Feature story

Energised effort

Off-grid, small-scale and decentralised renewable energy solutions are enabling rural communities to enhance their earnings and living standards

The sound of diesel pumps used to be fairly common in Dhabda, a village in Gujarat’s Dahod district, as farmers depended on them to draw water to irrigate their fields. The pumps guzzled 1.5 litres of fuel an hour on average and the cost — close to 100 per litre — was an expensive proposition for marginal farmers with small holdings and uncertain futures.

Rays of hope have changed the energy equation in Dhabda. Take the lived experience of Jasoda Chauhan, who used to earn about 30,000 a year from her 1.5-acre plot of land. Increasing fuel costs were driving her to the wall before she became part of a Sustain Plus production hub, a collaborative platform that supports and implements clean-energy solutions at scale in rural India.

Ms Chauhan’s first engagement with the decentralised renewable energy approach under Sustain Plus happened in 2021, when the concept of solar-powered pumps for drip irrigation was introduced to farmers in Dhabda. It was an introduction more than welcome for farmer folks such as Ms Chauhan, who now earns up to
120,000 a year by cultivating high-value crops such as brinjal, chilli and tomato alongside maize.

“I didn’t know that we could make a living with the help of the sun’s energy,” says Ms Chauhan. “It was an unknown technology for us, but it has helped me increase my income and improve my standard of living.” Sustain Plus is engineered to enable exactly that.

Sustain Plus has been lending an energetic hand to hundreds of thousands of farmers like Ms Chauhan in the rural reaches of Gujarat, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. A partnership initiative involving Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), an associate organisation of Tata Trusts, Social Alpha and SELCO Foundation, it delivers decentralised renewable energy (DRE) solutions that are affordable and reliable at the village level.

“DRE empowers small and marginal farmers with access and decision-making around the use of energy to improve their quality of life,” explains Ayan Deb, an area manager with the Tata Trusts. “Through this programme we try to address the critical pain points, across the livelihoods value chain, of rural communities, particularly women, and see how proven technologies can be utilised to improve energy access and affordability.”

Business-model bent

Sustain Plus pursues a bottom-up, community-centric approach and applies the rigour of a business-model perspective to make DRE solutions, and the processes that power it, more viable and effective. Being a cross-sectoral integrator and having a wide range of partners — including central and state government agencies, social enterprises, technology developers and community-based organisations — aids Sustain Plus in realising its objectives.

DRE solutions from the Sustain Plus stable have helped farming communities become energy-smart and climate-resilient, while facilitating multifaceted socioeconomic development. These solutions span the agricultural spectrum: lift-irrigation pumps, fencing, insect traps, rice, dal and wheat mills, animal sheds, biogas units, e-rickshaws and more.

The activities come under six prominent themes: production hubs, waste-to-energy, clean mobility, health, non-farm rural livelihoods and cold chain solutions.

A production hub, defined as a cluster of villages where agriculture and animal husbandry are carried out, brings together different stakeholders, among them farmers and local bodies, to improve productivity through access to technology, markets and financing. Sustain Plus has reached more than 37,710 households through 4,052 DRE solutions for production hubs (this includes in excess of 2,800 irrigation systems such as solar-powered water pumps).

Waste-to-energy solutions, which have benefitted 6,768 households, hinge on producing biogas. Farmers have been trained on the use of new technologies to make bio-fertilisers from biogas slurry, lessening their dependence on commercial fertilisers. The initiative unlocks the economic potential of waste to generate energy and creates biogas for clean cooking and as organic fertiliser.

It also enhances soil quality and reduces input costs for farmers. As of date, 14 slurry-processing units in a catchment area of 1,200 biogas plants have been established. These units churn out several bio-fertilisers, of which phosphate-rich organic manure (PROM) is the key product.

Rural healthcare services, too, get a boost from these DRE solutions. Sustain Plus has supported solar-powered energy production and the use of energy-efficient appliances in 120 public health centres, benefitting more than 1.38 million individuals.

