In this episode, we will be speaking with Radhika Thakkar, one of the earliest employees of the green light planet, a leading global provider of solar home energy products to over 45 million rural consumers that employs over 1000 dedicated individuals. Ms. Thakkar helped expand the company’s presence from India to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America within one year of operations to include hundreds of channel partners in more than 50 countries around the world today. Ms. Thakkar is also the president of the board of directors of Gogla, which is the global association for the off-grid solar energy industry and represents over 200 organizations. Hope you enjoy our wide-ranging conversation! Topics covered under this podcast:
1. What was the origin story of Greenlight Planet?
2. Key early moments in the Greenlight Planet trajectory
3. Evolution of Greenlight Planet products
4. Evolution of the solar off-grid market
00:06 Karan Takhar
Hello everyone. This is Karan Takhar, and welcome to the Zenergy podcast. Over the past decade, India has done an impressive job of integrating renewable energy into its energy mix. For this Fulbright podcast series, I sought to investigate the enabling factors and potential of India's global leadership in renewable energy, with a focus on solar. This Fulbright series is broken down into Four Seasons. In this season, through conversations with ten leading social entrepreneurs and development experts, we will illustrate how renewable energy in India has taken off at the rural level. Not only will the series provide insight into their fascinating entrepreneurial journey but also how they've been able to overcome the financing, consumer awareness, and distribution challenges associated with rural solar energy deployment at a large scale.
In this episode, we will be speaking with Radhika Thakkar, one of the earliest employees of Green Light Planet, a leading global provider of solar home energy products to over 45 million rural consumers, and the company employs over 1000 dedicated individuals. Miss Thakkar helped expand the company's presence from India to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America within one year of operations to include hundreds of channel partners in more than 50 countries around the world today. Miss Thakkar is also the president of the Board of directors of Gogla, which is the Global Association for the Off Grid solar energy industry and represents over 200 organizations. Hope you enjoy our wide-ranging conversation. I recently came across a report from an IFC Energy Conference in 2009, which highlighted that underserved communities were spending $20 billion on substandard off-grid lighting solutions, and the report predicted 95% annual growth of off-grid lighting solutions for the decade 2010 to 2020, and this is globally, and I know green light, which of course is global operations today, was founded in 2009, and just wanted to ask, like how the idea to create this company came about at a time when the sector was just so nascent. Could you talk a little bit about like the early days of green light and like how the idea to launch the company came about?
03:08 Radhika Thakkar
Sure. Yeah, yeah, thanks for having me here, Karan. So, you're absolutely right, we launched our first sales in 2009. But, there's a chapter or two that precedes the official registration and no incorporation of green light planet that really gets into the why like, how did this idea come about and how did it end up turning into a company that's now lasted well, over a day decade and it starts, actually, in a college, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, and where Patrick Walsh, who's the CEO of Green Light and one of the Co-founders of the company as well, was studying and physics actually, and he had at some point, he started an internship with engineers about borders, and the project that he was working on throughout the academic year was to work with a group of students to build a biodiesel generator for a village in Odisha in eastern India to power a rice husking machine this is an off-grid village that harvests a lot of rice and traditionally has done so by hand and the idea was taken old generator or traditional generator make it a little bit more eco or sort of environmentally friendly by using you know non-edible seeds that could be used for fuel and help the community just get faster, right? They are just we can husk rice faster, we can bring more to market, less effort, more money, more income, you know, better for the community, and so the project team, you know, Patrick was working way if they designed this over the summer they went to the village to build it, and they taught the community how to use it, How to maintain it, you know, in a simple way, and then went on, you know, Patrick went on to travel around India for a little while as you do as a college student over the summer, and he came back on his way out and went back to the US, and realized that the community was using the generator that they had built, but not to Husk rice, they had pretty much as soon as this students laughed disconnected the generator from the rice husking machinery and reconnected it, or sort of rejiggered it the generator to power individual light bulbs in many of the homes in the community, and so they, you know, looked at the solution and we're like, we have energy, awesome. What are we going to do we're going to get some light at home, and