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Assessing Sites vs Assessing people

Challenges and opportunities in site selection for productive uses of energy

by Divyank Tiwari, Productive Use Intern at Oorja

Oorja is involved in powering livelihood appliances - such as irrigation pumps - using solar solutions. Powering these so-called productive uses of energy has the potential to generate additional income for users and even lead to creation of new jobs, but relies on a strong understanding of users' needs. Divyank Tiwari, productive use intern, was recently involved in impact assessments for Community Solar Pumping projects and site audits for agroprocessing mills. In this blog, he explains the opportunities and challenges associated with surveying sites, machines and people accurately.

While conducting impact assessments and selecting new sites for solar pumping and agroprocessing projects in eastern Uttar Pradesh, my talks with villagers brought up interesting conversations. Vllagers have the best knowledge of their own needs and desires, and are best placed to assess whether a product or service is valuable to them or not. Yet village households are confined to their daily routines and are not much exposed to developments happening outside of it. They are often exposed to new technologies and interventions for the first time when these are implemented by the government or a local NGO. This creates a gap in their understanding of how a private enterprises function, due to their limited reach in many villages. It may also make it difficult to collect relevant information, as villagers may not understand the reason for asking for such detailed information about their lives. I noticed this challenge in collecting relevant data from potential customers and current users, and reflected on my experiences to help Oorja improve its data collection process and build best-practices for data collection from rural users.

A lack of human-centred design, due to insufficient consultation and awareness-building of villagers, is apparent in some government schemes I observed first-hand in Bahraich district. For example, I came across a village where every house had government-built toilets in their premises, but surprisingly all household members still went to use the fields for this purpose and the toilets were locked. On the scale of installation of toilets, the government has surely succeeded, but the purpose for which these toilets were installed still remains unfulfilled. This highlights the need to consider local views or perspectives in project planning and include social acceptance for the services as an essential dimension to achieve success at the grassroots level. There is a need to educate users about the new services being provided, and to ensure services are acceptable given local customs. While the example I mentioned is sanitation-related, this example can be found across multiple sectors including electricity and clean cooking.

Collecting Data from (Wo)Man vs Machines

As a social enterprise, gathering data plays a significant role in creating a human-centred and evidence-based approach for Oorja. Collecting accurate data about users' needs, desires, aspirations, income and other parameters is critical to inform not only the design of new products and services, but also to gain feedback on their use and the impact they have had.

As part of my work, I carried out a baseline impact assessment of around 40 farmers using three Community Solar Pumps installed by Oorja. During individual surveys with customers and control groups, I found that collecting precise data from farmers was quite challenging. I encountered situations of respondents sharing inaccurate or incorrect information, such as a tendency to report higher values for their expenditure and lower values for their income. This led me to consult local agriculture experts, panchayat members and Oorja team members, to verify whether the data reported was in a realistic range and thus eliminate any outliers. I found that data collection was easier in villages where Oorja was already known and accepted socially, as villagers utilise our services and have seen how they have led to the betterment of their lives, making them more willing to share data. I began to seek introductions to new communities from Oorja's existing customers, to help gain their trust and improve the ease of data collection.

Interviewing farmers and their families as part of baseline impact assessment for Oorja's Community Solar Pumping service, Oonnati, in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The challenges of collecting data from humans versus from machines became apparent when I began site audits for a feasibility assessment of solarising grain mills along highways. These agroprocessing mills are currently powered by diesel engines, as due to high connection costs and poor grid reliability, mill owners prefer opt for expensive diesel power over the grid.

I found that the diesel-powered appliances used in mills are generally second-hand machines, which are generally cheaper. This makes judging the age and productivity of the current machines a challenging task, as mill owners are only aware of how long their machines have been in use since the date of purchase. While sophisticated sensors are available to accurately measure and monitor a machine's energy consumption and use, we are yet to have an effective tool to measure and validate the data from humans consulted in rural markets. Moreover, mill owners, like most rural businesses, run a cash-only business with sparse documentation of their activities, notably processing time and income generated. These activities, being closely associated with crop production, are highly seasonal and erratic, making it difficult to estimate annual energy consumption.

Bartering Crops for Services

Oil expellers being used by mill owners, wherein the oilseed cake is kept by the mill owner as payment and the customer retrieves the oil, are a perfect illustration of how the barter system works.

Another significant learning during my field visits was around the barter system which is prevalent in eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is essentially a form of cash-less transaction for goods processed by the mills. This system is used because farmers continuously invest in their crops for the entire season from sowing till harvesting, and only receive payment once their processed produce is sold. The processing of majority of the crops takes place using the barter system, where farmers leave behind a certain amount of their produce (e.g. oil, processed rice) or its by-product (e.g. oilseed cake, rice husk) as a form of payment for processing services. This creates an added hurdle to determine the revenue of the mill owners, as most of the transactions are calculated in 'crops' and not money. Recent events such as demonetisation further turned the clock backwards, as many farmers returned to barter their crops for other resources, due to a lack of availability of hard cash.

Byproduct obtained by pressing oilseeds - the oilseed cake or 'khari' - is used to pay the mill operators instead of cash. The mill operators then collect and sell the khari in the market for cash.

Best Practices for Data Collection from Rural Users

Based on these experiences, I was able to put together some best practices for effective data collection from potential and current customers.

  • Introductions go a long way: Collect data either in the presence of a local team member or get a warm introduction from someone local who is familiar with the community members before beginning surveying. It is especially helpful to work with a local civil society organisation, such as the panchayat or an NGO, for organising meetings or making introductions.
  • Their right to context and privacy: Explain the motive for gathering the data first and what will be done with the data. Be clear that their participation is voluntary, will not affect their right to Oorja's services, and that data privacy will be maintained.
  • Language: Conduct interviews in layman terms or local language, not in an authoritative way. Spend some time with the community members before/after the survey (avoid a strictly professional type of interaction) to gain their trust.
  • Income is sensitive: Avoid asking income-related information during the initial parts of a survey. Instead, collect such sensitive data only after building trust with the interviewee.
  • Ensure diversity: Make sure to gather data from both women and men, notably for household-related questions where women tend to have a better understanding, even if they are not the primary decision-makers. This applies to the interviewer as well - for example, it helps to have women interview women.
  • Take a wider stance: Rather than only collecting data from prospective customers and users, gain an understanding of the entire value chain or lifecycle related to a potential productive use or market segment. Local stakeholders such as panchayat members, government departments, civil society organisations, or sector specialists, as well as stakeholders involved in the wider value chain, can be very helpful. For example, farmers are relevant stakeholders to consult when trying to understand mills, because the seasonality of crop harvests naturally impacts that of agroprocessing operations.          

By better informing interviewees about the purposes of data collection and increasing their awareness of the benefits of renewable energy sources as opposed to fossil energy, I found that we could encourage villagers to willingly participate in the design and feedback process, share accurate data and insights, and become enthusiastic contributors helping to strengthen Oorja's mission in the energy sector.

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