Meeting India’s Superwomen: The Solar Sahelis

     

    April 29, 2019

     

    Continuing his journey through India, Thomas Deflandre and his girlfriend Laura Ponchel meet three remarkable women who literally light up people’s lives.

     

    I’ve just had one of those life-affirming moments.  I’ve always known light has a powerful effect on people’s lives but today, while visiting rural villages, south of Delhi, I saw first-hand its transformative power. It also reminded me that what we do as a company really matters.

     

    It was day six of our odyssey. My girlfriend Laura and I were up with the lark to visit three Solar Saheli meaning “Solar Friends” – three women living in rural villages who champion solar technology in their local communities. They are the last mile link in the chain. Having received training in solar power and electricity, they are the local advocates and sales representatives in their village. If you want to light a village in India successfully, these entrepreneurs are your best bet to make it happen. Yet what they do goes far beyond just selling lights.

    The Solar Sahelis 1

     

    After a two-hour hot and dusty drive, we eventually arrived in Alwar where we were met by Amrit and Pallavi from the organization Frontier Markets. It’s a last mile distribution company that works to give rural communities access to quality clean energy.

     

    We accompanied them to Nagli Megha. A rag-tag village of 500 homes to meet Radha, a Solar Saheli. Her village is served by one electricity pole with a supply that rarely exceeds a couple of hours a day. She invited us into her home where I asked why she’d become a Solar Saheli. Her answer was humbling. “I want to create impact and bring light to the community,” she said.

    The Solar Sahelis 2

     

    We talked awhile before she led us to a small room which she closed off with a fully opaque dark curtain. It was pitch black inside - as good as any optical lab we have at Signify.

    The Solar Sahelis 3

    The dark room

     

    After a minute of silence Radha asked us to share our feelings. My first impression was, “We are in the dark, so what?” I had a smart phone in my pocket with a torch, so nothing scary crossed my mind.

     

    As we sat in the dark she explained what it’s like to live in an off-grid rural village.  She said that an entire family would live in a darkened room like this, children sleeping on the floor. Cooking, feeding, tending animals outside all had to be done in the dark. I projected myself into the picture she painted. What happens if an insect bites or if you lose something? How could you move around safely?

     

    She then switched on the torch. A relief!  In the room, I saw a torch with a home pack with two light bulbs connected to a small solar panel. I smiled. This room was obviously the theatre for her sales pitch. Oh boy, what a pitch!

     

    She summed up the importance of light to the villagers,“The sun is god staying in your house because by capturing its energy, god is in your home protecting you.

     

    Rahda told us that she offers would-be customers a kit to test for a day. To buy it costs 900INR (11€). She has her USPs up her sleeve: lower electricity bills, reliable energy and most important of all, a warranty and customers service. Best of all: she’s there to help. It’s no small wonder Rahda is one of the most popular people in her village.

     

    Before we left, she proudly told me about a boy who borrowed a torch to prepare for his exams. Without it he couldn’t learn at night. With that torch, he became a major and received a laptop from his school as a reward. Now he wants to become a lawyer.

    Meeting the Village Rockstar

    After saying our goodbyes to Rahda we journeyed off-road to the village of Sinthli where Sahuni greeted us with a beaming smile.

     

    As with Rahada, Sahuni has become a kind of rockstar in her village. She explained why. “I drive away the darkness and bring light into the community,” she said proudly.

     

    Walking through the village we saw evidence of her work. There in a field we found a torch connected to a solar panel. A few meters further we found an enthusiastic customer, who’d bought a torch a year ago, which she uses mostly for cooking at night and when going outside. She liked it so much that she bought one for her father in another village. Now she tells every visitor to go and buy one. A true example of word-of-mouth marketing!

    The Solar Sahelis 4
    The Solar Sahelis 5
    Delighted with her light

    Panther Attack

    Time was flying and Amrit wanted us to visit one more village before nightfall. Seeli Baori, framed against a beautiful mountain backdrop, is more than an hour’s drive from Sinthli. There we met Miina, its local Solar Saheli, who shared her remarkable story.


    Miina told us that becoming a Saheli was her passport to an education and a way for her to help her community. Her motivation stemmed from two tragedies. The first, a candle burned down her family home as they slept. Then a panther attacked some women at night, killing them all. The unfortunate victims saw it in the dark but ended up walking up to it instead of away from it.

     

    Present throughout the interview was Miina’s daughter. She summed up how she felt about her mother’s efforts to bring light to the village. “I’m proud of what my mum is doing. She was uneducated yet now she’s educating the whole village.”

    The Solar Sahelis 6

     

    After talking to some of Miina’s appreciative customers – one of whom used a solar torch to earn money weaving carpets at night – we said our farewells.

     

    We came away both humbled and inspired by these women’s stories. It’s not often you meet three superwomen – for that’s what they are.

     

    It was an unforgettable day. Laura and I are full of admiration for Frontier Markets. What they do is fantastic. So next time you switch on the light just remember what it means to people denied this basic utility. And for my colleagues at Signify, don’t stop what you are doing. We really can change the world, one solar lantern, one torch, one light bulb at a time.

     

    PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Ponchel

    About the author:

    Thomas Deflandre

    Thomas Deflandre

    Global Strategy Manager, BG Lamps

    For further information, please contact:

    Head of Corporate Content, Signify
    Neil Pattie
    Tel: + 31 6 15 08 48 17
    Email: neil.pattie@signify.com

    About Signify

     

    Signify (Euronext: LIGHT) is the world leader in lighting for professionals and consumers and lighting for the Internet of Things. Our Philips products, Interact connected lighting systems and data-enabled services, deliver business value and transform life in homes, buildings and public spaces. With 2018 sales of EUR 6.4 billion, we have approximately 29,000 employees and are present in over 70 countries. We unlock the extraordinary potential of light for brighter lives and a better world. We have been named Industry Leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for two years in a row. News from Signify is located at the Newsroom , Twitter , LinkedIn and Instagram. Information for investors can be found on the Investor Relations page.

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