Patrick, you know, saw that and realized, gosh, we didn't even bother asking them what they wanted or what they would prioritize if we could help them access funds and energy, right, if we could take sort of a taste of the grid here, and we assume that they would want it to accelerate income generation and the community thought we have later house Price, right? We've been doing this, but we don't have at home if clean, reliable, affordable light. We use kerosene and struggle for our lungs. Our children trained to study, and they saw an opportunity to just have bright, clean light without any of those, you know, the health and safety hazards of the kerosene lamp or the ongoing expense, right, because they're buying kerosene, you know, in sort of small 2/3 of a coke bottle, a tiny, you know, book bottle amount every week which adds up, and so when Patrick said that he was like, gosh, I, you know, one we purchased the wrong way. We impose a solution instead of really understanding what a community would want if it seemed the engineers do something, but two, this is not the most efficient way to bring light to the community. Of course, you know you could create this sort of central power source and wire it to an incandescent light bulb in each in each. It's inefficient. What happens if the generator breaks down, they may or may not have the expertise locally to fix it, and it's not really scalable like this is one village out of thousands in India, let alone, you know, hundreds of thousands in the world, and so he, you know, he went back to school, and you know, he thought before he made that trip he had purchased at an out, you know, REI or store like that, a solar-powered that he thought might come in handy for his trip, and he did, you know, he had this extra data flight, and he realized the land he had bought was not maybe the most advanced or the most energy efficient either the query solutions exist, and it wasn't that expensive, and so he started to tinker around, right? So, he's back in school now, and he started to just play around in the lab and study leads in solar panel technology and realize that there's just a much easier way to scale and alternative to kerosene lamps, and now it's the initial project. You know, at that point, I don't think it was even really a business idea. It was just this seemed like a really solvable problem. Can't we just replace the kerosene lamp with a solar lamp? That's how it got going, so you know, very long story on the beginnings there. But Patrick, you know, played around and designed to a solar lamp that looks nothing like our current lamps do, and that he then went back in the next summer and took those prototypes to be built and started to just get a feeling this is something that people would want where they purchase it, they use it, and the responses were consistently positive, and not so that he realized there's an opportunity that there's, you know, there's at that point nearly 2 billion people that were still using kerosene lamps either entirely, kind of primarily or even sporadically when they couldn't rely on the grid, and anyways, there's just no need with solar technology, with battery technology, with LED technology that didn't need to be the answer today and so that what got green light going on. Patrick then brought in two of his classmates from the University of Illinois into the picture, and they decided, yeah, let's do this. There's a real business opportunity, and so then, you know, like many early-stage ideas, begin the process of, and doing one thing during the day, I'm trying to raise money on the side at night, building a business plan or finding a product, etc. but by the end of 2008 that the trio Co-founders had raised and seed funding and had figured out how to launch products, and had figured out an initial distribution model to play with and got the business going and so by May, April, May of 2009 had the first shipment of the original Sun cane product destined for India to begin selling, and so yeah, I fast-forwarded quite a bit there and got out the details. But at the time, you know that there just wasn't much. There were a couple of companies who had very similar origin stories, and similar solutions and that had gotten started maybe a year and a half before us, but they just really weren’t many companies that were thinking about individually affordable Solutions for households to purchase to replace this you know ubiquitous kerosene lamp that just had not innovative over, you know well over a century at that point.
10:37 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much for expanding on that. And yeah, I know green light planet and the Sun King product portfolio is like the first one of the very first partner companies at the IFC's Lighting Asia India initiative, and I was looking at statistics online, and you're mentioning how all these products like, helped save on kerosene costs. And just to put a number on that, I read that over time, the green light Sun King product portfolio saved over $3.4 billion on fossil fuel-based costs, which is like super significant again, number and I'm just trying to understand like in those early days like 2009, I think that's when you joined the company as well in the middle of 2009, like what were some of the key challenges that you and the team experienced in terms of trying to sell and like scale the product across India, can you talk a little bit about some of those scaling challenges initially?
