Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Improving lives and economy: social and economic benefits of electricity from mini-grids on rural communities in India

A response to The Economist’s view on the impacts of rural electrification
Ramanshu Ganguly and Swapnil Shekhar

The global dialogue on electricity access identifies it as a critical driver for improving lives, especially for the poor in the developing nations.[1]

As this World Economic Forum article points out, electricity is an essential ingredient for ensuring a better life; critical in enabling access to cleaner and purified water; enhancing access to better medical care; ensuring study hours for children; improving connectivity through charging mobile phones, among others.[2]

An article published by The Economist on 7th February, however, differs from this standpoint. The article, drawing reference from a couple of research studies based in Africa, highlights the inability of rural electrification to create developmental outcomes such as poverty alleviation.

Indeed, electrification, on its own, cannot alleviate poverty. This holds for a range of public services such as clean water, better roads, internet connectivity, financial inclusion services, waste management and so on that governments often provide. The outcomes of such public goods are inherently difficult to measure precisely. Both because of the long time-span required for their effects to become visible and the diffused nature of their benefits. This is primarily why they are called public goods and why we expect governments to provide them. Because governments can afford the risk of investing in a good which might not deliver outcomes for an extended period and for which it is difficult to pinpoint who benefitted and how much exactly.

Further, public policy decisions are not based on a singular metric of poverty alleviation.

Equity or the idea that all citizens must have equal access to services and equal opportunities to utilize them for development is also an important goal. So is an improved quality of life. These goals might be achieved without concurrent improvements in income but viewing interventions in developing country contexts purely from the perspective of immediate poverty alleviation outcomes is a limited view on public policy.

What electricity access can do in the short term is to trigger a change towards a low poverty situation, improve the quality of lives and reduce distributional inequities. And, we have seen electricity access triggering such changes in rural communities in India.

Since 2015, Sambodhi has independently assessed social, economic and environmental benefits of electricity from decentralized renewable mini-grids, under various initiatives, especially the Smart Power Initiative.[3] These initiatives are owned and operated by nine energy service companies (ESCOs) across 120 plus villages in three most power-starved states in India. 

Concurrent measurement of the Smart Power Initiative’s impact over the last eight years showcases how electricity access has been able to positively impact the lives of the rural poor at the levels of households, businesses, and overall village level economy. The six-monthly concurrent impact measurement studies that are carried out across 2000 households and 600 local businesses have provided robust evidence on how electricity access has transformed the quality of rural lives.

Electrical appliances are one of the critical enablers of improved life quality. Fans, in a tropical country such as India, and televisions are indicators of an enhanced standard of living. The impact measurement rounds highlight that nearly 14 percent of households have been reported to have purchased fans, a necessary device to keep the scorching summer heat at bay. There has also been a 12 percent point increase in the number of households buying televisions. Televisions act as both entertainment and knowledge source for rural communities. With access issues of print media, televisions ensure that global information is brought to the rural doorsteps.

Kerosene consumption, across electricity users, have also reduced by 58 percentage points. A direct impact of this reduction is reflected with nearly 70 percent of mini-grid electrified households, citing marked reduction in ailments and injuries due to the use of kerosene lamps.

We need to acknowledge the role of electricity in making our day-to-day life convenient. In the context of the Smart Power initiative, women report that reliable electricity has made domestic chores easier to perform.  Women report having carved out an additional half to an hour of spare time which they prefer to spend on personal engagements such as stitching, knitting or even watching television.

Local business units powered by reliable electricity supply also play a role in making lives easier for rural women. Key among them being grain processing units and water purification units. Traditionally in India, grain processing and collection of water are arduous engagements for women. With mechanized grain processing units making their entry into the hinterland of the country, there has been a significant reduction in the drudgery undergone by women in getting paddy hulled hitherto. Similarly, water purification units ensure local availability of clean water, reducing the efforts, otherwise made by women to collect and purify. The enhanced access to mechanized services helps us appreciate the ability of electricity to improve rural quality of lives.

While electricity access has longer poverty impact trajectories, our data prove that it positively impacts local economic development in shorter runs-acting as an enabler to growth.

Evidence from SPRD points out expansion, diversification, and development of local businesses because of electricity access.

