23 January 2014

Africa: Focus On Gender - Think Small to Light Up Rural Africa

Small-scale technology has once again proved its worth for women. Two female 'solar engineers' have been boosting the development of their community by installing solar panels in a Cameroon village far from the national electricity grid. Increased funding for such schemes would benefit the rural poor - especially women - more than large, expensive interventions, which typically pass them by.

Malawi is a case in point. Drive through the countryside after sunset and all is dark: only one per cent of the rural population is linked to the national grid. Most of the grid's power comes from hydroelectric power plants on the Shire River, but their power output is extremely irregular because sedimentation and an aquatic weed infestation clog up the river, hampering its flow.

This means that most rural Malawians have to rely on alternative sources of energy, mainly wood and charcoal, resulting in a chain of causes and effects: from deforestation, soil erosion, increased run-off after rain, flash floods, river siltation and, ultimately, interrupted hydropower generation.

Poor, rural women are particularly affected by the lack of electricity. Not only do they have to undertake the time-consuming task of fetching fuelwood, but this is also a country where women can be asked to bring candles to health clinics to illuminate the delivery of their babies. [1]

In an effort to curb the weed problems plaguing the hydroelectric plant, the United Kingdom funded a biological control scheme in the 1990s. But when the money dried up, the weeds returned. More recently, the World Bank, the United States and other donors have assisted Malawi's government through projects such as one to upgrade its weed harvesting equipment. But despite these efforts, power output remains low and intermittent at best.

If more hydropower were generated and supplied through the grid, could Malawi's poor afford it? Expensive connection fees, government inefficiency and corruption - which can prevent even those who have paid for a connection from receiving energy - means the answer is probably not. As one director of a local solar energy firm has said: "If we think of using hydroelectric power, then we should forget about giving light to rural areas." [2]

On the other hand, experience shows that small-scale technology projects can deliver real results. For example, an NGO has installed solar-powered energy kiosks from which local people can rent battery boxes for a small fee, and start-up company MEGA provides micro-hydropower to rural Malawians. [3]

Last week, the Malawi's president, Joyce Banda, declared: "Let there be light in every home." [4] Such an ambition is a long way off. In the meantime, funding for small-scale lighting schemes deserves priority. Until African governments get themselves together, small-scale interventions will simply be more effective than large, expensive ones. And there is no doubt who would be the main winners - women.

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 15 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting the economic opportunities for poor women.

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