POWERED Grand Launch in Mumbai – Panellist Insights

At the Grand Launch of POWERED in Mumbai we witnessed intriguing insights by a panel of industry experts on “#EqualEnergy – How and why women participation in energy space needs to be increased”

What are the barriers in securing energy in emerging economies?

Challenges faced in the energy sector differ from country to country. However, the highest-affected always tend to be the low-income groups of society who lack basic facilities or energy access due to the lack of comprehensive infrastructure which leads to a higher cost to serve the customer. The energy industry in itself tends to be a marginal business in terms of profits with a remote consumer base and heightened challenges, with the issue not being to get the customer to pay as much as it’s reaching the customer. As stated by Nishant, another factor that comes into play is the ‘regulatory environment’ which is ‘absolutely conducive to allowing the new business ideas and innovations to come in.’ Apart from this, cheaper finance and a system that would enable one to gain better access to appropriate technologies would lead to more transformative ideas.

What are the various strategies and models that have been adopted in India to overcome these barriers and get the industry to be more gender inclusive?

In the agro-based economy of rural India, traditional means of generating energy is to burn agricultural waste, a by-product of farming. There is a need to develop technology that would enable us to convert this energy into more useful forms of sustainable mobility and energy access. Statistically this energy is generated by women thereby, reconciling the common objective between energy access and women in energy. Looking at Bihar and Jharkhand as a model, success stories show that they pay as much as 20 rupees a unit for such energy, usage being for a few hours in a day. We need disruptive thinking from policy makers and the government to make models and ecosystems that would eventually lead to an exchange of this form of energy for better forms such as power, heat, cooling, storage refrigeration, and biofuels for mobility such as Bio-CNG, Bio-Ethanol, Bio-Diesel, etc. This would lead to a larger form of energy access and thereby a commodity to be created, while having women as an integral part of it because they then become the source of such kind of energy.

Capacity Building, Skilling, and Empowerment of Entrepreneurs

Gayatri thinks that in a country as diverse as India, with a huge population, despite there being plenty of initiatives that have been introduced through corporate and government initiatives, we have two wide spectrums, wherein one has access to a wide expanse of knowledge in the form of the internet and on the other hand there are roughly 250 million people without even access to something as basic as energy. This breaks down to issues of accessibility and un-sustainable availability. Any technical assistance hereby provided to women entrepreneurs in the form of models or an ecosystem has to be specifically catered to the needs varying from sector to sector, across the country.

At this point it is common knowledge that women entrepreneurs are discriminated against, prospective motherhood being the conclusive bias. Harsha Mukherjee cites from personal experience where she was faced with such circumstances while she was trying to acquire funds for starting her own business, quite literally being told that she, a woman, ‘would have babies’ and ‘would leave the business’.  She feels that in order for a woman to be really empowered, she needs to be able to have knowledge of enterprise management and she should have a certain degree of financial literacy which would enable her to take her company to the next level. She also states that although there are corporates (like Birla and Bajaj) who do run programmes to support rural women entrepreneurs and help uplift them, the measures taken by these firms are not enough as meagre sums of five or six thousand rupees would not suffice in the larger scheme of things.

Policy-Implementation in finance

Monish goes on to say that funding requirements don’t cease at inception or any particular stage of the entrepreneurial journey. Rather than supporting an individual company, we need to create an ecosystem where individual companies can thrive from. The ecosystem should comprise of a company secretary, a CFO, a go-to market, and empower them to be able to go around places. This is a more viable option than creating support for one company which could either be successful or not, with most being unsuccessful.

Gayatri sheds light on the rural scenario; with no landholding, women in rural areas don’t have collateral, which acts as a prerequisite to obtaining a government loan thereby further deferring last mile goals despite the efforts of empowerment initiatives. The key to addressing this issue would be to deviate from conventional methods of providing financial assistance and focus on technical assistance or a grant that would help finance reach the last mile.

There are plenty of drawbacks when it comes to collateral-based finance. Neither can a startup provided a hundred percent collateral and hypothetically, even if banks were to take 200% collateral, the banking system in India is such that there’s still a chance that the money would be irrecoverable. The solution to this would be to have a risk hedge fund; there exist institutions that can hedge the risk for banks, these institutions can provide a business model in terms of a corporate or balance sheet guarantee that would leverage easier access to finance. Also, inclusive access for women has to be segregated and not looked at as a whole. There is a need to focus via targeting wherein if you are targeting rural energy access the challenge is to procure funding from investors who don’t necessarily look at such areas as potential business markets. That’s where the role of an incubator as an enabler comes in, to bridge that gap between a source of finance (corporates, investors, etc.) and a startup. Policy development and training mechanisms should be developed at various levels, given that women entrepreneurs are not a homogenous group.

The panel discussion concluded with questions from the audience, one specifically pertaining to the core objective of the POWERED Programme, with regards to reduction of power consumption in data centres and the like. Ajay went on to state that the kind of companies that we’re looking for when seeing energy in the broader domain is focused at anything that satisfies the criteria of the sustainable development goals. Infrastructure, specifically, innovations – product innovation, business model innovation, process innovation which could contribute to energy as a whole, either directly or indirectly. In some cases, the product or idea would directly be inclined towards energy and in some there would be no direct connection to energy at all. The pilot opportunities and mentoring provided would most definitely vary from company to company, thereby generating a view of a broader spectrum of women entrepreneurs in the industry.