Global Himalayan Expedition

The Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) empowers the most remote communities on Earth by leveraging tourism as a driving force for development. In this GOTO Unscripted interview, Jaideep Bansal tells you how they do this in a sustainable and scalable way.

 

Intro

Preben Thorø: Thanks for joining us and thanks for joining me today, Jaideep Bansal. 

Jaideep Bansal: And a pleasure to be meeting you again over a virtual conference after such a long time, Preben.

Preben Thorø: Thank you. I would like to give you the opportunity to present the work you're doing. But before handing it over to you, I'd like to build up — to set the scene a little bit, because I hope that each one of us, that we do our humble contribution to making the world a better place every day. But still, for some of us, it seems more visible than for others.

Jaideep, you have been at our conferences a few times. I consider you part of the family and part of the GOTO DNA that we would like to show to our audience. We would like our audience to be part of that family, too, a big family with the mindset that the world is way bigger than the four office walls, and everyday at our little code camp. And with this cliffhanger, I would like to turn it over to you, Jaideep. Could you describe what it is that you're doing?

 

Global Himalayan Expedition

Jaideep Bansal: Thank you so much, Preben, for the wonderful introduction. Before I talk about what I do, I think huge congratulations to the GOTO team are in place for keeping the spirit high even though conferences are not possible during these tough times. But the idea of having unscripted chats with the diaspora of people across, and I've seen the channel and the kind of conversations that are happening, it's really great to see that you have kept the spirit alive. Ultimately it's about inspiring people.

People can be inspired either through physical conferences or if physical conferences are not possible, through a virtual medium. I think the idea of GOTO itself, when I look at, when you were talking, what we do at Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), that is my organization, the word "GOTO" kept coming into my mind. Essentially, you go to, if I break down the word, you go to chase a dream. And for us, it's been going to and chasing the commitment to really empower the lives of the remotest communities of the people living on this planet.

My organization, Global Himalayan Expedition, or GHE, is an eight-year-old organization now, and we've been working in the remote regions of India in the Himalayas, and the northeast part of India, in the jungles of India to bring energy access, to bring education, health, and livelihood opportunities to these communities. Some of these villages, we end up trekking for 3 to 4 days, crossing mountain passes at 15,000 feet, or we end up walking into the jungles for days and days, crossing river streams and dense jungle forests to reach these communities.

The idea is to really empower these communities to come out of their poverty, and to bring them access to technology that can really uplift them out into providing access to various basic necessities. I mean, the idea of creating dignity for the people to see the food that they eat at night, without having to resort to burning candles and kerosene lamps, but having LED lights, having their own solar panels, having a solution where they are able to produce and consume their own energy. And that is really the future of electricity that we are deploying in these remote communities, and I am really happy to share that to date, we have been able to bring more than 150 villages with access to clean and renewable energy, and have impacted the lives of a hundred thousand people across these remote regions.

In the process, we have been able to offset tons and tons of carbon emissions. And with the whole world now talking about carbon neutrality and becoming climate-positive, that is something we are already doing. We are now at the next phase of our evolution, also looking at partnering with companies who would like to become carbon-neutral, but at the same time, create a tangible impact on the communities that we work with.

COVID really presented a challenge for us with the lockdowns, with our development work literally grinding to a halt. What we have seen within our team is that we always look at the glass half full. We saw COVID as a way of opportunity to also enter into the arena of healthcare facilities. We saw in these remote communities that people do not have access to good quality healthcare. Even if they do get access, there is no electricity to run the equipment. 

Sometimes the babies get delivered under candle lights. When I had a little daughter one year back, it gave me a real insight into what childbirth is all about? What does access to modern health facilities truly mean for these communities? So we now have started distributing solar powering health centers, and also installing critical medical care equipment. And across the multiple regions, these health centers are also now becoming centers to distribute the COVID vaccine, which was not possible earlier because of the lack of cold storage facilities.

And so, what we have seen is a single intervention can have a multi-fold impact, provided we understand what kind of impact we want to bring to these communities. And how can that really empower the people? Technology is a great enabler. The idea of bringing access to development to these communities has only been possible because we have the right technology solutions, the right resources, the right know-how, and most importantly, the communities want it. The villagers want it. They want development. They don't want to be left behind on the SDG goals.

And that is where we see that technology and the commitment of the communities play a huge role in creating the kind of impact that we want to foresee for these communities. And that pretty much sums up what we at GHE have been doing during the last eight to nine years, and especially what we have done during the COVID times.

