Better lives in Bangladesh – through green power
The environmental arm of a Nobel Prize-winning community development bank brings solar power, biogas, better stoves, and economic opportunity to rural residents.
Here in the Bangladesh countryside, amid the emerald-green rice paddies and farmers threshing crops with their bare feet, are beige cows, giant haystacks... and solar energy panels – 200,000 of them scattered throughout the country.Skip to next paragraph
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This clean-electricity source is part of an innovative program conducted by Grameen Shakti, the environmental arm of Grameen Bank, which won a Nobel Peace Prize for its pioneering use of microloans in Bangladesh.
Its projects also include biogas production, improved cookstove technology, and solar power training centers for women.
Grameen Shakti (meaning “village energy” in Bangla) was started in 1996 as a way to bring electricity and better living standards to the country’s rural poor. “At that time, 85 percent [of the total population of 140 million] had no electricity,” says Dipal Barua, the nonprofit group’s managing director.
He’s speaking from his 19th floor office, which is lined with solar panel prototypes and overlooks the country’s capital, Dhaka.
When Grameen Shakti began, about 120 million people in the country didn’t have access to a source of electricity, he says. Most were poor rural residents living in primitive conditions. By providing electricity to them, the organization hoped it would also help increase education rates and economic opportunities.
Now, 13 years after the program’s inception, its efforts reach almost 2 million people in every part of Bangladesh.
Grameen Shakti first focused on solar panels because, as Dr. Barua notes, “Bangladesh has plenty of sunshine.”
And not only are solar panels portable, they are also better for the environment and more reliable than the nation’s present energy grid, which is not only unavailable to most areas outside cities but also prone to frequent blackouts.
Traditionally, most rural dwellers rely on kerosene or candles as energy sources. But they’re costly, give negligible light, and emit fumes.
Following the model popularized by the Grameen Bank, Grameen Shakti used microcredit loans for disseminating the panels. Buyers make down payments of 15 to 25 percent and then pay off the loans in two or three years.
The cost of the panels is offset by the buyers’ lower energy costs. For example, explains Barua, shop owners who purchase a solar panel system no longer have to buy candles in order to stay open at night. Previously, a shopkeeper might have spent $6.50 a month on candles, but for a small solar panel system with a battery, the monthly payment is about half that. And in addition, the solar unit would allow the store to stay open longer, generating more income.
Mawna, a rural village several hours north of Dhaka in the Gazipur region, is a model of Grameen Shakti’s success. Farmers like Mrs. Abdul Kalev can return home after a day of work, turn on the lights, and relax in front of a TV set powered by an 85-watt solar panel perched on the roof.
Kalev says that her six-person household enjoys its new energy source immensely. They’re pleased because it has improved their lives and also helps the environment. Now that they have reliable electricity, the children can study in the evening and don’t have to breathe kerosene fumes.