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Monday, July 15, 2024

Smart Villages: New thinking for off-grid communities

“Smart Villages: New Thinking for off-grid communities worldwide” is a collection of opinion pieces in renewable energy. It is a chronicle of ideas by experts aimed at tackling the issues of energy as a catalyst for sustainable development – health, food security, education gender equality, governance, security and employment.

Off-grid lighting in Africa. Photo credit: unep.org
Off-grid lighting in Africa. Photo credit: unep.org

The 124-page book, which is comprised of 16 essays written by scientists and leading thinkers from around the world, was compiled by Prof. Sir Brian Heap, Senior Adviser to Smart Villages and launched at the World Conference of Science Journalists, Seoul, South Korea in June 2015 by Dr. Bernie Jones, a project co-leader of Smart Villages.

In the Preface to the book, Prof. Heap said: “We published these essays with policymakers and decision takers in mind – planners of sustainable off-grid well-being faced with the demanding challenges of lifting the bottom billion out of the poverty trap”.

It is a publication therefore that is in tandem with the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All initiative (se4all.org) and the new Sustainable Development Goals, post-September 2015.



A browse through the book shows the scope of the book as covering a range of viewpoints on the complex problem of energy access in developing countries. “On the supply side, it asks, what are the scientific and technological advances of today and tomorrow that could transform the way that energy, particularly electricity, could be made more readily available for rural transformation?

“On the demand side, what are the enabling factors that make energy access a catalyst for sustainable development in off-grid villages? What framework conditions need to be put in place so that local entrepreneurs can establish enterprises to deliver and make productive use of energy in remote villages, the home of some 1.3 billion poor and under-served?”


Essays Synopsis

It begins with the concept – “Energy for Development,” authored by the project co-leader and Manager of Smart Villages Initiatives, John Holmes and Terry van Gevelt, respectively. The concept enumerates the options of electrification technology for smart villages. It also states how energy access to rural communities could positively improve education, health, food security, productive enterprise, participatory democracy, quality of life and environment.

Energy Innovation For Smart Villages by Daniel M. Kammen, a professor of Energy at the University of California draws up the advantages on off-grid systems and how diverse technology options could expand village energy service. Kammen also drew a roadmap to clean energy in, and ended with an action agenda for smart villages.

Transforming Rural Communities Through Mini-grids by Prof. AbuBakr Bahaj, principal investigator of the e4D programme presented case studies of mini-grids in some countries where e4D had worked with villages to “determine their needs, aspirations and goals with respect to electrification.”

Leapfrogging to Sustainable Power by Dr. Vasant Kumar of the Department of Material Science, University of Cambridge stressed the need for a close link between off-grid energy paradigm for electrification and development on one hand and the evolution of clean, green and low-carbon power.

He emphasised the importance of exploring new opportunities, energy storage technologies and recycling.

Ahmad Zaidee Laidin, Secretary General Malaysian Academy of Sciences’ Smart Villages – The Malaysian Approach, highlights the development of electricity in Malaysia and how rural development has been achieved there.

Laidin draws a table of Malaysia’s path to rural development in its Vision 2020, including the government’s 10-year transformation programme (2010-2020) for rural development.

The country’s 21st Century Village Initiative (21CV) as stated in the Smart Villages – The Malaysian Approach, aims to encourage the youth to remain in the villages. “The 21CVs have and will be developed using the following initiatives: 39 state-driven modern integrated farms; 15 private-sector-driven large scale fruit and vegetable farms; 39 enhanced village cooperatives in tourism, plantation and cottage industries and 39 encouraging selected university, technical and vocational graduates as youth entrepreneurs.”

Laidin further draws the advantages of electricity beyond lighting to include education, e-commerce, agriculture advances, e-health, community empowerment and ICT.

Can Energy Access Improve Health? By Prof. Wole Soboyejo of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University is premised on the challenges of life in Mpala village in the Laikipia district of Kenya.

This was Soboyejo’s personal experience of communities that lived with no access to electricity.

The people “relied on kerosene lanterns, resulting in environmental pollution and about 80 percent incidence of pulmonary health problems.”

Soboyejo told of how they explored options to meet the challenge. They arrived at a solar-powered solution lantern with a 2-watt solar panel and a 6-volt motorcycle battery. It reduced the pulmonary health problems.

Energy Provision and Food Security in Off-grid Villages by Prof. Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan (a Geneticist and Chief Mentor of M. S. Swaminathan) and Prof. Parthasarathy Chenna Kesavan (a Geneticist and Radiobiologist) discusses the interrelationship between energy provision and food security in off-grid villages.

It describes off-grid villages as vulnerable because of lack of electricity, which enables the development of small-scale village industries, locally. Foreseeing modern agriculture as heavily dependent on energy, the essay observes “a strong positive correlation between energy input and food output…” A chain of agricultural production processes, the two Professors posit, “make heavy demands on energy supply.”

