In this installment of Digital Diversity, Gwen Kidera – Project Associate at S3IDF (Small Scale Sustainable Infrastructure Development Fund) – explains how their non-profit organisation provides underserved communities with Integrated Energy Centre carts (IECs) equipped with reliable solar powered lamps and mobile charging stations. Access to light and mobile technology improves the quality of life in these communities by allowing them to continue working after dark.

Digital-DiversityDigital Diversity is a series of blog posts from featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Gabrielle LePore, our Media and Research Assistant. You can follow Gabrielle on Twitter at @GabrielleLePore and at @kiwanja

By Gwen Kidera

Solar lights switch on in the tents of nomadic North Indian residents as the sun sets over the Thanisandra slum in Bangalore, India. Men pick up their tools to carve drums, which serve as the community’s primary source of livelihood, and women crouch to cook supper as the smell of firewood permeates the thick night air.

Wahida, a resident in the camp, returns from the community-owned cart with a rented and freshly charged solar lamp. She hangs it in the centre of her tent above the heads of her six children and her husband who busily works on the ornate drum on his lap. She relaxes because the light allows her husband to work into the night carving drums that are sold to earn additional income, and her children keep safe from pests that would otherwise creep into the poorly lit area. Reliable and safe lighting was a luxury beyond the reach of most residents before the community-owned and operated Integrated Energy Centre (IEC) arrived.



Wahida stands in front of the IEC cart that provides solar powered lanterns and mobile charging facilities to 30 of the 80 households in the Thanisandra slum in India. Access could extend to over 60 households in the coming months. (Photo by SELCO Solar Pvt. Ltd.)


In March 2013, SELCO Solar Pvt. Ltd. (SELCO India), an organisation whose mission is to improve the quality of life in underdeveloped communities through sustainable methods, worked with S3IDF to establish a waterproof and durable solar-powered IEC cart to provide lamps and mobile charging to 30 of approximately 80 households in Thanisandra. The nomadic community, which has been moving as a unit across the country for generations, can take the cart with them wherever they go, ensuring many years of reliable lighting. Once they pay off the initial capital costs of the cart, they can own it and lend the lamps to community members without cost.

Before the IEC, families spent a large portion of their earnings on black market kerosene which posed health hazards such as increased risk of burns and the release of unhealthy fumes. Now, families spend less than US$2.50 a month for up to eight hours of solar light each evening. In addition to the cart, SELCO India and S3IDF are exploring ways to connect the community’s drum production to viable markets, thereby increasing residents’ incomes.



A nomadic family sit in their tent and prepare dinner by the light of a rented solar lantern. (Photo by SELCO Solar Pvt. Ltd.)


The centre in Thanisandra is just one of 18 IECs under development across the state of Karnataka. Each centre is created based on a needs assessment and tailored to meet the community’s specific circumstances. Although the centres vary in services and business models, at heart they are all solar-powered community centres that provide the underserved with resources to which they otherwise would not have.

IECs are built within communities which are off the grid and lack access to electricity. They not only provide much needed energy but they also have the ability to supply useful products, such as solar lanterns, small appliances and tools, mobile charging, larger productive-use technologies – grain mixers and grinders – community TVs, cooling/heating systems, as well as resources for education, health, awareness and livelihood training.

IECs offer educational services including audio-visual aids to books, and computers to DVD players, and other basic literacy programs. The IECs can also improve public health by providing solar charging points for ultrasound devices, vaccine boxes and refrigeration for medicines. Other resources include ticket booking and printing, Internet services for obtaining identity cards and sending bill payments, and access to agricultural and trade-related information. As if that weren’t enough, IECS also offer community members the opportunity to enroll in vocational training programs, including classes on computers, sewing and fruit drying.

The people who benefit from the IECs run them, and they are designed to be operationally sustainable with revenue generated by the IECs covering all maintenance and operating costs.


The community’s primary form of livelihood for generations is the production of intricately carved drums. All of the men are skilled in playing multiple instrument, which is an important marketing tool. (Photo by )

The community’s primary form of livelihood for generations is the production of intricately carved drums. All of the men are skilled in playing multiple instruments, which is an important marketing tool. (Photo by SELCO Solar Pvt. Ltd.)


