Friday, October 27, 2017

Is Rent-to-Own Solar Power the Answer?

A Canadian entrepreneur is using a business model familiar from ’70s daytime TV to get Indians to embrace solar
By Jason Overdorf -- SMITHSONIAN.COM
(September 2016)

Dressed in a teal green dhoti and a white undershirt, 63-year-old Kisan Singh chuckles when he’s asked how many hours of a typical day the village of Ranchi Bangar gets electricity from the power grid.

“At night, light comes from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., so we can watch television and run the refrigerator and water pump,” he says, with a lopsided grin. “In the daytime, it’s anybody’s guess.”

Retired from the local government irrigation department, Singh lives with his son, daughter-in-law and grandsons in a squat brick house about 100 miles southeast of India’s capital, New Delhi. It’s a simple four-room dwelling—practically windowless, with brick walls and bare concrete floor, a few pots and pans stored on shelves, and plastic lawn chairs and nylon cots as the only furniture.

When it comes to green energy, however, the little house could well represent India’s future.

For a little more than a year, the family has been supplementing the sporadic electricity the village gets from the grid with solar energy, thanks to a new pay-as-you-go business model pioneered by Canadian entrepreneur Paul Needham and his company, Simpa Networks. Call it “rent-to-own solar.”

Needham is a serial tech entrepreneur whose online advertising company BidClix made its way into the portfolio of Microsoft. As a doctoral student in economics at Cambridge, he was obsessed with the reasons customers will shell out for certain products and not others. One of the questions that always bugged him was, “Why don’t I own solar panels?” The reason, he determined, was the high up-front costs.

Imagine if mobile phone service was sold like solar energy. From an operator’s perspective, it would have made great sense to try to sell customers 10 years of phone calls in advance, so as to quickly earn back the money invested in building cell towers. But the person who suggested such a strategy would have been fired immediately, Needham says.

“You want to charge people for what they value, not the technology that’s providing it,” he says in a telephone interview.

Realizing that the poorer the consumer, the more that axiom holds true, Needham teamed up with two microfinance experts about five years ago to develop small solar house systems for sale in India on a pay-as-you-go model. Today, they’ve installed systems in more than 20,000 homes and created 300 full-time jobs, as well as opportunities for 500-odd technicians and “solar entrepreneurs” who sell services based on having electricity in their shops or homes.

With $11 million in financing from various venture capitalists, as well as organizations like the Asian Development Bank and USAID, the company is scaling up fast—now growing its customer base by around 10 percent a month. The target is 1 million solar rooftops in rural India by 2019. With a little tweaking, the model could work in other developing countries, even in sophisticated markets like the U.S., Needham says. It’s actually been applied with some success in the U.S., he explains, but companies face issues due to the financing side of it. Entrepreneurs have to invest in equipment up front and only realize payments over time, so it’s easy to go bust if they don’t have enough capital.

Simpa’s solution borrows from prepaid cell service and the “rent-to-own” schemes notorious for fleecing poor Americans desperate for a television—turned to a good end.

With the most basic system, customers get a 40 watt solar panel, a 26 amp-hour battery, two LED lights, a 15-watt electrical outlet for appliances and two ports to charge or power USB devices—all of which operate using direct current (DC), so no inverter is necessary. The blue rooftop panel is about the size of a card table, angled toward the sun. The meter looks a bit like a car battery, with an e-ink readout to show how many “days” balance is remaining. It comes with special LED tube lights, about half the size of the schoolroom fluorescents we’re used to, and a freestanding electric fan.

It costs about $270 to buy the system outright and get free electricity for an estimated 10 years. But most customers choose a pay-as-you-go contract that allows them to purchase the kit in monthly payments over two or three years. Over three years, that means paying an extra 50 percent for the system. But the small payments are easy to manage, and the arrangement makes customers confident that the company will keep the equipment working, so as to get paid. The pay-as-you-go system also features on-site service and an extended warranty.

That’s proven to be vital, because do-gooders and fly-by-night companies alike have in the past failed to maintain systems installed with loans or charitable funds, sowing general distrust in solar, Needham says.

“When the batteries need to be topped up or there’s a little problem with the wiring, those systems just stop working,” he says.