11:46 Radhika Thakkar
Yeah, yes, for sure, I'd say back then, in 2009, awareness of our product category, the technology, and the what we were doing and why it was so limited, I think that was one of the biggest barriers that we face and that stretched from the end consumer, right, the household that we were that we're selling to you know companies, distributors that we were eager to partner with to get our products to tomorrow households all the way up to government levels and ministries, the, you know energy and electrification in a variety of countries. This just wasn't an industry right there wasn't there was a recognition that, and the entire world does not have access to the electric grid that was known, but there wasn't yet a sense of, and alternatives to that, that you know, I think at the time it was still assumed that the way to give everyone energy access is to expand the grid, and I'd like in it to maybe a couple decades before that, not even a full two decades and 1/2 before that when and you know the world not everyone had a mobile phone, and the way to be connected by voice was to have a landline in installed in your household, and if you go back even a few decades, not every physical house that had a landline, right? and you'd go to some people go to their neighbors who was like the designated you know commerce and or somebody would get a phone call for someone outside of their household, and you know someone the family would run down and grab the neighbors and say you know your uncle called you or something and then, of course, there will be part leapfrogs and now, So the prevalence of connectivity, mobile phones, it's not even one per household, but it's multiple households and in, you know, so much of the world without a landline at all, right? And so I think that shift we don't have to physically connect everyone to the grid, and two, we can provide solutions that actually don't even come from the electric grid that wasn't recognized. I think that at sort of the larger scale at the government at the government level, let alone at the consumer level, you know we were, we were speaking to extremely rural households in India, and so by the end of 2009. Also starting to build that distribution and in sub-Saharan Africa as well. And the profile was very similar. Typically a rural household who was not really familiar with solar technology, and if they had heard of it and this patient was kind of large scale commercial and in some countries the association was, this doesn't work, it's a way that someone comes on console of your money. And so we had to do a tremendous amount of educating customers, and educating for customers, you know, explaining what solar technology is, how it works and how it could replace fuel-based sources of lighting, which at the time was the predominant way people are letting their homes explain the financial calculations. You know you have this recurring cost of kerosene, and when you pay for a solar lamp, you don't have any recurring costs until a few years from now when you might need to change out the battery, and so a tremendous amount of consumer education and for that reason, we couldn't just produce our products and put them on like store shelves, 'cause no one would ever come over I purchase it. You know you don't go into a store. You go into a store looking for something that you know you want. You don't go in kind of learning completely new technology and kind of putting together for yourself the value it may bring you. So we actually had to build a direct distribution model specifically so that we could bring our products to communities several people that spoke their language, that were from the area could explain what the product was, how it works, how it might bring them value etc. And so, yeah, I would say creating awareness at so many levels was just one of the biggest challenges. I mean, I remember it as earlier than I was trying to find distributors in India and also in sub-Saharan Africa. I would sometimes meet with companies, you know. I would go and try to find like FMCG, fast-moving consumer goods or consumer durables companies because I was thinking, you know, they get these small packets of cereal or sugar or flour or oil tea all the way down to these small kiosks in rural areas, how perfect Couldn't I, couldn't we just leverage their distribution system? Their customers are our customers, and I would go and speak with them, and they would look at me like I don't understand why you want to talk to me I don't do electronics, I don't do light. Also not an NGO. And so there was this assumption back then, you know, from with a lot of organizations for people who are speaking with that, you're talking about customers that don't have money. You must be an NGO. You know, how could anyone ever afford this, and we knew that wasn't true, right? We had world customers, you know, with a couple dollars a day. As a household income who were making that choice and saying, I value this and making investments in our products, but there was that was a big mention mine mindset shift we had to kind of enable as well, just helping people understand that there are consumers, yes, they're lower income than urban households, but they have needs that they prioritize and they're willing to open up their wallets and invest in solutions that better them their livelihood, and I'd say those are two really, big challenges in those early years the challenges have shifted of course over the years since then but that when I think back, then I think those are two of the largest.
17:48 Karan Takhar
When you reflect back, are there like any moments that you remember where like this event happened, and then green light kind of like inflected in its journey, if that makes sense, meaning like.
17:53 Radhika Thakkar
18:05 Karan Takhar
Are there any key moments like early on that you can point to, which the team just looks back on and is like, that's the moment that enabled us to kind of get to the next level?
