JAIPUR, India — “I saw a 5-year-old die in five seconds,” says Ajaita Shah, recalling the Indian girl enveloped by a kerosene fire at home. “There was nothing we could do.”
Not then. But since that 2008 disaster, Shah has helped cut the use of kerosene lamps in rural India by selling thousands of solar lanterns, street lights, and home lighting kits.
Shah, 30, was barely out of college when she began working in Indian villages. She launched her own company, Frontier Markets, to bring safe and affordable clean energy to the northwestern region of Rajasthan, where she spends most of her time.
This wasn’t what her parents had in mind. They had emigrated from India so their children would have a better life. Raised in affluent Scarsdale, N.Y., Shah graduated from Tufts University and was set to go into corporate law when she grew interested in microfinance.
“They were freaking out,” she says of her parents, not exactly ready for a derring-do daughter to risk her own savings on a startup in the developing country they left behind. She’s wearing a colorful Rajasthani tunic but talking in rapid New York style as she calls herself the “black sheep of the family.”
In a country where one-fourth of people lack access to electricity, Shah has made her way as one of the few women leading a business that sells clean-energy products. She’s earned plaudits—Forbes magazine's Top 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, for one—and raised more than $550,000 in funding that includes a grant from the National Geographic Society's Great Energy Challenge.
She’s sold more than 85,000 solar products so far and set up 225 retail outlets to provide after-sales servicing. Half her customers have no access to the grid, and the others get only sporadic power.
“It’s very useful and better than other products,” says V.M. Khan, a homeopathic doctor, of the solar LED lantern he bought last year. He has access to the grid in his village of Jalsu, but he uses the lantern when the power goes out or he visits patients in rural areas.
On a 22-acre farm in the village of Mukandpura, where women tend the fields in orange- and cerise-colored saris, Manphouli Devi Yadav's family uses the lantern for cooking, studying, or checking cattle outside at night. It used kerosene lamps before the home was connected five years ago to the grid, which doesn’t provide continuous power.
“Blackouts happen all the time,” Shah says.
Is It a Long-Term Solution?
The solar products have skeptics. “Villages are quick to abandon renewable energy when the grid reaches them,” says Lydia Powell, senior fellow and energy expert at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. She says they view solar and other renewables as less desirable.
“The poor...want grid-based power like urban households that can run TV sets at the flick of a switch,” says Powell. She questions the long-term viability of solar products, many of which receive government subsidies or external funding.
“Both are needed. There’s a widespread need for basic lighting,” says Manish Bapna, executive vice president of the World Resources Institute, adding solar lamps can help meet that need—at least in the short run.
Bapna says India, though, is rapidly expanding grid access with large-scale solar and other energy projects. “It’s highly plausible that India is able to provide 24/7 electricity services that you see in the rich world within 15 years,” he says.
Yet it’s not economical to do so everywhere, and India’s government knows that, says Piyush Mathur, chief financial officer of Simpa Networks, a company that began selling pay-as-you go solar home lighting kits in India in 2013.
“There’s an understanding of the need for off-grid solutions,” Mathur says. He says nothing in the next three to five years will dampen the “immense” market for his products. Even with grid expansion, he says, India will still have a power deficit that solar can help fill.
He says customers are already asking for bigger solar systems that can power TVs and appliances. The company, which has a team of business-savvy tech guys and has raised more than $11 million in venture capital, is offering larger home kits.
“People want to own their own systems,” Shah says, adding some customers don’t trust the government or want the grid’s wires. Even if they get the grid, she says, many don’t find it reliable enough.
Besides, she says solar has amazing potential in Rajasthan, which enjoys 342 sunny days each year.
Still, her work has been tough. Although she had mentors and gained experience from prior projects she did for the Ford Foundation and the World Bank, she largely taught herself how to build a business in a male-dominated culture.
“Being a woman in this space is challenging,” Shah says. She recalls how “scary” it was to watch her savings deplete. She first put up her own money and then asked relatives and friends to chip in until she secured funding from foundations and venture capitalists.
Her success has come at a personal price. She says a serious romance, begun in New York, ended, because the man couldn’t accept the amount of time she spends in India: “He said he got it, but he didn’t.”
Shah’s planning to expand and expects her company will turn a profit in March 2016. “What keeps you going is the people,” she says, noting the woman who lost her 5-year-old in the kerosene fire is now her village’s leader for selling solar lanterns.
She adds: “I’m doing what I want to do.”