India’s investments in renewable energy are growing fast. The country plays an important role in global efforts to meet emission targets: its burgeoning middle-class has growing energy demands, while a large number of people still live in rural poverty without access to power.

Harish Hande, co-founder of the Bangalore-based company SELCO, believes that renewable energy needs to go beyond being a box-ticking exercise — it needs to create better livelihoods. For his work he has won the 2018 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

In this interview, which is part of SciDev.Net’s Bellagio Residency 2018 series, Hande explains how SELCO coaxed banks to fund solar power for the poor, and how technological innovation is crucial to reducing energy consumption.

What motivated you to start SELCO?

I had a feeling we are thinking wrongly about inclusivity. For example, if you and me did a PhD on sugar cane, we would be called experts on sugarcane — but a farmer who has worked with sugar cane for 45 years will not be called an expert, and he will have to listen to us because we have the PhD. Our ability to confuse, conveniently, intellectual poverty with financial poverty — it hurts me a lot.

My motivation was: how do you destroy three myths? The myths that the poor can’t afford sustainable technologies, that the poor cannot maintain sustainable technologies and that you can’t run a commercial venture while trying to meet social objectives.

How does SELCO help provide renewable energy?

We started with the concept that, if sustainable energy was to succeed, there are two things that are critical in rural areas. The first is a very good after-sale service. Often, poor people in the villages have been taken for a ride by the urban class who go and sell them system and run away. You need to gain trust that whatever is going to be installed will actually work.

The second thing is the cost. If people are to buy solar panels for their houses, which are an asset, they can be the second most expensive purchase after the house itself. You needed long-term finance, not microfinance. How do we convince the local banks to actually finance the poor?

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