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All charged up

E. Kumar Sharma | Print Edition: Dec 25, 2011

Besides books, children's school bags contain important things - crayons, snacks, perhaps a favourite toy. But the students of Mahalaxmi School in Nivaragi village, some 650 km from Bangalore, have something more important: solar-powered batteries. The lightweight pocket-sized batteries power LED lamps at their homes and charged by solar cells in school. These lamps, provided free of cost, are brighter, cheaper and cleaner than the alternatives - kerosene lamps or candles - available in an unelectrified home.

This project, called Light for Education, or LFE, was launched by SELCO Solar Light, a Bangalore social enterprise that specialises in solar lighting solutions. The equipment was designed by SELCO and Innovlite, a Bangalore-based LED light manufacturer. Since its inception in 1995, SELCO has lit 120,000 homes and 2,000 institutions, benefiting over half a million people.

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Piloted last year, LFE grew to cover 150 students in three schools in June, and now reaches 1,600 students in 40 schools across Karnataka. The experience of the Government High School in Kyasamballi village, 100 km from Bangalore, indicates the response to the project. On November 4, forty lights were provided to the school's students, and others immediately expressed interest. "We have now sought 70 more lights," says headmistress Sasikala M.K. The school has 900 students, so she says there could be further demand.


HOW IT WORKS

  • A Light for Education project consists of a centralised solar charging system, pocket-sized batteries and LED study lamps
  • The solar-charging system is installed in school
  • Each student gets a lamp and detachable battery
  • The lamps remain at home, where children study at night
  • Children take the batteries to school daily to charge them. At the end of the day, they take the charged batteries back home
  • A fully charged battery lights a lamp for three hours

SELCO plans to make the most of the momentum. "At least 10 donor organisations are interested in supporting such programmes. We already have nearly 10 donors, and the bulk of funds has come from Menda Charitable Trust, founded by Arjun Menda, Chairman, RMZ Group," says Ananth Aravamudam, Senior Technical Manager at SELCO Labs, the division that drives the company's innovation efforts. RMZ is a Bangalore-based real estate group.

At present, the base cost per student works out to around Rs 1,500. Schools with LFE programmes pay 20 to 25 per cent of the cost of the project. SELCO arranges the balance through donations or soft funding. Maintenance from the second year on is provided for by school. SELCO recommends that schools collect Rs 150 a year from each student as a usage fee from the second year, to cover possible maintenance expenses. The goal is to make LFE programmes financially selfsustaining as far as possible.

Aravamudam says 2,500 students in 55 schools are willing to pay Rs 200 a year for maintenance (from the second year) to cover servicing and repairs of solar panels and batteries. Other people are also expressing interest. SELCO is not alone in taking solar solutions to underprivileged and rural communities. Since 2007, The Energy and Resources Institute, or TERI, has distributed 44,170 lanterns across 16 states, covering 2.2 million people. TERI partners with local entrepreneurs and villagers. The local entrepreneur pays for a charging station and rents out lanterns to villagers.

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There are also about a dozen branded solar retail players in India, but SELCO's is the only school-centred model. H. Harish Hande, co-founder and Managing Director of SELCO, and winner of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award, is aiming for scale in six months. He hopes that by 2013, SELCO will be adding a school a day, and will inspire 30 to 40 other enterprises to replicate the model in other states. The effort may result a high attendance at schools. For, if a child skips school, the LED lamp batteries remain uncharged and it means darkness at home that night.

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