The ´Direct to Village´ network helps in delivering products to off-grid families that need them, says Anish Thakkar, Chief Executive Officer, Greenlight Planet, while speaking with Devarajan Mahadevan about the company's market-driven solutions to solve energy access problems on a global scale.
While most solar products targeted at the rural customer have a distribution network in place in partnership with an NGO, you depend on your 'Direct to Village' network. How does this operate? Can you elaborate in some detail?
Greenlight Planet is all about using market-driven solutions to solve massive energy access problems on a global scale. A part of that means that we partner with large, rural-focused organisations around the worldùsocial sector organisations, agro-businesses, microfinance institutions-to get products into the hands of under-electrified families in a sustainable way.
But when we got started about five years ago, we realised that the biggest challenge lay in actually delivering the products to off-grid families that need them. We needed a high-scale way of pro-actively getting our solar lights into the hands of rural consumers around the world. Traditional product distribution channels, which pass through four or even five intermediaries to reach rural consumers, would add far too much cost to our products, making them out of reach for the families who must endure smoky kerosene lanterns in their homes each night. While typical off-grid customers are loosely familiar with the concept of solar, they´re relatively expensive and often appear alien at first. Our products cost half of our average customer´s monthly income and, while village families often have a loose understanding of solar, the idea that they should invest so heavily in what appears to be a high-tech luxury is a tough sell. But the average family that buys our products finds that they pay for themselves within the first 4-9 months thanks to reduced kerosene lantern savings. Their children study longer, the bright light increases productive hours; the family breathes better and feels safer.
Our 'Direct to Village' channel aims to solve this. Rather than selling our products through a small retail shop that represent hundreds of different products and lacks the time to educate the consumer, our 'Direct to Village' channel assigns the selling function to a new party: the village-based Sun King Business Associate. These rural farmers, teachers, housewives and wage workers earn a strong supplementary income sometimes outpacing their existing source of income by selling our products to families in their local communities. Income-earners in rural India have limited opportunities, and the selectees respond with intense energy to our vehicle for upward economic mobility. They´re always satisfied users first so they´re excellent advocates for the transformational benefits of our Sun King solar lights and, as a result, become strongly associated with the mission of doing good for their community. They become our self-driven consumer education, sales and customer service engine, deeply entrenched in local communities.
Today over 6,000 active business associates bring clean, safe light to 40,000 new off-grid homes each month. We're now expanding our 'Direct to Village' network from three states to cover all of rural India and East Africa, an under-penetrated market of half a billion emerging consumers.
How many people do you employ globally? What is your team size in India?
Greenlight Planet comprises 700 hundred employees and over 6,000 village direct sales agents across East Africa, India, the United States and China.
Do you have tie-ups with any financial entities for your products? For example, microfinance lenders would be the ideal channel for financing the down payment required for these products.
We´re the first solar lighting company to have successfully built large-scale partnerships with microfinance lenders in India to extend affordability of solar lights for the home. For instance, we partner with Fullerton Microfinance across many states in India to help them get Sun King solar lights to their rural clients.
Through this partnership, Fullerton Microfinance has done an exceptional job ensuring that even the most price-sensitive consumers can afford to buy a Sun King light for their home. Once a customer buys a Sun King for their home, the family saves enough money each month from reduced kerosene lighting expenses to entirely pay for the product within 4 to 9 months.
In which parts of India have you seen the maximum demand for your products?
Our greatest penetration is in Bihar and Odisha, two regions with large populations of homes who use kerosene lanterns at night.
The $4 million that you had raised back in April 2012 was, among other goals, to help you cement a few global partnerships. Have you succeeded in inking any such global deals?
Our ability to reach off-grid families, through partnership channels and our in-house 'Direct to Village' channel, has grown immensely: we've reached four times as many new, off-grid families in the last eighteen months as we did the three years prior. Today, over 1.7 million families use Sun King solar lights in their homes each night.
We´ve also been fortunate to have built close, productive partnerships with impressive organisations in this timeframe. As an example, over the past two years, we´ve partnered with One Acre Fund in East Africa which have brought Sun King solar lights to over 100,000 rural farmers in Kenya and Rwanda. We also work closely with the French energy company, Total, in six countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In these countries, Total leverages its extensive retail infrastructure to deliver Sun King products to off-grid families on a very large scale.
About Greenlight Planet
An American company, Greenlight Planet makes solar powered lamps for consumers who lack access to electricity. The company has its presence in more than 30 countries and more than 40 lakh people have used their products. Greenlight's Sun King line of solar lanterns have won three best product awards from the World Bank and IFC's Lighting Global Outstanding Product Quality Awards, and numerous other accolades from organisations including Deutsche Bank, the Lemelson Foundation and Ashoka.
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