Friday, 16 December 2011

Breaking a myth

Solar energy is expensive and impossible to sustain in a large scale. Considering the many global initiatives that have been put into place and their come backs, this statement seems to be rather accurate. Nonetheless, I am open to hear otherwise. Arguments on my side are based on less oil-dependency and the better use of natural resources, and to make it affordable for the most. The latter, however, is the greatest criticism that solar energy has to overcome. Not long ago, journalists from the BBC did a special report on the subject showing the skepticism in the sector within the UK. If solar projects are not working in the developed world, what can we expect to happen in those most vulnerable areas?

Barefoot College happens to disagree with my initial sentence. Solar energy is feasible and is been implemented by many in rural areas since 1989.  Established in India in 1972, the College has trained more than 15 000 women in diverse jobs; solar engineering, been one of them. “Traditionally, women in Indian villages do more than 70% of the domestic and agricultural work. They are responsible for sowing and reaping, fetching water, taking care of children and livestock, cooking, washing and cleaning the house etc. However, their inputs are not regarded as ‘proper’ work. Women are still considered to be the weaker sex, incapable of doing hard physical labor. Barefoot College has endeavored to break such stereotypical notions by training rural women in ‘technically challenging’ jobs that have traditionally been considered for men. Unlike the chauvinistic and patriarchal society, the College recognizes and harnesses the tensile strength, determination and graceful dexterity that rural women already posses (…)”-says the College’s site.
A solar engineer at work (Credit: Barefoot website)

Challenged by such declaration, I decided to do some research and find out more about their initiative.

Women are being empowered

“I am not literate but I am still earning around 100US$ a month by constructing these panels and I can send my kids to school”, says one of the local students in an Aljazera’s report. Several studies have shown that women’s increasing economic power affects positively not only their families but their communities. From what I have read, the College makes a strong case on this. The approach is to encourage communities to grant this opportunity to middle-aged women, such as those who are widows and single mothers with families, bringing a unique prospect for those who never held a job before or probably never foresaw one in their future. Also, I found quite inspiring the formation that they are providing. By agreement, between the particular village leaders and the College, the students who graduate from the program are meant to work with their community for at least five-year period, giving access to the units produced, installation and maintenance. One of the usual concerns with development projects is about their aftermaths. We know that is not enough to implement something, there has to be engagement and follow up. This is why this program is so attractive to me, it just works for the whole cycle.

Light after dark

"Snakes, rodents, reptiles and biting insects crept and crawled into our homes with the dark at 7pm. Children couldn't study, and we couldn't relax, socialize or plan our lives after a long day's work," says Fatmata Koroma from Mambioma village, Sierra Leone. This program really made a difference to them. According the College website, only villages that are inaccessible, remote, or non-electrified are considered for solar electrification. Thus, this initiative would not replace other types of energy supplies, if there are any.

One of the difficulties of traditional electricity supply anywhere in the globe is the infrastructure (click to access the map). It is on the agenda of developing countries but it is complicated to setup and do regular maintenance. Instead of waiting for solutions that may take too long to come, villagers immerse in this program take charge of the situation by selecting members from their communities who would follow the program, subscribe to the agreement and build the units and eco-buildings. Also, it must be said that the program is run by the community and its costs are managed by them. This is not charity but a sustainable and dignifying project.

In Jordan, the senior advisor to the Ministry of Environment, Mr. Dabbas says: “Providing this green technology to the rural community, whilst it will not have a major impact on reducing climate change, it will have a profound impact on the socio-economic position of the Bedouins and it will help improve their standard of living.”

Off, we go!

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) supports a similar program in Mali which, according to their estimations, affects about 30 000 people. Though, I do not have access to the details of the program, I understand that the leaders of the sub-projects are women. They are earning money for their families, learning new skills and re-investing in their villages. This shows us the relevance of the project and the important role that women play in this industry. While the energy sector has been predominately a male domain, this new bridge might flip the pendulum towards women. 

After reading this post, do you still consider that solar energy is impossible or unpractical in the developing world? I have been proven wrong and I am looking forward to see it expand even more. 

Katherine R. Vasquez Tarazona


  1. This is a very well-written post, Katherine! This throws up one very interesting question. Do you think there will be a time when solar energy could possibly replace other energy forms, because it is renewable? Also, do you think governments of countries like Somalia and India where poverty is still rampant, could turn the situation around by employing more women in Solar Energy ventures? It could also expand on their economic abilities abundantly, right?

  2. Thanks for reading Kirthi!!!
    I am not so sure I can answer your first question since I am not an engineer myself. Yet, I am familiar with some projects that initiated in Peru a couple of years ago. In most rural areas, the gvt doesn't provide elemental services such as electricity and running water. The main problem originates on infrastructure. The deep-costs involved on the first implementation (such as poles, wiring, connections and so on) are costs that can't not be recovered in the business (what economists call 'sunk costs'). Thus, it is a lot easier to enter the market when there is (or has been) a business running.
    Therefore, when the "facilities" (infrastructure) does not exist, alternative energy supplies are very attractive to the population. Which one works for the best? That is what more environmental institutions are trying to figure out. When I saw this project coming out so good in India and Africa I just loved it. And it is working!!!! Sometimes, I think smaller projects make a bigger impact than the large-scale ones. It all starts with one village and then, you have schools working at night, entrepreneurial start-ups and even water systems solutions.
    About you second and third questions, yes! Definitely. As the College pointed out, women are already responsible for great part of both the domestic and labor work. Why not to empower them with the recognition of that? I am really looking forward to hear more about similar initiatives and their development.
    One final comment. It is important to emphasize that a program/project is only sustainable on the long term when is embraced by the citizens and financially supported by them. Hence, they could develop it independently.

  3. Your knowledge is amazing, Katherine! Thank you for your answers =) I really like the pragmatism and hope you infuse in your comments and posts alike!