Human interest
These solar powered lights not only help the women feel safe and give them the option to work longer, but are also used by their kids for studying and lighting up their homes.

Until last year, Saraswathi, a flower vendor Bannerghatta in Bengaluru, used to rely entirely on natural light and the street light to draw customers to her stall on Kamanahalli road. But things changed for her when she became one of the beneficiaries of city-based social entrepreneur Aakarsh Shamanur’s campaign, ‘Be Po-Lite’ around Deepavali last year and received a solar powered light.

“Now the shop is visible to people. They stop and have a look at what’s available. When people used to come before, they used to leave as they could not figure out [in the dark] if the flowers were fresh or stale. Now, due to the light, they buy the flowers without fussing,” she says, in the video below.

Like Saraswathi, Be Po-Lite benefited a total of 200 women vendors in Karnataka in 2017. Aakarsh, the 29-year-old founder of the project, has a background in architecture and urban development. He tells TNM that this has not only given these vendors the option of working post sundown and for longer hours, but also done away with a trust deficit between customers and vendors, as the former can now inspect the products with ease.

This Deepavali, Be Po-Lite intends to make a bigger impact. “We want to reach women street vendors across India this year. We are hoping to reach 500 vendors this time,” Aakarsh says.

Be Po-Lite and how it works

The idea of Be Po-Lite came from a desire to do something for street vendors who make up 1-2% of cities’ populations and who generally miss out when it comes to urban infrastructure projects. “We also wanted to promote a sustainable Deepavali. Instead of bursting crackers, you can gift someone a light on the festival of lights. We wanted to put together cultural behaviour and technology adoption to foster sustainable infra for the street vendors,” Aakarsh adds.

With this in mind, Aakarsh designed a solar powered LED light of 3-Watts and got a friend to make prototypes. He started a crowdfunding campaign on Milaap, and raised Rs 3 lakh. They relied on social media to spread the word, and identified the street vendors who were in need of such lights.

Aakarsh giving the light to a vegetable vendor

They also crowdsourced information about vendors in Karnataka. People would send a photo and the location of a street vendor in need in their area. Volunteers or Aakarsh himself would then go to the spot, without spelling out their association with the campaign. “We would check for the genuineness of the person, if they had electricity in their home or if the place where they set up shop had enough sunlight,” Aakarsh explains. The light they provide can also be charged using electricity and a mobile charger.

How it helped vendors

Manjula Devi, a vegetable vendor in Jayanagar 9th Block, was one of the women who got a light under the Be Po-Lite campaign last year. She begins work at 7 am and continues vending till 10 pm. “We definitely need light between 7 pm to 10 pm. Without light, my income goes down by Rs 500-1,000. If there is light, it goes up by Rs 1,000,” she said, in a video.

Before getting the solar powered light, she would use a gas lantern for which she would incur a monthly expenditure of Rs 1,000, excluding the Rs 100 she would spend on repairs. She said that the Be Po-Lite unit helped reduce her expenditure and allowed her more convenience in selling vegetables during the night.

The solar-powered light also comes with a phone charger. Aakarsh says that this has helped vendors charge their phones and continue to accept payments through mobile wallets even late in the night. “One of the women vendors who sets up shop on the Peenya highway and sells omlettes and tea for truck drivers at night has used this feature to make additional income. She charges a nominal fee like Rs 5 and allows truck drivers to charge their phones through the light,” Aakarsh says.

In other cases, it has helped bolster a sense of urban safety. One vendor who works in Yelahanka area told Aakarsh that since the area is not well lit, people often don’t come there. “She said that women who work and travel late often cross that road after seeing her there with the light. The Chinese light she was using earlier was not bright enough. But people have started spotting her stall and coming to that area when she is there,” Aakarsh says.

Promoting sustainability

What also makes Aakarsh happy is that this is introducing the concept of sustainability to the younger generation in these families. “Saraswathi’s children use the light to study and do their homework. She also uses the light to light up their home and cook when they don’t have power. Manjula’s son they realised that the sun’s energy was being harnessed and they didn’t need to be connected to the grid to have electricity. He even told his mother that when they have their own homes, they would use solar power,” Aakarsh shares.

Saraswathi and her children

Further, he has ensured that the lights they give are sustainable too. Last year, they got to know about some local service technicians and trained them to repair the lights if need be. “We have designed the lights in such a way that each part is replaceable and there is no plastic used, so even if it needs to discarded, it can be sold at a junk shop for a reasonable sum because it has recycle value,” Aakarsh says.

This year, they intend to make a few videos on basic repairs and replacements of the parts in the lights and upload them on YouTube, so that even if users cannot repair it themselves, they can take it to a local shop and ask them to watch the video and repair the light.

Be Po-Lite 2018 and how you can contribute

After helping vendors in Bengaluru, Davanagere, Hubballi, Hiriyur and Sindhanur in Karnataka, Aakarsh is now looking for people across India to identify vendors in their areas who would benefit from this light. “We are also encouraging people to start sub-campaigns under Be Po-Lite in their own cities or localities,” Aakarsh says. However, a proper verification and referral system will be used to establish authenticity of these, he adds.

This year, The team has tied up with SauraMandala, an NGO that works on providing electricity in remote areas of Kashmir, for outreach. They also plan to give vendors two units of the light costing Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 respectively. “We already saw how vendors were utilising the lights in multiple ways; and we realised that they could use one light for area where they are making food, and one for customers. Hence, the two-light system,” Aakarsh explains.

Aakarsh and team are hoping to raise Rs 15 lakh this year. You can contribute to the same here. You can also reach Be Po-Lite on via Facebook if you have a vendor in your area who would benefit from the solar powered lights, or if you would like to volunteer with them.