The essay also suggests the use of biomass, biogas, wind, solar power, and ocean thermal energy for electrification towards sustainable food production.

“…the vision for an off-grid smart village is one that achieves food security by using pathways of production that depend increasingly on biological rather than chemical inputs…renewable and decentralised energy services will provide the motive power required for machinery and irrigation, the development of cold-chain infrastructure to reduce waste, and the integration of communication technologies to help with pest management, soil health and improved market access,” the essay postulates.

Smart Villages for Smart Voters by Dr. Mukulika Banerjee (associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics) gives a picture of voter enthusiasts, most of who live in villages. “The most dedicated voters are not the well-educated urban middle-classes but the poorest, most discriminated against and least educated, mainly in villages and small towns…”

Banerjee’s essay tells of how India’s electronic voting machines, powered by batteries, have revolutionised the electoral system. The smart machines are used in smart villages and “proved to be both fraud and fool-proof.” It sees smart villages as initiating change in voter attitude, which allows them play “their own roles in the working of the democratic system and the effect of their individual vote has in determining the composition of government.”

The essay finally opines that un-smart places have limits, especially in people’s “access to news, literacy, information – all of which severally hampers their ability to make their lives better. It is now time to deliver smart villages to these smart voters,” Banerjee suggests.

Public Policy Targets for Energy Access by Benjamin K. Sovacool (a professor of Business and Social Sciences and Director of the Center for Energy Technologies, Department of Business and Technology, Aarhus University), argues that energy poverty arises from a market failure that only governments and public institutions are well-suited to engage.

The essay’s markets and intervention assesses the problem of markets as being “less effective for common-pool goods or public goods that need agreed-upon rules or sanctions – goods such as clean air or improved energy security.”

Sovacool sees the poor as falling through the cracks and “too politically distant and economically costly to provide with energy services.” he also writes that “without strong public policy intervention, hundreds of millions of people will remain mired in energy insecurity for many decades to come.”

The Disturbing trends quotes the International Energy Agency (IEA) as estimating that by 2030, almost one billion people will still be without electricity and 2.6 billion people will still be without clean cooking facilities.

Under the Positive benefits, Sovacool cites Nepal as an example where “evaluations of a rural energy programme involving micro-hydro units have earned US$8 in benefits per household for every US$1.40 in total expenditures.”

Similarly, in Sub-Saharan Africa, he states that the UN reports a woman who generates more than US$46 in economic benefits in the first year selling solar lanterns.

Energy Policies for Off-grid Villages in Tanzania written by Andrew Mnzava, Senior Research Officer with the Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) in Tanzania discusses the interrelation between energy and development.

It enunciates health, education, food security, productive enterprise and environment as directly linked to uninterrupted energy access. 

Unlike the Tanzanian national policy for off-grid villages, which is coordinated by the Rural Energy Board (REB), according to Mnzava, “many countries do not have renewable energy policies that foster the development of clean energy and directly support off-grid energy development.”

The essay further tells about the existence of Tanzania’s local and national energy developers who generate and supply power to surrounding communities. He identifies financing of energy projects as biggest challenges – high interests rates from loans are clogs.

He talks about the importance of institutions and regulatory framework, including the National Environmental Management Council, which provides EIA certificates, etc.

Communities-consumers looks at the ability and capacity of consumers as well as cluster communities to pay for supplied power as a challenge. Mnzava draws a comparative table to show that upfront and annualised costs of electricity is more expensive than the same of kerosene.

Will Private-Sector Finance Support Off-grid Energy? by Tobias S. Schmidt, Assistant Professor of Energy Politics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology takes private-sector financing of off-grid energy to be a challenge.

Though he sees the sector as veritably important if the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative is to be achieved by 2030, confident atmosphere in the off-grid sector, Schmidt posits, must be created for the Private-Sector investors.

Return on investment gives prominence to ‘hurdle rate’ above the normal threshold. More so, “the use of modern energy services should lead to an increase in income of the villagers,’ which would help them afford the consumption rates of the energy.

He talks about Risk of investment, Scale of investment and Policy implications where he calls for the creation of “more favourable conditions for private-sector finance” in order to increase the contribution of the sector to off-grid rural energy.

How Electricity Changed Our Lives by Michael J. Ssali, a seasoned journalist and Bureau Chief of the Daily Monitor draws a picture of a kerosene-enabled lamp used in Uganda called tadooba and the high deforestation as a result of high dependence of the people on firewood. “Uganda’s forests are diminishing because about 95 percent of the country’s households depend on firewood and charcoal for cooking.”

In Changed lives, Ssali gives a vivid story of how the provision of electricity changed the lives of the people of rural Uganda as well as how New businesses have sprang. “To a large extent, rural electrification has contributed to a reduction in the migration of youth from rural to urban areas.”