Preben Thorø: Thank you. You once mentioned to me that there are an estimated 1 billion people on this planet that literally eat in the dark. How do you select the villages that you're visiting?

Jaideep Bansal: You're right, that figure is now 900 million, thankfully, with the efforts of a lot of organizations like ours, the governments, the civil society, and the private sector. There are still so many people without access to clean energy. But, you know what? More than 3 billion people in the world still don't have access to clean cooking. They use firewood, which causes a lot of smoke. But that's how they cook. They don't have access to LPG or clean cook stoves or even the modern electric cook stoves. So the access to energy or access to development is really impacting a lot of people across the globe.

How do we select? Is very simple. We look at communities where nobody else would want to go, or nobody else can think that they can go. Recently, in the month of February, we went to a remote village in the northeast part of India, right on the border. And to reach there, it took us eight hours of trek across jungles. When we went and reached the village, the villagers told us we were the first outsiders that the villagers were seeing. I mean, they had never seen a Sikh guy before. I'm a Sikh by religion. So that was the first time they were seeing someone who was a Sikh. And these are people very much in India. They are part of India, they are Indian communities, but their farmlands exist in such remote locations.

Now, some of you might be thinking, why don't they relocate to the cities? Why do they have to stay at such faraway places? Because, for them, that is their home. They have been born and brought up in those places. Their homes exist in those places. They have their farms that are in those places. And so they want to continue to live a life in these places. And for us, it's about, how can we empower these communities to continue to stay in the villages, because that's where you see the real cultural heritage?

People dressed in their cultural clothing lined up to welcome the GHE group.
People dressed in their cultural clothing lined up to welcome the GHE group.

I mean, if I could have just shared the videos of the welcome that we received finally when we reached the village, amazing. You know, the entire village was dressed in their cultural clothing, and they had a traditional dance to welcome us to the village. They thanked us for bringing electricity and once the light came on, the happiness and the celebration that we could see, and the smiles and the joy on the faces of the kids and the elderly was priceless. And then, nobody slept the entire night. In fact, at 4 a.m., we were dancing and celebrating that the village now finally has electricity.

Dancers around the fire celebrating that they now have electricity.
Dancers around the fire celebrating that they now have electricity.

That is the kind of commitment that we want to see because we don't want to push a solution. We want to see that there is a commitment from the community. They want such technology solutions. They want access to development. Then we only want to enter those areas. There's a lot of due diligence that we do at our end to ensure that the community has the buy-in, and they want to accept such development interventions. Only then do we go. We look for a pull rather than trying to create a push for our solutions. So that's how we select villages.

 

Challenges of the GHE work

Jaideep Bansal: As I said in the beginning, "GOTO" pursue your dreams, you can "GOTO" to create an impact, and you can definitely "GOTO" to make this world a better place to live in. So I think bringing access to development to these remote communities comes with its own challenges. 

When we were working in the Himalayan region, in the Ladakh region, we were often faced with landslides. You know, sometimes you are trekking and there's suddenly a landslide and the whole trek route gets washed away, so it becomes really challenging. Sometimes you end up falling into glacial river streams and then you have to trek with your entire clothes covered with a sheet of ice. And, of course, you know, you end up in the cold shivering for two to three hours when you reach the village.

Jaideep Bansal standing in front of a muddy street where a Jeep is driving. Around him is the jungle.
Jaideep Bansal standing in front of a muddy street where a Jeep is driving. Around him is the jungle.

Himalayan mountains
Himalayan mountains

Moving geographies, when we started working in the northeast part of India, that came with another set of challenges. It was not the mountains. These are jungle areas. When we were electrifying the first village, I and my team were in a different part of the main cluster of the village. It was around 7pm and suddenly we found two villagers coming, rushing towards us. And they said, "Run. There are bandits coming." I didn't realize what they said, we were working and I was playing with the kids. And they said, "Sir, you need to run. There are bandits coming." And that's when we realized, "Okay, there's something wrong happening." And we ran in the middle of the night.

And, of course, in the jungles, you can't see. We had our torches. We had three villagers in front of us, two behind us, and I and my engineer running at break-neck speed. We fell a couple of times because we had to literally go down and then climb up because these are hilly jungles, and finally, we reached the main village cluster. And that's where we sort of gathered our breath, and then we tried to understand what's happening. They said, "Sir, there's some bandits coming here. We will protect you. Don't worry." But that entire night, we didn't sleep.

