Knowledge sharing workshop between energy access incubators and entrepreneurs from Asia and Africa.
Bangalore, September 2014.
Some time in Mid-September, on yet another oppressively sultry Ahmedabad afternoon, Mohsin, my colleague (from the cleantech team), briefed me on a knowledge sharing workshop that was to be co-organised by CIIE and SELCO, in partnership with IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) and DFID (Department for International Development, UK), to be held between the 22nd and 26th of September in Bangalore.
I was to be a part of the 3-man CIIE team (or as I jokingly refer to as ‘the delegation’) heading for the workshop! It took me a while to process, but before I knew it, I was on a morning flight; groggy eyed staring out of the emergency-exit window at fluffy cushioned clouds with hip-hop thunderously thumping through my earphones.
Knowledge sharing (with regards to energy enterprises / energy-focused incubators) formed the core theme of the workshop, attracting participating entrepreneurs and incubators alike from Africa (Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. As it turned out, it was a wonderful international assemblage of bubbling personalities who provided ample camaraderie and companionship for the duration of the 5-day event.
The CIIE team (Vipul, Mohsin and myself) arrived in Bangalore to cooling winds and the jabbering chatter of Radio 1 blaring through the ageing speakers of our taxicab. Our hotel was the venue of the event; so no traveling per se was required. Instead, La Marvella (the name of our temporary residence) was both our home and workspace for 5 days. A comprehensive buffet spread kept our appetites delightfully satiated, with midnight strolls around the deserted roads of Jaya Nagar forming our daily allowance for exercise.
The event began on the 22nd with introductions from IRENA (Kavita Rai – Programme Officer), SELCO (Revathi K – President) and CIIE (Mohsin Bin Latheef). Participant introductions followed and Minhaz Anwar (BizCube, Bangladesh) made a particularly impactful statement during his compendious introduction, claiming that “Africa and Asia have the potential to lead the world in the near future.” This helped catalyse the energy in the room and laid the foundational bricks for what would eventually become a remarkable 5 days.
CIIE officially kicked-off the workshop’s first session with an introduction to our incubation model, with special emphasis on successful initiatives and programmes of both past and present. Hand-outs (flowchart templates) helped entrepreneurs and incubators jot down their needs, challenges and achievements under broad categories spanning access to capital, advisory support, market access etc. This was an interactive session and saw considerable participation from the audience.
Following lunch, Aloke Barnwal (DFID) took to the rostrum, introducing us to DFID’s work in energy access, enterprise development and off-grid energy access. An introduction to SELCO’s model followed, bringing an end to the day’s proceedings.
Day two began with an engaging entrepreneur panel discussion (on the topic of pursuing energy access businesses) moderated by DFID’s Gregory Briffa (Team Leader, Climate Change and Development). The panel was composed of Abhilash Thirupathy (Surya Power Magic, India), Piyush Jaju (ONergy, India), Allen Himes (Indigo Energy, Myanmar), Abubaker Musuuza (Village Energy, Uganda), Collins Kamole (Cocatech Enterprises, Kenya) and Susmita Bhattacharjee (Pushan Renewable Energy, India).
Highlights from the discussion covered entrepreneur journey’s (and challenges), the “necessary evil” of working with the Government, the benefits of incubators acting as connectors / sources of credibility and the advantages of working with mentors – focusing on “practitioners” rather than the “confusing consultants and academicians”.
Thereafter, and rather aptly, Ashok Das (Founder, Sun Moksha & IIT Mentors) delivered a session on the importance of mentoring energy access businesses, an interactive discourse that was both inspiring and eye opening. Meandering in to historical literature at one point, Ashok made an anecdotal reference to an archaic Sanskrit saying- “keep your critics in the courtyard”. This augured rather well amongst the keen and attentive listeners; an analogy I presume that demonstrated the need for one to always be vigilant, keep on their feet and never shy away from criticism.
As Joachim Ewechu (Unreasonable Institute – East Africa) quirkily put it, mentorship is like “dating” and further down the line, a marriage between mentee and mentor. Ashok added that everyone is a mentor/ mentee in him/ herself meaning that one can always learn from another, echoing an old Chinese proverb that “one must be a student before one can be a teacher”. As the discussion drew to a close, Mohsin made a valuable point, stating that the “best mentors are (most) often entrepreneurs” receiving many expressive nods (and grunts) of approval from around the hall.
The day concluded with a lengthy interactive session on due-diligence processes and seed investment, with a panel discussion led by Mohsin & Vipul, involving Piyush Jaju (ONergy), Abhilash Thirupathy (Surya Power Magic), Revathi K. (SELCO) and Shyam Menon (Investment Director – Infuse Ventures).