The impact measurement mandate of SPRD focuses strongly on understanding causality and estimating impact on village economy. The measurement is driven by two components a) Aggregating change in village-level economic productivity through repeated cross-sectional surveys of local businesses. b)  Using difference-in-difference (DID) to estimate the impact and appreciate its trajectory for a panel of 600 local businesses representing the village level business ecosystem.

The aggregated measure of village-level economic impact suggests an increase in overall economic output due to improved electricity. The per capita annual economic outputs have increased from USD 414 to USD 439 (USD 3 of which can be attributed to mini-grid programmes).

Our panel of local businesses helps us deconstruct the aggregated economic growth story. 
The DID estimates at the level of local businesses suggest increased daily operational hours (an additional hour and a half) for businesses with reliable electricity connection. Moreover, local businesses supplied with electricity from mini-grids experience an additional seven percent customer footfall.  Electricity access has also led to the mechanization of business operations. From 2015 to 2018, we have seen tailoring and carpentry units, the most commonly seen enterprises in rural India, switching to electricity run machines over manual ones. Thus, enhancing the efficiency of the businesses by a large margin. Many tailors, connected to the SPRD mini-grids, have highlighted a monthly increase in revenues of 35 percent or USD 30 (from USD 85 to USD 115). Carpenters have emphasized that their efficiency has tripled after the introduction of electricity run machines.

Local businesses have enjoyed an increase of around 42 percent in their monthly revenue from USD 137 to USD 195, over three years. About 64 percent of these businesses have been able to derive financial benefits just through improved and regular lighting. It is, however, seen that local businesses, which use electricity to run machines or for productive use, have experienced greater economic gains (52% increase from USD 145 to USD 220 per month) as compared to businesses that use light as the only point of electricity usage (36% increase from USD 132 to USD 180 per month).

We do acknowledge the article’s stand on lack of evidence on electricity access leading to significant economic transformations in the rural context. This is largely explained by the short-term nature of programmes for creating access, the small quantum of electricity provided in most programmes, and the fact that in many regions the target population uses multiple sources of electricity. We believe that with a shift towards evaluating impacts and standardization of outcome variables, future evidence on electricity and development will be more robust. However, our experience in this domain leads us to believe that poverty alleviation will require a larger and inter-generational time-frame. In the meanwhile, electricity access paves a pathway towards that change through smaller and more frequent direct impacts, and these are extremely valuable by themselves.

Ramanshu Ganguly is an Assistant Vice President-Research at Sambodhi. 

Swapnil Shekhar co-founded Sambodhi and is one of its director

[1] https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Access_to_electricity
[2] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/why-access-to-electricity-is-key-for-africa/
[3] The installations range from 27kW solar mini-grids to 70kW

Monday, December 31, 2018

Innovations, learnings and growth: 2018 at Sambodhi

This was a year of trying new things and many wonderful new firsts. As 2018 draws to a close, we think it would be a good time to reflect on the progress we have made so far. Especially the journey to some major milestones for Sambodhi.

As we begin the new year, we would like to celebrate our partners, our clients, and our community of employees. Here is a quick look at what all happened in 2018!

We launched our data collection platform TheSurveyPoint

At Sambodhi, we are deeply invested in improving data quality and speed of data collection. This year saw the culmination of our efforts with the launch of our own in-house data collection platform- TheSurveyPoint. This next generation user-friendly solution can be easily used to create surveys, collect data with near/real time efficiency as well as analyze the data to render beautiful visualizations and insights.

Hardly 4 months old, and TheSurveyPoint has already been used to make 8 programs, collecting over 2,20,000 data points from 1400 stakeholders across different sectors.  We are really excited about our new platform that has been built to collect, manage and analyze large volumes of multivariate data, even without internet, from the remotest corners of the world. TheSurveyPoint has endured extensive testing and is now ready to take on data problems of all types and sizes.

Want to know more about TheSurveyPoint? Try the free demo here.

We welcomed a refreshed brand and a new online home

October was an important month for us as we pulled back the curtain on an evolved Sambodhi mission and a refreshed brand.

