Combating Rural Poverty by Spreading Technology

According to Gita Surie, about half of India’s population has little or no access to reliable energy, which means that 600 million people in rural India have a significant problem.

Fortunately, green energy technologies exist that can ameliorate the problem. Unfortunately, addressing such a huge need requires more than just handing out a bunch of solar panels and calling it a day. There are myriad logistical challenges: How will rural villagers afford to acquire or maintain any new equipment they’ll need? Who will operate it? Will they be able to repair the technology when it breaks?

Surie, a Mack Institute Senior Fellow, has spent over two decades studying how various forms of organization can support the successful spread of new technologies. Building on research funded by the Mack Institute, she received a Fulbright Nehru fellowship in 2013 to study innovation in rural India, where she has focused on the adoption of green energy technologies, namely solar energy for lighting and biogas for cooking fuel.

“My work in India led me to believe that renewable energy technologies have great promise for alleviating poverty.”

What Surie has discovered is that an ecosystem of partnerships is essential for the adoption of new technologies to become sustainable.

Her term for the most effective solution is “heteromorphic organization,” which is a stable pattern built on “interactions among different types of organizations at multiple levels over time.” As Surie explains, this involves “different types of organizational forms simultaneously: formal and informal contracts, long- and short-term contracts, along with hierarchy. The adoption of heteromorphic organization…allows the organization to access resources more easily, to enhance its reach, and to be able to embed itself in the emergent ecosystem.”

For example, Surie describes a not-for-profit organization that turned industrial waste into energy briquettes for cooking. To enable the adoption of their technology, they partnered with the Indian government and the United Nations Development Programme. Through these partnerships, the organization worked closely with rural women to facilitate their use of the technology, which then provided the women new opportunities for entrepreneurial ventures in food production.

Another example involved solar panels that were too expensive for rural villagers to purchase up front; organizations had to form to provide rental models and loan programs that supported their acquisition of the technology. Again, entrepreneurial opportunities emerged, as women began offering complementary services like charging stations and thus increased their status in the community.

Surie’s findings provide a template for successfully introducing novel technologies in a challenging setting. This research suggests innumerable opportunities, not only for humanitarian efforts like alleviating poverty and catalyzing entrepreneurship, but also opportunities for opening up huge untapped markets. After all, as Surie points out, “The villagers of today are the lead users of tomorrow – and the source of future innovations.”