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The role of renewables in tackling poverty

Clean energy sources such as solar power are being used in developing countries to protect livelihoods while saving the planet.

By Sarah Dawood

For Siprina Omwanda Ogalo, a 58-year-old mother of four living on Kiwa Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya, transitioning to solar power has not just been a step towards sustainability – it has been a lifeline.

Previously, the whole island would go dark at 7.30pm. Now, the residents have swapped their reliance on polluting, dangerous kerosene lamps for a solar-powered microgrid, which provides houses with a steady power source, enables businesses to stay open into the night and generate more income, and has improved farming yields through powering a water irrigation system. It has also sparked entrepreneurship, with locals setting up ventures such as battery charging points where fisherman can hire rechargeable lights.

Most importantly, people feel safer. “Women and children can now walk freely and without fear around the island as the shops, hotels and individual houses provide spill-over light into the foot path,” says Ogalo.

A solar powered microgrid in Kiwa island, Kenya
A solar-powered microgrid has provided consistent power to Kiwa Island, Kenya

This project, facilitated by charity Renewable World, is just one example where introducing renewables has improved lives. Green energy initiatives in developing countries not only help to tackle climate change but boost income generation, improve health and increase access to education. According to Greenpeace, the use of combustible fuels such as wood and charcoal for cooking and heating kills 2.5 million women and children each year from indoor pollution.

Some developing countries have leapt ahead in sustainable energy investment, without charity intervention. Costa Rica has tapped into its wealth of natural resources to develop extensive hydro, wind and geothermal power plants. China, in response to its catastrophic air pollution, is now the world’s biggest producer of wind and solar energy, while India’s government is committing to ambitious renewable targets.

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Countries such as India and China have historically relied on fossil fuels to enable economic growth over recent decades but have successfully begun their transition to cleaner sources. “It is a false dilemma to say that we either tackle poverty or we save the planet,” states a paper from Greenpeace and the international development charity Practical Action. “Poverty can be tackled without costing the Earth. Crucial to both is the rapid expansion of clean, sustainable and renewable energy.”

But it is often the poorest and most remote communities in low- and middle-income countries that get left behind – as in Lake Victoria, the challenge is not shifting from non-renewable to renewable grids but putting in a centralised power system where there wasn’t one to begin with. It is estimated that 940 million people – 13 per cent of the world – do not have access to electricity, the majority being in rural areas and sub-Saharan Africa.

Such communities are therefore barely contributing to climate change yet are expected to be hardest hit by its impacts. International development organisation the US Global Leadership Coalition says that climate change acts as a catalyst for political instability, people displacement, lack of access to food and water and the spread of deadly diseases such as malaria. Stanford University found that climate change has increased economic inequality between developed and developing countries by 25 per cent since 1960.

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Cost of sustainability

Renewable World focuses a lot of its work in rural parts of Kenya and Nepal, and is looking to expand into sub-Saharan Africa, where there is a pressing need for energy provision. While renewables were previously cost-prohibitive, prices have come down, particularly for solar, making it a desirable option for use in developing countries. The International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) found that between 2010 and 2019, the cost of solar photovoltaics (PVs) – solar electricity panels – dropped globally by 82 per cent, while concentrated solar power (CSP) fell by 47 per cent, onshore wind by 39 per cent and offshore wind by 29 per cent.

Renewable World uses solar-powered microgrids across many of its projects in Nepal. “You used to have to import a lot of the technology,” says Lisa O’Doherty, global programmes director at the charity. “Now there are many more providers based in Kathmandu so we can liaise directly with them. There’s a better supply chain, making it easier to maintain the service and fix parts, so it’s much more reliable and accessible.”

Creating long-term change

A man standing beside a solar-powered microgrid in Nepal
Rural regions of Nepal have benefited from the installation of solar power

Efforts to integrate renewable technology into remote communities need to be sustainable rather than tokenistic, says O’Doherty, with longevity in mind. To do this, they need to be affordable. Before starting a project, the charity undertakes feasibility studies and discusses cost with the community, as the idea is to install a system that they can self-sustain.

Once infrastructure is set up, the charity trains local people in skills such as operation and maintenance, and in the necessary profession-based skills – from agricultural to business – to enable them to generate a profit to keep the system running. A “community fund” is set up, with contributions from the charity, government, local bodies and citizens if appropriate.

One such project is taking place in the buffer zone of Bardiya National Park in Nepal and aims to improve lives through water access. Solar-powered water pumps – where solar energy is converted to electricity via a generator, which powers a motor to pump and lift the water – now distribute clean water to houses and businesses. The water also helps to grow crops and rear livestock; the produce is sold back to the community and this funds the cost of the solar power.

Other projects have a more indirect impact on income but still improve access to education or healthcare. Solar-powered water pumps were installed in 11 schools in Nepal’s Gulmi district, providing access to clean water and improving sanitation. “Girls in Nepal often miss school when they’re menstruating,” says O’Doherty. “Over the secondary school lifetime, they might miss the equivalent of a year. If you can help them get back into school by providing the right facilities, it helps their grades go up, allowing them to generate a higher level of income [in the long run].”

Lata Shrestha, a trustee of Renewable World and programmes manager at non-profit organisation International Nepal Fellowship (INF), says that the impact of something as simple as a hydraulic ram (hydram) pump – a water pump powered by hydropower – can completely transform lives in remote communities.

In a village within the Nepalese district Syangja, a hydram was installed to provide irrigation water for household farming. One schoolgirl previously spent two hours every morning fetching water before walking an hour to school, leading her to be late and tired. Better water access has completely changed her life prospects. “She said that now she could ‘see her dreams come true’ of finishing school and moving to the city for further education,” says Shrestha. “Access to water is not only linked with day-to-day hardship but affects women’s hopes, desires and aspirations.”

Improvements on a global scale

A woman doing agricultural work in Nepal
Renewable energy has helped to improve agricultural yields in Nepal

Shrestha says that on-the-ground training is essential to enable communities to be self-sustaining, and that this should be coming from local government rather than solely charities. “Supporting communities is key to achieving long-term sustainability, so they have ownership over the technologies that are installed,” she says. “This cannot be dependent on non-government organisations (NGOs) or external agencies. Agricultural departments, for example, need to provide farmers with training so they can transition to profitable crops.”

Better knowledge sharing between governments, says O’Doherty, would also help developing countries understand their options with renewables, and would allow countries to establish their own domestic supply chains. “One of the biggest [challenges] is actually gaining access to the technology,” she says. “It’s all well and good [for charities] to invest in this technology and offer it for free – but if it breaks, then what?”

To shift away from charitable work, there should be an onus on governments to rethink renewable energy policy and incentivise uptake, adds Shrestha. This could be done through mechanisms such as subsidies and micro-loans, which offer people a small sum of money at low interest to get a venture off the ground. On a global scale, it is not enough to settle with the technology currently available – governments and global organisations such as the United Nations should continue ongoing research to identify how renewables could be cheaper and more efficient, so they become more accessible for lower-income countries.

The link between green energy and improving livelihoods is clear: renewables not only help to tackle climate change but can improve health outcomes, boost business opportunities and future-proof income generation in a way that polluting finite resources cannot. The impacts of climate change will also be felt most deeply and imminently by developing countries, so transitioning is crucial. “We’re already seeing the effects [of climate change],” says O’Doherty. “In Nepal, monsoons are changing and water is coming in sudden floods. By introducing [green energy solutions such as] a water pump, it not only mitigates [the problem] – it helps communities adapt.”

All images courtesy of Renewable World.

This article first appeared in Spotlight’s print edition Energy and Climate Change: Cop26 and Beyond on 29 October 2021.