• Saturday, March 07, 2015

Special Feature

To Mother, With Love

A technologist turned entrepreneur returns home to give back to his country

Amitava Kar

For more than 14 years, Didar Islam lived the American dream working as an electrical engineer for top companies.  Commuting to work in his brand new Lexus, he would wonder what more he could do with his knowledge.  
Now, in a move that hints at a big shift in the global technology, he is back home in Dhaka, putting emphasis on original research and innovation that can benefit the rural population in Bangladesh. He has developed a new generation of solar home system that is powering up thousands of homes every month in rural Bangladesh in a much more efficient way than before. He has done so with an all-Bangladeshi research team at a company called SOLARIC that he founded in 2009 in Dhaka.
“The existing solar home systems had a limited load capacity,” says Didar Islam. “You could run only a fan and a light bulb with that.  I wanted to develop a technology that enables people to use anything they wanted with solar power in the same way we use electricity in our homes. That was the motivation.”
His real drive, however, came from somewhere else.

Didar Islam, Photo: Prabir Das
Didar Islam, Photo: Prabir Das

After securing a position in the national merit list in both SSC and HSC exams from Jhenidah Cadet College, he enrolled in the Dhaka Medical College only to leave out of boredom just after three months. He decided to study electrical engineering instead and waited nine months to sit the next admission test at BUET.  Upon graduation he took a job as a lecturer at BUET which he quit within a year to go to University of Florida Gainesville in the US. “I am the only one in the history of BUET to quit before applying for the US visa.  That was in 1993.” That's one thing about Didar Islam—when he sets his mind on doing something, there is no looking back.
While studying for his MS in University of Florida, he saw an opportunity in AIT, a R&D company in Orlando that wanted to develop the world's first single chip radio.  “At the job interview, I told them I was willing to work for free. All I need is a chance to prove myself.” The young student's determination and knowledge impressed the interview board—he was hired with pay.  In early 1996, he designed the first single chip radio in the world called QWIKRADIO which earned him 10 US patents. When he left the company in 2001, he was a partner in the very company he wanted to work without pay.
“It was a technological breakthrough many electrical engineers dream of. It was also financially very rewarding for me,” says Didar Islam. “Today fifty percent of the new homeowners in the US use this chip in their garage door opener.”

Solar home systems may be the only option for millions living in off-grid areas.
Solar home systems may be the only option for millions living in off-grid areas.

While visiting him in Florida when he had his first child in 2003, his mother said to him, “You have made your money. The next thing you do will be probably another invention which will help people here in the US. Can you try something in Bangladesh?” He got to thinking. His mother, who does not have a university degree, single-handedly had made sure that all of her seven children became either doctors or engineers and did something to serve the cause of others.  
From 2001 to 2004, Didar Islam worked at MAXIM, the largest analog semiconductor company in the world, as the design director designing chips for portable power devices such as laptops.
The idea his mother floated was still in his head. “In the US everything happens by the rule.  It's just the opposite in Bangladesh.  Designing chips is all I know. What could I do in Bangladesh?”  
Eventually he made a move—but with caution. In early 2005, he partnered with a Taiwanese company. Here in Dhaka, he hired local engineers who would design chips that would be manufactured in Taiwan and sold in China. This would allow him to stay in the US while creating jobs for young engineers at home. “We designed 10 chips which are being used in mobile phones and cameras worldwide.”
In 2007, he finally decided to come back to Bangladesh with his family. “That's when I started thinking about the huge potential of solar energy.”  He began the R&D in 2009 with a handful of engineers and developed the world's first and only utility level solar home system known as 3rd generation Solar Home system or   3G-SHS.
In 2011, with the support of IFC, the World Bank Group's commercial arm, he formed SOLARIC, started production and partnered with BRAC for marketing. Instead of going to local banks for a loan, he had approached the World Bank group which understood that investing in electricity in rural areas empowers both men and women, leading to increased income and reducing poverty.
Within six months it became so popular that he started distributing them through a number of other NGOs including Grameen Shakti who financed them to the rural people through IDCOL (Infrastructure Development Company Limited), a government owned company that has emerged as the market leader in private sector energy and infrastructure financing in Bangladesh.
At SOLARIC, Didar Islam has developed two kinds of solar systems: the third generation solar home system which costs Tk 12000 to 35,000 and the nano grid systems which cost Tk 8 lacs. The former converts 12 volts into 120 volts, the utility level voltage, allowing consumers to use laptops, TVs, fans, light bulbs and most importantly, charge their mobile phones— a simple task they could not do with earlier versions of the system.  
The engineer in him wanted to reduce cost and make it even more efficient. Instead of one small system for each home how about a bigger system for 50 homes?  If they could share, the cost per unit would significantly come down. “And that's what we did. We designed the 3 kilowatt nano-grid system targeted for off-grid areas i.e. areas with no electricity. With nano, the cost per light per month is Tk 20 only whereas kerosene lamp costs Tk 120 per month.  To reduce the overhead of operation, pre-paid metering was introduced with a simple and standalone operation.”

Investing in electricity in rural areas empowers both men and women, leading to increased income and reducing poverty.
Investing in electricity in rural areas empowers both men and women, leading to increased income and reducing poverty.

According to the World Bank, only 42 percent of the people in rural Bangladesh have access to electricity, and reliance on the grid alone will not achieve the government's vision of universal access by 2021. Off-grid solar home system has thus become the only option for electrification for millions living in the remote rural areas.
 Solar power, however, has its limitations. During the winter and the rainy season it cannot produce enough power. Didar Islam says he has designed them with seasonal changes in mind. “We have increased the number of solar panels which are a lot cheaper than before. We have made sure that the usage during the day is battery independent. Third, we have designed light bulbs with dimming options—allowing consumers to reduce consumption depending on weather conditions.”
The risks he took by relocating to Bangladesh seem to be paying off. Today Solaric not only produces 8000 solar systems per month for the local market, but also exports to India, Nepal and Africa. Most of his 250 employees are engineers—his wife, a computer engineer, helps him working as the cost controller and designing and maintaining databases.  “It's not only the technology; it's also how you deliver it to the mass through a viable financial model. A lot of brilliant ideas never see the light of day for lack of proper planning. You can be honest and still do business if you know how to do it.”
The rural people have proved that they are willing to pay for electricity. “Three million rural households are using solar power, which is 50 percent more than the rest of the world combined. Last week at an ADB conference in Manila, everyone was asking me about the secret behind our miraculous success. The secret, I told them, is IDCOL which has enabled poor people to pay in installments.”  
The engineer turned inventor lauds her mother as the inspiration behind his success. “We are empowering people through simple technology. All that I am or hope to be, I owe it to my mother.”

Published: 12:00 am Friday, July 11, 2014

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