Mini solar grids empower women-led enterprises in Jharkhand’s Gumla district

Several women from these villages have come forward to start small-scale machine-based rural enterprises that run on solar energy.

Women in Tinginaput, India hold up solar panels and solar lamps. Image: DFID - UK Department for International Development, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Birsuni Oraon is a tribal woman in her 50s, living in Guniya village in the Gumla district of Jharkhand. Until a few months ago, she would usually be occupied with either household chores or some farm-related work.

However, now, she operates a small scale business that runs on renewable energy. With a solar grid supporting the power supply in her village, Birsuni and nine other women from the village decided to set up a solar-run lac processing unit to produce edible oil.

She said that the extra income earned through this small-scale enterprise can now be put towards a better education for her children.

“A few months ago, I and nine other women from my village formed a self-help group (SHG). We set up a mustard processing machine that runs completely on solar energy. We work every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to convert mustard cake into mustard oil. We are confident that this will change our lives,” said Birsuni, sitting next to the processing unit and showing the 30-kilowatt solar mini-grid installed close by. While the village is connected to the country’s centralised grid, the power supply is erratic and most energy-centric economic activities then rely on solar power.

The machines are used to grind mustard cakes, which are raw plant materials and extract virgin mustard oil. In rural areas, several households prefer using locally extracted oil over purchasing branded oils from the market.

We decided to try using decentralised solar systems in this district to boost livelihood options among the marginalised communities in the rural areas.

Soman Chakroborty, operations manager, Mlinda

Solar energy was introduced in Gumla district in 2015 by the West Bengal-based non-governmental organisation, Mlinda and the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA), a government financing institution. Solar mini-grids between 20 kW-40 kW capacity were installed in 44 villages. The combined capacity of the solar mini-grids in 44 villages is one megawatt. Each solar mini-grid has the potential to supply power up to a distance of five kilometres.

The solar mini-grid in Guniya village has 30-kilowatt potential and became operational around four years ago.

Bhukli Oraon, who works in the mustard processing unit with Birsunu said that their project was conceived only after the village started getting uninterrupted power supply for the last few years because of the solar energy grid. This encouraged the women to try a small-scale enterprise to earn an extra income.

“Earlier our village was dependent on grid-connected electricity which was erratic, disrupting our daily, electricity-dependent work. It was also posing a hurdle in setting up any machine-based commercial work. But around four years ago, solar energy came to the village and that ensured we now have uninterrupted electricity. It helped the farmers in agriculture-related work and gave us the liberty to use it for other projects too,” Bhukli told Mongabay-India.

In another village close to Guniya, at Basua, Nilavati Oraon, who is in her 30s, and her husband are running two flour mill machines using solar power. The machines are used to process whole grain wheat into flour.

“Solar energy in our village is more reliable than grid-connected energy. We have to make an advance payment of around Rs. 100- 200 per month for recharging it to pay for their usage charges to the service provider which installed and maintains the solar projects. Then, we can use this energy anytime. This has helped the women to work at a time of their convenience after completing their household work,” Nilavati Oraon told Mongabay-India.

Regular solar power supply sparks rural enterprises

Jharkhand’s Gumla district is among the most backward districts of the state as per government classification. About 69 per cent of the district’s population belongs to a tribal community. There are several villages in the district where pucca (metalled) roads are yet to reach. While the villages are connected to the central electricity grid, they routinely suffer from an erratic supply.

The entry of solar power in the district turned things around as villages now could get a continuous power supply option to run enterprises. Now, just as Birsuni and Bhukli who use solar power to run their mustard processing unit, or Nilavati who uses it to run a flour mill, women are also using solar energy-powered machines to make ice creams and paper plates.

Soman Chakroborty, the Manager (Operations) Mlinda, said: “In 2015, we conducted a baseline survey on the social indicators in the district and based on its results we decided to try using decentralised solar systems in this district to boost livelihood options among the marginalised communities in the rural areas.”

He said Gumla was chosen because it was one of the backward areas of the state. “We tried to ensure we deploy a local from the community who can take care of the solar assets thus creating local jobs … We also encouraged the linkage of rural enterprises with financial institutions and helped in the procurement of machines for such local industries,” he told Mongabay-India.

Stating that “this experiment paid off well”, Chakroborty said until the solar power grids were installed in 2016, several villages were underserved in terms of power because they either did not have electricity connections or when they did, they had quality issues such as low voltage or frequent power cuts. He said such issues used to create hurdles in the expansion and growth of local enterprises but now, with better power, the rural enterprises have got a push.

