Powering people

HE VIVIDLY remembers his childhood days in Kolkata of power cuts and cold dinners during schooldays and the nightmare of preparing for exams in candlelight and later with power drawn from inverters.

The defining struggles of his past, where the scarcity of power made a world of difference, inspired him to change the lives of rural global communities with the ultimate goal of leaving his footprint in helping the less fortunate.

"The problem and finding at least a partial solution to powering people is definitely something very close to my heart," says Mr Vishnampet Sethuraman Hariharan (left), co-founder and CEO of Third Wave Power, a Singapore start-up, which specialises in sustainable energy solutions using solar power.

A Singapore permanent resident for 23 years, the 52-year-old, who was born in Thrissur in Kerala, now hopes to fire changes, after a pilot scheme known as Jugnu (Hindi for "firefly") was launched in multiple villages, near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh in August last year.

"India is a great growth story now and a lot is happening in the rural community," he says. "India is home to a billion phones now and, according to some statistics, 20-25 per cent of Indians still don't have access to electricity. How we can solve this problem with distributed renewable power was what made me think about India."

Third Wave Power's renewable power solutions are now used in field work to bring power to people where it matters most. He explains: "There are a variety of applications here. There are many urban consumers who are on the move to remote areas for fieldwork (mining locations, rural locations).

"Our laptop chargers powered by solar can power laptops, tablets, phones. This is one viable field application. On the rural side, most survey applications are on tablets now and we help in powering them, especially in remote areas. We are also beginning to deploy AC/DC generators that are lithium battery powered, easy to carry and use, and can be used for a variety of field applications powering machine tools at worksites, where a power grid is not easily accessible."

Mr Hariharan was educated in Kolkata. During his childhood days in Deshapriya in south Kolkata, power shortages were common.

Mr Hariharan now hopes that Jugnu will address two key trends: The first is the lack of reliable power sources in rural India, where some households are not connected to the power grid and those that are often experience daily power outages. The second is the increasing mobile phone penetration rate in such areas, which has led to a corresponding increase in demand for power.

Solar power kits

Under Jugnu, in a nutshell, Third Wave Power sells solar power kits to local entrepreneurs in rural India for about US$50 through a micro-financing scheme.

He says: "As we started looking at the rural model on distributed electricity, there were several solutions that seemed to have been deployed, but they seemed to have challenges on pricing, usage models for scaling. We found what works on bottom-end rural markets are product solutions that are "pay per use" that can be delivered through existing "shops".

"Based on market feedback we created a low-cost solution that can be acquired by the VLE (village level entrepreneur) who then delivers pay per charge power solutions for charging phones, charging lights and fans, and also generating a livelihood for themselves. The product solution was called Jugnu. Our early pilots received good feedback and we are exploring how to scale this model."

Each kit comes with a solar panel that charges five detachable power banks. The entrepreneurs can rent out these power banks to rural consumers for five to 10 rupees each. Aside from charging mobile devices, these power banks can also be connected to small fans and LED light bulbs to meet users' other power needs.

"The response on the pilot is very good as a product solution and as a pay per charge model for charging phones. There is good interest from field organisations from other parts of India such as Orissa, Bihar and Bengal, who will deploy these through VLEs," said Mr Hariharan.

Jugnu is but one aspect of the work of Third Wave Power, the Singapore start-up at Block 71, Ayer Rajah Crescent, which started in 2011 with the aim of improving lives and increasing productivity. It is supported by incubator Small World Group, which mentors and provides seed funding to clean tech, optical systems and novel materials start-ups.

By combining sustainable energy with innovative technology, Third Wave Power produces a range of fast-charging and portable solar chargers that can be used in fieldwork, emergency situations, outdoor environments and rural programmes around the world. Its products range from a lightweight solar kit to a tablet-sized, multi-functional power pack equipped with features such as a built-in reading light, an SOS signal, an FM radio and an ultrasonic insect repellent.

