By Ananya Bhattacharya
In 2010, Mansi Prakash visited Behlana Village in India with her grandparents. Raised in Manila, Phillipines, she was always exposed to people from different walks of life who struggled with basic needs like food, sanitation and clean water at a few miles distance from her comfortable home. However, the exposure in Behlana hit home a key point.
She noticed that most of the village was using either their incandescent bulbs minimally or candles to save money. After doing extensive research, she worked with the village headman to identify 12 of the poorest families and installed the more energy-efficient CFL (Compact fluorescent lamp) bulbs to replace the incandescent bulbs in their respective homes. Thus, the inception of her social venture, Brighter Today, came about.
Brighter Today is a nonprofit with a mission to bring cost-effective, eco-friendly lighting to rural communities in India and Philippines. Although an incandescent bulb is ten times cheaper, a CFL bulb lasts 24 times longer, cuts electricity bills by 80 percent and is 80 percent more energy efficient.
“What I love about her project is that its really smart and really simple. It’s hard to come up with ideas that are easier to implement. She can explain it easily, people understand it easily—it’s not hard to imagine how you get it off the ground. Those are usually one of the best ideas,” says professor Sarah Durham, who taught Prakash during her sophomore year spring semester, when she was working towards the Clinton Global University Initiative fellowship.
Taking her idea to a larger platform, in January 2014, Prakash applied to the social venture at the CGUI conference. Prakash not only won the challenge and got the Resolution Fellowship with $3,000 funding, but she also earned a partnership with Philips, one of the largest diversified technology companies.
Philips helps Prakash monetarily by providing bulbs as well as professionally by giving her scope to network. She managed to build connections and learn from the experienced entrepreneurs at the firm present. With this newfound support, Prakash expanded the implementation of the project in rural communities in India during the summer 2014. Then, Prakash noticed that while the CFL bulbs had a significant impact on low-income households with access to electricity, the families with no electricity were still struggling extensively.
Although 56 percent of Indian households use electricity for lighting, the urban–rural disparity is prominent. About 43.5 percent of rural households have access to electricity while the rest rely mostly on kerosene, according to research by Dr. Subhes C Bhattacharyya, an internationally renowned energy specialist working on global energy-environment issues with more than 25 years of experience.
In his paper, “Energy Access Problem of the Poor in India: Is Rural Electrification a Remedy” Dr Bhattacharyya writes, “For economic and financial viability of rural electrification projects, expansion of productive use of electricity is essential. Use of electricity in agricultural water pumping was the traditional productive use of electricity in India. But this has created the well-known problems of excessive demand, huge subsidies, non-payment of dues and even supply at selected times. The new program has to be careful in avoiding committing same mistakes of the past.” He promotes competition and private sector provision of electricity to overcome the inefficiencies of the public provision. Entrepreneurs like Prakash are key players in enabling this vision.
Motivated but focused, Prakash did not want to delve into new arrays of social development yet. Instead, she wanted to ensure the provision of her services was wholesome and served the entire community. Staying within the energy sector, her team, comprising of three high-school and university staff members as well as thirteen ground staff members, is working to bring and maintain this provision to rural households.
To reach the people who cannot afford access to electricity, Prakash’s team is working on an affordable solar innovation called Light for Life to bring free, clean, sustainable power to light up their homes for a lifetime. The device, assembled with local materials that are readily available, has been tested for six months and is showing promising results.
Prakash not only intends to better the energy sector in developing nations but she hopes to make a social impact too. “Savings from converting goes towards food, education and healthcare – children can study for longer periods of time, women can gain financial stability by working from home – ultimately resulting in an improved quality of life and combatting poverty,” says Prakash.
Worldwide, about 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity and the development benefits it brings, and 1 billion more have access only to unreliable electricity networks, according to the UN Foundation. In early 2009, Bangladesh’s Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, and its Rural Electrification Board (REB) along with the World Bank came up with the “Efficient Lighting Initiatives of Bangladesh (ELIB)” program, where they distribute CFLs to replace incandescent bulbs because they are 4-5 times more efficient. Pakistan is also adopting CFLs and electrical lighting usage, but unfortunately, due to poor infrastructure and inefficient allocation of resources, the growth of these nations cannot be fully reliant on government provisions.
“It will be tempting to expand on other ways to serve the other communities, through access to clean water or internet provision, or to spread to other communities too quickly. It’s important to stay focused on what they do. Brighter Today is unique and should build on their model,” Durham advocates.
Standing at 5 feet 1 inch, Prakash’s small face and petite frame used to make people doubt that she was actually a college student. Now she has ground staff in Indian villages volunteering to work for her to bring light to dark rural villages, all while she continues to focus on her Economics major as a junior at NYU.