Our new look is inspired by our widening global presence, our evolving portfolio of services and the innovative ways in which we think and analyze. Often, when we interact with our clients, partners and other stakeholders, we hear from them how Sambodhi is catalyzing impact and driving transformations in ways big and small. These stories make us believe that Sambodhi is a part of something bigger than itself, and that’s what inspires us to innovate and improve. Our new brand reflects the optimism, clarity, and confidence that Sambodhi instills in our stakeholders, and that they, in turn, give back to us.

Did you see our new website? Check it out here

We refined our policies to make our work environment more secure

At Sambodhi, we have always been proactive about fostering a progressive culture that creates a positive work environment and motivates our people to form deeper connections with their work. As passionate as we are about this sentiment, we also believe that every great idea and every noble intention should backed up by consistent and flawless execution.

To that end, this year, we have not only strengthened our policies to ensure a safe and positive work environment, but we have also invested heavily in strengthening communication platforms and putting suitable response structures in places. We had partnered with specialized HR firm, who worked closely with our functional teams to assess and devise effective policies. Further, we had dedicated sessions that focused on helping our employees understand the nuances of the policies. The most interesting ones, however, were the exploratory sessions on gender sensitization, wherein people shared freely their experiences, expectations and more.  We believe that these efforts will make us more accountable and involved in sustaining the healthy work environment that has always been a matter of pride for this organizations.

Want to work with us? Read more about our team here

Our emerging footprint and encouraging growth

2018 was a milestone year for us at Sambodhi. There were great successes, some failures too, but most importantly there was growth. This year, we have grown as professionals, as a team and an organization in many ways. We have worked in newer geographies, we have solved problems in newer thematic areas and we have partnered with federal bodies on some exciting long-term assignments, on our mission of empowering organizations and individuals through evidence.

One of the earliest mandates of Sambodhi is our quest to disseminate knowledge. We always try to ensure that we share our learnings and lessons with others. While this continues to happen over daily conversations and weekly sessions, this year saw our growing participation in international conventions and summits to engage with our clients and partners, share about our progress, show off our achievements, take feedback, find ways to collaborate, and contribute towards mutual goals. We were also thrilled to have some of our work published in international peer reviewed journals like JSTOR and The Lancet, which helped us to foster a global dialogue on driving efficiencies with data.

You can learn more about our work here and see our publications here.

Our promise for the future

In 2019, while Sambodhi will reflect on its past and continue to reinforce its current expertise and practice in monitoring and evaluation, we will also take on a more critical role to meaningfully utilize and influence how newer technologies and data sciences impact lives. We will keep on progressively investing in contemporary measurement discourse in the Global South and we are hopeful that the innovations you see from us in 2019 will help bridge data science with development and measurement decisions.

We’re excited about what’s coming in 2019. And we’re grateful for your support along the way.

