Cool concepts for rural energy

Solar cold storage is just one of the products that Oikocredit's new Indian partner, Ecozen Solutions, uses to improve agriculture. The world’s seventh largest country needs innovative solutions to meet its rapidly growing energy demand. Kiran Kodi, Renewable Energy Manager at Maanaveeya, Oikocredit's Indian subsidiary, and Vivek Pandey, co-founder of Ecozen, explain that the aim of their partnership is to ensure that farmers and entire value chains also benefit from innovative renewable energy solutions.

Photo credits: Unreasonable Group

In the midst of the pandemic, Maanaveeya has gained new partners. How is it possible to work under pandemic conditions?

Kiran Kodi: Fortunately, we managed to continue working despite Covid-19 and the difficulties it caused, even though there were complete lockdowns for several months. During the height of the pandemic, we suspended loan repayments and supported our partners in every possible way. Everyone was and still is affected – businesses, families, whole communities. Many people from our own office were infected. Over time, we have learned to deal with it. At the moment there are still many infections, but fewer people have to go to hospital. At Maanaveeya we have worked mainly from home, but we have used the office for meetings with partners under protective measures. Travelling around the country has been restricted. Nevertheless, we have made contact with new partners and held workshops. Via video it is possible not only to communicate at all levels but even to get to know and follow partners’ activities.

Your own work focus is particularly on new partners in the renewable energy sector. What is the strategy behind this?

Kiran Kodi: The development of renewable energy is an important contribution to climate protection. Maanaveeya has the same focus as Oikocredit as a whole: inclusive finance, agriculture and renewable energy. Six percent of Maanaveeya's portfolio at the end of 2021 was invested in renewable energy. We would like to increase this share significantly in the coming years, to at least 20%. We invest in energy companies that implement off-grid or on-grid projects and currently have six partners. Ecozen Solutions, for example, provide energy solutions for farms. Of our other renewable energy partners, Fourth Partner Energy and Oakridge Rooftops offer solutions for the commercial and industrial sector. Cygni Energy provides off-grid solutions. E-Hands Energy supports small, remote banks and microfinance institutions with solar power systems. Another partner, Gayam Motor Works, rents out electric vehicles for last-mile goods transport. At present we are pushing forward with partners that offer new technologies for agriculture and entire value chains.

A promising new partner active in precisely this area is Ecozen.

Kiran Kodi: Ecozen meets all the criteria that are crucial for Oikocredit. It’s a young company that operates at the intersection of two important areas: renewable energy and agriculture. Developing and producing new products takes an enormous amount of time and money. Ecozen was looking for financing for more working capital. We got in touch through one of their other investors, which works similarly to us, and quickly decided to provide Ecozen with a credit line. Ecozen’s first loan was disbursed in early 2021, and we have since arranged another loan. With our long-standing focus on inclusive finance, we also see ourselves as experts in customised financing models. We can provide Ecozen with good advice and support in this area. Good financing models for clients and customers have an immense social impact and enable smallholder farms to afford innovative products.

Vivek Pandey, you are one of the three founders of Ecozen. With what motivation did you start?

Vivek Pandey: We founded Ecozen in 2010 while we were still students, and after graduating we focused entirely on the company. We were engineers first. We could clearly see the state of agriculture in the country and the strong potential of value addition there. Renewable energy innovations rarely reached rural areas at the time. We first interviewed many stakeholders along the agriculture value chains. We realised that Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on rainfed methods and lacks post-harvest management infrastructure. The biggest hurdle is on-farm energy supply. While solar energy was becoming increasingly popular in cities for lighting roads, homes and businesses, there was not much of it in agriculture.

How did you react to these observations? What solutions does Ecozen offer?