18:21 Radhika Thakkar
Yeah, there's probably been a few, and I think that's probably, there's probably a series of things that added up and, you know and I was just talking about this limited awareness challenge, I think and part of what has addressed that is, you know, just the growth of our industry when you know, back then 2009-2010, there was like there's like five companies like us trying to create this awareness across all Subs in Africa, All of Asia, all of the areas that have an awkward population and as each of us grew, and particularly in markets where we were you know kind of operating together sort of side by side and awareness started to build right and so as more companies were out there customers companies governments start to understand what we're doing a little bit more and that helped that helped create momentum for sure and I think you know you your reference letting Asia the predecessor delighting Asia which is providing global was lighting I forgot that that was the beginning of this IFC well World Bank funded programme. A big part of what they were doing was helping to create awareness, and particularly awareness around.
19:42 Radhika Thakkar
How the distributed off-grid industry could be a real commercial, like a commercially viable marketplace. And so there is a lot of work that they did to help kind of expose companies like ours that were making solutions to local distributors, you know, big distribution companies, microfinance institutions as companies, etc. also a lot of conversations with governments to show the value proposition to help create welcoming, you know, sort of tax climates and reducing or eliminating import duties and in order to be able to change the energy access picture locally, and so I think you know certainly like the growth of our industry and the growth of companies, competitors and distributors helped, but I think that there are really important, there's really important work that came from ancillary organizations that just saw the potential of what could happen and really helped you know partner with us with the commercial sides really unlock that potential so that so that's not a specific Inflexion point, but you know one thing that's been really incredible is lighting Africa got this going. I think the first one was in 2008, and then the first kind of major one was in 2010 and basically every two years, holding a global Off-grid industry conference bringing everyone in, and the first one that we participated in was in 2010 in Nairobi and ten years later the beginning of 2020, just before the pandemic really shut everything down that the 2020 conference also took place in Nairobi and that was such a beautiful reflection point because we were there in 2010, it was actually held at the same venue. It's just that we took up a lot more and you in 2020, and there were probably a couple 100 people there in 2010, and there was over 1000 people there in 2020 from a much, yeah, larger set of countries, and ministers from all different, you know, energy, arms of government, policymakers, funders, distributors, and I mean, it was incredible, and you know I think about, I'm just trying to get like or their milestones or Inflexion points. I think about those very two-year gatherings often has really interesting milestones for us to measure and, in some cases, you know, Inflexion points because they really sort of show the industry like what's going on and who's there and who and who's a leader and so that's one thing that's, and I think been really remarkable to watch over the years I think in terms of actual kind of like our business fundamentally shifted because of a certain, a certain thing. I think once a softer Inflexion point which is I was mentioning before. I think just when there's kind of this like tipping point when there's a certain number of companies operating in a certain country, all selling quality solar products typically where the government in that market is supportive of the off-grid industry and is kind of creating or helping to create a conducive enabling environment on We see sort of a few years of like hard work to build awareness to, and then you kind of you start to feel a little bit of hockey. You see a bit of hockey stick lift up, and so I can't point to like a specific day where that stood out, but I think we've seen this in all of the sorts of the leading markets in the world right now for off-grid solar there, there's this kind of magic thing. That magical thing that happens when there's a, You know, abundance or presence of prevalence of companies selling high quality, you know, solar powered energy systems. I think the other that comes to mind is when we moved into the page without space. So, maybe just a short recap on their summary, what pay as you go is, but basically, we embed technology for products that allows our customers to pay for the solution through a series of installments rather than paying, say, $100 upfront for a 6 foot solar home system, and they may pay over, you know, eight or ten months, in some cases four or six months or something like that, and they make, you know, small incremental payments could be as little as like 25 or $0.30 a day depending on the size of the system, and at some point it completed you know series of payments and it that they have fully paid off their product from the technology. The way the technology works is that if a payment is not made, the system does not work. So it's a nice way to sort of ensure. Yeah. Payment happens sort of a little bit of a lockable asset there, and it makes it possible to provide some sort of financing to customers that they generally don't have credit histories or even bank accounts or any sort of, you know credit worthiness that we could look at, and for the customer, it makes super affordable a product that you know if we had required them only to pay upfront would just be really challenging for most because we're talking about then in something that represents, you know, multiple months' worth of income for the household, and so I think we weren't the first to operate in the pay-as-you-go world we had by the time we stepped into pay as you go solutions we've already had about nine years of selling products for cash which is the harder thing or finding financing partners you know like our financial institutions and but I think when we launched into the page, you go space in initially in Kenya and Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria, Myanmar, and now India and Zambia as well. It really just unlocked energy access, I think, or it really accelerated energy access, and so that's probably the biggest budget point that we've experienced individually, and I think our industry has experienced. Overall because, we completely remove that cost, upfront payment, and upfront barrier for our customers.
