Sarah Alexander

Addition By Replication: SELCO’s ‘knowledge bank’ seeking cases in scale from inside and outside the energy sector

Time and again we at SELCO India have encountered this question: How will it scale?

But as we have pushed for energy access solutions for underserved households across rural India, we’ve always pushed back on the way that “scale up” has been defined.

In fact, SELCO management prefers to consider scaling up as processes that can lead to larger numbers of communities benefitting, rather than just a few organizations growing. Before jumping into that debate, let’s set the context here. To reach out to the underserved with a sustainable business model, some typical questions have included:

1. How does one convince a banker to finance solar home systems for a remote tribal community?

2. How can one cater to the fragmented needs of end users – all with differing cultures, cash flows and payment mechanisms?

3. How does an organization plan logistics and inventory given the customized orders from rural customers?

4. What are the terms of an agreement between a rural service organization and a financial partner for such a fragmented base?

5. How does one build trust and a partnership with the slum community? How much time does it take?

Many young entrepreneurs, managers and researchers will have to ask these questions in order to build not only a sustainable, but also a holistic solution. Answers are not standard in nature, and the same goes for business models in varying contexts and geographies. This leads to the fact that one large organization cannot achieve the desired long-term result. Thus, the question: Just how different should any given approach be from the standard definition of scale up? One needs to dig and break specific processes into multiple components – like pieces of a puzzle. Various combinations can lead to site- and segment-specific models to unlock larger impact, which (to repeat) has to be the desired result, rather than an organizational focus.

With that thought process in mind, a cornerstone of SELCO’s philosophy has been redefining the idea of scale, which typically is associated with supersizing the organization to reach more customers. Instead, our organization has advocated for catalyzing the deployment of sustainable energy solutions through the replication of tested principles or practices suited to local conditions and needs.

In other words, why reinvent the wheel when you can lower the learning curve by picking relevant processes from a basket of solutions? In some sense, any expansion of practices within an organization to reach scale is a form of replication, as it involves some degree of duplication or adaptation from the original concept. In this case, we are pushing to “scale up” in an effort to empower other organizations better suited to tackle local needs.

It appears the “it” thing for many in our sector is to come up with new innovations. Yet are we neglecting to also recognize the importance of empowering second movers to adopt/duplicate/adapt practices to new local contexts? After all, not all enterprises need be at the forefront of innovation.

A SELCO solar sytem in the Manipal slum. Image courtesy of SELCO.

Scope of replication

SELCO is focusing its resources to identify, validate, analogize and promote processes or models that can be – in whole or part – duplicated or adapted across the world and within our organization. This can be an activity, methodology, system, process, technique, tactic or approach, and can be drawn from a key component (technical, process, financial) or an entire model.

We define a replication framework as two-fold: information and implementation. One needs to curate, analyze and implement the framework on the ground for it to have value for organizations. Information can easily become static, so to be truly impactful, it has to be coupled with on-the-ground support for replication to roll out.

This is why we are in the process of building a knowledge bank comprised of case stories capturing methodologies, systems, processes, techniques, tactics or approaches for the purpose of replication. The knowledge bank will be looking at categories to help SELCO Foundation draw out some replicable practices. We are working towards making this a public platform over the next couple of months. Here are a few of the categories in which we hope to develop and share deeper knowledge:

  • Non-Energy Related Sectors: Drawing from experience in sectors like agriculture, health, IT, education and so on, which can find analogies or application in the energy access space.

  • Energy-Related Sectors: Drawing from other practitioners in the energy access space who are testing and scaling processes and models that can be adapted across the network. For example, pay-as-you-go models in areas without financing, or SMS-based communication platforms as a way to track servicing and complaints in remote areas.

  • Internal SELCO: Codifying the processes that have helped SELCO expand, to provide a handy internal database that can be used in further expansion efforts, and more importantly, to support other similar players in the sector who have similar models and can benefit from knowledge of these key components. A few examples include inventory and complaint management systems for rural areas, as well as building financial partnerships from scratch.

  • Policy: Seen as a vital ecosystem component, specific cases will be drawn from across the globe on policies that helped benefit the energy access sector. This area of the knowledge bank will share policies within India that have helped boost the sector, such as priority lending portfolios by the Reserve Bank of India, tax incentives for renewable energy projects, formation of dedicated clean energy funds with decentralized dissemination routes, and so on.

We would be keen to hear about similar initiatives or feedback on how we can make this more efficient – or even ideas for collaboration. Please write me,, with your ideas and questions.

Sarah Alexander is an advisor on Sustainable Energy Policy at SELCO.

business development, renewable energy, scale