Vinnare av Årets tidskrift 2022 & Publishingpriset 2022

Bright lights in Benagli Nights – part 1

Bright lights in Benagli Nights – part 1

Renewable energy for all the millions of poor farmers without access to the grid, that is the objective of Grameen Shakti, a social business company, has succeeded in installing a quarter of a million small solar home systems.

Skribent Anders Friström

Rural women benefit most, and some of them also manufacture and install many of the system components, the project represents a path to a brighter future.

On the wide Bengali plains, the first rice crop of the season has just been harvested as cows graze among rice stubble and fresh green straw. Roads, villages and farms surrounded by groves of trees rise above the clay-walled network of rice paddies like islands in an emerald sea. Water shimmers in the fields; the result of a monsoon season that arrived a month earlier than usual this year.

The traffic is bustling on the main road. Swarms of carts and rickshaws weighed down by rice sacks peddle alongside honking buses that zigzag through traffic at a breakneck pace. This is Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries with over one thousand inhabitants per square kilometer. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world, where each farmer has just a few hectares of farmland, and many have even less.

At the local branch office of Grameen Shakti (literally “village energy,” in English) in Phulpur, there is much work to be done. Farmers have extra money to spend after the rice harvest, and orders for new solar home systems are piling in. It is the first of June and the office’s six employees are busy compiling monthly sales reports for the main office in Dhaka. Since opening in the Mymensingh district, the local branch has installed some 22,000 solar home systems, 500 biogas facilities and 2,000 improved cooking stoves throughout the countryside.

Only forty percent of Bangladesh’s estimated 160 million inhabitants have access to the power grid. For everyone else, kerosene lamps and firewood are the main energy sources, except for those who have installed sustainable energy systems from Grameen Shakti. Introducing new energy solutions here is difficult, since almost fifty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, on less than one dollar a day. The literacy rate is also low: Less than 40 percent of the population is able to read and write.

Grameen Shakti’s solution to the current challenges is an innovative financial model based on payments divided into affordable installments. The company, whose customer base is made up predominantly of women, offers 36-month payment plans with a fifteen percent down payment and a six percent “service charge”. On average, a home energy system costs about 290 Euros and includes five fluorescent light armatures, a 12-Volt outlet for a black-and-white TV set, a mobile phone charger and a 100 ampere-hour lead battery. The payments, amounting to about eight Euros per month, are collected each month by female technicians who also monitor and repair the systems. A fully charged battery will last for three consecutive days without sun, in a region where the sun shines a full 340 days a year.

At Shefalys farm the new solar power system draws curious stares. Neighbors and family have gathered to watch the three technicians from Grameen Shakti and Shefaly beams with pride. The family has saved for more than a year to afford the new solar home system, and Shefaly hopes that her two children will now have an easier time doing homework in the evenings. Of course, they will also be able to watch the television more often, without having to worry about expensive dry batteries.

At another nearby farm, Hasna Hena is extremely pleased with her solar home system. “Life has become easier,” she explains. “Our sons can do their homework in the evenings, and we can watch TV and recharge our mobile phone at home, instead of at the marketplace in town. We also save money. Before, we spent more than ten Euros a month on kerosene and batteries.”

The family has two years of installments left to pay. With three boys in school, lighting in the evening is crucial. They have plenty of homework, and education is important if they have any aspirations for the future. I ask Mehedi Hassan, the oldest son, which he likes best, the TV set or the lighting? He says he most appreciates the lighting, as does his dad, but the look on his face says just the opposite.

Hasna Hena’s family has also invested in a home biogas facility. Although their poultry farm, with its 500 egg-laying hens, is relatively small, it nonetheless produces huge quantities of droppings every day. The droppings are poured into a concrete cylinder, mixed with water and flushed down into an underground fermentation chamber made of clay bricks. The resulting gas runs from a pipe in the yard through a hose to the kitchen, where the one-burner gas stove stays lit for hours every day. Hasna cooks for ten people, three meals a day.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the biogas facility the fermented sludge is surfacing, driven by the building gas pressure. The sludge has almost no odor. No flies are to be seen, even when the sludge is shoveled over to the nearby compost, where it is left to rest for a year before being spread as manure in the fields.