26:19 Karan Takhar
Super interesting. Yeah. My next question actually was gonna be about the pay-as-you-go model and like how the growth of telecom presence and off-grid markets has impacted green lights product offerings. And I'm just curious, so, like, across these markets that you just mentioned, Kenya, India, and several other countries across like the African subcontinent. Do you find that like the presence of telecom towers is pretty like ubiquitous? As in, like most rural residents have access to mobile phones and could you just talk maybe a little bit about? Right, Like how that technology, like the presence of that technology in these markets?
27:16 Radhika Thakkar
Yeah, you're absolutely right. I think the growth of the telecom sector. Definitely represents huge opportunity for continuous accelerated energy access and distribution of energy, and I think the reason it's so valuable for us is that, hey, go in our experience has worked best or, say, most seamlessly. When customers can pay their mobile money, it's really. It's really much simpler from a distribution perspective. We don't physically have to meet our customers or set up a payment, you know, location, it's safer there's no physical handing over cash either from the customer to our, you know, our sales points and then coming back up centrally and so in places like Kenya, well, mobile money Tanzania also Uganda with mobile money super prevalent. It just makes it that much easier to offer a page-you-go product right 'cause not only can we get the product out to the customer, and we have this technology that enables them to pay in installments, but they can actually make payments without having to leave their home or meet one of our salespeople, so that's definitely the enabler. I don't think it's a prerequisite, though, so we also operate in markets remote money is not very prevalent. We hope that it will grow in time, but we have to figure it out. Well, more manual ways, that you know, more traditional sort of cash collections to support the system. It's more complex. Certainly, there's more unknowns or variables that you have to account for. Security manning over cash lost all of that. But it's not impossible, then, and so yeah, I think. As a telecom industry, you know, I think one continues to expand their footprint to more mobile areas, which we've seen happen tremendously in the last decade, and to your question about towers, there's so many more today than they were decade ago. There are still a lot of places particular population density is low and where connectivity is not great, and that really depends on country to country but even within a certain country reaching the region. But I think, you know if we look at what's happened in the last decade, and then crossroad in the in the next decade, I can only imagine that's going to keep, you know, improving and getting more, and prevalent right connectivity competition, the strength of connectivity and both from an air time or sort of a kind of the clarity of signal as well as data and how affordable data bundles have become you know I think, there's so much more that's available and not concentrated to urban or peri-urban areas. So, that is important, and I think, but I don't think, more importantly, the growth of mobile money in various markets around the world will help, you know, accelerate the CEO channel as well around the world for as successful as the pay as you go solar industry has been it's heavily concentrated come to a few parts of the world, East Africa generally, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania tend to be the strongest. Starting to grow a lot in Nigeria and you know, and then there are a few other markets that are starting to build, but that when you look at the sort of global sales figures for pay-as-you-go solar, I can't remember off the top of my head, what percentage, but an overwhelming majority is really concentrated to East Africa, and I think that is so closely related to global money is prevalent all sort of industry has grown. So it's I think as mobile money becomes even more prevalent in different parts of the world, and telecom operators continue to invest and provide great services in rural areas. It's absolutely gonna accelerate. You know what we can do as well in terms of providing energy. And I think there's a really nice symbiotic relationship here because when our products get out to rural customers who don't have energy at home and through our products now have a way to charge them up well, phones, charging, tablet access a television and you know, power and watch television, and they also have you know devices to consume data and to log online. And do you know e-learning think about all of that. The virtual schooling or the fact just that schools were closed for a lot of last years and a lot of students were accessing educational content through radios and through televisions provided by, you know, local networks, and we certainly saw our customers purchasing our solar radios and televisions at a different rate than we've had then we've seen previously. And so there's this really nice, yeah, I think relationship, right, that with the prevalence of Internet data and information and an ability to have power super efficient, you know low energy devices, and this kind of marriage between the two can do even more for particularly for rural consumers, many of whom have been have overlooked or underserved by a lot of the advancements that can happen in urban and Peri-urban area.
