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A Master’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. After that a well paid job with Cummins, USA. Life could not have been better for a twenty something young and dynamic Kanika Khanna. Being confined to board room meetings, getting her name printed at the end of the credits of power point presentations for her hard work did not give her the satisfaction she aspired for. The zeal to do something better, explore the unexplored and make a difference in the society from where she belonged, made her come back to India.
She built a business in a relatively unexplored domain and took up the immensely challenging task of electrifying remote Indian villages with no light. Her company Sunkalp Energy, which provides turnkey solar energy solutions for schools, homes, and virtually any establishment, has taken up solar electrification projects in rural India.
With the help of their crowd funding campaign called “Solar Soldiers”, the Sunkalp team has started marching towards their latest mission of providing electricity to Gulabganj, a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, which has not seen a light bulb glow in 25 years! Yes, you read it right. No electricity for 25 years.
Kanika Khanna talks exclusively to LifeBeyondNumbers(LBN) about her journey, Sunkalp Energy, Solar Soldiers and more:
LBN: Tell us about your Journey from MIT to India and inspiration for starting Sunkalp Energy.
Kanika: I had the good fortune of being at MIT and being around people who not only develop a technology, but they also want to see that technology commercialized. So, a lot of entrepreneurial spirit was there coming out of MIT, and obviously there was this urge to do something on my own and get recognized for my efforts. You know, entrepreneurs secretly want to be rock-stars (laughs…)
I had the idea that I wanted to be in the energy sector, and when I did some research on solar power, I found that solar had a lot of potential. I had tried different things ranging from manufacturing of solar lanterns to consulting for megawatt scale projects, before deciding to work on the decentralized way of generating electricity through solar power, basically the roof top solar panel version.
Quick Fact from Kanika Khanna: India loses 30% of the electricity that is generated in transmission and generation. With solar power that problem does not exist.
LBN: What about the funding of Sunkalp Energy and the government’s support for a solar energy venture like yours?
Kanika: At the moment we are totally self funded with no external investments. However, we have recently started a crowd funding campaign for our rural electrification projects. On paper the government has a lot of subsidy schemes for solar energy ventures, but I believe that we shouldn’t really depend on those schemes because they come after a long time and for a startup that is dependent on cash flows, if it has to wait for these subsidies it’s going to be very difficult to keep things rolling. Also today the technology has advanced so rapidly that it can meet all of the market demands quite cost effectively, thus making it possible to have a profitable business.
Quick Fact from Kanika Khanna: After 14 months of operation, the Sunkalp team proudly stands tall with a marginal profit.
LBN: Hailing from a family with an established and reputed business in real estate and hospitality, why did you choose such an unexplored area of business?
Kanika: I am the black sheep of my family (laughs…). No really, I am the first engineer in my family in 3 generations. Although I do have the family business blood and background, my mother being a very strong woman made sure I did not go the easy way and that I carve my own path. My parents have a huge role to play in the development of Sunkalp. They have been very very supportive and open about my ideas. They are excited about this whole idea and they think it’s ‘cool’ (laughs…). In fact, they treat me as their first son (laughs…)
LBN: How practical and possible is it to set up solar power panels for urban households in India? How cost effective is it?
Kanika: It is very much a possible and practical solution. Let’s take an example. For an 800 sq ft, 2 bedroom flat, all the energy except for the Air Conditioning can be generated from a 200-300 sq ft solar set up; meaning electricity bills coming down to zero. And the life of a solar power system is actually 25 years with almost zero maintenance cost (except for dust cleaning the panels) in contrast to the high maintenance cost of diesel generators, for instance. So if we adjust the initial set up cost over the savings of electricity bills for 25 years, it is amazingly cost effective, beyond your imagination.
LBN: How hard is it to be at the initial stages of running a startup which is not so financially rewarding in contrast to any well paid job that you could be at, given the qualifications you hold?
Kanika: There is no greater satisfaction than that of creating and bigger than that is probably the satisfaction of getting recognition. I have so much satisfaction and I feel I am the happiest in my life at this point. Since I really love travelling, the only time I feel bad is when I make travel plans and I have to buy the flight ticket (laughs…). I can’t actually explain how happy I am at this stage.
LBN: How many villages has Sunkalp Energy identified as of now that are aimed to be electrified? Also talk about the difficulty and challenges of getting the trust of the rural citizens.
