Department of Engineering / News / Alumni Jonathan Bassett and Sam Cocks are working on solar powered home-lighting systems in India

Department of Engineering

Alumni Jonathan Bassett and Sam Cocks are working on solar powered home-lighting systems in India

Alumni Jonathan Bassett and Sam Cocks are working on solar powered home-lighting systems in India

Demonstrating the transplanter at an agricultural show

Over the past 18 years, SELCO Foundation, a Non Government Organisation in Bangalore, India, has worked to provide solar powered home-lighting systems for people in unelectrified or under-electrified regions in India. To date, they have reached over 135,000 households through their unique model, with a heavy focus on providing servicing and maintenance, and working closely with banks to help their clients access loans. Alumni Jonathan Bassett and Sam Cocks are working for SELCO each in a different part of India.

Even with its huge and rapidly growing population, India is currently facing a dire labour shortage in rural areas as more and more people migrate to the cities in search of better paid work.

Sam Cocks

Sam and Jonathan are both part of the research and development arm of the organisation, set up around three years ago to investigate new approaches and opportunities to help the underserved poor. This includes looking at different technologies, such as different solar technologies, small-scale wind turbines and agricultural machines. The other large part of the Foundation's work includes experimenting with different business models.

The Foundation is split into two labs in two locations. Sam is based in the 'rural lab' in Ujire, a town in the Western Ghats, a mountain range near India's South-Western coast. Jonathan is in Bangalore at the 'urban lab', a large city in the south of the country. Last autumn they took some time out to tell us about their projects to date.

Sam

It’s monsoon again and the rain is pouring outside as I write this. The surrounding hills are fresh and dynamic once more, after months of summer and the paddy fields, dry and cracked only a few weeks ago, are now vibrant green with young seedlings. Everything is springing into life and this has become one of my favourite times of year.

I’ve been working for SELCO for almost two years now and have spent most of that time as the only Westerner in this small town. My work has largely been surrounding agriculture but I’ve found myself involved in a diverse range of other projects during the time, as the rural lab has been investigating how it can have the deepest impact.

Even with its huge and rapidly growing population, India is currently facing a dire labour shortage in rural areas as more and more people migrate to the cities in search of better paid work. Small-scale farmers are finding it harder and more expensive to find the labour they require to perform certain tasks and, while large-scale farmers are beginning to take advantage of new machinery on the market, there are very few labour-saving machines available which are suitable for these small-scale farmers. We have been trying to identify (and design where necessary) machinery which can fill this gap and exploring how it can be made accessible to farmers; building on SELCO’s extensive experience of marketing to people at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’.

I’m also currently leading two other projects which are aiming to put solar water pumps and solar-wind hybrid systems on the SELCO product list. They've both been very interesting and provided ample opportunities to put my mechanical degree into practice.

I remember explaining in my Cambridge interview how I wanted to study engineering because I felt it would provide skills that would be useful for helping people in developing countries. I’ve learnt a lot since then about the realities and difficulties of working in this field, but I still believe that engineers have a huge amount to offer. Following the interview, I spent several months of a gap year working for a social enterprise in Kenya called Kijito, which manufactures wind pumps. At the time, the organisation was investigating how it could branch into small wind turbines and I spent most of my time working on this side of things with a French master’s student. This gave me my first real taste of ‘development work’ and made me realise the potential benefits of a social enterprise model, as well as igniting an enthusiasm for small wind turbines.

Interested to learn more about the role social enterprises can play in poverty reduction, I applied for an Engineers Without Borders’ summer placement with SELCO at the end of the third year of my Engineering degree and spent most of my time here in Ujire, working on similar, agricultural related projects. When they offered me a full-time job, it seemed like an interesting and worthwhile way to spend the next few years and when I graduated, I set off once again for India.

Jonathan

I spent the third year of my degree on an exchange programme with the National University of Singapore, where I got more interested in power electronics and the applications in energy. After a short trip to India and Nepal, witnessing the real problems of power shortage in that area, I decided to concentrate on energy during my final year. Through Engineers Without Borders at Cambridge I heard about SELCO and found Sam's blog on what he was doing in India. The company stuck in my mind and during a post-graduation trip across Europe, I decided to scrap my previous plans of moving back to Singapore and instead try to work for a company like SELCO. Eventually a volunteer contract was settled on and I moved over in January 2013.

In Bangalore most of the foundation's electrical and electronic work is done. The electrical team is being developed at the moment, with only myself and two other dedicated engineers. So most of the work we do is new to us and there is a lot of learning! However the projects I'm involved with at the moment are very exciting. I'll highlight one: our investigation into mini-grids.

A mini-grid is a village wide power-grid, separate from the normal AC national grid. The idea is to have a central power supply (solar, wind, micro-hydro) and send that power to each house in a village. This is different to SELCO's normal model of having individual solar-systems in each home. The potential advantages are increased scalability and security and reduced costs. SELCO has not done any work on mini-grids before, but with the current interest from government and non-government bodies has encouraged some investigation. We are trying to set-up some pilot projects, with the aim of testing out technology and finance models.

Myself and a colleague have been mainly responsible for the technical design, including the grid layout and solar system design. This is quite a jump in responsibility, and certainly feels like the deep-end of projects! But I'm personally very excited to see where the project will go.