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Dr. Boidurjo Rick Mukhopadhyay

Prof. Dr. Bibhas K Mukhopadhyay

Defining a Solar Energy Entrepreneur

The South Asian experience with Renewable Energy Technologies (RETs, hereafter) and dissemination of the same to poor rural households along with building solar energy-based entrepreneurship generating energy-based enterprises have been highly successful. Initially, it was the success story of Bangladesh, claiming the title of ‘solar nation’ due to its proactive rural development plans tied to alternative energy use, which inspired many other neighbouring nations. However, research shows that India started its work with RETs way before most other nations (east or west) and in particular organisations who have built or supported solar energy entrepreneurs who have been instrumental in transforming rural livelihoods and well-being using solar energy technologies. 

The penetration of RETs in the form of Solar Home Systems (SHS) in rural households and the use of the technology for creating micro-enterprises, has been widely cited as a successful case of solar RE contributing to rural development. Households who received the SHS used the technology to start micro-enterprises from home by making and selling different home-made handicraft goods e.g., jute and silk products. These micro-enterprises, particularly when run and managed by women, also hired and actively engaged other people from the local community. In addition to SHS, there are entrepreneurs who have started energy-based businesses in rural areas using solar lanterns, solar mobile charging stations, solar headlamps, amongst many other forms of solar technologies. Rural women are found to be assembling solar accessories in village-based technology centres, solar engineers are increasingly employed in designing SHS, working in battery factories, and other accessory related businesses.

Enterprising individuals can be generally found in all sectors of society, and today there are several types of entrepreneurs that can be reviewed. Traditionally, the concept of entrepreneurship has been closely aligned to that of small business management: the classical archetypal entrepreneur is often regarded as an individual who starts his or her own business, which may eventually grow into a much larger and more successful corporation. Also, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs can also be found within existing large corporations, where they help create new business divisions, products and changes to internal operations, and are known as corporate entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs.

Social entrepreneurs, working within non-profit organisations (and also growing examples from for-profit ones), attempt to bring about innovations to resolve community problems. Social entrepreneurs ‘play the role of change agents in the social sector, by adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not only private value), recognising the relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission, engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning, acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand, and exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created‛. This view is consistent with the Schumpeterian thoughts on entrepreneurship, which has been linked to social innovators.

In this context, the concept of sustainable entrepreneurship or ‘sustainopreneurship’ is also relevant, this is defined as ‘the discovery and exploitation of economic opportunities through the generation of market disequilibria that initiate the transformation of a sector towards an environmentally and socially more sustainable state‛. This concept gained relevance since the early 90s following the Brundtland Commission report on sustainable development published in 1987.

However, ‘renewable energy-based entrepreneurship’ would fall under the category of ‘energy entrepreneurs’, and that comes broadly under ‘green entrepreneurs’. Both these concepts albeit closely connected are however different in nature. The definition of green entrepreneurship adopted is based on the type of output produced by firms. Put simply, the term ‘green entrepreneurship’ will be interpreted as ‘entrepreneurship’ in ‘green’ sectors, where ‘green’ refers to specific types of output.

Among the terms available to describe green entrepreneurship, the following are the most commonly used: eco-entrepreneurship, eco-preneurship, environmental entrepreneurship, sustainable entrepreneurship, ecological entrepreneurship, environ-o-preneurship or sustain-o-preneurship. Research defines an ‘eco-preneur’ to be a person who seeks to transform a sector of the economy towards sustainability by starting a business in that sector with a green design and green processes along with the life-long commitment to sustainability in everything that they do. Entrepreneurship and environmentalism are both based on the perception of value. The attitudes that inform environmental concern create areas of value that can be exploited entrepreneurially.