Hot on cold chains

The cold-chain solutions of Sustain Plus help preserve animal vaccines and farming and dairy produce. Built-up structures help in creating an ambient ecosystem for children to study and for midday meal schemes to function better. These applications have also energised small and micro businesses and enterprises, while crafting new livelihood opportunities.

E-mobility may be a primarily urban phenomena, but renewables can fuel clean mobility in rural spaces. For instance, Sustain Plus has introduced e-rickshaws and e-carts to augment the local transport infrastructure. Women, especially, benefit as they are for the most part the drivers of e-rickshaws.

To build an ecosystem based on off-grid clean energy, Sustain Plus works with about 80 grassroots partners and some 100 solution providers in tandem with government institutions. An example is its partnership with the public sector National Dairy Development Board to roll out biogas projects across nine locations. Another is the collaboration with Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam, the state’s energy regulator, to support solar energy use in agricultural applications.

Schooling springboard
Jai Singh uses the excess energy generated by a community solar pump to run his processing unit in Derang village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district

Sunnyside show

In Derang village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, off-grid solar power has replaced diesel generators in powering water pumps. The use of standard 5kW solar panels has enabled farmers to bring more areas under irrigation, boosting yields and reducing manual labour. However, farm irrigation only utilises 50-70% of the 7,000kW of energy generated in total by these panels, leaving much of the power unutilised.

Sustain Plus worked to use this unutilised energy to provide villagers with a steady supply of affordable electricity. Thanks to this initiative, Jai Singh, a local farmer, has successfully turned entrepreneur. He irrigates 5 acres of his land with the help of solar-powered pumps and uses the idle time left over to run a 3HP rice huller (or de-husker mill) that serves around 50 households in his village.

Mr Singh’s mill, which has been running for the past year, produces approximately 80kg of rice per day (sold at 14 a tin). “I run the mill during sunshine hours when the pump is not in use,” he says. “People generally bring paddy in jute bags. I sell it back in tins so that I know the weight that is being sold.”

Mr Singh’s venture into solar-powered milling nets him around 10,000 a month, a meaty boost to his farm income, and there have been similar gains for others in Jharkhand, Gujarat and Rajasthan.

In Odisha, Sustain Plus and CInI have joined hands with the state government’s District Mineral Development Fund to establish the Mahila Krushak Bazaar in Keonjhar district. This is a DRE-powered post-harvest hub for sorting and storing vegetables. In Khunti district in Jharkhand, Sustain Plus has implemented projects for district health centres and sub-centres.

Sustain Plus is much more than an implementer, given that it goes the distance to ensure smooth operations for farmers. With lack of money being the primary obstacle, the foundation has designed funding models based on poverty indices. Projects are funded through a mix of community contributions, funds from financial institutions and CInI grants.

Sustain Plus works to sensitise financial institutions on DRE products and has jointly developed loan products that meet community needs. Alongside, it encourages solution providers to extend credit lines to their customers to ease the burden of upfront payments. “A grant is just another tool, but a proper blend of community and commercial finance helps in scaling up technologies,” adds Mr Deb. “We are creating a blueprint to implement DRE and climate-smart agriculture technologies across poverty typologies in rural India.”

Capacity building is a key component of Sustain Plus’s work. It ensures that technology partners train local users on basic maintenance and repair of DRE units (its solar-energy solutions come with maintenance contracts). These endeavours have translated into a growing demand for DRE solutions, with technology providers setting up local offices, stocking spare parts and offering technical assistance.

Continuous technology upgradation is built into the solutions, as is keeping in touch with end users. A communication framework has been developed to ensure free flow of information between community groups and technology providers to align stakeholders and minimise implementation timelines.

There’s more in the offing for Sustain Plus with the next horizon being the scaling up of technology for climate adaption and mitigation. And it’s not going to stop there, either, as the task of strengthening rural ecosystems to face the future gathers steam.

Village women from Vansda in Gujarat with a biogas and slurry filter