Solar Microgrids in Odisha: Arc Partner Mahashakti Foundation Electrifying Off-Grid Villages

Mahashakti Foundation (MSF) is one of Arc Finance’s partner organizations under the Renewable Energy Microfinance and Microenterprise Program (REMMP) funded by USAID. An NGO  based in the Indian state of Odisha, MSF has, with Arc’s support, provided loans for efficient cookstoves and solar portable lighting under REMMP. In recent months, MSF has taken on a more ambitious program: connecting rural, off-grid villages to solar microgrids. Durmusi and Totaguda are two examples of how a partnership between the financial institution, investors, developers and the villages can connect households to reliable, clean and affordable lighting – providing significant and positive economic, social and environmental impact to these communities.

Durmusi village is situated in the Gopinathpur Gram Panchayat of Thuamul Rampur block of the Kalahandi district in Odisha. A largely tribal block, Thuamul Rampur is the poorest block in the district and lacks even the basic infrastructure of roads, water, communication and electricity. Illiteracy rates are high – 95% for men and 97% for women. Socio-economic and gender disparity rates are also among the highest in the country. Durmusi consists of 47 households, with 230 people. Most are small-scale farmers, people scavenging in the forest for produce to sell, and some daily wage workers. MSF is one of the few financial institutions or NGOs working in what is one of the least developed parts of India.

After promising results with sales on credit of efficient cookstoves and small-scale portable solar lighting, MSF with Arc’s support conducted a needs assessment of the area, concluding there was scope for installation of a solar microgrid. TERI New Delhi and Utkal Alumina Kashipnded supported the installation, and the microgrid is now operating in the center of Durmusi, with solar modular units allowing generation capacity to scale up easily to meet demand.

Demand has been considerable. Out of 47 households, 40 are connected through fixed wiring with two LED lights per house. Operation and maintenance costs are only INR 30 (USD $0.50) per month per household. Power is generated during the day, charging four battery banks, and consumed during the night. The whole system is controlled by a main switch, installed in one household – that of a designated Village Level Entrepreneur (VLE). The two LED lights were selected to provide superior lighting quality to kerosene – the previously dominant lighting source. A Users’ Committee has been formed, involving all active households, and a President and Secretary appointed to ensure smooth management of the grid.

When the grid was installed, the villagers requested that one grid node be used for a street light in the center of the village, which is the social focal point of Durmusi. This allowed people to meet in the evenings, and will enable them to celebrate local festivals all year round. As Sri Bagi Majhi, one of the village leaders, says: “The light brings our village together now.”

Totaguda is close to the block headquarter Kolanara, in Odisha’s Rayagada district, and includes 33 households with around 150 people. The Government of Odisha has launched a program called Biju Grama Jyoti, with the objective of supplying grid electricity to each household. However, Totaguda’s remoteness means there is no grid connection at all. Like the villagers in Durmusi, most residents depend upon income from agro-forestry, or have small plots of land, and rely on rainwater for irrigation. Infrastructure is virtually non-existent. There is no school, health center, nursing or veterinary facilities in the village. Totaguda villagers are entirely dependent on the villages of Khamasing and Kolnora for any medical, educational or other support. The only infrastructure or services of any kind is, again, MSF.

Totaguda was therefore a clear choice for a microgrid pilot project, because of the immense impact that regular, clean and inexpensive electricity would have on its residents. It was during a village borrowers’ meeting that one of MSF’s solar sales officers identified the issue of grid inaccessibility in the region, and raised the issue of switching Totaguda to a microgrid. Interest and enthusiasm only continued to increase after educational sessions informed the residents of the benefits and responsibilities involved.

After a needs assessment study by MSF, TERI New Delhi supported MSF with a CSR fund of from SBI in Mumbai. Out of 33 households, 32 are now connected to the microgrid, which is similar in design and capacity to the slightly larger one in Durmusi. As in Durmusi, there is a Villagers’ Committee, with a President and Secretary. A joint savings bank account has been opened in Mahashakti Primary cooperative in Rayagada in the name of the President and Secretary. The usage fees, (again, INR 30/month per household) are tied to previous monthly expenditure on kerosene.

Besides the intangible community benefits of having lighting at night, several villagers have expressed plans to use the after-dark lighting for income-generating activities, extending their potential working hours, as well as encouraging children who are in school to do homework after dark.

Roji Madangi, 29, is a typical Totagudan. As darkness falls, she scampers to wind up her daily evening chores. Like most other women in her village, she heads to her kitchen to prepare dinner long before dinnertime, because preparation and cleaning under the light of kerosene is almost impossible. Roji’s husband is a farmer and the sole breadwinner for the family, earning about INR 3,500 (US$56) per month, which isn’t enough to provide even two meals per day for everyone in the family. This is a typical story, but one which has dramatically changed since the installation of the microgrid. The microgrid lights the village for more than seven hours per night, meaning villagers can prepare food and eat after dark, spend less on kerosene, and work longer productive hours. At night, the women are now able to earn income for the household by stitching sal leaves together to form Kholi, a plate made out of leaves. Roji herself now earns more than INR 2,000 (US$33) per month – adding half again to her husband’s monthly household earnings.

“Before, we could not even imagine this freedom in our families,” she tells the Arc team. “Our rice production was barely enough to support us, yet now I feel more empowered because I contribute to the household by not only making food for us, but by earning too.” Roji adds, “I make 100 to 150 Kholi each day, which we sell at one rupee each, and we get enough money from our hard work to afford both plenty of food and to save.”

A village ward member, Sri Naria Mandangi, says that she has been encouraging her neighbors to start new income-generating activities and make use of the additional productive hours at night. With access to modern electricity, each household in this small settlement will have an inspirational story to share. At Arc Finance, we’re proud to see the results that our partner organization MSF is achieving, and look forward to sharing more of these stories in the months and years to come.

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