The linkage between power supply and livelihood has been established in research as well. A 2018 study by Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) noted that access to decentralised renewable energy such as solar mini-grids in rural areas and energy-efficient innovations could help in improving productivity in economic activities, besides reducing the associated drudgery.

In Guniya, the solar mini-grids in the villages are in good working condition after four years and are well maintained. “All these mini-grids in such villages have a full-time worker deployed by the service providers for cleaning, upkeep, and maintenance of these mini-grids. These workers are usually from the local village and are given the job and a shelter to guard and keep the plant running,” said Sitaram Oraon from Guniya village.

Unlike many government projects, solar power supply was not provided for free. It was given on a prepaid system with charges to the user. This, however, has not been a deterrent and solar energy growth is seen across the district in rural and urban areas where several villages flaunt such mini-grids and consume solar energy.

Solar asset maintenance key to success

The success story of Gumla district of Jharkhand is in contrast to several other solar assets installed in remote rural areas of the state which became defunct after some years of running due to a lack of monitoring and upkeep. For instance, in Roro village in West Singhbhum district of the state, several street lights installed by JREDA (Jharkhand Renewable Energy Development Agency) are now lying defunct and not serving the real purpose for which they were installed. Several government projects, including decentralised solar mini-grids, in rural India face a lack of upkeep and maintenance. In Gumla, the community is actively involved in the upkeep and pays for it.

An official from the JREDA told Mongabay-India that several decentralised solar energy projects, other than Gumla, have been installed by the government body over the last decade in remote and hilly areas to serve the power deficit areas of the state. The official claimed that upkeep and monitoring of these assets have been tough because of a lack of internet connectivity.

The state, in the last few years, installed sensors to keep a track of the solar projects, but admitted that remote areas are still a concern for using sensors for such projects. These challenges are common in decentralised solar projects in different rural regions of the country.

Experts from the solar energy sector, who have worked with communities for the maintenance of solar assets, note that solar projects can be a success if maintained well.

“In many rural areas, solar projects fail due to lack of sense of ownership and training of the local people who have the assets in their areas. Solar projects like projects like in any other industry, such as the automobile sector, need regular maintenance. If they are maintained well and the community is made a stakeholder in the whole process, their efficiency and shelf life increases,” said J.P. Jagdev, a Bhubaneswar-based solar maintenance solutions provider, working with the Odisha government on solar maintenance projects.

A 2019 study on the sustainability of community-owned mini-grids in India, claimed that community-owned solar mini-grids which are replicated sustainably for years have the potential to overcome the hurdles of financial, and technical aspects which in turn can have a positive social impact in those areas. It also highlighted that for the long-term survival of such projects, community engagement at an early stage of the project is of paramount importance.

Ownership, access are challenges for rural women-based enterprises

Abhishek Jain is a researcher and Director, Livelihood Projects and Access to Energy, at the New Delhi-based Council for Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW). His 2021 study on access to energy issues found that energy poverty (lack of energy) could be a barrier to a sustainable development path.

The study noted that the decentralised renewable energy power could provide energy at a lower rate than the grid-connected power and had the potential to create jobs. In the study he points out that in India alone there is an estimated USD 53 billion market for productive enterprises fuelled by renewable sources of energy.

“24×7 electricity acts as an enabler and paves way for the founding support for the growth of such industries. When we compare it to power-deficit regions, these areas perform better. But when it comes to women-based enterprises, the need of targeted intervention is needed in terms of skill-building, linking with financial institutions for credits and other support to help them grow in such conditions,” Jain told Mongabay-India.

Jain, who has authored other similar publications on livelihood and access to energy issues, claims that research has shown that the performance of women lenders in repayment of loans had been better than their male counterparts but they often lack ownership in terms of their resources, be it the land, machines, enterprises, and others.

A 2021 study titled Improving Women’s Productivity and Incomes Through Clean Energy in India co-authored by Sasmita Patnaik, Shaily Jha and Tanvi Jain claimed that 43 per cent of their women-based micro-enterprises surveyed were rural or semi-rural based whereas 64 per cent of them were group-based enterprises. It also claimed that 39 per cent of them do not own physical assets. It also talked about the lack of access to finance and the lack of women’s representation in the clean energy sector.

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