My professor showed me this article, profiling d.light. If you notice, the article talks a lot about pricing and technology (It is an article in Forbes, after all..) Prof had forwarded this article to Harish Hande, who brushed it aside saying what is needed is a process not a product. There have been plenty of products, but very few have set in place a process.
But why is it that so many well-meaning companies (with excellent technical expertise) fail where companies like SELCO succeed ? Issue, IMO, is one of outlook. In the West, a price and advertising will actually work. Take the example of a vehicle. You buy a new vehicle and within a few months all your neighborhood mechanics would have figured out the internals and you no longer have to go to the authorised service centre for repairs. Make a vehicle extremely complicated, and you will see that immediately the acceptance will fall in areas far away from qualified mechanics. Spare parts (real or imitation) will begin to appear in stores nearby. In short, it is taken for granted that you can maintain your vehicle without too much support from the company itself.
When one takes up the arduous task of ‘lighting up rural India’, the scenario can hardly be like the urban one described above. Most organizations who work in backward regions have targets that are similar to government ones: how many lights distributed, how many generators installed. Follow up and maintenance is present on the list, but hardly given too much importance, when this should be the most important criterion. Thus, one sees microhydro stations lying unused, broken solar lighting with no one to fix them, and computers collecting dust because no one knows how to use them.
Thus, the successful organizations are the ones which focus on trying to build up a process by which they can sell (shops, financing), maintain and improve (via local feedback). There was an interesting article sometime ago about Nokia hiring an anthropologist to meet people in developing countries to design phones for their needs and tastes, which is one way of doing it, but the focus there is only on design. But one realises that this is a long, probably life-long commitment. Also, institutional or process design is not a follow-the-dotted-line procedure. It requires both intellectual sophistication and empirical depth to understand grass root realities and also to understand it in a larger framework of thought and bring forth sensible solutions. Unfortunately, we find people with only one of these (Planning Commission, former, politicians, latter (if anything)). Mostly people lack both when they go about trying to do ‘development’. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are very few Harish Handes and SELCOs.
So, if anyone has the next big idea to end global poverty, focus on the process. Technology can always assure the product. Most problems facing underdeveloped regions of the world are not technological, but social or economic.