The Economy of Appearances

A critical part of the solar assemblage  is what anthropologist Anna Tsing called the economy of appearances. Solar entrepreneurs have to produce a spectacle of profitability and potential – of which the construction of a coherent, cohesive story or narrative for investors is vital. In this, journalists have an important role to play.

Last week The Guardian’s global development portal published an article by freelance journalist Anna da Costa about Mera Gao Power. Over the following year I plan to write about a number of for-profit companies that are rolling out solar-powered micro-electricity grids for communities in rural India and I will begin with this one, which received a $US300,000 grant from USAID at the end of 2011 to build and operate 40 micro grids in Sitapur district over the next two years.

These solar enterprises are of interest because – unlike portable solar lighting systems – they create a physical grid, based infrastructure that is premised on a wider social constituency of users that extends beyond the level of the individual or the household. I’ll explore the significance of the micro-grid more later but here I want to reflect on the corporate storytelling that solar entrepreneurs must engage in as they seek to secure investment from development donor agencies and venture capitalists.

Mera Gao Power (literally ‘Our Village Power’) was one of three business ideas developed back in 2009-2010 by Nikhil Jaisinghani and Brian Shaad under the auspices of their Delhi based consultancy company, Value Development Initiatives.

The company’s tag line ‘commercial solutions enriching the lives of the poor’ and their pitch to potential clients could have been lifted almost word for word from C.K. Prahalad’s seminal text, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

‘VDI’s core competency is building relationships and designing partnerships that provide sustainable and scalable value for companies, donors, and the communities in which they operate.’

‘The potential market opportunities to work and serve rural, marginalized communities are often overlooked [and are] assumed to be undependable customers unable to pay’.

VDI had no commitment to renewable energy per se. Their completed projects included a series of consultancies in Nigeria for major international oil and gas companies, focused on ‘community engagement’ and the creation of business plans for ‘small-scale gas processing’. The company had maintained an interest in Nigeria. Alongside their business plan for renewable energy micro grids in India they were developing plans for small-scale natural gas processing facility in Nigeria and were bidding for a donor-funded project that would leverage their connections in India to operate mobile or wireless information systems in the health and agricultural sectors.

In 2010 Mera Gao Power entered General Electric’s ‘Ecoimagination Challenge’ appearing in that year’s top 100. The following year Mera Gao Power was selected as one of the finalists of the Wantrapreneur business plan competition. For the past three years this competition has opened the ‘Unconvention’ networking event and conference for social entrepreneurs held in Bangalore. Later in 2011 the company was featured in the WWF’s annual list of ‘Green game changers – ‘fifty innovations to inspire business transformation’ – bringing it coverage in the Financial Times.

At the end of 2011 the company successfully landed their first major injection of capital, securing the $300,000 Innovation Venture’s Grant from USAID.

In The Guardian piece Mera Gao Power’s micro grids are presented as ‘new energy delivery system,  ‘innovative’, ‘wholly different systems’ – but there is nothing particularly new or novel about renewable micro-grids. What makes them stand out is less the novelty of their technology than the directness with which the company’s founders fuse commercial interest of potential investors and their promise of returns equivalent to that offered by investments in the stock market. Investing in renewable energy for rural India, they propose, offers a ‘projected return on investment of almost 15% over three years. ‘It’s more than you’d get from putting your money in a mutual fund,” Jaisinghani is reported to have said.

This article appears at a critical junction for the pair – who say they need to find new sources of funding by the end of 2012 – in order to achieve the economies of scale that will make their business profitable. ‘This work is capital-intensive, and new rounds of investment will be essential for us to grow beyond this point,’ Jaisinghani is quoted as saying. Like other social entrepreneurs they are compelled to emphasise the ambition of their vision for growth and they speak of plans to build 50 systems this coming year, and between 1-2000 over the following five years.

The off-grid infrastructure being created here is clearly being pitched for appliances beyond light. ‘Light’, as the business manager of one of India’s most successful solar enterprises once told me, ‘is just the first vector’ Shaad and Jaisinghani anticipate that lights and mobile charging will act as vanguard services. ‘In the future, we would like to use the networks we are creating here to expand into other services these communities need,” said Shaad. ‘This could include irrigation and agricultural technologies, healthcare, education and even entertainment.’

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