With the pay-as-you-go scheme, customers typically pay 15 to 30 U.S. cents a day to power a fan, three lights and a mobile phone charger. They can see how many days they have remaining by pressing a button on the keypad of their meter, and call a customer service rep to take a top-up payment anytime, with cash-back bonuses for bulk purchases. About 10 percent choose to buy the system outright after six months or so, Needham said, and everybody is attracted to the idea that their payments are going toward a purchase.

“What we found was that most people wanted to own the equipment themselves; they didn’t just want to keep paying to use it,” Needham says.

Apart from helping India in its battle to lower greenhouse gas emissions and relieving the strain on its overburdened power grid, the business could play an important role in reducing poverty, he believes.

Worldwide, approximately 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and another 1 billion have extremely unreliable access, according to a Simpa case study. The poorest spend up to a third of their income on kerosene and access to third-party electricity—a whopping $38 billion for kerosene and $10 billion to charge their cell phones. That means over the 10-year lifespan of one of Simpa’s more advanced $400 solar systems, a typical user would have spent $1,500 to $2,000 on kerosene, candles, batteries and phone charging. Meanwhile, they’ll have missed out on economic benefits associated with electrification, including increasing income-generating working hours and improving school performance.

“Before we got the solar system, I was cooking in the dark,” says 26-year-old Anjali Gehlot, Singh’s daughter-in-law. “We were using candles and kerosene lamps. My children weren’t able to study at night or they weren’t able to sleep because there was no fan.”

With temperatures soaring to more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit for almost half the year in Ranchi Bangar, that’s a huge selling point. So much so that Gehlot prevailed on her husband to have a second “Turbo 240” system—the number 240 refers to its two 40-watt panels—installed three months earlier.

In total, the family now pays about $24 a month for solar power—about 15 percent of what Gehlot spends to feed a family of five—as a result. But the added comfort is more than worth that price, she says.

“It’s cheaper than the bill for the grid electricity,” Gehlot says.

And the light always comes on when she flicks the switch.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Counterpunch tells the story of athletes struggling to excel in a crooked game

The contrasting stories in Counterpunch offer a moving portrayal of athletes struggling to excel in a crooked game.
By Jason Overdorf - INDIA TODAY

(August 2017)

Now that Vijender Singh and company are introducing India to the theatrics of professional boxing, Jay Bulger's new Netflix documentary, Counterpunch, is required viewing. It follows the careers of former World Boxing Organisation (WBO) middleweight champion Peter 'Kid Chocolate' Quillin, top professional prospect Chris 'Lil B-Hop' Colbert and affable would-be US Olympian Cam F Awesome, yes, that's what it says on his passport. The contrasting stories offer a moving portrayal of athletes struggling to excel in a crooked game.

Having barely missed the 2012 Olympics, Awesome has had more amateur fights than anybody in America, and he's still pushing to make the 2016 Games, though he's older than many seasoned pros. At 18 years old, Colbert isn't thinking of the Olympics at all-but a contract with all-powerful promoter Al Haymon. Meanwhile, Quillin, who's already at the top, accepts $500,000 from Haymon in exchange for refusing to fight the mandatory challenger for his WBO belt and taking a year-long vacation instead. It's a Machiavellian manoeuvre by Haymon, who's out to control all the top fighters in the game, and the undefeated Quillin's comeback is marred by a controversial draw and then a loss to Danny Jacob. (Two years later, Quillin is yet to regain his title.) And when Colbert signs with Haymon as well, Bulger encourages you to see it as inking a deal with Mephistopheles.

But Haymon and Floyd 'Money' Mayweather aren't the ones who killed boxing. And the Don King-Mike Tyson era Bulger remembers with such fondness was hardly a golden age-as anybody who recalls the name Peter McNeeley will tell you.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Why advertisers are salivating over an obscure Indian sport

BY JASON OVERDORF 
(Newsweek June 2017)

This summer, as many as a billion TV viewers will tune in to watch India’s hottest new game: not cricket, not soccer, not basketball but a sport little known in the West called kabaddi.

Kabaddi is a contact sport combining elements of tag, rugby and capture the flag and was invented centuries ago in south India. It was first exhibited in the 1936 Berlin Olympics but never became an official Olympic sport. That hasn’t hindered its popularity in India: The Pro Kabaddi League, which is on the eve of its fifth season, starting in July, has more Indian fans than any sport besides cricket.