And the next morning, we started to decide should we go back, or should we continue working? But I think the answer came automatically. If we decide to go back, there is a reason why these places have not seen development. It's because of these very issues. Because people don't get access to development, they end up taking up such opportunities to rob people, to become bandits. But I think if the villagers are saying that, "You should be in the village. We will protect you," we should be safe. And that night, I remember, we had such an amazing celebration.

In the entire village, more than 200 people gathered together to celebrate the electrification of the village. And, you know, that was something that, had we turned back, we would have never seen that kind of joy and happiness. So I think you are faced with difficult challenges, but it's more about being very focused on what you came there for, and remembering that you will always find roadblocks, you will always find things that don't work your way. But as long as the community is with you, the villagers are with you, then there's no turning back.

 

Impact on the communities over time

Preben Thorø: Amazing. Have you ever gone back to one of these villages to see the impact, like, after a few years?

Jaideep Bansal: When we started with GHE, it was important for us to ensure that the impact we are creating is sustainable not just for a couple of years, but for decades. And for that, what needs to be true at the ground level? What needs to be true in terms of the kind of solutions that we are putting in? I am very happy to share that in the first village that we electrified in 2014, all the grids are still working fine. Every house has the same kind of electricity that we gave when we entered the village. In fact, they have scaled it up, because new families came in, the villagers invested their own money in scaling up the solar grids. They have put up more street lights. And so the same solar grid that we installed has now increased in capacity by almost 1.5 times to accommodate the new incoming families. The villagers have also contributed from their own saving funds to invest into street lights for the community.

Very recently, we had a social impact audit. We continue to audit our own work as well. The team, the third party that we hired for the social impact audit, went to some of our villages. They called us from the village crying. They said that it means so much for the villagers, and they are talking so highly about what GHE has done for them that it was also moving for us. The villagers of a village that we had electrified four years back, are still remembering that "Yes, these people came. They got me electricity, and my light is still working fine."

Wide street, brightly lit. Cottages in the background are illuminated outside and inside.
Street illuminated by electricity brought to the community by GHE.

But on a practical note, what we do is, once we electrify a village, or once we do any development intervention, whether it's setting up computer labs in a school or whether it's bringing solar electricity to a health center, we have a pool of trained solar engineers. We first focus on capacity development. In any new area that we work in, we first train the local community as solar engineers. Once we have this pool of trained solar engineers, then we work on development intervention so that if there is any maintenance, any troubleshooting that is required, it can be done at the local level. They don't have to call me or someone else on my team.

When we have a pool of trained engineers we have a service center that we open up in these places. And if anything goes bad, the engineers can immediately do the repair and maintenance. And if there is anything that the villagers want to invest in, in scaling up, they can do it through the service center. So it's a hyper-local model that we create to ensure that the sustainability of the grids is maintained, but also if people want to scale up, if they want to move up the energy access ladder, they can do that. If tomorrow someone wants to buy a television, they can do that. If tomorrow someone wants to buy a mixer grinder, they can do that.

Preben Thorø: And you mentioned that you're bringing internet access out into these villages, too. How does that happen?

Jaideep Bansal: This is more of an offline internet, I would say, where all the information is stored on a device, a Wi-Fi-based device, and we install it in the schools and the villages. It creates a local hotspot so that the kids and the villagers can connect to this device, which has pre-stored information, but only the educational content. So, for the kids, all their curriculum is digitized and put in terms of interactive videos so that they can enhance their learning. They get to learn more about the experiential learning tools. How do you upcycle waste? You know, what does solar energy do? That they also learn. And it opens up their minds and ideas to what are the possibilities that exist, which is otherwise not possible through the limited knowledge that they receive, with the limited amount of information that the teachers also have here?

And for the community, they are able to access information about farming. What are good farming practices? Because they have been practicing the very traditional form of farming and medicine. But through these internet resources, which are offline, they are able to access more modern information. And as said, we provide training to these communities. We have a pool of engineers in the community itself who handhold and teach the community of these resources that are available at their disposal, and the best utilization of these resources for them.

Preben Thorø: So an offline copy of, I suppose, it's not of the entire internet. What is it, Wikipedia?

Jaideep Bansal: It's Wikipedia, Khan Academy, TED Talks, and a few encyclopedias. And for the kids, their entire educational curriculum from grade 5 to grade 12 is mapped. We have videos that we create using cartoons and imagery, and we load that onto that server, and that is installed in these villages.

