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Bright lights, bright future

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Rudyard Kipling said only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, but Hemant Chanrai has other ideas.

As the 27-year-old Indian entrepreneur strides, toolbox in hand, down a narrow Kebayoran Lama street in the oppressive heat of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, it’s already clear he’s a man with a vision. Or rather, a solar vision.

“You have to be motivated by something,” he says. “For some, money is that motivation, but for me, it’s all about helping others.”

Since January this year, Chanrai has been doing just that via his company Azzura Solar, which installs solar lighting in the homes of poor families for free.

Chanrai set up Azzura Solar in May 2013, selling solar-powered power banks in Indonesia, but changed tack after he received an order from a customer in Sukabumi, West Java. Chanrai calls it his “transition moment”.

“The guy told me the electricity supply was so bad in Sukabumi [that] sometimes it was off for weeks, so the power banks were ideal for him,” says Chanrai. “Then it clicked. Why not bring solar energy to the poor?”

The next question was where to start — experts say at least 55 million Indonesians live without electricity. Eastern Indonesia is one region often held up for its limited supply and regular blackouts, but for Chanrai, a former student of Jakarta International School, the focus was local.

“I looked around and saw so many areas in need of electricity close to where I lived and where I grew up, so for me, we needed to start right here.”

Since January, Chanrai and his team have installed their so-called “solar-light kits” in at least 20 homes and schools in Greater Jakarta and beyond, reaching over 100 people.

The latest installation, witnessed by The Jakarta Post, took place in a Kebayoran Lama kampung, a 15-minute walk from the high-end stores of Tag Heuer and Burberry at Senayan City mall.

Each kit consists of a small solar panel, a battery, cables and three energy-saving lights, all sourced locally. Chanrai tends to identify the areas in need via reaching out to charities, but today he’s out on his own in a kampung of his choice, looking for a home to help.

He soon finds one. It’s the house of Warno and Supartina, both in their 50s. They’ve lived in the same home for 30 years with their kids and more recently with their grandkids.

After the pleasantries, Chanrai gets down to business. Do they have any problems with their lighting at night? Are they interested in having a solar light installed for free? Yes and yes. And so with their permission, he gets to work.

“The panel sucks in the sunlight and the battery charges through the day, which means one of these kits can give you a minimum seven hours of light per day,” he says, hammering the solar panel into a wall while an intrigued crowd slowly grows around him.

“It’s a plug-and-play system. Easy to install, easy to remove. So if families want to take them to their kampung outside Jakarta, they can. All they need to know is how to turn the battery on and off.”

Azzura Solar, Chanrai explains, is funded by contributions from corporations and individuals. It costs
Rp 1.3 million (US$108) to fund one kit and usually three kits are installed in one home.

“What we’ve found is that many individuals want to help the communities around them, but they don’t know how,” he says.

Via his network of contacts, Chanrai reaches out to those he thinks may be interested in giving something back, later publishing the fruits of their donations on Facebook and Azzura Solar’s website — a method he places a lot of importance in.

“The bigger charities do great work, but sometimes if you give to them, maybe you don’t see specifically where your money is going because it all goes into one big lump sum and then something good is created out of that.”

But Chanrai says Azzura Solar is different.

“With us, each project is your own. You fund it, it’s yours. You can even visit the place where your money goes and see the difference you’re making straight away.”

And the impact of that difference, according to Chanrai, is often immediate.

He recently installed nine kits in the mountainous Puncak region, two hours south of Jakarta, where he said that prior to his visit, some families were using candles after dark, a predicament completely turned around by the kits.

A week after Chanrai’s installation in Kebayoran Lama, supported by individual contributions, Warno and Supartina are reaping the benefits. They’ve placed the kit lights in the lounge and two bedrooms and say the kits will help reduce their electricity bill, which amounts to Rp 215,000 a month. For Warno, there are additional positives.

“We have problems with dim lights here; sometimes the electricity just drops, but the kits have made it brighter and it means my grandkids can study more,” he says, adding that the kits also minimize the chance of fires as they aren’t plugged into the grid and therefore don’t have to be connected to the decrepit conventional system in his home.

Seeing the impact of the kits, other residents in the kampung have requested them from Chanrai too.

It seems the potential for solar energy is high, if only it could be harnessed.

Fabby Tumiwa, executive director of the Institute for Essential Services Reform, an energy think tank based in Jakarta, said the development of government-sponsored off-grid solar panels in Indonesia had seen a mixed bag of results.

“The potential for solar energy is limitless. You can install it from Aceh to Papua, as long as there’s sun and minimal shade. When people use this technology, their lives completely change for the better,” he said.

“But the problem is sustainability. Most government projects only last for a couple of months to a year because the battery is poor, which means reliability is poor, or people use the battery for other purposes.”

But for Chanrai — who recently added a solar-powered lamp to Azzura Solar’s bow to reach more rural homes — there’s still hope and a great deal of opportunity for smaller, targeted projects like Azzura Solar’s that work on street level.

“Lighting is needed but the potential need in Indonesia goes much further than that,” he says. “We want to use solar energy to produce clean drinking water, or to power cold storage facilities, which could really help fishermen keep their catches fresh.”

One day in the future, Azzura Solar even has designs on powering an entire village via solar panels.

The sky, it seems, is Chanrai’s limit. And why shouldn’t it be when the sun is his ally?

Source: The Jakarta Post.

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