Professional sports have never been as popular in India as they are in so many other large nations, but the country has become an attractive market for global advertisers eager to reach the Indian middle class, one of the world’s fastest-growing pockets of consumers. By 2025, Indian consumer spending is projected to triple, hitting $4 trillion a year. (Germans, by comparison, spent $1.81 trillion in 2016.) Interest in entertainment, like music, film and television, has increased in India, and multinational corporations are betting that the middle class will develop an appetite for pro sports.

A joint venture among Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries, sports and talent agency IMG and Rupert Murdoch’s Star India media group is pumping money into sports, such as professional soccer, tennis and mixed martial arts. It is wooing retired football players from English teams, like former Manchester United forward Diego Forlán and Chelsea winger Florent Malouda, and tennis stars, like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who reportedly received roughly $4 million apiece from India’s tennis league to play in the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, small-time entrepreneurs are starting Indian sports franchises in everything from badminton to basketball. Twenty new professional sports leagues have been created since the founding of cricket’s Premier League in 2008.

None of these leagues has been as successful as the kabaddi league. According to local data company News Flicks, last year’s 24-match season attracted nearly a billion TV viewers. Kabaddi is now the second most popular sport in India after cricket.

“Kabaddi has a unique Indian identity,” says the commissioner of the Pro Kabaddi League, Anupam Goswami. In just four seasons, excitement in India has built a sport with international participation. Twelve teams, including ones from Japan, the United States and Britain, competed in the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, which snagged 114 million Indian TV viewers over 16 days of matches.

The sport still has a long way to go to catch up to the popularity of cricket, which also has a deep history in India. Since British colonizers introduced it in the 18th century, cricket has been called the religion that unites India’s many castes and communities. In less than 10 years since India’s professional cricket league launched, it has become the largest driver of the sport worldwide, with hundreds of millions more viewers than in the U.K., where the sport began.

Just as the best soccer players in the world travel to Europe to play, the world’s best cricketers want to compete in India’s Premier League. India’s investment in the sport has generated million-dollar endorsement deals for top players like Sachin Tendulkar, who earned enough from brands like Pepsi, Colgate and Visa to rank among Forbes ’s top 100 highest-paid athletes worldwide before he retired in 2014.

But the big question for business is whether newly imported sports can achieve the same popularity in India as those that Indians grew up playing . So far, sports with less familiarity here, like soccer, have not generated the same kind of enthusiasm.

Insiders say league officials and franchise owners resort to free tickets and even bussing schoolchildren to games to achieve “stadium fill,” in industry-speak. The three-year-old Premier Badminton League attracted only 3.5 million viewers for its 15 matches earlier this year, for instance, while the Hockey India League had even fewer for its 2016 season.

Some of the new sports leagues are thriving. Remus D’Cruz, an executive with the four-year-old Hockey India League, says it is basically breaking even thanks to funds from corporate sponsors like mobile network service provider Airtel and motorcycle maker Hero.

Meanwhile, corporate spending on sports-related marketing is growing in India. Overall, sports sponsorship has risen nearly 20 percent in 2016 over the previous year to reach nearly $1 billion, about a tenth of India’s overall advertising spending, according to a 2017 report by SportzPower India. (That is still far less than in North America, where sponsorship spending last year was more than $20 billion.) More encouragingly, perhaps, sponsorships of teams outside of cricket now account for nearly 40 percent of the pie.

Investors aren’t the only ones who benefit from a thriving sports culture. Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, kabaddi’s title sponsor, is betting more than $45 million this season that the game can win its brand some fans.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

India’s prime minster makes waves by attempting to appropriate Gandhi’s legacy

By Jason Overdorf — Special To The Washington Times - - Wednesday, May 31, 2017

NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised a lot of eyebrows here recently when he decided it was a good idea to wrap the nation’s advances in plumbing together with a celebration of Mahatma Gandhi.

An audience of smitten followers and party faithful broke into applause as Mr. Modi marked the 100th anniversary of Gandhi’s first campaign against British rule in colonial India in May 1917, linking it to his own Swachhagraha — “Clean India” — campaign to boost economic performance by ending public human defecation and cleaning up the country’s notoriously polluted and dusty cities.

Gandhi pushed for an independent India via what he called satyagraha, or nonviolent civil disobedience. “The aim of satyagraha was independence, and the aim of Swachhagraha is to create a clean India,” Mr. Modi told the crowd. “A clean India helps the poor the most.”