Vivek Pandey: The first thing we did was develop motors for solar water pumps: Ecotron. Since 2014, 60,000 to 70,000 Ecozen motors and controllers have been in use all over the country. But it soon became clear that farmers’ problems are not solved by solar-powered irrigation alone. They need a way to store their produce. For one thing, value chains do not function so quickly that everything is guaranteed to be market-fresh. Roughly 30% of the fruit and vegetable harvests in India spoil because smallholders have no means of keeping their crops fresh until they can be transported and sold. Secondly, without storage facilities, farmers are more vulnerable to price fluctuations because they cannot hold back their sales until they can get better prices.

So we developed a solar-powered mini-storage facility for fruit and vegetables: Ecofrost. It is engineered to be portable and highly energy efficient. Ecofrost comes bundled with a full-stack tech solution comprising a mobile app for operation, remote monitoring, remote diagnostics and predictive maintenance, ensuring the best customer experience possible. For sunless times there is 36-hour energy storage using an indigenous and patented thermal energy storage device – much more economical and efficient than batteries. Several sensors in the unit provide all the necessary information and allow each cold store to be set individually. The control centre at Ecozen monitors that everything works well and nothing spoils, calculates optimal storage temperatures depending on the stored goods, and provides information on current market prices. Ecofrost has won many national and international awards. We now offer the same technology stack with multiple variants across the supply chain of perishables. Eco Connect is our third product: an online platform that connects information for farmers, market prices, growing tips and more.

How does Ecozen reach its clients and customers in the rural regions?

Vivek Pandey: We sell our solar pumping products to both large companies and smaller enterprises that undertake solar water pump installation. We provide them with pump motors and controllers. All the other parts of the solar systems, like solar panels, they can buy from other companies. We have a large network of companies that reach out to the farmers. It is similar with our cooling systems, where we work with partner enterprises including farmer producer organisations, dealers and distributors with local reach, and supply chain companies. We have two business models for this: a sales model and a lease/rental model where we work with financial institutions to offer the product for a period of 3-6 months to farmers and 1-3 years to companies. This works out very well for the many farmers who undertake seasonal agriculture.

What does Ecozen expect from working with Oikocredit?

Vivek Pandey: Besides the financing for more working capital and the possibility of jointly developing new business and financing models, another advantage for us is that we have a partner that is present and connected worldwide. Oikocredit has a strong presence in countries in Africa, where in recent years we have started to sell our products, for example in Kenya, Namibia and Uganda. The potential and demand there are huge. Oikocredit, with its knowledge, its local experts and its own partners in African countries can be a very helpful partner for us.

Energy demand in India is generally rising rapidly with economic growth and urbanisation. There is talk of demand doubling by 2040. 52% of the country’s energy is still generated from hard coal. Considering that India has committed in the context of the Paris climate goals to meet 40% of its electricity consumption from non-fossil energy sources by 2030, this is an immense challenge that requires a lot of capital. Does this mean good times or bad times for Oikocredit in the face of great competition?

Kiran Kodi: The good thing is that natural resources for renewable energy in India are excellent. We have land, sun, wind. The potential for solar energy is particularly large and equal to the country’s entire current energy consumption. The Indian government has an ambitious programme to increase the share of renewable energies. For this, technologies, political framework conditions and financing must go hand in hand. This works quite well in India, and the sector is correspondingly attractive for investors. So there is a lot of competition, yes, but also many opportunities and much need for investment in renewable energy.

Larger companies can cooperate with banks. But for smaller ones like Ecozen, working with organisations like Oikocredit is much more beneficial. Especially because we have decisive advantages: we are faster; we are open to different structures and types of financing and can respond to individual needs of our partners’ clients, for example offering leasing models, which is not so easy for traditional banks. For our part, we are selective. We are interested in how a company's work improves people's living conditions. Electricity is usually very expensive in India, and switching to solar energy is also costly and time-consuming. Therefore, many of the commercial industries stay with conventional energy supply. We are looking at smaller ventures that have a big social impact. We want one thing above all: affordable, clean electricity for people in rural areas.

This article was originally published by OikoCredit.