Want to know more about us? To get regular updates, click here

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Friday, September 28, 2018

Data Driven Solutions for Complex Development Challenges

The world that we live in today is far from ideal; but does not stop motivated individuals from working towards mitigating societal, economic and environmental challenges. Across the world, various stakeholders such as government organizations, humanitarian organizations, corporates and investors are working towards designing and implementing interventions in the social sector to bring about positive impact. However, riddled with strategic and operational challenges, these stakeholders often require the assistance of adept development consultancies. A trusted ally for the development sector is Sambodhi Research a global development consulting organization.
Founded in 2005, the firm holds expertise in monitoring, evaluation & learning (MLE), data analytics, capacity building, technical assistance, “Through our services, we produce high quality, statistically significant and robust evidence to enable informed decision making in the policy and implementation realm for interventions,” explains Sudhanshu Malhotra, Vice President Business Development, Sambodhi Research. Headquartered in Noida, the firm’s services have so far aided interventions in sectors such as energy access, environment and climate change, agriculture, livelihood, public health & nutrition, wash, skill development, education, financial inclusion and governance.
Countering Operational ChallengesThe social development sector often treats measurement and learning as after thoughts. This causes various operational challenges such as inadequate budgeting for measurement and monitoring, unrealistic expectations from the programme outcome/impact and unrealistic expectations from research activities. Sambodhi counters  these challenges by engaging early on with stakeholders at the programme design stage and thus creating visibility and awareness on potential MLE and research. Working in the niche area, Sambodhi’s MLE support services include impact evaluations, process evaluations, concurrent monitoring, process monitoring and embedded long term MLE .
Using statistically sound experimental and quasi experimental methods, innovative techniques in data analytics and collecting data itself to ensure quality, the company also carries out large scale multi surveys in both urban and rural settings. To cater to need of handling composite data that is rapidly transitioning from numerical to complex-textual and audio-visual. Sambodhi is also heavily invested in mastering and applying evaluative methods based on qualitative inquiry The company also holds expertise in research and data analysis which includes data analytics support by applying big data as well as lean data principles to the development context. With its data services extending from descriptive to predictive and prescriptive analytics, Sambodhi has built strong proficiency in rendering research support for cross sectional studies and assessments. Formative research and other activities falling under the gamut of social research. “We see ourselves as research service provider bridging the gap between traditional and main stream consulting, and this positions us very uniquely in the development consulting space,” adds Sudhanshu.
Building Capacities in Social SectorThe social development sector is constantly evolving. Equipped with the right expertise, Sambodhi also works towards supporting and updating the capacities of its developmental partners through its capacity building and training services. The company’s trainings focus on areas such as research design, data analytics. MLE techniques, results based frameworks, statistical software and proposal writing, amongst others. The firm undertakes class room and customized training in the field of MLE and has so far trained over 8000 senior mid career professionals.
Over the years, Sambodhi has succeeded in harbouring trust in the social development sector and has worked with prestigious clients such as the Government of India, various State Governments, the World Bank Group, various UN Organizations, Academia such as Duke University and LSHTM, and foundations such as the the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, amongst others. Although headquartered in India, the company has offices in Cambodia and Tanzania. “Apart from South Asia, we are actively pursuing international growth in the Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia regions,” adds Sudhanshu. Engaged in work which has an impact on the lives of the poor and the marginalized, Sambodhi certainly has its heart in the right place.

Gender and Global Health

Former President of USA George HW Bush once remarked,” Let me tell you, this gender thing is history.” At that time, this caused instantaneous outrage not just in political but non political circles as well. However, it soon died down. I believe Bush was excused (or at least wasn’t taken to the cleaners, literally) because he is a Republican. But when Larry Summers, then as President of Harvard University, and an advisor to many Democrat presidents mentioned the unmentionables regarding gender, this caused serious angst amongst people, leading to his resignation. It is a different debate altogether whether to consider a Democrat a more rational person than a Republican. But when Summers’s faux pas led to that uproar, it surely didn’t come as a surprise that Harvard chose a woman, Drew Faust to replace him. The point I wish to make here is times have changed—just being politically correct is no longer acceptable. How are things like gender juxtaposed in the true sense of the word in modern discourse is what really matters, especially when it comes to discussing global health issues.
According to the WHO, definition of gender is: “socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women”. However, while gender mainstreaming is well documented in programmatic interventions on health universally, the picture on the ground reveals a different story. During my stay so far in India, I have observed that often there a blurred vision when it comes to discussing gender which is often confused with only women’s health issues. For instance, I have observed in field visits that most men perceive MNCH issues solely the prerogative of women. One such program Sambodhi recently evaluated for BBC Media Action tackled this problem head on. Called the Chaar Gaanth program, the program initiated rural men to take active role in preparing for child birth. This is a novel program and its reach is limited. I believe in order to meet the MDGs, and to actually reduce gender inequities a lot needs to change, not just people’s perception on gender.
Sambodhi helps evaluate many maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) programs for many bilateral and multilateral agencies. In most cases, however I have noticed the programs have been designed such that the health of women is complementary to, but not synonymous with, the promotion of gender equity in health. Further, I have noticed that global health policies and programs focused on prevention of and care for the health needs of men are notably few in number. To overcome entrenched ideas within global health is imperative and even more important to convince donors and governments to ensure that programs address the health needs of both women and men. Galvanizing gender into global health necessitates these thoughts and actions are more political to influence interactions among the prevailing ideas, relevant interests, and institutions which determine health policies.

