Keeping Rural Pakistan Cool During a Global Pandemic: An Interview with Muhammad Shehryar

In a country as hot as Pakistan, power cuts can be deadly. Without working fans, children are unable to sleep in peace and are in danger of severe dehydration. Muhammad Shehryar of Harness Energy, are developing highly efficient and rechargeable solar powered fans to keep customers cool during hot summers

By Jasmine Brand-Williamson, Marketing Communications Executive, Energy Saving Trust, Co-Secretariat of the Efficiency for Access Coalition

Many families in rural Pakistan lack access to the national electricity grid or have an unstable power supply. In a country as hot as Pakistan, power cuts can be deadly. Without working fans, children are unable to sleep in peace and are in danger of severe dehydration. It is therefore vital that we tackle Pakistan’s energy crisis now to save lives and help people prepare for future pandemic-like shocks.

Muhammad Shehryar of Harness Energy is among those working towards Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7), universal energy access. His team are developing highly efficient and rechargeable solar powered fans to keep customers cool during hot summers. In this interview, he tells us how these innovative fans can help achieve SDG7 and support families in rural Pakistan through the pandemic.

The project is supported by the Efficiency for Access Research and Development (R&D) Fund, which is funded by UK aid and the IKEA Foundation, and managed by Energy Saving Trust.

Muhammad Shehryar, Founder and Managing Director of Harness Energy, Photography by Abdul Rehman

Could you please tell us a little bit about Harness Energy?

The company was founded in 2016 with the aim of providing affordable and reliable solar products to low-income Pakistanis. We started off by selling basic solar lanterns and in the last few years transitioned into Solar Home Systems (SHS) which can power appliances, such as fans.

The idea came about when I was working with my family business. I frequently visited customers in rural villages and I realised there was a big elephant in the room that nobody was talking about — access to electricity. Every person has a basic need for lighting and ventilation, but most households in rural Pakistan still lack these. Harness Energy was formed after I realised that there was the potential to tackle this problem.

What impact has the pandemic had on your customers?

Many of our customers are either farmers, construction workers or small shopkeepers. The farmers were unable to sell their products due to the strict lockdown restrictions. The lockdown also overlapped with the harvest season and they lost a lot of money. Many others lost their jobs and the rural economy suffered. Aside from monetary losses, people without power were forced to stay indoors and children could not go to school, this led to increased reports of dehydration during the sweltering heat.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business?

A big part of what we do is meeting with customers and doing product demonstrations. As we were unable to travel our direct customer sales came to a virtual halt and our resellers experienced slowing sales. Furthermore, the strict lockdown was enforced during the peak solar season when our sales are usually highest. This meant that it was difficult to recover lost ground once things re-opened. Thankfully, we did not have to let any employees go.

Could you please tell us about your Energy Efficient and Rechargeable Solar Pedestal Fan project?

We realised the fans available on the market were not efficient and had limited battery time. In response, we developed this R&D project, which without the help of Efficiency for Access could not have been possible. For a small business like us, we cannot spare money for R&D.

Since 2019, we have been developing a highly efficient standing fan, powered by a brushless DC (BLDC) motor. The benefits of BLDC motors include minimal repairs, longer life-cycle, less noise and higher efficiency. Recent tests suggest that we have been able to lower the power consumption of the fan by more than 50% when compared to other products available on the market. We are developing two categories for mass market, one basic fan which will run with a SHS or any battery and a rechargeable model that will be able to run at any time.

The goal of this project and the LEIA programme is important in achieving SDG7. Household fans account for 40% of the total energy consumption in Pakistan, if we can improve the efficiency of these, it will be a big step in the right direction.

How have your products helped customers deal with the COVID-19 pandemic?

Pakistan is a very hot country and customers have a basic need for fans. As a supplier, if you don’t have a fan, your solar products will not sell. Improving the efficiency of fans has many benefits, particularly for low-income customers as they can help them save money.

In early January, Pakistan experienced countrywide power cuts. Despite people in the cities having no power, many of our customers in rural areas still had their fans and lights running because they are not reliant on the national grid. Similarly, electricity tariffs have risen by 15% since the start of the pandemic and customers using solar are not impacted by this.

In this video, one Harness Energy customer tells us about her experiences during the pandemic. Nukhti, from Sanghar district in Pakistan says that thanks to her SHS and fan, her family can play, cook and sleep comfortably and no longer need to worry about lack of access to electricity.

Could you please tell us about the support that you received from the Efficiency for Access R&D Fund? How has the funding helped your business?

Our smooth transition during the COVID-19 period was really helped by the Efficiency for Access team and we received support in multiple areas.

Firstly, they accepted our extension for project milestones because we were running around five — six months late due to the lockdown which was very helpful. Secondly, the team in London processed our expense payments quickly, which was very important considering our limited cash flow. Lastly, we received an unrestricted grant from the Efficiency for Access team for COVID-19 relief. This kept us afloat during the period immediately after the lockdown as sales were so low. The grant essentially helped us get out of the pandemic.


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