“Now we’re living almost as comfortably as in town – no smoke from the firewood stove, bright lighting in the evenings and the TV, too,” says Hasna, smiling and gesticulating with her mobile in hand.

Mobile phones and calls are cheap in Bangladesh, and serve as the channel for all kinds of business. The farmers get the latest market prices by text message, make their business agreements by mobile and arrange deliveries. For this reason, even very poor families often own a mobile phone. Grameen Phone is one of the largest mobile phone operators and, like Grameen Shakti, is a member of the Grameen group, whose founder is the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammed Yunus. The majority of the companies in the group, including Grameen Bank, are run as non-profit social organizations. One notable exception is Grameen Telecom, now part of a commercial joint venture with Vodafone. In total there are 22 separate Grameen companies, all headquartered in the Grameen Building, a 20-story skyscraper in central Dhaka.

Baful owns a small restaurant along the main street in the village of Sinher Shor. There is access to the power grid here, but the demand for electricity so outweighs the amount generated that power outages are frequent. So Baful has installed a solar power system as a backup. In addition, he has installed three new clay cooking stoves, built according to Grameen Shakti’s design, in the restaurant’s open kitchen shed. The main improvement is a simple, concrete chimney that diverts smoke and burns firewood with 50 percent greater efficiency.

It is still baking hot in the kitchen, but the smoke-free air is a major improvement to the working environment, according to the head chef. The stoves cost only 60 Euros each, including on-site construction, and conserve 80 kilos of firewood a day. At around two Euros of savings per day, Baful’s upfront investment was repaid within three months.

Nasul Islam runs a small pharmacy in the village. His solar-powered lighting, which allows him to keep his shop open until ten o’clock in the evening every weekday, has been good for business. Because his customers are farmers who work the fields in the daytime, he now brings in four or five times more income, with only two extra business hours per day.

The village’s first solar home system was installed in 1998. Since then, solar cell electricity has simply marketed itself among neighbors, the message travelling almost spontaneously from village to village. Now ten shops in Sinher Shor have solar-powered lighting and 300 solar home systems have been installed throughout the village.

We visit a shed with bamboo roofing and a collection of benches arranged in front of a corrugated iron box. This is the local public TV and video center, where the standard charge for watching a film is to buy three cups of Cha, the traditional Bengali tea, with a lot of milk and sugar, during each show.

In a neighboring village I meet with Dr. P. K. Roy, a retired doctor from a Canadian Christian mission station in the Chittagong hill tracts, near the border to Burma. He tells about the health risks posed by inhaling the smoke from traditional clay stoves without chimneys. In these houses, women often suffer from pulmonary disorders and have shorter lifespans due to smoke inhalation. The doctor has had three of Grameen Shakti’s cooking stoves installed, as well as a home biogas facility, on the farm where he lives with his three sons and their families. His daughter-in-law Chandra is also excited by the fact that cooking has become so much easier. She no longer has to squat to prepare food, thanks to an elevated kitchen worktop, another recent luxury. But not everyone is equally impressed, at least not her grandmother, who still stubbornly squats in the yard with her traditional clay stove, amidst a plume of smoke.

Nanjin Ara Sultana is general manager of the Grameen Technology Center in Phulpur. A university-educated electronics engineer, she works in the center together with one other engineer and three technicians – all women – who manufacture and assemble the main components for the solar home systems. They make the control units, which connect the cables and control the battery charging, the fluorescent lamp armatures and the mobile chargers. Electronic components and printed circuit boards are sent from the main office. The total output of this one tiny factory is about 200 control units and 3,000 lamp armatures per month.

Den här artikeln kommer ur Sveriges Naturs artikelarkiv för artiklar som publicerats i den tryckta utgåvan av Sveriges Natur mellan 1998 och 2017.

Skribent Anders Friström
Artikeln publicerades i