Using Analytics Advantage For Data Mining

What data could do without analytics? Nothing, it would have just been a data collection with no meaning. Analytics defined data using data mining.Google defines data mining as an analytic process designed to explore data (usually large amounts of data – typically business or market related – also known as “big data“) in search of consistent patterns and/or systematic relationships between variables, and then to validate the findings by applying the detected patterns. Analytics can be used in data mining process to the extreme content.
Here are the Data mining classes of tasks:
  1. The identification of unusual data records or data errors that require further investigation.
  2. Searching for relationships between variables.
  3. Discovering groups and structures in the data that are in some way or another “similar”
  4. Generalizing known structure to apply to new data.
  5. Regression – to find a function this models the data with the least error.
  6. Compact representation of the data set.
Now let’s look into each step and understand how analytics play a vital role in data mining.
The first two steps are the most crucial ones. Depending upon the data, you have options of straightforward predictors for a regression model, to elaborate exploratory analysis. This is the basic yet most important step in data mining. If this goes wrong, the complete analysis would have an incorrect basis.
The next two stages incorporates the technique of applying the correct on once choice. It involves various models and predicting the best one. The variables you choose are independent and predictive analysis comes in play for these steps. You may have to apply different techniques on same data set and get the most desired output.
Now let’s talk about the final two stages of data mining which produces results. The model which you have selected in the previous two stages would be applied to the new data and produce predictions. What future could react to our stimulus is predicted in this step.Errors are eradicated to the maximum and if the desired results are not generated, re-evaluation is done.
Almost every field in business requires data mining. Custom relationship management is one such area wherein customer related data is scanned and explored to get into the minds of customer. The return on investment is high and this is profitable as you get to know what your business would be most likely to behave to changes. Science, engineering, social business, everything encompasses this beautiful tool.
The area is wide, put on your thinking caps and start exploring.

Whither Impact Evaluation

Public programmes are designed to achieve certain objectives. Different governments, international organizations and multilateral aid agencies fund and implement interventions that intend to reduce poverty, improve public health and improve quality of education, among other things. However, these interventions work in a complex ecosystem involving myriad players and it is not straightforward to determine whether the interventions have worked or not. It requires rigorous impact evaluation methodologies to find out whether there were any changes due to the intervention.
The main aim of an evaluation exercise is to find out whether there were any changes after an intervention, and if there were changes, how much of it can be attributed to the intervention. In other words, it is the science and art of finding out what works and what does not work in the public policy sphere. Over the years, impact evaluation has become almost mandatory requirement to any large intervention. Many organizations have developed state-of-the-art expertise in providing impact evaluation services to governments, international organizations and aid agencies.
As the discipline expands, two basic questions can be asked about the nature of the role that impact evaluation plays in development sector programmes. The first question is whether impact evaluation makes the actual objectives of a development intervention redundant. The first thing should be kept in mind that the prerequisite of any impact evaluation exercise is a carefully planned intervention. So, the primary focus of the agencies should on implementing the intervention.
The second question raised is whether impact evaluation does really make a difference. When we ask this, we would like to know how many policy decisions were actually taken based on the results from an evaluation exercise. Are the learnings from evaluation able to change the way policy making is approached by different governments, international organizations and multilateral aid organizations, which forms the main consumers of impact evaluation reports? If it is not happening, there is something wrong, and valuable learnings from years of experience in the field are being lost into voluminous reports that hardly anyone reads to any effect. These questions are better asked to the evaluators themselves.
There is an urgent need for the evaluators around the globe to ponder on these issues and find ways to rediscover the discipline. Impact evaluation must not be reduced to a routine exercise which is carried out for the sake of it. It is imperative that every researcher asks one simple question, “How can I make my work count?” The good news is that there are ways to make it happen. The best way to do it is to make sure that the learnings from evaluation reach a wider audience.
The broader goal is to create a voice in favour of evidence based policy making. Making the learnings of research accessible to the public is the first step towards achieving it. Evaluators can make more use of their research by owning the research outcomes and making them available through diverse forms of media. Bringing together everybody in the profession through seminars, workshops etc. and creating a strong and vibrant community of evaluators for knowledge sharing will be very helpful in this regard. The power of information & communication technology (ICT), internet and social media can be leveraged to this effect.