Husk Power Systems is one of the rare companies tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Led by its co-founder and CEO Manoj Sinha (MBA ’09), Husk provides low-cost renewable power to remote rural communities across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa through the world’s largest fleet of solar hybrid minigrids.
In 2023, Sinha was named to the TIME 100 Most Influential Climate Leaders in Business list. Included in the INNOVATORS category, he was recognized for moving the needle on climate change by creating business value.
The same year, the company reached profitability in India and Nigeria. It also raised $103 million to fund an expansion from 200 to 1,500 minigrids to continue electrifying the most underserved and unserved regions of the world.
However, calling it a “renewable energy company” or a “rural electrification company” doesn’t accurately reflect what Husk does.
“You may think that Husk brings just electricity to those communities,” says Darden Professor Saras Sarasvathy, a leading authority on the cognitive basis for high-performance entrepreneurship. “But Husk also generates employment and entrepreneurship. It creates value for multiple stakeholders in multiple ways.”
The Story of Husk Power Systems
When Sinha and his co-founders Gyanesh Pandey, Ratnesh Yadav and Chip Ransler (MBA ’09) launched Husk Power Systems in 2008, 3 billion people around the world didn’t have access to reliable and affordable power. The hardest hit were the rural poor who lived in remote villages, with no hope of connection to a national grid.
Sinha was determined to remedy that, starting with his native state of Bihar, India. “Energy is really a basic human right,” said Sinha, “because it powers the basic things that you need in your life. Having been trained as an engineer, I had no option but to solve this problem.”
The solution had to be affordable, scalable, profitable and environmentally friendly. Having explored solar, wind and fuel-cell options, which proved to be too expensive, Husk zeroed in on rice husks — an agricultural waste product that was abundant in India’s rice-belt. Husk then developed a proprietary gasification technology that cost-effectively converted rice husks into electricity.
The use of rice husks was critical as it allowed the company to be both eco-friendly and sustainable. “Clean technology was extremely important to us,” said Sinha. “We didn’t want to use coal or diesel to generate electricity.”
Husk’s early minigrids consisted of 40-kilowatt power plants connected to power lines that ran a maximum distance of about two miles.
Each minigrid provided electricity for 500 village households for six to eight hours a night. A typical household had between seven to eight members and the average monthly consumption was only 45 watts, used mostly for a couple of light bulbs and charging mobile phones.
In addition to improving access to electricity, Husk also created jobs. For every installed minigrid, Husk hired three to four locals to maintain the system. Husk’s founders designed the minigrids to be simple and easy to operate, because they knew that the locals were mostly farmers with minimal education.
“We don't need an engineer or highly qualified person to operate our plants,” said Sinha. “We take local villagers with no skills and train them to be skilled workers. They are the ones who operate and manage our plants.”
To ensure a steady supply of fuel for their plants, Husk partnered with local rice mills. “We bought rice husk from them,” said Sinha, “so they were earning money for something that used to be waste.”
The company discovered a way to turn another waste product — rice husk char — into incense sticks. In every electrified village, Husk recruited local women and taught them how to make incense sticks, giving them a chance to earn an income in places where paying jobs for women were rare.
Husk also actively encouraged entrepreneurship by showing the villagers how to use electricity to create side jobs and businesses around devices such as printers, water purifiers or ice cream makers. The company supported that by selling the villagers energy-efficient appliances on credit.
“When we install minigrids in a community,” said Sinha, “we look at what might be brought in as a set of entrepreneurial activities that will help people use electricity more productively and generate new income sources. That’s how our business model became successful.”
Per Sinha’s estimates, Husk is responsible for creating around 20,000 jobs as a result of promoting entrepreneurship in the communities in which it installed its minigrids.
Pivoting from Husks to Hybrids
About five years after being founded on gasification technology, Husk began to diversify its power sources, incorporating photovoltaics and batteries into its systems, in response to its customers’ changing needs. Initially happy with several hours of electricity at night, they began to expect 24/7 power on demand.
Husk’s innovative solar-and-gasifier plants were able to provide cheap solar power when the sun was out and switch to gasifier power at night and on cloudy days. Husk’s new minigrids were also becoming more intelligent and automated, thanks to AI and the Internet of Things.
Husk’s evolving technology allowed the company to significantly grow its customer base of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises — shops, rice mills, welders and small factories — that previously relied on polluting and expensive diesel generators. After switching from diesel to solar-hybrid power, local businesses saw a 30-percent reduction in energy bills.
According to Sarasvathy, the story of Husk Power Systems is “the story of the Triple E — electricity, employment and entrepreneurship.”
What companies like Husk create is not just products or services but also stronger economies, higher living standards and more opportunities for individuals to take control of their future.
Companies like Husk also deepen our understanding of what entrepreneurship really is. “Entrepreneurship is not just coming up with an idea and starting a business,” said Sarasvathy. “It’s much more than that. Entrepreneurship itself is a method to build not just companies but also a better world. It’s a method to unleash the human potential to create new ends and the means to attain them.”
This article was developed with the support of Darden’s Batten Institute, at which Gosia Glinska is associate director of thought leadership.