Solar energy This man is bringing light to India’s darkness

Solar in the village
Solar in the village | Photo: © Ulrike Putz

Rustam Sengupta is hitting several of birds with one stone: He’s bringing light into India’s poorest dwellings, is helping to reduce India’s CO2 emissions and is even making some money in doing so. If more people started following the young Indian entrepreneur’s example, there would be a huge positive impact on the world.

Rustam Sengupta has shed light on the pitch-black nights of Indian villages. The Indian man was in his mid-20s when his swanky, French business school sent him with a group of students on an excursion through rural India. The group of international students was supposed to get a picture of what life in one of the poorest parts of the world is like and then advise them on how to make their lives better. “It was rubbish of course, we had no idea what the people needed or wanted,” Sengupta says.

The class trip was supposed to get the students interested in social entrepreneurship, but Sengupta was initially put off by it. To him, wanting to help the villages seemed to be an arrogant and possibly pointless endeavor. And so the 28-year-old Indian continued on his original plan of working hard, earning a lot of money and making his parents proud.

And he had optimal prerequisites for achieving that. Sengupta first received a degree in electrical engineering in India, then received a scholarship to study at the University of California and finally completed his MBA at the elite French university, Insead.

Young Indian entrepreneur Rustam Sengupta Young Indian entrepreneur Rustam Sengupta | Photo: © Ulrike Putz In 2009, Sengupta was hired by a British bank in Singapore, the Standard Chartered Bank, in which he oversaw loan operations. He was earning 10,000 euros a month and had a shining future ahead of him. He would probably be one of the Indian managers that populate the executive floors of international corporations by now if he hadn’t thrown that all away in 2010. Similarly to his brother, Caesar, who is a vice president at Google.

But Sengupta couldn’t forget those pitch-black nights in the Indian villages. During his excursion, he experienced how, after darkness crept over the village, life in the huts came to a halt. There were hardly any villagers who could afford lamp oil. The nights were filled with long, black agony, in which there weren’t even fans to cut through the brutal heat.

400 million Indians live in dwellings that aren’t connected to the power grid. Sengupta was thinking about this under the fluorescent lights of his air-conditioned office in Singapore. “I felt guilty,” the 35-year-old says today. Then the said lightbulb went off: He would return to India to bring solar energy to the villages that were off the power grid.

Sengupta’s company is called Boond, after the individual drops that come together to make a river, which in turn can move mountains. His target group is people living in rural areas, away from urban centers and far away from any kind of government infrastructure. “The thing is that these people want electricity. So the government will eventually plug them into the power grid. But then they’ll be consuming coal power - horrible,” Sengupta says.

When you visit the young father in his office, situated next to New Delhi’s metropolitan  highway, you instantly understand why he speaks with the utmost urgency of the necessity of not quenching India’s thirst for power solely with fossil fuels. The smog above the highway is so dense, that you can’t see the traffic coming on the opposite  side. Last year, the World Health Organization listed 13 of the 20 cities with the worst air worldwide on the Subcontinent. The reason: India gets about 80% of its energy from burning coal. Thus, India has the third-largest CO2 emission in the world - even though large portions of the country still live they way they did in the Middle Ages.

Sengupta wants to preempt government-provided electricity, because it’s good for his business, but also because each person who uses solar energy will improve India’s environmental record. In the beginning, Boond’s business consisted of selling solar lamps they developed themselves to villagers. A battery in the lamp charges during the day and brings light to the darkness at night.

Today Boond offers solar power solutions to entire communities. They also install so-called micro networks, which save solar power and then deliver it to individual households. By now, Sengupta has provided 25,000 families in India with power. He has 50 employees, which could double to100 by next year. The young entrepreneur is only paying himself 1,000 euros a month. “We’re not doing what we’re doing to get rich,” he says.

Boond’s success is based off of thinking in very small categories. In this way, working with Indian banks, the company offers micro financing. If you’re looking to catapult your farm into modern times with four lightbulbs and a fan, Boond can help you get a 200 euro loan, which you can pay off in 2 or 3 euro installments. And word is getting around that Boond’s concept has the potential to promote progress in India without hurting the environment. Sengupta was part of the prime minister, Narenda Modi’s delegation to the USA in September.

The young entrepreneur is hoping to find more powerful investors who want to do a service to the world by bringing solar energy to poor people in India. “It’s normal for people in the West not to bother themselves with poor farmers in the far-flung corners of India. But they are interested in the global climate. It’s sexy, relevant and urgent.”