On day three, Sree Harsha (Senior Manager at the SELCO Incubation Centre) and Ashis Sahu (Senior Advisor to the SELCO Incubation Centre) introduced in detail the SELCO Incubation model, their approach, philosophy, vision, structure and challenges. Thomas Pullenkav brought continuation to this discussion with his consequent session evaluating the SELCO incubation model from an external standpoint.
After lunch, Kavita Rai (IRENA) chaired a panel discussion on ‘Sustaining Business Incubation’ with Vipul Patel (CIIE), Serah Nderitu (Climate Innovation Center Kenya), Minhaz Anwar (BizCube), Surabhi (SELCO Incubation Center) and George Kosimbei (Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Center) participating. This session focused on communicating experiences from both India and Africa; simultaneously sharing and learning from the achievements and shortcomings of each other. Numerous critical points raised during the panel discussion provided topics for follow-on conversations later that evening.
The next day was by far the longest of the entire workshop. Having said this, it was also its most compelling, exciting and (in a sense) rewarding. We departed at 7 AM for a daylong excursion in the Hassan district of Karnataka. As was a mainstay for the entire workshop, we were hoarded with food and sufficiently stuffed with regular meals – I for one, was perpetually on the verge of gluttony daily.
We arrived in Hassan around 11 AM and walked through a quaint, picturesque village community (greeted by the aroma of cow dung) to a household where SELCO’s solar lights were installed – SELCO’s original solar home system model. Ravikanth and Prasad (both from SELCO) helped give us all clarity on the impact of this model, and its reach within the Hassan community. Following this, we briefly ogled at the workings of a rural co-operative bank before a Thali lunch.
After the hustle and bustle of what was a mildly traditional Thali restaurant, we were escorted (a la coach) to the office of a microfinance institution – SKDRDP (Shri Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project), where we understood how SELCO helps their customers raise financing from MFIs and banks. A representative from the Corporation Bank was also present to answer questions. One interesting innovation that we came across during this interaction was a hand-held device that dispensed and received payments from customers. What was more surprising was that this device was developed by a Central Government body and was being actively promoted by the same, paving the way for transparency and efficiency in financial inclusion.
A visit to a vendor of solar-charged batteries demonstrated SELCO’s innovative ‘hawker’s model’ and helped us appreciate the clockwork efficiency of the distribution process. Upon sunset, we had the pleasure of wandering through the crowded, puddle-soaked night market in Hassan to view the full impact of these batteries powering lights on pushcarts and street vendor outlets. From here, our journey took us to our last stop for the day – a girls’ residential school where similar solar lighting systems had been installed.
The girls (in their early teens) were busy attending to their studies, but took time out to welcome us with eager pomp and fanfare. A bright amber coloured jasmine-like flower was placed in each of our hands upon entering their educational abode. It was heart-warming to see their cherub faces scurry to each and every one of us, requesting for an autograph and an accompanying message. The throng of girls surrounding us with empty notepads and ballpoint pens made us (me definitely) feel like some modern-day (solar) celebrity!
As was customary, the day concluded with a hearty meal, and my table was cloaked in cacophonous cackling and euphoric cheers poking fun at the numerous episodes from the day. With bloated tummies, we took our places on the coach and snoozed before returning at 1 AM.
The final day, on the 26th of September began with a keynote presentation by Devkishore, founder of Mangaal Sustainable Solutions. Dev walked us through his company, its product, structure and the role played by the SELCO incubation centre in providing various forms of support.
An interactive session followed, where participants were split into two groups (entrepreneurs and incubators). I sat in on the incubator discussion and we covered a variety of topics- including the potential for collaboration, what the concrete steps going forward will be and further, how incubators can effectively address financial challenges.
It brings me immense pleasure to write that from this discussion, we are now in the process of drafting and signing an initial partnership agreement having divided responsibilities amongst us, cheekily titling this joint effort as the ‘Bangalore Declaration’.
This (alongside many other things) helped bring a strong conclusion to the 5-day workshop, resulting in both focus and direction for all participants going forward. The ball is now in each of our respective courts to action out our thoughts and hopefully, walk our talk!
I sincerely hope these discussions continue and we bring action to our words. Here’s to a successful long-standing partnership between incubators and entrepreneurs from across continents and borders!
On a slightly lighter note, this seems to have turned in to a novella rather than a blog article! If you have made it this far, I would like to commend you, and more so, thank you for being patient with my verbose, long-winded narrative on the above chronology of events, however palatable they may have been to either the average or the avid reader.
Harshad Sambamurthy- CIIE