National Geographic : 2015 Nov
Solar Power 81 the grimy black soot released by kerosene scars human lungs. Mandal’s neighbors who have electricity say that it stays on only two to three hours each day, with no alerts from the govern- ment about when the blackouts will start or end. Mandal, however, would have no viable source of power without solar because of the impro- vised nature of his home. Simpa CEO Paul Needham, who used to work in Microsoft’s advertising department in Washington State, lives a far more privileged life in India than Mandal could ever dream of. He has running water in his home and a near- steady flow of electricity and Wi-Fi. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Needham moved to India in 2012 hoping to help bridge the gap between people like himself and Mandal. “In many ways India is a divided society, because after decades of rapid development, rural areas like these still lag behind major cities,” he says. “Our customers can’t wait for a better power grid to be built. They need power now.” Needham explains that he got the idea for his company while visiting with members of a wom- en’s rights organization in Tanzania in 2010. He saw people paying a neighbor to recharge their cell phones using a solar panel she owned. “It dawned on me that this could really be viable as a business model,” he says. “Solar could be sold.” In India’s rural marketplaces, sellers profited from solar for years before companies such as Simpa began offering their services to custom- ers like Mandal. In stalls the size of closets men show off inexpensive solar units by cooling them- selves under a fan. Customers drawn in by the demonstration interrogate the sellers, who show them thin red and blue wires that could connect to lightbulbs, mobile phones, or fans. These so- lar units, which are labeled falsely with brand names such as Rolex, Gucci, and Mercedes, cost three to four dollars—a fraction of what Man- dal pays Simpa every month. The problem with Holding a solar-powered lamp, Soni Suresh, 20, and Suresh Kashyap, 22, celebrate their marriage ceremony in Uttar Pradesh, where 20 million house- holds lack electricity.