A Solar Entrepreneur is someone who would do one or a combination of the following - buy, rent, borrow, sell, maintain, service, manufacture or install - any or a mix of solar energy technologies for setting up an income-generating energy-based enterprise/s (Mukhopadhyay, 2020). Examples of these technologies would include solar home lighting systems, solar lanterns, solar crop dryers, solar kilns, solar wax melters, solar cookers, solar lamps and headlamps, solar irrigation pumps, solar mobile phone chargers, solar vans, and short-haul transport mobility vans amongst many others. The applications and multi-faceted use of these technologies are visible in both rural and urban areas. However, a wide range of local-level applications is largely seen in rural areas where communities get involved in the process of use and expansion of these technologies by eventually perceiving that the solar energy technologies are not ‘additives or ‘add-on’ energy options but an ‘asset’.

Solar energy entrepreneurs. Research shows that this particular genre of entrepreneur typically tends to develop community-based initiatives, they are represented by all sexes, who work with various institutions and different partnership arrangements. For example, prior to the introduction of new technology in a rural area, an NGO or VO (informal institutions) work on sensitising the region before any change takes place. This would ordinarily be followed by trainers and educators coming from Universities, think tanks, governments and also informal institutions - this is also a stage where potential entrepreneurs may get identified and supporting mechanism is discussed. The technology would be provided by a thinktank or a corporate body and in some cases, indigenous renewable energy-based enterprises who work closely with local SME-ranged suppliers (see my paper on SELCO). The finance to secure a solar energy technology can come from entrepreneurs’ personal savings or family/community borrowing, while also options are increasingly made more available from cooperatives, regional rural banks and also Microfinance bodies.

Building solar energy entrepreneurship is generally activised by a host of actors (both public and private) at the initial stage until it catches on in rural areas. As it grows with community adoption, many more individuals and groups join in to expand the scale and operational effectiveness of solar energy technologies. In a country like India, having a dedicated energy ministry like The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) is considered a big plus. However, research will note that not many energy-based enterprises based out of small localities or rural setting or even cities actually (want to) work with or partner with the MNRE due to an increasing amount of paperwork, bureaucratic hassle, and delay in operational processes. SELCO India private limited is such an example. While organisations such as AIWC or TERI work closely with the MNRE at various levels.

MNRE has been continually promoting solar water heating systems across different sectors and enthused the formation of a triple-helix connection and newer forms of institutional arrangements. One of the new examples would be to see the formation of public-private-people partnerships in supporting solar energy entrepreneurship in India. Community involvement in projects where local-level entrepreneurship is generated is not optional anymore, similarly, the importance of locally sourced enterprises cannot be stressed enough at a time when indigenous products need to gain more markets, locally and nationally. While cheaper ‘made in China’ products can be more accessible, it won’t support our local suppliers and nested institutions who are committed and engaged in supporting our indigenous solar energy businesses to be recognised and thrive.

 

This article is an updated version and was originally published for The Sentinel in April 2020

References:

  1. Mukhopadhyay, B. and Ianole, R. Community Level Impact of Solar Entrepreneurs in Rural Odisha, India: The Rise of Women- Led Solar Enterprises, International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Small Business, forthcoming
  2. Mukhopadhyay, B.R. (2020). ‘Women Power’ in Renewable Energy: The Role of Nested Institutions in Vocational Training of Solar Energy Entrepreneurs in India, Journal of Women’s Entrepreneurship and Education, 3-4, 123-145
  3. Mukhopadhyay, B. (2020). ‘Keep your Clients Close, and your Suppliers Closer’: Institutional Partnerships for Activising Solar Energy Entrepreneurship in Rural India, International Journal of Development Research, 10 (1): 33238-33248
  4. Mukhopadhyay, B.R and Mukhopadhyay, B.K. (2018). The Instrumentality of Solar Entrepreneurs in Transforming Rural Lives in India, Indian Journal of Regional Science, 50 (2): 109-120
  5. Mukhopadhyay, B. (2017). Solar Energy Entrepreneurship for Rural Development: Analysing Institutional Arrangements that support solar entrepreneurs in India, Doctoral Thesis, University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom