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.
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.
“Grameen Shakti’s innovative approach is not only providing families in the developing world with clean, regular energy sources,” says Katherine Miller, United Nations Foundation communications director, “it is helping strengthen local communities and providing economic opportunities.”
“Eventually we thought [about] how to maintain the [solar panel] system,” says Barua. And the group wanted to “involve the poor women also.” They realized that when women improve their lives, the whole family benefits.
One issue about the maintenance of the solar panels was that in this Muslim society, and especially in the conservative rural areas, women are home alone during the day and aren’t allowed to let in male technicians unless a male family member is present.
However, having female technicians would automatically eliminate this issue, they realized. So women’s engineering technology centers were created.
Now women like Champa Akter, who works at the engineering technology center in Mawna, learn to assemble home solar systems and also how to install and maintain them.
The technicians live on-site at the regional offices and go out into the field to provide service as needed. So far, the program has set up 20 centers and trained more than 1,000 female technicians.
Down a dirt road in Mawna and behind a large chicken coop of 2,000 egg-laying, red-feathered hens is Mrs. Mohammad Abdur Razzak’s underground biogas plant. It’s another project initiated by Grameen Shakti. The organization realized that individual farmers usually keep two to three cows or chickens, and wanted to help them set up small-scale biogas plants to use the livestock’s waste to their advantage.
Razzak hoses her poultry coop’s waste into the connected chamber, where it ferments and creates biogas, which is released into a pipe that’s connected to her cooking stove.
Since Razzak’s animals produce more gas than she uses, she makes an extra $71 per month by renting 10 cookstoves and the excess gas to her neighbors.
The leftover slurry that isn’t converted into gas is sold to local farmers for use as organic fertilizer.
A 2006 World Bank study found that rural women and children under the age of 5 had the most exposure to indoor pollution from wood-burning cookstoves. To help alleviate this, Grameen Shakti designed a more fuel-efficient stove that produces less smoke and costs less to use.
It burns half the wood of a traditional stove, the smoke is funneled away from the cooking area via a pipe, and the ashes can be used as fertilizer. “It’s very environmentally friendly,” says Barua.
Inspired by Grameen Shakti, the UN Foundation “helped finance a project in India that makes solar power affordable for more than 1,000 families” in 2006, Miller says. “We are also currently working on expanding portable, clean-energy cookstove programs across Africa.”
But can this be a successful model in more urban areas, where energy needs are greater? There is cautious optimism.
“If rural areas are successful in having expanded the generation capacity of renewable energy [and] solar energy,” says Quamrul Islam Chowdhury, chairman of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh, “then it can be replicated in [Bangladesh’s] cities in a gradual manner. If it can be supplied and be guaranteed, then people will go for it.”