On The Ground

An omlette vender working under light powered by Husk

Roshan Tara lights the world

Editor’s note: Acumen Fund recently co-led a Series A funding round for Husk Power Systems. Read more about it here.

On a trip across India with Acumen advisors earlier this month, we take a 13-hour overnight train from Delhi to Gorakhpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh, then drive 2 hours to Kushinagar, the revered place where the Buddha took his last breaths. After a short break, we pile back into cars and drive another two hours through a rabbit warren of tiny roads weaving in and out of buzzing towns alive with shopkeepers, mobile phone repairmen, shoemakers, the random oxen pulling carts laden with grasses and wood.  The moment we cross the state line into Bihar, there is a noticeable quieting of life: no electricity, no power.

Not far away is the village of Tamkuha where Husk Power has set up its first gasifier plant, electrifying most of the homes and shops. I first visited the place several years ago when the company had just started: people were willing but wary, not sure if they could depend on Gyanesh, the CEO, and Ratnesh, the COO, two sons of Bihar but not of this place, two city boys from Patna, the capital city, a world away.  Then, people began to see the power of the micro-grid: children staying up to study without the noxious fumes and dim light of kerosene, adults extending their work as tailors and workmen into the night.

An omlette vender working under light powered by Husk

Tonight, we find a village alive with community flowing into the streets: here is a vendor cooking omelettes, there is a shopkeeper playing host to men playing chess while customers buy sundries. Here again is a tiny night school to tutor the children of people hungry for a way out.  Ratnesh tells me about the businesses that have sprung up as a result of the power: spice grinding, ice candy, a video hall, a photo studio: life abounds.

Husk also has started an incense-making business from the char produced by the gasifier: 60 women can earn a steadier income now. Interestingly, Husk generates more revenues from the incense sticks than the electricity itself.  The women love the work, they say – and it provides steadier income than they’ve ever experienced.

The town is changing. People are finding voice.

We drive to see another village: a surprise.  Between this and the next Husk-powered village are dark enclaves of homes.  The night is thick, and black. The quiet is eerie after the hubbub of Tamkuha.  People retreat into their dark houses after sunset, for there is nothing else to do.  This is an area known for bandits. You can’t see the end of your hand outside.  Life ends in the dark, day in and day out.

I am an insomniac.  Most of my nights include a moment of wakening. Often I will make my way to the kitchen to make tea and read for awhile. I imagine what it would be like to wake nightly here, lying in blackness, hearing only the sounds of breathing, the scratching of rats and night creatures scurrying across the hut, the howl of wild dogs.  I imagine the toll on my mental health.

Out of darkness to a vision of sparkling lights again: another village of 500 homes powered by Husk.  The world feels a little bit lighter, less filled with stress.  I imagine how domestic violence would decrease as light becomes accessible: seeing one another in the night makes you feel more human.

We arrive at the plant, and hear the chug-chug-chugging of the gasifier, see the light around it and the men working at the site.  In the center is a smallish woman in a bright yellow hardhat: the first woman operator of a Husk power plant.  Her name is Roshan Tara.  It means starlight.  The name fits: her eyes are full of sparkle, even if the lines around them betray her hardscrabble life.

Roshan Tara, Husk's first woman plant operator

She has seven children, aged 7 to 25. I guess her to be in her early 40s.  She has no formal education but approached Ratnesh to see if she could join be trained to operate a plant when her husband became disabled, rendering him incapable of earning income for the family.  The challenge to her – and Husk – was her inability to leave her children and household for the two months required to attend Husk University.  Finally, the company decided if they wanted to hire women like her, they would have to bring some of the training to her, truncate it, help her learn on the job. They are glad they did it.

Ratnesh believes Rohan Tara is one of his strongest operators.  “Women make better employees,” he tells us.  “They are responsible and show up for work on time.  They keep good books. They take safety seriously and follow procedures.” Husk would like to train more women, and know they need to determine how to extend their programs.

I ask Roshan Tara what she has learned from the job.  “I didn’t have any skills, but I had courage,” she responds.  “Now I can help bring electricity to my neighbors.  They don’t have to travel to the city to charge their cellphones. They give me respect.”  She is not philosophical, but you can feel her pride, the sense that she is part of the solution.  She embodies dignity, a sense of agency or being able to change her own life.  She is part of the solution and that is the only way solutions will work.

As she speaks, I think of the lights flickering in the villages, the changes underway, individuals working and reading and studying.  I think of what it means not to live in darkness and how hard it is to imagine for those of us who are used to turning on a switch to extend the light of day.  There are 1.5 billion of us whose lives are circumscribed by the movements of the sun, though we know how to harness that same energy to allow for the flourishing of productivity and the human spirit.  We can do better.  Husk is bringing one part of the solution – and when the company extends itself to include women like Roshan Tara, the community can begin to realize that the people themselves are and must be the leaders for whom they’ve waited.

___

Jacqueline Novogratz is Founder and CEO of Acumen Fund.

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