It was a momentous occasion for us to meet Kanika Khanna once again, founder of Sunkalp Energy, as she was the first person we interviewed when we started off. And also, that was the time when they had just launched their crowd funding campaign for the Gulabganj project. Meeting with her after almost 5 months was pretty interesting. They have successfully completed the Gulabganj project. What that means is that they have electrified, with solar energy, the village of Gulabganj that had never ever seen a light bulb glow. They have made it possible for 30 households and 300 people of Gulabganj for the first time to celebrate a bright Diwali this year, literally! What makes it even more commendable is the fact that through their crowd funding campaign, they were able to raise only a one-third of what was needed for the completion of the Gulabganj project. But they still made it happen. With this success they have indeed justified the name of their company – Sunkalp is a Hindi word which in English means to determine or to resolute. Determined they were, resolute they seem.
Now they are marching on to electrify another un-electrified remote village in India, and this time they are much better armed. Backed by one of the major FM radio channels for their next mission and some new developments at their end, it seems Sunkalp Energy will soon rescue all the forgotten corners of the country from darkness.
Kanika has amazing stories and experiences to share which she’d had while on the Gulabganj project. In this exclusive conversation, she talks about all that, the new upcoming project and lots more…
The Gulabganj Story
We launched the crowd funding around 4 months back for the Gulabganj project and we weren’t able to raise the full funds. However, we thought that let’s go ahead and do it with whatever we raised and our own funds. Then there were the floods during the monsoon and we couldn’t go there. Finally, around two months back, we decided to go to the village as the floods abated. We reached Kanpur and Gulabganj is 100 kms from Kanpur. No cab was ready to go to Gulabganj, and shockingly a lot of them didn’t even know what Gulabganj was. Please note that it’s a village that is not even on the map. When I managed to get a cab to take me to Gulabganj, it took me 5 hours to reach the village covering the distance of 100 kms. The roads are so bad. This is when you realize why these villages are not getting developed; because there is no infrastructure to get to these places. When I reached there, all the kids were just following me the whole time as they have never seen a madam in a car (laughs…). Now this is a village where you don’t even have a shop. There are just huts. No conveyance, nothing. If they have to buy anything at all, they have to go to another place which is 15 kms from there. And for them even that 15 km journey is like a trip abroad. They have to plan it.
Finding the village itself was a huge task in itself. But when I reached there, it was nice. The people gave me a very nice welcome and I must say, the people are really good. Their work would almost come to a standstill and everyone would come and sit around you and ask you for tea and food. It’s really a nice feeling.
From convincing cab drivers on taking me to Gulabganj, to literally solving family disputes of what comes in whose part among and decide on whose roof top we would be putting the solar power plant – it was quite an experience. Work progressed and by the third day, we had sorted out all the issues and put everything in place. As I was ready to switch on the system, I found that one of the batteries was broken. And long story short, the broken battery lost us several days, as we had to go back to Kanpur, order a new battery and get it replaced. So when you work in villages, these things happen. A four day project will take 15 days in a village; something as small as a cable is very hard to find in such places.
When everything was in place and we were ready to kick start the system, we asked the oldest man in that village to come and do the traditional Indian Shree Gansesh with coconut smashing and a prayer. This man was not talking to me until for reasons unknown – maybe because he was skeptical and doubtful of what we were going to do. But when I asked him to do the honors and referred to him as Baba (an endearment for elders mostly meaning father), he was very happy. And ultimately when we were about to leave, he actually asked me to stay back another day. So, the all the tiredness and frustration of all the problems we faced were all worth it when Baba said, “ruk jao”.
When we were initially giving out the connections, we charged a nominal upfront amount from each household. No one was ready to pay in the beginning and one young woman came up to me with the money to get her connection. The moment all the villagers saw a CFL glowing in her hut, everybody came and opted for it. There’s an instance of woman empowerment right there. After this, they wanted a bulb in the temple and another up in a pole so that the street would also be lighted at night.
The most interesting thing that happened was when we switched on the system, a young boy came up to me and asked if he could put on the charger. By the way, they don’t have electricity but do have mobile network over there and mobile phones as well. They only charge the mobile phones when they go to the nearby village where there’s electricity. So I thought he was talking about mobile charger. And I said okay. Then we realized that this boy had a laptop and the laptop charger was plugged in (laughs…). The state government had distributed laptops among the people and these guys have never even switched it on. The first thing that got powered by our solar power project was a LAPTOP! I think it proves what a little bit of electricity can do. This kid now will learn on the laptop and a whole new world had opened up for him. And I think that’s amazing.
Now a lot of people are coming to see Gulabganj from nearby villages and a boy is actually planning to set up more solar power plants in nearby villages. He wants to be our representative in the villages, be a service engineer and do all the maintenance work. He now wants to set up a business around the opportunity that is being created. And I feel extremely grateful that I am able to empower someone to think like that. It was good to see a real enterprising mind who was, probably, waiting just for an opportunity.
The Next Mission And GiveSun.com
Completion of the Gulabganj project was quite a boost. We have not yet been able to get the word out that we completed it, but people are getting in touch with us. Radio City got in touch with us and they expressed the desire to run a campaign with us – DeepJyoti. They want to electrify a village! So they will go live on their radio station and support our next project which is to electrify Samranpur village in Uttar Pradesh. And that’s going to be very helpful to raise the funds. Imagine just with our own reach we were able to raise a third of the funds required for one village, then going out with the support of a national media house will enable us to electrify many more villages. As I mentioned in my last chat with LifeBeyondNumbers, that I want to electrify 200 villages in two years, so this is a big step in that direction. Radio City is going to advertise our campaign on web radio at planetradiocity.com and on the terrestrial radio and they are going to have RJ mentions. So we are positive that it’ll drive a lot of people to come and be a part of this project.
For the Gulabganj project we used an international crowd funding platform to raise the money. With that approach we’ve realized a lot of issues for us like raising money in US dollars, difficulties for people in India to contribute and their cut in the total amount being raised. So what we’ve done is – we have launched a new website GiveSun.com which is a crowd funding platform for solar power projects. And the first campaign on GiveSun.com will be the project for village Samranpur which is supported by Radio City. What’s interesting and exciting about GiveSun.com is the fact that anyone can raise their own funds for solar power projects.
Givesun.com is a platform, launched in association with Green Apple Solutions, so that other organizations – such as schools can use to raise funds for their own solar projects. Schools can tap into their network of alumni, students, parents and the corporate world through CSR. As electricity bills are soaring sky high, if schools install solar power plants through these means, they will reduce their electricity cost drastically, freeing up money for other useful things that directly impact students.
We are planning to use this platform primarily for two purposes. One being schools, as I already said, and second is for villages. Just the way we did it with Gulabganj, we will be now electrifying Sarmanpur and we aim to reach our goal of electrifying 200 villages in 2 years through this platform. It’s a cool service we are adding on top of other things we have. So people can go to the website and there’s a virtual solar roof with different solar panels. And they can click and choose to sponsor one tile or sponsor multiple number of tiles, and they can actually get their name on the solar tile they have sponsored as a perk. Something that will last 25 years!