Through these sustainable power sources, the start-up hopes that the people living in rural areas will be able to tap modern technology to enrich their lives.

During natural disasters, its devices can also be used to run the mobile phones and laptops of aid organisations working in areas affected by power cuts, so that vital information on aid relief efforts can be relayed.

"We have had many product requests from Nepal (after last year's earthquake) and the Philippines (after the typhoons last year)," says Mr Hariharan.

"We have fulfilled many of these requests through NGOs, social enterprises and aid organisations. The applications range from powering the devices of fieldworkers on the ground to rehab and recovery efforts of an area destroyed by the disaster."

Mr Hariharan, a mechanical engineer from Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, holds an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru in marketing and finance. He spent over two decades in the IT industry, first with Wipro Infotech in India, and later with Hewlett Packard (HP) in Singapore in regional and global roles.

"I have been fortunate to be part of the exciting IT industry growth from the mid-1980s into the 21st century. While at Wipro, I was part of the pioneering group launching Sun workstations and servers for various applications and helped launch the products and scale business into CAD/CAM and financial services. At HP, I was part of a great growth story on printers in the consumer, business and commercial segments. I have been involved with products my entire working life."

When he left HP in 2011, he focused on his "dream of creating something new and meaningful which would be socially impactful".

"The concept of renewable energy always excited me and I felt that there was a good opportunity in it. Close to 30 per cent of the seven billion world population, live in rural areas without access to electricity," he elaborates. "The penetration of mobile phones with this group is very high. Also with many urban consumers travelling to remote areas for hobby or work carrying their phone and tablets and having connectivity to 3G networks but not having access to power remains a big gap.

"We have a very interesting situation where globally Internet is ubiquitous but electricity to power the device is not. There are many solutions in the market but not enough low-cost distributed solutions. This motivated us to think of how to get solutions to fill the gap. In the case of rural areas, a solution would improve lives and in the case of urban areas a solution would increase productivity."

The longer-term goals are to leave a footprint in terms of enriching lives in the rural areas and improving productivity for urban consumers and enterprise customers. "We hope to do this by empowering people through our innovative and affordable solutions," he adds.

Rural solutions

For the rural solutions, his team is exploring markets closer to Singapore such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar. And a longer-term eye would be to look at Africa, which has the characteristics of a rural population with no access to electricity but high mobile phone penetration.

"Another area we are focused on is to play a role in contributing to IOT (Internet of things) solutions for a Smart Nation," he added. "We have been recently involved with many of the pilot discussions in Singapore. Most of the outdoor IOT deployment consists of putting sensors, nodes, gateways to collect and transmit data through 3G networks but powering these machines and devices is a bottleneck. This is where we hope to play a role. We are experimenting with Singapore but it has a global scale too."

Third Wave Power has won a number of international awards for using renewable energy to develop innovative products that are affordable and easy to use.

Family support

For his regional business successes, Mr Hariharan appreciates the support he receives from his family. His Chennai-born wife Rohini, 48, who holds an MBA, is a homemaker and the couple has 11-year-old twins.

"The frustrations at work do come home very often and manifest in many ways and my wife and kids have been extremely supportive and understanding. They have been patient with me and also continue to encourage me to keep the course. Without their support, I could not continue the tough journey."

And how can the younger generation learn from his experiences in life and work in using community themes to improve lives and increase productivity?

He replies: "I have a great new respect for entrepreneurship and successful entrepreneurs. The world over many breakthroughs, creative and innovative success stories are coming from the younger generation. However, we don't hear of such successes working on social topics and innovating for sustainable social solutions.

"When people think about social and community themes, there is an element of philanthropy and non-sustainability and non-business themes. I hope we can be role models for more to take on innovation for social causes."

In closing the interview, he says his ultimate goal in powering people in rural global communities is, in quoting a famous philosopher, "the greatest footprint one can ever leave on earth… the footprint of good deeds".

tabla@sph.com.sg


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