Four summers ago, an annual trip to a rural Indian village surprised Akhil Singh. He had been always barred from staying there, where his father grew up, because the village didn’t have electricity.
But this time, the villagers toted solar-powered lanterns.
Fascinated by how the light improved village life, Akhil visited the Lighting a Billion Lives headquarters in New Delhi, an initiative formed by the Energy and Resources Institute, which had recently given the village the lanterns.
Today, Akhil, now 17 and a junior at Charlotte Country Day, has helped start LBL’s internship program, begun a major fundraising effort and provided lights in a village all on his own terms. He’s aiming to light at least two more this summer.
Ken McNish, a teacher at Country Day and Akhil’s club adviser, said he has loved watching Akhil mature during the project. “When he first told me about it, I thought it was more going to be fundraising, and he would just get money and end up sending it to the larger organization … (This) has been a very big shock to me.”
None of Akhil’s success happened overnight. He’s had a long journey fundraising, giving a professional pitch, starting a website – and just what it means to live without light.
2009: A start
That summer, after his visit, LBL organizers agreed to take him along to village projects.
Though most villages have power poles installed by the government, they don’t work, Akhil said: “They’re just empty poles with nothing in them.” Villages comprise about 250 people, or 50 families, Akhil said. Light costs about $3,500: six solar panels, five junction boxes and 50 rechargeable lanterns. Each family can rent a lantern for 2 rupees a day ( about 4 U.S. cents); a village-elected woman collects the fees, and stores and recharges lanterns daily. The lanterns must be replaced in about eight years; the fees are enough to pay for that and the woman’s paycheck.
“The program just keeps building on itself. It’s self-sustaining,” Akhil said.
One memory particularly motivates him: A woman struggled to see what she was cooking for dinner as she shared kerosene lamp light with her son, who was trying to do his homework. Her husband came home early from the fields because he couldn’t work in the dark. “It’s stopping them from making any real progress.”
2010: A realization
The next school year, Akhil devised a school program with pamphlets, posters and PowerPoints to raise money and awareness at Country Day and started a club.
The club put on fundraisers, including bake sales, and even sponsored a basketball tournament in the dark, but that wasn’t so successful. When few people showed up, he had a revelation: “I realized that I’m motivated because I’ve seen it.”
After the club raised about $1,000, LBL was impressed enough to spread Akhil’s program to other schools across the globe and started developing an internship program.
2011: A big step
The next fall, Akhil decided raising money through school wasn’t enough. So he Googled “how to fundraise with corporations.”
“I obviously was very inexperienced. They have the money, you have the need, and you have to figure out how to approach them,” he said. After practicing at his father’s office, Akhil made a connection that landed him at a major energy convention at the Charlotte Convention Center.
But he felt like a fish out of water. “I’m not even sure I saw a 30-year-old there,” he said. “I’m there with my little notepad and brochures, and I’m like, ‘Oh God, here we go.’ ”
He piqued the interest of a Duke Energy executive, who invited him to present at Duke. Akhil was shocked to find himself in a boardroom full of Duke executives. He didn’t end up getting a donation, but said the experience was invaluable because people offered him other connections.
He made his own website, which he said helped legitimize his cause when he gave presentations.
When Akhil returned to India that summer, he led 20 students (most in college) in the inaugural intern program Torchbearers.
2012: A success
By the next summer, Akhil had raised about $4,560 and gave Lighting a Billion Lives $3,500 to light a village. He chose Sagaranwala, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He was the main contact for the project, and, typical to customs in rural India, was treated as a venerated guest.
During the initial meeting with the entire village, he was instructed to sit elevated above everyone else (who sat on the ground). He didn’t want to, but they insisted.
“You have to accept it sometimes,” he said. Then Akhil had to convince them to agree to the terms.
“This was more intimidating than the boardroom,” he said. “They’d say: ‘Prove to us you’re not from the government.’ And I’d tell them: ‘I want absolutely nothing from your money.’ ”
The meeting lasted 31/2 hours before the village agreed. He stayed to help put up the panels and install the lantern charging station.
“It was my first success story,” he said.
Through all of his endeavors with LBL, Akhil has worked closely with R. K. Pachauri, director-general of the Energy and Resources Institute. In 2007, when Pachauri was chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the group, along with former Vice President Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Pachauri said in a letter that he has enjoyed working with Akhil.
“He has a deep appreciation of life in rural India,” Pachauri wrote.
2013: A goal
Akhil is still busy setting up meetings with corporate executives to raise money, and he hopes to light two villages this summer.
“I want people to understand lighting is a problem.”
At Country Day, he’s also a defensive tackle on the football team and loves his biology and history classes. He’d like to study medicine as his parents did, but adds that he loves being a part of the business world.
His adviser, McNish, said he looks forward to watching what Akhil will do in the future. “In a society where people want to make sure they … look good, he wants to be good – and he is.”
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