Seventy-five years after India sheltered his grandfather from the Holocaust, Joe Kselman of Takoma Park has returned to light up some of the country’s poorest villages.
His Solar Village Project (SVP) installs solar power lighting systems in the homes and schools of villages where few tourists visit and families of five live on dollars a day.
Last summer SVP completed a two-year project in the Gauterine village in northeast India, setting up solar units in 75 homes using just $4,000 in crowdsource funding.
Now that the venture Kselman stumbled upon has grown into a certified nonprofit, SVP has launched another online campaign to raise twice the money for twice the people.
Experts estimate 400 million Indians have no access to electricity, and many use dangerous kerosene lamps to see inside their homes. Despite the widespread lack of good quality light, the Indian government and many aid organizations don’t prioritize it when providing services, Kselman said.
“Light is a fundamental necessity just like food, water and shelter. I want to add light to that list of three. That’s a fourth thing that in the 21st century, everybody needs,” he said.
Kselman’s experience working in the University of Maryland’s engineering department prepared him to install solar power systems. But his relationship with India goes much further back.
In 1938, Kselman’s Jewish grandfather Max Scheck was an orthopedic surgeon living in Austria, watching the walls close in. The Nazis had annexed the country in one of Hitler’s first major acts of imperialism and Austrian Jews had become targets for violence and discrimination.
Scheck realized the danger of staying put and decided to emigrate as soon as possible. He found out India would give him a visa because the country needed Western-trained doctors to treat its population of 300 million. Scheck took off without saying goodbye to his parents and set sail for Bombay via Italy.
India and its people were kind to him. A doctor in Bombay introduced Scheck to the local maharajah, who took a liking to him and put him in charge of surgery at a men’s hospital. Scheck spent four years practicing medicine all over India while millions of Jews perished in Central Europe during the Holocaust.
Years later, Scheck told his grandson about his experiences, like the story about traveling through the Indian desert in an overheated Jeep and the story about coming across the most delicious mangos he’d ever tasted. Scheck’s storytelling served as the basis for Kselman’s lifelong interest in India, which only grew when Kselman became interested in Buddhism in high school.
After Kselman graduated from the University of Indiana, he worked for a small construction business in North Carolina and eventually took a full-time job at the University of Maryland, where he supports professors and researchers in the electrical engineering department. When the department received a $30,000 grant, Kselman became the lead technician building the university’s MESA sustainability lab, a major project that involved buying and installing solar equipment.
Solar power is more popular than ever, largely because the cost of manufacturing the equipment has dropped exponentially over the last 10 years. There’s also a growing emphasis on renewable energy in the face of climate change, so many organizations like SVP are tapping into the power of the sun.
“Even 10 to 15 years ago, a decent solar panel would cost you $700, $800,” Kselman said. “That panel now costs $200… All of a sudden, the technology is so cheap that people who couldn’t afford it now can.”
After he worked long enough to earn some disposable income, Kselman booked the trip to India he always dreamed about. He signed up for a Buddhist pilgrimage trip that would take him to important landmarks for the religion, like the holy city of Bodh Gaya where Buddha sat under a tree and obtained Enlightenment.
The trip was supposed to be the kind where a travel agency arranges the entire itinerary, but destiny proved otherwise. The tour guide assigned to escort Kselman dropped out right before he arrived and Sunil Sharma, a smart local man who came from a very poor background, filled in.
Sharma told Kselman he wanted to show him the “real India,” so they ditched the planned itinerary and jumped onto Sharma’s motorcycle, heading down dirt paths to see the side of India few tourists ever encounter.
Sharma took Kselman to eat dinner in his aunt’s village, where Kselman noticed there were just a few power lines. Sharma said the government shut down the lines for months at a time. Inside the aunt’s small brick home, four children and her extended family crammed into small sleeping quarters.
After dinner, they took a half-mile walk into Gauterine, where Kselman saw even worse conditions. There was no electricity, no water pumps and most houses were made of mud.
“We had just spent all day with his family,” Kselman said. “It was pretty crazy sitting there eating food with them… I thought this was as bad as it gets, that this was poverty. And then we walk to (Gauterine) and I saw it and said, ‘Holy sh**, it does get worse.’”
For hundreds of years, Indian society revolved around a rigid caste system that separated people into social categories. The government prohibited caste discrimination in the mid-20th century, but the divisions are still so ingrained that poor Indians have immense difficulty rising out of poverty. Gauterine is made up entirely of Dalit – also known as the “untouchables” – the poorest cluster of society representing about 25 percent of India’s population.
Kselman said he started thinking about when he could return to Gauterine and how he could make a significant impact.
The impetus came a year later when Sharma was getting married. Kselman flew to India for the weeklong wedding extravaganza and decided he’d use the trip to kick start the Gauterine project. He planned to purchase about $2,000 in solar equipment with his own money when he arrived and install it for the village school, which people also used as a local meeting place.
