About 70 per cent of India lives in villages with very poor or no electricity supply. Problems with electricity shortages are nothing new, but so far in 2013, Tamil Nadu has experienced the most severe shortage in all of India. Full of drive and passion, two young women and their friends turned their backs on career opportunities in the big city to start-up a solar panel company in 2012. Their mission is to provide alternative power supply for rural towns and villages with their solar products. I went to meet them to find out more.
So what does the quintessential college student in India envision for his/her career path? The picture often includes multi-storey buildings where workers sit beneath tubelights, staring at screens in their cubicles. Yanasoundary is not your average engineering graduate. Upon completion of her course in electronic engineering, she and a friend started up a solar panel company. I met with this young entrepreneur at her workshop in Kanchipuram where she’s been manufacturing solar-powered products for a year. “There are a lot of opportunities in the solar power field,” she said. “People in other fields look for work in big companies, but we thought we would do something different and also provide a solution to the electricity crisis. So, using the latest technology, we started our own business”.
I was not only impressed by how innovative these young women are, but also by their decision to remain in their hometown instead of following the masses to a metropolis. And with the frequent power cuts in Tamil Nadu, people are eager to find alternative power sources.
Just now, this local business provides work to 8 people; the team produces small solar panels for household/ day-to-day use (like powering fans or charging phones), lamps, and inverters for storing backup power. Since this is a small-scale business, Yanasoundary manufactures her products upon request. She receives an order, assembles the products, and sells them. Every month, the profits are divided amongst herself and her workers. The majority of profit comes from solar lamp sales. A minimum of 10 lamps are sold monthly and due to the scale of production, profit margins are slim. The plan is to expand the business in order to increase production capacity and revenue as well as to create more job opportunities.
“Last year there was a 25-30% rise in solar market sales from small scale industries and villages”
“We hope to have a 50 person team in the next 1-2 years,” said Yanasoundary. “We never really have cash in our hands because the business is small, but when it grows we will be able to save instead of always reinvesting. There is also a need to hire a sales agent to handle the purchase increase.”
The market interest is high for solar products, especially in rural towns and villages. However, Yanasoundary and her partners face tough challenges as they seek to grow beyond a micro-enterprise. The path to upscaling the company requires improvements in their production capacity and processes, sourcing of materials, more funds to pay for inventory, hiring a small direct sales team, and better marketing.
What she and her team have accomplished so far has given them a good learning platform. However, they realise they need more help, so Yanasoundary and her colleagues applied to be part of the rural small business accelerator (SBA) programme led by Chilasa and its community-based partner Action for Human Movement (AHM). The purpose of the SBA is to select the most promising micro-enterprises with capable and motivated women entrepreneurs and help them develop into small growing businesses. The programme will give the young entrepreneurs access to growth finance, business mentoring, entrepreneurship training, financial management, organisational development and marketing support– this will be critical to their success. They will also have access to Chilasa’s research and development (R&D) eco-system to help with product development and innovation. With this kind of support, Yanasoundary believes she and her co-workers have every possibility to light up Tamil Nadu towns in the months and years ahead.
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