Alumnus Wins “Asia’s Nobel Prize”

Hande Cited for Solar Electrification in India

Solar engineer Harish Hande ’98, ’00 was recently recognized with what is commonly known as "Asia's Nobel Prize."

Solar engineer Harish Hande ’98, ’00 was recently recognized with what is commonly known as "Asia's Nobel Prize."

08/05/2011
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A UMass Lowell engineering graduate is among those from Asia who have been chosen to receive this year’s prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award from the Philippines.

Harish Hande, who obtained a master’s degree in renewable energy engineering in 1998 and a doctorate in mechanical engineering (with a concentration in energy) in 2000, was recognized for his “passionate and pragmatic efforts to build a social enterprise that brings customized, affordable, and sustainable electricity to India’s vast rural population, encouraging the poor to become asset creators.”

Hande is managing director of Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO) India, which he co-founded in Bangalore in 1995. SELCO has pioneered access to solar electricity for rural families living below India’s poverty line through a combination of customized home-lighting systems and innovative financing.

The annual Magsaysay award — widely considered to be Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize — is named in honor of the former Philippine president who died in a plane crash in 1957. The award was established that year by the New York-based Rockefeller Brothers Fund, with the concurrence of the Philippine Government. Awardees receive a certificate, a medallion bearing the image of the late president and a cash prize of $50,000.

Hande will accept the award at a ceremony in Manila, Philippines, on Aug. 31, the president’s birthday.

A Social Entrepreneur

Hande got the inspiration to set up SELCO in 1991, when he visited the Dominican Republic and saw how very poor people were using solar energy for lighting. He became determined to bring this concept to India, where about 57 percent of the country’s population lacks electricity and, for many more, the supply is unreliable.

To date, the company has reached more than a half million people by installing solar photovoltaic systems and providing lighting and electricity to villages and businesses in the southern Indian states of Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. To make the technology affordable to the poor, the company has pioneered linking the sale of photovoltaic systems with credit institutions such as rural banks, cooperatives and even self-help groups.

“The Magsaysay award means a lot to our company — it gives impetus to what we at SELCO have been trying to do, and it cements our belief that renewable energy, poverty reduction and sustainability can go hand in hand,” says Hande. 

“In the early 1990s UMass Lowell was one of very few universities that was offering courses on renewable energy and sustainability. Profs. Jose Martin and John Duffy and Dr. Bill Berg were the people who pushed me to change my thinking, from technology to the socio-economic aspect. Their influence has helped me to create SELCO in the form it is today.”

Hande plans to use the cash award to provide capital to poor, young entrepreneurs.

“We want to encourage them to replicate SELCO in different parts of India and the world,” he says.

A Role Model

In addition to the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Hande has received numerous other accolades, including being named in 2008 as “One of the 21 Young Leaders for India’s 21st Century” by Business Today and “One of the 50 Pioneers of Change in India” by India Today, as well as “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” for 2007 by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Nand and Jeep Khemkha Foundation.

“As a student, Harish became focused on helping the poor,” says mechanical engineering Prof. John Duffy, who coordinates UMass Lowell’s solar engineering graduate program and was thesis adviser for Hande’s doctorate.

“His thesis was essentially a business plan for SELCO, each chapter was a well-researched plan to overcome a different barrier, which he subsequently carried out successfully” says Duffy. 

“To me, Harish epitomizes the ideal of helping the poor in an economically and environmentally sustainable way, not exploiting them. I am very proud to have had a part in helping him to be such an example of combining humanitarianism with business in bringing renewable power to the people. Many of the graduate students in our renewable energy engineering program are interested in doing the kind of work that he is doing and look to him as a role model.”