After getting past an Indian manufacturer who tried to renege on the original terms of their agreement, Kselman had all the equipment ready. He and Sharma headed to Gauterine to install the solar panels, spending days working on top of the school and nights at the elaborate wedding ceremonies with Sharma’s 100 guests. When the week passed, Sharma was a married man and the school had electricity for the first time.
Kselman said solar power works similarly to standard lighting, and installing solar panels is simpler than one would think, especially for someone with a background in electrical engineering. To light up the school, Kselman placed solar panels on the roof to capture energy from the sun at a low-voltage current. The current runs into an inverter, which converts the energy into a higher-voltage current that allows villagers to plug in lights, televisions or mobile phones.
Despite the lack of basic necessities, everyone seems to have a cell phone. Indians can pay $15 for a cheap phone and spend less than a penny per minute on phone service. Kselman attributes the popularity of mobile phones to India being an extremely social country. But before the school had solar panels, people needed to walk hours and spend a lot of money to charge their phones.
“One of the elders was saying to me in his very limited English after we finished the school project, ‘Please, just one connection,’” Kselman said. “He was asking for power in his house, which was very close to the school. And I said ‘I promise I will be back soon. I promise.’”
As he waited for his flight in the Darjeeling airport, an Indian woman named Cristeen sat down across from Kselman and struck up a conversation. They had a pleasant talk and exchanged contact information as Kselman boarded his plane. When he returned to Takoma Park, they started talking for hours each day even while 10 time zones apart. Five months later, they were married.
“The family needed to vet me and see me before they made any decisions,” Kselman said. “So I went back and we all hung out for a few days and talked about it. In the end, they said, ‘Okay, you’re not bad. We believe you’ll take care of our daughter. She really loves you, and you obviously love her, so we approve.’ And once we got the approval, we did a real quick wedding.”
Since they married in September 2013, Kselman and Cristeen have only seen each other a handful of times. Cristeen has never been to the U.S., and they’ve been fighting to get her a green card for almost two years.
Cristeen said the connection between them felt immediate and powerful, and she finds it very hard to handle the constant separation.
“Joe is very special in my life because I feel complete with him,” Cristeen said. “He taught me the exact value of love… I had nobody special except my parents to share my feelings with. After I got married to Joe, I understand that life is awesome if you have the right partner.”
Six months after they were married, Kselman decided on a whim to experiment with crowdsource funding. He made a goal to raise $3,000 to install a solar power unit in every home in Gauterine. He built a basic campaign on the website IndieGoGo and joined Twitter and Facebook for the first time to aggressively reach out to donors.
Kselman promised every donor who pledged $30 would receive a photo of the family who received the solar power unit.
The campaign raised $4,000 on IndieGoGo, 132 percent of the target amount. Kselman flew out to Gauterine in the summer of 2014 to install solar panels for each home in the village and used the extra donations to upgrade the equipment to better, brighter lights. His team, including Sharma and Cristeen, set up shop in the middle of the village to distribute the equipment.
The village elder who approached Kselman in the previous year had come back to get the power connection he wanted.
“I said ‘Hey, remember? I promised you,’” Kselman said. “And he just had a big smile.”
Kselman is aware of how some charitable organizations emphasize helping the poor while reinforcing the stereotype of the white savior. He said that’s why he’s trying to transition SVP from an organization that provides aid to one that supports development. Solar panels are currently free, but he hopes in the future to rent them out for $2 per month – about the same cost as burning kerosene lamps.
This change in strategy is meant not only to transform the mindset regarding SVP’s purpose but also to make the organization less reliant on foreign donors. Kselman said. Kselman also hired Indians as regional managers and has Americans and Indians on SVP’s board.
Kselman said the biggest challenge was gaining the villagers’ trust. After years with little improvement in their quality of life, they felt naturally skeptical of a foreigner saying he wanted to help. But after the success in Gauterine, he hopes those people will advocate for SVP when it asks to work with other villages.
Kselman estimated about five people live in each home, meaning the Gauterine project lit up the lives of approximately 400 people. SVP is now a registered nonprofit and has developed a three-year plan to raise $300,000 and serve 5,000 people with solar power systems.
The first step in the plan is fundraising for a similar project in the Kihare village, located about 10 miles from Gauterine. Kselman is utilizing IndieGoGo once again in hopes of raising $10,000 before the campaign expires April 16.
It’s difficult not to pin most of SVP’s success on Kselman after he’s put in so much of the organizational and physical legwork to get it to its current state. But he likes to keep the attention on the impact of the work.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Kselman said. “My role in much of this is much smaller than most of the people in the organization. I just happen to know all of the right people. I don’t speak Hindi, I don’t have a business background, I’m not from India. All I do is have ideas… It’s me down here and everyone else pulling me up.”