In today's world, access to electricity and modern technology is considered to be basic. However, there are still many communities in rural areas that do not have access to electricity, leaving them to rely on subsistence agriculture and manual labour. One organization that is working to change this is Mithun Rural Development Foundation (MRDF) founded by Vijay Bhaskar and Sudeshna Mukherjee.
MRDF's main goal is to empower rural communities through entrepreneurship and sustainable energy. They achieve this through a variety of initiatives, including the installation of solar mini-grids that provide electricity to the community, the training of local women in entrepreneurship and the development of markets for local products. Here’s an excerpt from a recent Interview - What is the origin story of the Mithun Rural Development Foundation (MRDF)? Our journey began about 11-12 years back when Sudeshna and I were part of the Melinda Gates Foundation. We started work in the jungles of Sunderbans working with the villagers and trying to find a way to reverse environmental degradation.
That quest sort of led to a series of projects and one of them that became very successful was the microgrid project - which would supply electricity to a set of houses or a Bazaar. We got NABARD to finance the capital expenditure part and the foundation would pay for the operational expenditure, so this project became more and more popular. We expanded from one island in Sunderland to six more islands and from there it moved on to the Purulia district of West Bengal.
We moved into every single syndicate and we continued work there until the communities sort of gave us feedback in 2015 that they were very happy with electricity as it was used in homes for the children to study, for the women to cook in the evening and the quality of life improved. But what they really wanted was support for their livelihoods and that involved running irrigation, heavy-duty pumps etc. So we work with these communities to power these villages not just give them access to electricity for basic utility but also to help their businesses build livelihoods.
How would you define the impact MRDF has on the communities it works with?
One significant impact is the production of energy for the micro-enterprises that we have facilitated there with help of our partners. Also the growth of entrepreneurship potential in the villages because of having 24 x 7 reliable electricity - this gives them agency and choice.
One of the main kinds of impact we have seen is we have created evidence on the ground for these rural communities. They are very much bankable and for the first time we are seeing in a span of just one year formal institutions like Netfee, and State Bank of India are coming forward and showing their interest in financing the end-users or the entrepreneurs.
What are the challenges faced by MRDF when working with rural communities? One of the main challenges that the MRDF faces is the lack of markets for local products. Many of the communities we work with rely on subsistence agriculture, meaning that they grow food for their own consumption with a little surplus. However, with the introduction of electricity, their ability to process raw materials increased by 4x, creating a surplus of processed goods. The challenge is to find markets for these goods so that the community can receive a good price for their products.
Another challenge that MRDF faces is the lack of raw materials. The communities we work with do not have enough raw materials to meet market demand. We are working to break this cycle by developing new markets and encouraging local entrepreneurs to grow their businesses.
One of the key ways MRDF is addressing these challenges is by training local women in entrepreneurship. Women are traditionally seen as taking a back seat when it comes to entrepreneurship in these communities, but MRDF is working to change that.
Initially, we could only get 25-30% of women to participate in entrepreneurship, but we are now working to reach 40%. We are achieving this by holding training sessions in the community and encouraging women to start businesses that can be run from their homes or villages.
MRDF is taking a community-driven and inclusive approach to their work. This approach requires a deep understanding of the technical aspects of electricity and business, as well as an understanding of the social and cultural dynamics of the communities they work with.
We asked many more intriguing questions in this conversion which gave us insights into the:
Path to profitability
Integration to the national grid
Hindrance from local groups
The future ahead for MRDF
If you’re interested in watching the full conversation, head on to https://youtu.be/Qj6172Z3JXI