November 26, 2008 — University of Virginia graduate business students Chip Ransler and Manoj Sinha's start-up business, Husk Power Systems, has been named one of 10 "Social Enterprises of the Year" by Fast Company magazine for "the kind of innovative thinking that can transform lives and change our world."
Husk Power supplies electricity to rural villages in India with miniature power plants that make bio-gas from the discarded rice husks that accumulate in huge piles near every community rice mill. The low-emission process can earn carbon-offset revenue, and byproduct ash can be sold as a valuable ingredient for low-cost cement, making pilot plants profitable in less than six months.
Less than two years after Ransler and Sinha started the company, five such plants are supplying electricity to about 10,000 people in India's Rice Belt, a "rice rich and power poor" region where 350 million people have no reliable source of electricity. With help from a major Shell Foundation grant and nearly $100,000 in prize money from three national business plan competitions, the students at U.Va.'s Darden School of Business are on track to add 100 more power plants in the next 18 months, with plans to reach more than 3 million Indians in the next four to five years.
Other Fast Company honorees include President-elect Obama's favorite teacher-training academy, a venture that matches late-career professionals with not-for-profits that need managerial expertise; a "bank of banks" exclusively serving microfinance institutions; and a nonprofit drugmaker targeting the health problems of the world's poor. The winning enterprises all exhibit "bold and timely ideas that wow us," explains the Fast Company article.
"Husk Power Systems is truly honored to receive this award next to organizations such as the Acumen Fund, which has already impacted millions of lives via its 'social capital' model," Sinha said. "By treating the rural poor as customers, not victims, we provide an infrastructure that enables them to build whatever they dream up."
The Fast Company plaudits are the latest in a string of honors for Ransler and Sinha's enterprise. In September they were named "Pop!Tech Fellows," joining a worldwide group of social entrepreneurs that focus on "big bet" projects.