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A “Misfit” Takes the Helm

When recruiters approached Jaideep Mukherji in 2015 with an unusual proposition – to lead a new non-profit subsidiary of The Rockefeller Foundation focused on bringing last-mile electrification to India—he responded with skepticism mingled with a spark of curiosity.

“I thought I was a complete misfit for this opportunity,” he recalled.

“I came from the commercial private-sector world. My perception of people who worked in nonprofit was that they couldn’t get a job anywhere else. And besides, give away money? That’s not what I do. I make money.”

Children standing next to solar panels
Children in Bihar State in 2015 stand next to solar panels. (Photo courtesy of SPI)

“A misfit, it’s true,” agreed Ashvin Dayal, Senior Vice President for Power and Climate who was leading the CEO search for The Rockefeller Foundation. “At the same time, he was perfect.”

Mukherji brought nearly 30 years of experience in developing markets, both in the consumer goods and the social enterprise sector. At the time, he worked for d.light, a global social enterprise focused on bringing affordable solar lighting devices to vulnerable communities. In that role, he expanded d.light’s operations across India and other Asia markets.

“Jaideep had built businesses from scratch in India. He understood the country’s supply chains. And he also understood the rural customer,” Dayal said. “Here we were trying to sell power to some of the poorest customers in the world, so we needed that knowledge and experience.”

A Daughter’s Voice

Mukherji felt equal measure intrigued and dubious as he considered the proposal.

Though he grew up in an electrified city, he had formative experiences in off-grid villages in 9th and 10th grades as part of a mandatory social services camp at St. Paul’s School in Udaipur. He and fellow students were transformed as they spent a week helping dig wells, pave irrigation channels, and create rainwater collection ponds for off-grid villages.

At least as importantly, his oldest daughter, then 17 years old, grew excited when she learned of her father’s job prospect. “Bringing energy to the villages—that is exactly what’s needed,” she told him. At that time, some 240 million people in India were living without electricity.

“We saw energy poverty as one of the areas that was holding back development all over the world,” Dr. Judith Rodin, the Foundation’s president from 2005 to 2017, recently recalled.

Energy poverty occurs when there is a lack of affordable, reliable, and environmentally sound energy sources to support development. Low access to energy contributes to malnourishment, unhealthy living conditions and limited access to education and employment.

After carefully considering barriers, obstacles and opportunities, this was a space where the team believed they could make a systemic and transformative change.

Mukherji felt drawn enough to the concept to agree to meet with Dr. Rodin, Dayal, and Zia Khan, currently The Rockefeller Foundation’s Senior Vice President for Innovation.

After that meeting, Mukherji recalled, “I began to get excited myself. This was clearly a bold approach, and these people knew what they were doing.”

Mukherji lights a ceremonial lamp to mark the launch of SPI on April 15, 2015. Khan and Dr. Rodin also are in attendance along with India's Minister for Power Piyush Goel. (Photo Courtesy of SPI)
Mukherji lights a ceremonial lamp to mark the launch of SPI on April 15, 2015. Khan and Dr. Rodin also are in attendance along with India's Minister for Power Piyush Goel. (Photo courtesy of SPI)

He said yes. And on April 15, 2015, Smart Power India (SPI) was officially born, with the 1,000 Village Plan aimed at bringing electricity to 1 million people in the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh over the coming three years. SPI would target districts where less than 10 percent of the households were connected to the national grid.

A New Business Model of Broad Partnerships

SPI aimed to pilot a new business model: decentralized mini-grids would be constructed through unconventional partnerships with the private sector, energy service companies, impact investors, NGOs, and the Indian government.

While The Rockefeller Foundation provided initial support, ultimate sustainability depended on the mini-grids becoming profitable.

Since its founding, SPI has supported over 620 mini-grids, powering more than 26,000 shops, commercial users, and microbusinesses.

Overall, it has impacted half a million people and reduced carbon emissions by more than 21,000 tons annually. It also showed the government and other investors what was possible, which likely sped up electrification to India as a whole.

  • Women of Konyak Tribe celebrating at their mini-grid in Nagaland State, 2022 (Photo Courtesy of SPI)
    Women of Konyak Tribe celebrating at their mini-grid in Nagaland State, 2022. (Photo courtesy of SPI)

Much was learned from this work as well. It paved the way for successful commercial mini-grid operators that complement the grid. Companies such as Husk Power, OMC, Tata Power and Hamara Grid, have raised over $150 million of private capital, operating over 1000 mini-grids that serve homes and entrepreneurs in rural India with reliable, productive-use, clean energy.

Built from a belief that ending energy poverty is vital for economic development, SPI also supported the green energy movement. In 2021, the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet was born, initially spearheaded by The Rockefeller Foundation, IKEA Foundation, and Bezos Earth Fund.

To appreciate the origins of SPI, and later of GEAPP, we need to rewind a few years, to 2009.

NEXT: A Margaret Mead quote serves as a beacon, and a team wades through the Ganges in the dark.

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