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Entrepreneurs Use Solar Power to Sew Masks and Provide Comfort

Smart Power India empowering communities during unreliable times.

Nine months ago, solar-powered mini-grids arrived to Ruby Kumari’s village of 400 households in India’s Bihar State, allowing her to transform her considerable sewing skills into a viable business. The onset of Covid-19 gutted her earnings, but electric power allowed her to launch a new venture, making masks for her neighbors while simultaneously supporting her two children.

Even more, when night darkens the village of Parsa, dependable electricity has proven to be a source of comfort Ruby, newly widowed. Her children sleep while she works to the sound of crickets gathered in nearby wheat and corn fields. It is then that a spike of anxiety sometimes surfaces. She breathes easier knowing she can turn on a light and keep her mobile phone charged so she can call family members and friends she no longer sees due to the nationwide lockdown.

“We were managing our lives before without power,” Ruby says. “But it’s a comfort to have constant electricity when everything else is so unreliable.”

Before Covid-19 Ruby, 38, was running a home-based sewing school with 80 students in two classes. Each student paid 650 rupees, the equivalent of about $8.60, for six months of lessons. Now she is one of 25 seamstresses being paid by Smart Power India (SPI) under a plan to supply five masks per household to various districts around Bihar for a combined total of 125,000 masks over a two-month period. Each entrepreneur receives $400 to $500, depending on how many masks they produce.

SPI is a Rockefeller Foundation initiative to bring last-mile electrification to the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand. Monitoring of its mini-grid projects from 2015 to 2018 observed an average revenue increase of 35 percent for shops and 52 percent for commercial enterprises.

Not only livelihoods, but also education and health are improved by access to sufficient and reliable electricity. In November 2019, the Foundation and Tata Power, India’s largest integrated power company, announced a collaboration with SPI and the Institute for Transformative Technologies to launch TP Renewable Microgrid Ltd. with the goal of building 10,000 mini-grids to provide clean power to nearly 5 million households, directly impacting the lives of 25 million people over the next decade.

SPI Supports Its Customers Through Covid-19

With the start of Covid-19, mini-grid expansion slowed, but SPI had a new role to play in supporting current customers. SPI carried out a telephone survey to discover what hardships and shortages their customers were facing and then launched several initiatives.

smart power india - school of sewing

Recognizing that basic household economic calculations had changed and many could not afford their electrical bills, SPI established a voucher system to supplement energy costs for 30,000 households, or some 150,000 customers, at a cost of $250,000 over six months, and then created the systems for the vouchers to be both distributed and redeemed digitally.

SPI also set up an awareness campaign and arranged for the distribution of soaps and hand sanitizers as well as masks. Discovering a mask shortage, SPI introduced a program to help fund 25 entrepreneurs, all using electric sewing machines that the mini-grids helped power. SPI shared a how-to video and helped the seamstresses locate the needed supplies.

For Ruby, the work is intense, but also a relief. She lives with her 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. Her husband, diagnosed with cancer last summer, passed away in June in the midst of the pandemic. She rarely leaves home. A nearby shopkeeper drops groceries at her door. Her bustling village falls eerily quiet each night about 7 p.m.

Ruby hired ten young women for her mask-making venture. Now she sews 50 masks a day with help from her daughter Shalini, and also cuts the cloth for her employees to sew. Each one returns 50 finished masks to her every two to three days. To handle her new business and household chores, she rises at 5 a.m. daily and works until about midnight.

  • There is fear and anxiety of course, but I don’t have much time to feel that. I don’t even feel exhausted. I’m happy that I’m making masks to help my village and support my family.
    Ruby Kumari

The Road to Recovery

Small business recovery will be a key issue for Bihar State, in east India bordering Nepal, and for the entire country, says Samit Mitra, SPI’s Director of Program Implementation. SPI discovered from its surveys that many were depleting their business capital just to survive, so arranged for small business loans to be made available once India removes restrictions.

“When the lockdown lifts, we want them to be in a position to restart their businesses immediately,” Mitra says.

Exterior shot of Ruby Kumari's Sewing Center

Some aspects of SPI’s work have been set back by the pandemic. For instance, any energy outage or other problem is generally resolved within 60 to 100 minutes after it is reported. “Today because of the difficulty of movement, it’s going to be around 24 hours to resolve an incident,” Mitra says.

In addition, mini-grid expansion has been forced to halt. “We have 300 mini-grids on the ground, and by this time we would have added another 100 if the pandemic had not occurred,” he says.

But perhaps most of all during this pandemic, “we miss the face-to-face interaction,” Mitra says, “which is something we’ve been really good at. You actually learn a lot more about someone’s situation through their body language, their intonations, and obviously by visiting their homes and seeing their spaces. Over the phone, people often either exaggerate or downplay their problems.”

Even without that possibility for face-to-face interaction, SPI is working with its customers to make a difference. “Our program succeeds,” Mitra says, “because of our work on the ground—not only what we do, but how we do it.”

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