National Geographic : 2015 Nov
82 national geographic • November 2015 these models, according to Needham and others in India’s burgeoning solar services industry, is that they’re poorly made and frequently fail. Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Minnesota, says the solar-service industry has great potential to thrive and to improve people’s lives in devel- oping countries, calling it a “feel-good story.” Marshall monitors air pollution inside homes of customers both on and off the grid, research- ing the damage inflicted by kerosene and other dirty-energy sources. Across India, fumes from kerosene lanterns combine with soot spewed by coal-burning power plants, triggering heart at- tacks and lung damage in many people. Marshall credits around half a dozen solar companies, in- cluding Simpa, for taking an innovative approach to sales in rural India. “The customer makes the decision to buy solar services primarily for per- sonal financial reasons,” he says. “But health and environmental benefits for the community come along with it, and I think that’s great.” The chance to escape India’s blistering heat is perhaps the strongest incentive for leasing a solar system. Shiv Kumar, a 20-year-old laborer in Madhotanda, makes his living gathering hay for farmers, earning less than $2.50 on the days he works. When food is scarce, he sometimes works for grain rations. The home he shares with his father and brother is concrete, with two tiny rooms that offer little ventilation. So when a sales associate from Simpa demonstrated the solar kit, it was the fan that sold him. “The kero- sene lamp was dim and yellow and made me feel depressed,” Kumar says, standing in the fan’s breeze. “But this is the best fan I’ve seen.” Neel Shah, a Simpa product management leader, can attest that the challenges of bringing solar services to rural areas often stretch beyond whether people can afford them. One time men traveling on Shah’s train attacked him. Another time villagers in the district of Mathura warned In the Jubilee Revival Church in Sango Bay, Uganda, members of the choir rehearse by solar light the night before services. Sango Bay is a small fishing village with 120 households.