32:50 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much for expanding on that. And I know we don't have much time left, and I've been excited to ask you this question. I usually ask some form of it come across all my interviews, but I'd like to hear like your thoughts on what advice you would provide to like maybe a younger entrepreneur who is thinking about serving like the off-grid market across emerging economies, just reflecting through the lens of your own experience is there any specific advice that you would like give to younger entrepreneur who's thinking about entering the space?
33:47 Radhika Thakkar
Yeah, first of all, I'd say please enter the space for as much as the industry has solved or started to make progress in there. You know, we still have more than a billion people that need energy, and that kind of global goal for universal energy access in 2030 or it's pretty aggressive, so we all have to work together and get really innovative to get there. So yeah, so that's one I invite entrepreneurs, and I think. But then I think on a practical level and but I think really pay attention to what your customers and whatever the product is, whatever your market segment is, whatever your consumers are really pay attention to what they want and what they need and ask questions and observe and listen and adapt your business, your product, your business processes to just suit the customer, not the other way around, right? So and it's important to do a lot of thinking in an office or in a lab and to create and then and then to get things out, but it's really important to learn from how you know customers are reacting to the things that we offer and to understand what works and what doesn't and then, and iterate based on that and that's where we're important from the beginning of the design stages, right? So concepts have to be, I think, created based on an understanding of what's going on. In reality and then pressure tested, not just in a lab setting but in real life, and that, I think, has been so important, and for us at a green light, it's one thing that we over the years have been really consistent in which is we prioritize going to the source. So when you know, when we hear a complaint, and something doesn't feel right, it doesn't appear to be working. We're not seeing the trends we'd anticipated. And sitting around a boardroom and hypothesizing, sometimes it's appropriate, but usually going down in the ground and asking questions and observing first hand and getting a sense of why is this not, you know, reconciling with what we had envisioned suit. That's super important, and that's how you figure out why is that you know customers really need and wants and what are they willing and you know how can they afford or how can they how do they interact with the solutions that we put out there I think that has driven our product innovation from the very earliest days. It was, yeah, customers saying to us, I need light is wonderful, but I really need a way to charge on the wall phone that pushed us to figure out how to add a mobile, Phone trick or USB, you know, port to our portable lamps, and it was customers saying I love these products, but I don't have the money. Help me figure out how to pay for them. That pushed us to build that, you know, what became really large and scalable partnerships with MFA's. Even when we started those partnerships, it was our observations of and working hand in hand with, like, the loan officers who were going out and meeting and, you know, groups of borrowers to understand. How do you even make that sort of distribution partnership work it, you know, it took a long time before it clicked, and it took a lot of time on the ground observing How things happen and then sort of building and tweaking the distribution, the marketing, the support model, the after-sales, you know model around it before that would click, and so yeah, I think, go to the source golden source as much, and as often as you can, and ask questions and really pay attention to what's coming out today, I think. That's really important in any kind of business really. But certainly, when it comes to energy access and just really, you know, hard to travel to places, the infrastructure just is lacking, so it's really important too. Yeah, to get to see what's around you and get creative based on that.
38:07 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much, Radhika. Really appreciate you taking the time and sharing all these incredible insights and making sure to go to the source, and I'm. I'm sad I didn't get to ask you about the silent energy transition. But next. And I really appreciate it. Thank you so much, Radhika.
38:28 Radhika Thakkar
Of course. Thanks, guys.
38:30 Karan Takhar
I hope you enjoyed that episode and do check out the show notes For more information on my guest. See you next time.