He posits that electricity is a means of creating Jobs for a growing population, especially in the area of agriculture.

Javier Gonzalez Diaz, an affiliate lecturer at the Centre of Development Studies of Cambridge University writes in his Energy and ICT for Educational Inclusion in Latin America that, as in other regions of the world, Latin America also faces several urgent challenges. “Children and youth living in remote rural locations are literally disconnected from the world, excluded from the opportunities provided by global learning.”

The essay highlights the importance of access to smart energy in rural areas in order to pave the way for access to modern information and communication technologies. This, in turn, could transform the learning experience for pupils and teachers alike in those areas.

It further gives a differential percentages of schools with access to electricity and those without in some Latin American countries. “This unequal geographic and socio-economic pattern of electrification strongly affects the educational opportunities of Latin American children and their chance of achieving a better future.”

Can access to energy and ICT make a difference? The essay answers, yes. While access to energy “opens a range of economic and social development alternatives for geographically isolated communities,” Diaz argues, ICT can “strongly and positively enhance education in several ways.”

In real life stories: aiming for the stars, the essay gives examples of communities in which “lives are being changed in poor, rural and remote areas.”

Improving Life for Women and Girls in Sierra Leone by Christiana A. Thorpe, a former Minister of Education in Sierra Leone states that four of the country’s six million population live in the rural areas with no access to electricity.

Smart villages in Sierra Leone: How did they start? of the essay tells of the government’s removal of financial and technical barriers while distributing solar home systems in rural areas.

Thorpe states that the solar network was helping to change the lives of women and girls in the areas of attitudes, health, education, environment, savings on energy costs, opportunities for income generation and employment.

Also, the essay states the role that Barefoot Women Solar Engineers Association of Sierra Leone (BWSEASL) is playing in “getting solar technology to all the country’s remote and inaccessible villages.

It finally gives reasons at Is the approach sustainable? why BWSEASL approach is. Residents are willing to pay for the technology; trained women are now entrepreneurs and now have a Solar System Home Management Committee (SSHMC) as a network.

A Way of life: Energy Provision in Africa by Murefa Barasa, Managing Partner at EED Advisory Limited, Kenya states that charcoal is the most important but least understood energy source of the African continent. He also adds that “the lack of accurate data on charcoal trends remains a key challenge in managing the threat of unsustainable charcoal production.”

The essay views charcoal, which is a preferred energy source for cooking and heating in East Africa as having a complex value chain. While listing the chain to include brokers, transporters, wholesalers, retailers and recipients of unofficial payments, Barasa states that the reason for the charcoal market is because it out-competes briquettes, kerosene, LPG and electricity, which are its alternatives.

In his summary, he says that “the urban charcoal market is essential for East Africa because it remains a central part of household energy.”

A Better Future for the Bottom Billion by Prof. Deepak Nayyar, an Emeritus Professor of Economics is the last of the essays in Smart Villages: New Thinking for Off-grid Communities Worldwide. It poses the five W questions: “Who are the poorest people in the world?”; “Where do they live?”; “Why are they poor?”; “What are the attempted solutions?”; “Why does the problem persist?”; “Is a better future possible (When)?”

Nayyar gives a Demographic view of the poor concentration in three regions of the developing word of Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia as well as in the Latin America and the Caribbean.

In Absolute deprivation, he talks about energy and income poverty as keeping the people in absolute deprivation. “Economic exclusion denies people the social opportunities and political participation that might otherwise help them to improve their lives.”

However, in spite of attempted solutions, which include rural electrification and other programmes, the author posits that “widespread poverty persists despite such programmes” and suggests that “Orthodox thinking among economists, increasingly accepted by policy practitioners and political leaders in governments, stresses the importance of economic growth as the only solution to the problem of poverty.”

This essay sees persistent problem of abject countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa in spite of economic growth of the regions. “This poverty persisted essentially because rapid economic growth was associated with a rise in economic inequality, and little if any of the increments in income accrued to the poorest…energy poverty reinforced the problem.”

Nayyar sees a better future creation of employment, social protection and human development are central in determining economic growth; he sees employment and livelihoods as “critical as the institutional mechanism that mediates between growth in aggregate income for the economy and growth in private income for individuals or households.”

Initial conditions such as creation of physical infrastructure in rural areas; grid and off-grid, with other non-conventional sources of energy; investment in rural roads, transport and communications; irrigation and storage facilities to boost agricultural income; etc by government, must me met,” says Nayyar.

On the whole, Smart Villages: New Thinking for Off-grid Communities Worldwide gives up-to-date accounts of the promotion of energy access in remote areas of the world. It “explores how energy access for the poor can perform catalytic role” in general development.

The insights portrayed therein “will inform leaders, policy-makers and communicators, as well as encourage a wider debate internationally.”

It is a most-read book for governments whose immediate priority is to improve living standards of their people in the rural areas.

By Abdallah el-Kurebe 

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