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Changing energy use in rural Africa with power from solar, clean stoves…and women

  • Widespread use of fuelwood and charcoal for cooking and heating is a notable barrier to achieving development and conservation goals in sub-Saharan Africa, yet previous attempts at introducing better fuel technologies have largely failed.
  • To address energy use at the source, recent efforts are underway that seek to improve adoption of new technologies, such as solar-powered equipment or efficient cookstoves, in rural communities.
  • Rather than impose a new method or technology onto a community, encouraging behavior change by wrapping the technology in a collaborative or entrepreneurial envelope could encourage longer-lasting change.

For many energy and environment problems that developing rural communities face, there exists a plausible technological solution. In communities that are economically or geographically isolated, tools that can save time, increase productivity, or reduce carbon footprints and available at a low price can facilitate the transition towards sustainable development.

But what happens if a useful product just doesn’t catch on?

In some circumstances, infrastructure or cultural environment can hinder adoption even of tools, methods, or approaches that can solve a common problem.

Although electric grids linked to renewable energy sources are still lacking in developing regions of sub-Saharan Africa, small-scale solutions such as handheld solar products can help reduce deforestation for millions of tons of charcoal annually. Image by Kenueone via Wikimedia Commons, CC0.

Solar Sister, a non-profit based in Tanzania and Nigeria and recognized in a recent technology gathering on climate-related behavioral change, is well aware of these challenges. The group has built a model that targets both technological and social mobility issues by encouraging adoption of cheap solar-powered gear, such as portable lamps, fans, and phone chargers, in rural communities of several sub-Saharan African countries.

Rather than simply distribute such equipment and hope it takes off, however, Solar Sister recruits women identified as community leaders by local partner organizations and trains these women to sell the solar technology themselves. These women then act as local nodes who provide new knowledge and technology to other community members, enhancing the reach and permanence of the project’s impact.

“If you want to spread information quickly, use women, that’s what we believe here,” Fatma Muzo, Tanzania Country Director for Solar Sister, told Mongabay. “We are striving to ensure that women are considered and given priority in all climate and energy levels: at the family level, at the national level, and even at the international level.”

Solar Sister provides lamps, radios, and cell phone chargers powered by solar panels, but also trains women as entrepreneurs to market these products to their communities.

With the high cost, poor quality, and limited reach of current electric grids in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, fuelwood and kerosene lamps are the most accessible sources of energy for cooking and light. Because trust and the social aspects of a purchase are highly valued, said Muzo, designating reputable women to encourage tech use speeds adoption of solar-based alternatives. Over the past eight years, Solar Sister representatives have trained 3,000 women, many of whom participated in a 12-month curriculum on business and social leadership.

As cities boom, rural communities often left behind

Solar power for commercial and industrial use has been catching on across developed areas of the region, as reported by energy research firm Bloomberg NEF earlier this year. Paired with fresh innovation from young African tech entrepreneurs, services such as mobile and Internet connections are rapidly spreading in urban areas. Yet without any electric grid, many rural communities still lag behind.

Share of population with access to electricity (left, 2015) and share of population without access to clean cooking (right, 2015). Data from IEA 2017, caption from Hafner et al. 2018. IEA, 2017, Map © Natural Earth. Energy Access database.

Fuelwood and charcoal consumption in rural areas of Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, and other African nations both limits community development and threatens forests. About 70 percent of African households primarily use fuelwood for cooking, which people collect from nearby forests. The use of wood for cooking, water treatment, and heating is responsible for about half of global wood harvest and has been a primary driver of forest loss in sub-Saharan Africa for decades, reducing biodiversity and degrading carbon storage.

Foreign investment in tech solutions such as “clean” cookstoves, which heat food using far less wood, has been considered a catch-all solution to rural fuelwood consumption. In 2010, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves launched with $75 million of United Nations funding and has since distributed of millions of stoves. Yet by 2018, this initiative was considered a global failure; among other disappointments, the stoves simply hadn’t caught on.

“What tends to happen is that they start to use them, they understand it’s better, but they go back to their traditional ways of cooking,” Elizabeth Ross, founder and CEO of The Kasiisi Project, told Mongabay. Precedent and inertia can be difficult to overcome, especially when traditional materials, such as charcoal, and methods are readily available or preferable due to speed, if not efficiency.

