The Global Social Impact Practicum is a new course led by Chicago Booth's Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) and supported by the Tata Trusts, India’s largest philanthropic organization. Beginning with a trip to India and culminating at the end of Winter Quarter, students will work with the Trusts on a consulting project aimed at making bamboo a crop of choice for clean energy and as a potential driver of employment in rural India.

Here, Saurabh Garg, '16, shares how GSIP shaped his understanding of clean energy in India and international development.

Saurabh GargThe Global Social Impact Practicum (GSIP) team made rapid strides over winter quarter. We worked on laying out a social enterprise business model for bamboo-based power in rural India and on developing a framework for assessing where the Tata Trusts, our GSIP client, could roll out the model across the country.

In doing this work, we’ve looked for policy analogs—other initiatives which sought to create impact in rural India—as well as contextual factors that might affect the Tata Trusts’ implementation of the strategy we will propose.

Three key insights have emerged along the way that shed light both on the challenges of our particular project and on large-scale international development projects in general.

1) Data Can Be Deceiving: The Indian government has undertaken various policy initiatives to improve rural electrification levels in the last decade. However, the official definition of what constitutes an electrified village is at best lousy: at least ten percent of homes to be electrified, including all common or public areas such as schools and clinics.

This suggests that some states in India that boast 90 percent rural electrification levels may in fact be providing less than 4 hours of continuous power supply to the actual households in a village through centralized grid power supply.

This power deficit, resulting in a large measure from unscheduled load shedding, creates a whole set of underlying challenges around provision of continuous, reliable electricity to power rural households.

2) How You Implement Matters: In order to provide continuous, reliable electricity to Indian villages in a sustainable way, villagers must be empowered to take control of the power generation value chain.

If the source of power is located hundreds of miles away from the village site and connected through a grid, villagers have no visibility into or control over the “process” of power generation, and consequently can do very little to address any disruptions in that process.

A more sustainable model is based on the concept of “decentralized” power generation—placing the source of energy conversion as close to the village site as possible. Most of the renewables in India—solar, micro hydro and wind, and biomass—currently operate using this model.

3) Most Ideas Aren’t New Ideas: Biomass gasification as a form of decentralized power is not a new technology in India and has been in existence for almost three decades now.

While the technology has witnessed gradual improvements through greater R&D investment, there are many reasons why it has not been implemented at scale are multifold, including lack of a coordinated policy and public perception campaign.

These three insights certainly don’t touch on all the challenges of large-scale social impact initiatives, but I think they illustrate how a lack of understanding about policy and cultural context will undermine any strategy.