For any other prime minister, honoring the man often called the Father of the Nation would be a natural part of the job. But, despite his popularity, Mr. Modi remains a polarizing figure, and critics say the prime minister’s attempt to appropriate Gandhi’s legacy to benefit his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his own cult of personality is political sacrilege.

Modi has reduced one of the most interesting and celebrated public lives of the 20th century to toilet paper to clean his image,” said Sopan Joshi, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Gandhi Peace Foundation.

Launched in 2014, the Clean India campaign has built nearly 40 million toilets, according to government figures.

Gandhi’s first satyagraha movement mobilized peasants growing indigo in the Champaran district of the northern state of Bihar against their landlords and the British colonial government in 1917. The strategy of passive resistance would set in motion a movement that would force the British out of India 30 years later.

Satyagraha is a Hindi term typically translated as “an insistence on truth.”

Mr. Modi’s government has linked the two efforts and embarked on an 18-month celebration of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement that is slated to culminate in a massive spectacle in October 2019 to honor the 150th anniversary of the revered leader’s birth.

“The Bharatiya Janata Party and Gandhi have many commonalities on core issues, like cultural nationalism,” said party spokesman Rakesh Sinha, referring to Mr. Modi’s rhetoric about India’s uniqueness and its history as a cradle of Hinduism.

But critics say the behavior of Mr. Modi’s supporters flies in the face of Gandhi’s philosophy of tolerance and nonviolence.

Mr. Modi was hailed as a mold-breaking figure when he was elected in 2014, a pro-business politician who would jump-start the sclerotic and regulation-ridden Indian economy. But he also came to office under a cloud stemming from accusations that he stood idle in 2002 as Hindus massacred more than 1,000 Muslims over the course of three days in Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time.

A special investigation team representing the Supreme Court found no evidence to support those charges in 2012. But even in the aftermath of the 2002 violence, Mr. Modi referred to relief camps for displaced Muslims as “breeding centers” and joked about the minority group’s reputation for bearing many children due to laws that allow Muslim men to have up to four wives.

Since he became prime minister in 2014, Hindu vigilantes have lynched Muslims for allegedly eating beef or transporting cows for slaughter, vandalized Christian churches and stepped up a campaign against romances between Muslim men and Hindu women — which right-wing Hindu groups call “love jihad.”

Favoring Hindus
Critics say Mr. Modi has not spoken out or acted swiftly enough against those vigilantes because he still adheres to the Hindu nationalist ideology of Hindutva, which seeks to elevate Hinduism to a special place in technically secular India.

“Killings of Muslims for allegedly eating beef and vandalizing of churches would have repelled Gandhi but are at the core of the strategy of the Hindutva brigade,” said Raghav Gaiha, an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Manchester.

The partisan and sectarian clashes dominating New Delhi today stand in sharp contrast to the ideals that animated Gandhi’s movement. Committed to a diverse India, the Father of the Nation famously said he could never force anyone to stop slaughtering cows given that India is not a nation only of Hindus.

Gandhi helped spawn a political tradition that has long been at odds with Mr. Modi‘s, too.

The Hindu nationalist group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which later launched the BJP as its political wing, clashed with Gandhi when he was alive and reportedly celebrated his assassination by a former RSS member by distributing sweets, Mr. Joshi said.

Gandhi is not related to the familial Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that produced three prime ministers, as well as present Congress Party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. But during the independence movement, he was its president from 1921 to 1928. Though BJP leaders say that was a different entity from the one that exists today, the modern Congress Party remains the BJP’s largest rival in Indian politics.

For Mr. Modi, embracing Gandhi is one way of rising above his critics’ accusations as he attempts to remake himself from the business-friendly reformer of the 2014 campaign to the champion of the masses now that he is the country’s leader, said commentator N. Chandra Mohan, a longtime editor at several of India’s top newspapers.

“It’s very essential for [the BJP and its supporters] to occupy the national space,” Mr. Mohan said. “They’re no longer just a majoritarian party. Modi is the ruler of India. They’ve never had this stature before.”

But where Gandhi and the Hindu nationalists converge — on cleanliness, love for Hindu culture, the idea of achieving self-reliance by manufacturing in India and conservative morality — Mr. Modi can wrap himself in the same loincloth, Mr. Mohan said.

It may well be working.