Kanika: In Hamirpur district (Uttar Pradesh), after Gulabganj we have now 4 villages identified.
Being outsiders it is not very easy to get the trust of the villagers. In the beginning they thought we were some money racket, although we were just trying to know if they’re interested in such a service. So yes, it was difficult. So, I realized that in order to do rural entrepreneurship, only having a good intention is not enough. Sometimes they don’t even realize they have a need. So you have to be able to make them realize that they have a need and convince them that you have the means to cover that.
With our own investment we can only electrify 2-3 villages. In order to electrify 100 or more villages we need some more investment. So, we have recently launched our crowd funding campaign called ‘Solar Soldiers’ and we are also looking to get the attention of organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the World Bank and get some bigger grants, since we have a very good product. The solar mini grids that we’ve developed in-house is a very good technology and now that we are demonstrating it, some funding will enable us to deploy it in a widespread manner.
LBN: What is Solar Soldiers?
Kanika: Solar Soldiers is a really exciting concept for our crowd funding campaign. It’s a Army themed concept where contributors to a particular mission will get a fancy title like Major Solar or Lieutenant Solar depending on the amount of his/her contribution along with other rewards like getting the name of the contributor carved on the project installations, fancy t-shirts that change color in sunlight, postcards and updates directly from the village that one is contributing to, etc. So this army of Solar Soldiers will have missions. The first mission that we have is “Rescue Gulabganj Village from Darkness”, and then we’ll move on to our second mission. We have the campaign up on Indiegogo and anyone who wishes to be part of Solar Soldiers can do so and help bring a change to lot of people’s lives.
Finding from their research: Many researches that have been done show that rural areas where there is access to electricity, the fertility rates are lower and women empowerment is better and also higher rates of enrollment into schools.
Thus, electricity is not just about lighting up a house. It goes much beyond that. A lot of socio-economic problems can come to a screeching halt if such villages had electricity.
LBN: What’s in the road map for Sunkalp Energy 2-3 years down the line?
Kanika: I see Sunkalp as a self-dependent, sustainable business, making enough profits to keep it rolling. At the moment we have Kilowatt scale projects. I would like to go to larger Kilowatt scale projects and run entire factories on solar power. And one thing I’m most excited about is the rural electrification projects. That is one thing I want to see expanding at a really fast rate. We aim to electrify at 100 villages in the next 2-3 years.
LBN: What keeps you and the Sunkalp team motivated?
Kanika: Ideas. New ideas keep all of us motivated. We have this awesome concept of 15 minute presentations where on most mornings anyone of us would talk on anything. From a lecture on Chinese language to a presentation on electrochemical engineering, we talk about anything under the sun. We believe this gives life to new ideas. We have a very good, laid-back working culture. Extremely informal, we only dress formally when we need to.
LBN: Are there any awareness initiatives in areas of solar power that Sunkalp Energy is undertaking or plans to undertake?
Kanika: We have a program in place called Solar Scholars, which will be conducted in two phases. First, there will be an educational program for schools and in the second there will be a competition for students to come up with a solar solution for a problem of their civic area. We aim to educate the children, because we believe that has the most amount of impact even in the longer run.
LBN: What are the challenges and excitements of being a start up entrepreneur? Any message you’d like to send out to budding entrepreneurs.
Kanika: I am doing exactly everything that I thought I would, which is an awesome thing. Only problem being that I thought it’d be way easier (laughs…). Since, I’ve worked in the US and never worked in India, I had to learn the ways of working here which is very different. Being young, I also faced challenges in convincing people during my initial presentations. And along the way, I’ve learned how to tackle these challenges and make things happen.
Advice to budding entrepreneurs: Be Crazy! That’s the only piece of advice. If people find you crazy while you’re doing something, do it. And I cannot begin to emphasize on the importance of gut feeling for an entrepreneur. Your gut is really important. People will tell you, this will not work, don’t do it. And I have followed what people said and later realized I should’ve done that. So if you follow your gut with enough energy, you can make it. Personally, I am not willing to accept or settle for the average. I’d rather take a shot at the extreme success than be afraid of extreme failure and settle for average.
Watch Kanika Khanna talk about Solar Soldiers, and be a part of this important and exciting initiative. Click here to become a Solar Soldier!
We, at LifeBeyondNumbers, wish Kanika and her young enthusiastic team a great success ahead.