OORJA: ENLIGHTING RURAL COMMUNITIES IN INDIA
Clementine Chambon and Amit Saraogi are the founders of Oorja, a social business in India. Have you ever wondered how hard it is to become a social entrepreneur? Have you ever wanted to become one? “Stop wondering, just go ahead! I would absolutely recommend this challenging adventure”, says Clementine, who was named as one of 10 Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review France.
What is Oorja?
Oorja’s biomass and solar-powered miniature power stations aim to provide reliable and affordable electricity to rural communities in India. Central to the idea is franchising the ownership and operation of plants to local micro-entrepreneurs and women’s cooperatives. The social enterprise was founded in 2015 by Clementine Chambon, a PhD in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, and Amit Saraogi, an Indian social entrepreneur.
Did you know that in rural India, 45% of households are not electrified and that 200 million tons of crop waste are produced in surplus? Open burning of this waste emits black carbon that is partly responsible for India’s escalating greenhouse gas emissions every year.
Oorja uses locally available crop waste and solar energy as resources to power rural communities.
Idea is key, but not everything…
This idea was conceptualized in August 2014 during a Climate-KIC workshop which aimed to equip young people with the knowledge and tools to develop solutions to combat climate change. “This is where I met my co-founder Amit Saraogi, an Indian social entrepreneur specialized in development and poverty alleviation. Amit and I promptly embarked upon building a solution to address the challenges of access to energy and climate change”, says Clementine.
“In 2015 we pitched our idea for a prestigious Climate Fellowship from Echoing Green – an organisation that invests in early-stage social entrepreneurs. Out of 3,629 applicants, we were one of 52 initiatives who successfully secured a fellowship.” said Amit.
Thus, Oorja received $90,000 in seed funding, leadership development support and access to Echoing Green’s wide network of partners and investors for two years.
“If you have an ingenious idea to solve one of the world’s most critical challenges, don’t assume it will automatically work because there are several local factors that impact its acceptance and implementation. You need to validate it by going and spending time with the people you intend to serve, understand their difficulties, involve them in decision making and integrate their inputs in refining the solution” – Amit
Social entrepreneurship is also financially viable
Earning money is one of the hardest challenges for social businesses. Oorja solves this issue by establishing a sustainable business model: “The main revenues will come from sale/lease of our miniature green power plants to franchisees. Our business model is to franchise the plants to local entrepreneurs and women’s cooperatives, who will own/operate the plants and sell end-products (electricity and bio char for agriculture uses) to local customers.”
Oorja will build and maintain these power plants and assist franchisees with repairs, safety inspection, employee training, access to finance and other business services. This will reduce the cost of operations, time for positive cash flows and allow them to scale rapidly by replicating their solution across many districts and Indian states.
They will also help the entrepreneurs and women self-help groups in securing government subsidies and carbon credits and provide local youth with skill development training for economic activities to facilitate the development of micro-enterprise clusters. Oorja also subsidizes (through donations) the electricity for low-income households, women-led households, schools, health centers, and street lights in off-grid and poorest rural communities in Uttar Pradesh (North India). So everyone can benefit from clean energy access. Here is their fundraising page with some of their social targets for this year.
Tips to bud social entrepreneurs!
Good idea + good team + passion + hard work + don’t be afraid of failure + try, try, try
To bring your idea to fruition, it is also vital that the co-founders have the same vision, passion and long-term commitment to stay invested. It helps to have complimentary skills and good communication between them. It is common knowledge that most start-ups fail because the founder’s fall out.
When starting out it would be prudent to bootstrap and keep operational costs low. The imperative of building a good team can’t be emphasized enough because it is the quality of human capital that ensures success more than technology, finance, business models, etc.
You need to bring people with the balanced mix of technical and functional skills, integrity and dedication and, more than anything else, who carry empathy for the problem you are trying to address. Lastly, hard work and persistence pays off so do not quit during difficult times. Reengineer, refocus, start afresh and you will cross the bridge over troubled waters”, affirms Amit.
“Social entrepreneurship is an adventure I would absolutely recommend”
“Also, I think it’s important, when starting out as an entrepreneur, to know someone who is trying to do something similar, to see them working alongside you overcoming similar challenges. It helps to know you are not alone on this less traveled road”, adds Clementine.