Preben Thorø: How long does it take for people that have never seen a screen, a mouse, a keyboard before to actually learn to use that?

Jaideep Bansal: You would be surprised, Preben, as human will and human curiosity has no boundaries. To kids who have never seen a computer before, it takes them less than 5 to 10 minutes to get a hang of where to click and what the mouse does. "What button or which icon should I click to bring up this talk? Which icon should I click to bring up my science curriculum? Which icon should I click to bring my maths curriculum?" So it takes less than 5 to 10 minutes. And you don't even have to teach them. Just install the computer, let their curiosity speak for themselves, and you can see wonders happening. I mean, it's just amazing to see how fast people learn, how fast kids learn when they have the resources.

And that is what we want to do. We want to provide these kids with access to resources that put them at par with the students in the rest of India who have access to these resources. I mean, fundamentally for us, the belief is that we have technology solutions that can enable these kids to be fighting for the same kind of resources and knowledge as their counterparts in Delhi or Mumbai, or even, let's say, Berlin or New York. Who are these mountains or these jungles to decide which child should have access and which child should not have access to resources?

Preben Thorø: I absolutely agree. I would like to ask you, with the work you do and those parts of the world that you see, and now being a family father, has that changed your view on the world?

Jaideep Bansal: I think it has reinforced my view of what we are doing at GHE, my personal mission to empower these remote communities to really bring access to development, it has further strengthened because when I look at my girl, I have aspirations for her. I want her to have access to the best of the resources. But it would be very selfish of me to think only of my child. There are so many children out there who do not have access to resources. There are so many people out there who do not have access to the right facilities, and there are so many people out there still living in darkness.

Having a child has reinforced my belief that we want to scale this up, we want to bring more impact to people, and we really want to ensure that everyone in this world has access to a sustainable future and access to a future where they feel secure, where they have access to good healthcare, they have access to good education. Because, ultimately, if we really want to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we cannot achieve them in New York, or Berlin, or Delhi. They have to be achieved in these remotest of the villages.

It's about really empowering everyone together because development is for everyone, access is for everyone. And we really need to ensure that we get everyone on board, and have equality. Nobody should feel that they were left behind because they could not have access to the right resources in their communities and in their villages.

 

How can we help you?

Preben Thorø: What can we do to support you? How can we join your mission?

Jaideep Bansal: I was thinking about something that we have started recently. We are now working on carbon offset projects. What we are doing is we are tying up with companies such as IT companies, travel companies, and FMCG companies because everyone wants to become carbon-neutral and climate-positive. When we started working in the northeast part of India, in the jungles, what we saw was the communities end up using a lot of firewood for cooking their food. That's where we see a great, sort of, collaboration with the entire IT industry as well. Because the IT industry produces carbon emissions. Let’s take companies such as GOTO, where you are doing conferences, there are carbon emissions that are associated with holding a conference, getting all the people in, holding the conference, and then flying them back out.

But what if your conferences could be carbon-neutral? What if IT companies can be carbon neutral with the data centers that they are running for their operations? That's where we feel that instead of just buying credits from the local market, what does it take for these companies, and for maybe a GOTO, also, to invest in carbon offset projects in these remote communities, where through that, these communities will get access to clean cooking?

What I've seen is, currently the kitchen is a separate housing unit from the main house. The mothers and the children spend 90% of the time in this kitchen, in this smoky atmosphere, which causes a lot of health and respiratory issues. But with clean cooking solutions, the smoke gets eliminated by 90%, the food cooks faster, they get more time, and they end up using less firewood. So they are cutting less of their forest reserves for cooking their food, but most importantly, it creates a win-win scenario where the communities are able to transition to cleaner cooking methods.

The companies that invest in this project are able to get carbon credits, to the tune of almost one cookstove can provide you more than 2.5 tons of carbon emissions. So, let's say if you do 10,000 cookstoves, that’s 25,000 tons of carbon emissions on an annual basis for a period of 5 years, which comes to more than 120,000 tons. And so those are the kind of projects that we are really looking to find partners to collaborate with, who would want to advance their sustainability goals, become carbon-neutral by not just buying credits of the market, but by actually investing in clean energy solutions for these remote communities back here.

Preben Thorø: You know, every time I speak to you, I sense there's still hope for this world. So, thank you so much for joining us.

Jaideep Bansal: Thank you, Preben. As I said in the beginning, "GOTO" pursue your dreams, you can "GOTO" to create an impact, and you can definitely "GOTO" to make this world a better place to live in.