Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lighting Up Rural Innovation in India

Studying at night was making Shailesh Upadhyay sick.

In the rural village in Gurera, India, where Upadhyay grew up, electricity was hard to come by. With only a few hours of electricity available during the day, Upadhyay had to study at night by the light of a kerosene lamp.

But Upadhyay had asthma and the kerosene's toxic fumes affected his breathing each night that he studied. He was forced to drop out of school.

Upadhyay was determined not to give up his studies, so he came up with a bright idea: use tractor batteries to power lamps. He designed a circuit board that channels energy from tractor batteries into compact fluorescent lamps, which are more energy-efficient than regular light bulbs.

With the help of his invention, Upadhyay was able to enroll in university and study engineering. When he mentioned his design to classmate Ujala Shanker, who also grew up in Gurera, the two co-founded Tractor-Factor, a venture to light homes in rural villages and help students study longer.

"Like me, many rural students struggle to progress in spite of their intelligence and enthusiasm," Upadhyay told Ashoka, a global organization that supports social entrepreneurs such as Upadhyay.

But their venture had many challenges. Upadhyay and Shanker first had to convince villagers to use the circuit. Many villagers were worried that taking power from a battery would lessen its life. However, they were surprised to learn that the circuit could actually extend battery life when used regularly. Villagers feared they would get a shock when they plugged in the wires. Through demonstrations, Upadhyay and Shanker showed that at only 12 volts, the gadget is very safe.

Students in Gurera started using Tractor-Factor's circuit. They were able to study longer, and the number of students passing their exams nearly doubled. Some 240,000 fewer liters of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere each month.

"Understanding the needs and affordability and fine-tuning the solution are the key," Upadhyay told Ashoka. "Being a good observer helps in identifying the difficulties and simplest ideas that could be of great impact."

Upadhyay and Shanker since have incorporated their idea into a larger project called Stitches, which aims to improve the socio-economic welfare of farmers. So far, they have helped more than 200 people across rural India. Their work has also helped Shanker obtain a fellowship to study for a master's degree at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York. Shanker will be the first person from Gurera to study in the United States.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)

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