that she bought another one for her father in another village and advise every friend who come to visit her to buy one torch.
Time is flying and Amrit wants to visit one more village which is more than 1hour away from Sinthli.
Third village : Seeli BaorI
Arriving to Seeli Baori wasn’t an easy task but it was worth it, I mean the location is really beautiful: a 360° amazing landscape of mountains, dry ground with a couple of big trees. What made it even more beautiful was the light and the sun reflection on the pink stones which are so characteristics to this area.
Meena, the local Solar Saheli, is at the entrance of her house waiting for us and quickly she shared with us her story.
Meena has always been really active in the community: she’s part of a farmer working group to share experiences and help each other, she’s also part of the SHG group. She has never received a proper education and becoming a Saheli was for her one way to receive one but also an additional opportunity to contribute and help the community.
Her decision has been accelerated after 2 tragic events: the first one is about one house which burned because of a candle when the family was asleep. And the second one is a group of women who has been attacked by a panther meanwhile they were working in the field. They saw the panther but in the dark, instead of walking against they walked to the animal which killed all of them.
Those events were really an eye opener for Meena, she had to act!
Now she feels safe and the village is grateful and respect her even more. Her daughter who was there during the interview even added :
” I’m proud of what my mum is doing. She was uneducated and she’s now educating the whole village.”
Since the customer tour of the 2nd village was fruitful we decided to do the same with Meena. It was also a good pretext to get a tour and enjoy the view.
We found couple of houses equipped with solar products and we stopped at one of them to discuss with the family. Like other customers they bought it to have reliable source of light but here it was interesting to hear from the wife she also uses the torch to work by night on a loom to make thick carpets.
The Rajasthan is worldwide famous for its carpets. Some are made in factories but still a lot, and especially quality ones, are made by workers like this woman in tedious conditions and for a very small income. Not because the carpet is cheap, it probably worth 1000€, but because this is not a fair trade business and only intermediate dealers see the color of the money.
We then sat at the terrasse of another customer but unfortunately we couldn’t interview the person. First of all she spoke a different dialect than Hindi and both Amrit and Pallavi couldn’t understand (they are more than 1000 dialects in India). Secondly, the message has been spread in the village: 2 Europeans are visiting and therefore within 5min we were surrounded by at least 20 persons, nothing aggressive, only excited to meet foreigners but our colleagues advised us to move on.
This marks the end of the day, again what an experience, we left these villages full of hope. Listening to these women and seeing that simple actions can radically change people’s life was so inspiring.
What Frontier Markets is doing is simply amazing! They empower these women by providing education and skills which allow them to be impactful in their community and to be recognized as such and not anymore as a woman who should stick to housework!