Charcoal production employs many in sub-Saharan Africa, such as these young men in Tanzania, yet is a primary driver of deforestation across this region. Image by Alesia Ofori Dedaa via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The approach of Ross’ The Kasiisi Project is to encourage adoption of new technologies, such as efficient cookstoves, hydroelectric generators, and bio-digesters for gas fuel, by educating children. The project organizes workshops at elementary schools that demonstrate the importance of local forests and the threats of climate change, then works with the students to construct new, fuel-efficient cookstoves to be brought home to their families.

This light-tech approach provides multiple benefits simultaneously, suggests Ross. “Wherever people have introduced these ‘clean stoves,’ the high temperature they burn at reduces the amount of [greenhouse gas] emissions, and they can get a lot more heat for a lot less wood.”

For the children, clean stoves provide the added benefit of fewer trips out to the forests to collect wood, which also decreases the likelihood of them setting wildlife snares or spreading disease to the local chimpanzee populations.

“Although the children know [the value of] using less fuel,” Ross said, “the actual practical application is that they realize ‘oh my goodness! I only spent half an hour collecting wood yesterday instead of two hours.’ So then if they see their mother on the old stove, they will say ‘why aren’t you using my stove?’”

And with less wood to be collected, children can focus more on homework…or their favorite pastime, playing soccer.

Importance of social norms in tech adoption

Both Solar Sister and The Kasiisi Project recently received international recognition for their approach of encouraging new technology through community involvement. Last month, the conservation NGO Rare partnered with the National Geographic Society, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, UN Development Program, and World Wildlife Fund to present the Solution Search. From almost 200 submissions globally, ten finalist teams, including Solar Sister and The Kasiisi Project, were brought to Washington, D.C. for the Be.Hive Summit to present their ideas and products to encourage behavior change for climate solutions.

Rare CEO Brett Jenks outlining six behaviors that can substantially reduce the carbon footprint of Americans, on stage at the Be.Hive Summit, held to discuss how approaching climate solutions starts with changing behavior. Image by David Klinges for Mongabay.

Tech adoption is a topic constantly on the mind of John Pickering, CEO and co-founder of Behavioural Innovations, another Solution Search finalist. His team focuses on getting farmers to adopt new farming practices and to contribute to a growing database of agricultural management. Convincing farmers to switch to recommended methods, however, is easier said than done.

“It’s an attack on your sense of personal identity,” Pickering told Mongabay. “And you’re also asking someone to implicitly admit that they might have been doing the wrong thing.”

“They may see [adopting assistive technology] as a sign of weakness: the ‘good farmers know their land’ mentality,” Pickering said. “So you can offer them money, you can tell them that it’s beneficial, but if you don’t overcome those barriers, you’re not going to get the change you want to see.”

The accomplishments of Solar Sister suggest that tapping into the trust networks of female community leaders can effectively circumvent such barriers. An independent review by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) involving 600 interviews, both of Solar Sister customers and non-customers, revealed that the Solar Sister’s capacity building provides access to solar power to poor and remote households, many of which would otherwise lack power.

Although use of a new technology or method—whether it be solar power, clean stoves, or a planting technique—may seem rational and convenient to an outsider, understanding relevant cultural and social norms, and working with the right individuals, said Ross, is critical when introducing technology to a community.

And the desired systemic change is urgent, said Ross. “We’re going to have kids that are going to be more open-minded to new technologies who care about the environmental impact,” she added. “But we don’t have time for them to grow up. We need changes now.”

Fatma Muzo gives the acceptance speech on behalf of Solar Sister for winning the grand prize of Rare’s Solution Search. Image by David Klinges for Mongabay.

Of the many technologists at the Be.Hive Summit seeking to improve energy and resource use by empowering community members, Solar Sister was the judge’s pick for the grand prize of $25,000. Fueled by the prize winnings and budding partnerships with other non-profits, the Solar Sister team plans to supply one million Tanzanians (260,000 households) with clean, renewable energy by scaling up their model. Getting to that point, however, requires continued fostering of individual relationships.

“People try to change a big group,” said Solar Sister’s Muzo. “Instead you should start at the individual level before you spread out to everyone.”

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