The implementation of the IEC cart in Thanisandra improved the quality of life of the entire community. “Now we can easily make 20-30 more drums after dark, and I can even finish my quilting without letting my housework suffer”, Wahida explains. “It feels different since it’s the first time we have had the luxury to work like this.”

Wahida is hopeful for her future and that of her family and community. She would like to see an increase in demand for their drums, which could become a reality with SELCO India and S3IDF’s help.

When asked how the solar lights have changed her circumstances, she smiled and proudly stated, “With the light, even our tent starts looking like a palace, it makes us feel like our dreams can come true.”

gwen kideraGwen began exploring the field of social entrepreneurship in 2009 while in South Africa on a field study program through the Social Enterprise Institute at Northeastern University. She assisted in giving business development support to local entrepreneurs from the townships around Cape Town over the course of two trips. She went on to study microfinance in Belize and work with a group of students to determine the effectiveness of a microfinance institute’s training programs and causes of default among Haitian borrowers in the Dominican Republic. She spent a summer working for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, and in 2011 worked in Meru, Kenya for the Miriam Kanana Mubichi Foundation where she taught health and art classes, advised a women’s textile company, researched malnutrition at the local hospital, and arranged school feeding programs.

In 2013, Gwen became a Project Associate at the S3IDF, a nonprofit organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Members of the organisation work to reduce poverty in developing countries by supporting small scale enterprises that meet basic infrastructure needs and providing opportunities for economic advancement. She is an avid traveler and enjoys documenting her trips and getting to know the local culture through photography and blogging.

This post originally appeared at Newswatch. Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja


  1. Joseph Mathew
    Bangalore, India
    February 20, 2014, 1:44 am

    I am little late here to read this post. But my exploration has taken me here after I got involved in some similar projects that would be called as ‘green initiative’. I am fortunately part of a new church constructed in Bangalore and we are all sure that we should do something to the green initiative. We managed to make the roof top spread with solar panels and the sun supplies the power to our church now. I thought spreading the word (not for publicity, but to motivate others) is very important and I have landed in NG page and read more about S3IDF and their work in India.

    Ken, please direct me to the right set of associates through which I can promote the fact and give insight to others about this idea to convert institutions to green without much effort from individuals… Thanks, Joe

  2. Matthew Forrest
    September 10, 2013, 4:16 pm

    Hi Gaurav Rajvaidya!
    Thank you for the insightful comment! The scale of the energy access and other basic service challenge in India (and elsewhere) is quite significant and, while affordable housing projects may help many Indians gain access to shelter as well as energy/basic services, not all Indians will be able to take advantage of these housing programs. For challenges like energy access/basic services provisions, there needs to be many different approaches, tailored to local needs, coming together. The IEC is just one way to help people gain access and in a way that is more affordable than the other existing alternatives.

  3. Cateris Paribus
    September 9, 2013, 9:47 am

    @Mary L Roth: I believe that solar cookers have been available and in use in India for some years now.
    … and so on …

  4. Mary L Roth
    Burbank CA
    September 6, 2013, 11:49 am

    In the early 1950s, I went on a hike with a friend. He brought lunch, which consisted of biscuits and ham, both of which he cooked on a homemade solar cooker. This was an empty metal container which had been used to store cooking oil . He had cut open the empty container to expose the inside (which was bright and shiny), made flaps that folded, and the whole thing was folded into a flat rectangle. To use as a cooker, he unfolded it, set up the flaps as sides, exposed it to the sun (this was in northern Pennsylvania), and in very little time mixed the biscuits, and cooked them and the ham in his cooker. It was delicious. But my question is, with so many poor areas in places where there is abundant sunshine, why haven’t some sort of cooker using heat from the sun not being made available to people. It would be cheap and easy to use.

  5. Michael Hynds
    September 3, 2013, 1:59 pm

    Thank you for this. What similar initiatives are available in Kenya?

  6. Gaurav Rajvaidya
    Indore (M.P) , India
    September 2, 2013, 1:12 pm

    Article is good and informative but i would like to share there are various areas available where we can utilize the solar power for community in much cheaper and effective way especially in India.
    In India residential space is becoming a luxury, so for every upcoming residential project Indian government has reserved a section for EWS (economically weaker section), which constitutes mainly of multi story apartments. For these buildings there is no clause for installing the solar water heater, which can be much cheaper alternate instead of costly semiconductors.