This year, on the 2017 calendar produced by the Khadi Village Industries Commission, which has long featured the famous image of Gandhi at the spinning wheel, Mr. Modi is now spinning the yarn. Gandhi advocated boycotting British-made cloth and wearing only khadi, or “homespun.”

In Mumbai, employees staged a silent “soul-cleansing ritual” in protest, praying before a statue of Gandhi with black cloth over their mouths in January. However, the protest failed to gain traction.

BJP spokesman Tarun Vijay said it was unfair to link the independence leader with the modern Congress party, and Gandhi’s ideas find many echoes among today’s Hindu nationalists.

Gandhi was not Congress, he was a freedom fighter,” Mr. Vijay said. “The Bharatiya Janata Party under Modi is the living embodiment of the Gandhian values.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why India is going bananas over birth control for monkeys

By Jason Overdorf -- USA TODAY
(May 2017)

NEW DELHI — On a typical afternoon in a posh neighborhood here, a troop of rhesus macaque monkeys climb the wall of an apartment building to the rooftop water tanks with a specific goal.

Swinging like circus performers until one of the water pipes snaps off, the monkeys rush to drink the spraying water.

“It happens quite often,” said homeowner Shakun Chandhok, who called a plumber after a servant used a stick to drive off the monkeys. “They used to jump into the balcony and come into the kitchen and open the fridge, just like any human being does.”

The orange or gray monkeys, which weigh 12 to 17 pounds, have become one of the most dreaded pests in India, biting around 1,000 people a day nationwide and overrunning cities like New Delhi. The monkey problem has become so overwhelming that officials are searching for ways to use birth control on the animals.


In the fruit-growing state of Himachal Pradesh, monkeys have increased more than fivefold in the past decade, according the government. The animals create up to $300 million in crop losses and diverted labor every year, the farmer’s group Kheti Bachao Andolan said.

“Wherever they go, panic spreads,” said primatologist Iqbal Malik, who runs a nonprofit called Vatavaran, which is Hindi for environment. “Residents warn each other to close all doors and windows. Any houses which get raided by monkeys (are left) in shambles — eatables on the floor, crockery broken, taps open, wires cut, plants mauled.”

Himachal Pradesh formed a task force this month to cull the animals, which officials recently declared vermin. In the neighboring state of Uttarakhand, scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India will test an injectable contraceptive that has been used on white-tailed deer and wild horses in the United States.


“What our simulation and modeling indicate is that we need to control reproduction by more than 70% of the adult female population for a very long time, eight to 10 years,” to seriously impact monkey populations, said Qamar Qureshi, a senior scientist at the Wildlife Institute involved with the injectable contraceptives program.

City and state governments have tried numerous methods to control the monkey troubles. Since the monkeys are associated with the Hindu god Hanuman, mass culling has never been attempted. Officials have tried surgical sterilization. They’ve also employed monkey trainers to bring in tame langurs — a larger, more dominant species — to scare off the macaques.

Delhi officials even hired people to impersonate langurs to keep rogue macaques out of parliament. But the impersonators couldn’t keep them out of the building for long.

Himachal Pradesh spent around $1 million to set up eight sterilization centers. Officials pay trappers a bonus of nearly $10 a head for capturing the animals. Over the past 10 years, the state has sterilized more than 125,000 monkeys.

The cost and difficulty of sterilization has prompted persistent calls for trying oral contraceptives, a proposal first suggested in 2013. Qureshi said that plan failed because it's difficult to ensure the female monkeys consume the correct dosage, plus concerns that the drugs might hurt other species.

“Using oral contraceptives is a far-fetched dream at present,” he said. “It’s very difficult to implement in the field. We’re not talking about zoo conditions, where you can feed monkeys in controlled conditions.”

Injections are more practical, and in theory could be administered more quickly, but still present challenges. A single dose lasts only one year, and after that booster shots are necessary. At nearly $100 a dose, that's too costly for widespread use in the United States, let alone in India.

Surgical sterilization is much cheaper, easier to monitor and permanent, said Mewa Singh, a primatologist at the University of Mysore. But catching and releasing the monkeys is also costly.

Adding to the multiplying monkey population in urban centers from New Delhi in the north to Chennai in the south: People feed them at temples and parks, believing them to be holy.

“In South India, we’ve been monitoring the (macaque) population for the past 25 years,” he said. “The population has come down by 66%. But the complaint is the same. There are hundreds of thousands of monkeys, and they’re damaging the crops.”