Women char dwellers in Bangladesh face some of the most demanding conditions of any human settlement. Living on remote islands that move from year to year because of monsoon rains, female char dwellers are left with few opportunities for gaining access to electricity. ‘Opportunity for Women in Renewable Energy Technology Utilisation in Bangladesh’ is a project that has established a system to empower women at the same time as providing much-needed electricity. The Coastal Electrification and Women’s Development Co-operative construct solar lamps to provide char communities with off-grid, renewable energy.
Energy in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is facing an energy delivery crisis. The country has an agriculture-based rural economy, with 80 per cent of the 120 million population living in rural areas. The rural majority use traditional forms of biomass energy, which account for nearly 70 per cent of the total energy consumption of the country. People in rural areas lack access to the commercial energy needed for economic prosperity. Apart from the need for a distribution system for commercial fuel, there is also a need to improve access to energy to promote economic development for the rural poor. Most of the grid-supported electricity that does reach rural areas is provided by nationally established co-operatives called Palli-Biddut Samities (PBS), which work under the regulatory guidelines of the Rural Electrification Board. There are 54 PBS covering most of the country, but these do not reach riverines, hilly areas and coastal islands (known as chars). To date, only about 15 per cent of rural households are able to receive grid electrification.
For lighting, people in rural areas currently use kerosene. Typically, poorer households use kupis, which are small, inexpensive cans of kerosene with wicks stuck into them. These have open flames and create a serious fire hazard. Households with greater resources purchase hurricane lanterns, which surround the flames with glass enclosures. Traditionally, entrepreneurs operate diesel generators for evening lighting and productive power in non-electrified rural marketplaces. This is not yet an economic solution for rural households, which are generally left in the dark. Culturally, in Bangladesh, rural women are barred from the public markets, leaving them and their children to spend the evening hours around kerosene lamps or in partial darkness.
Although grid-based rural electrification in Bangladesh is rapidly increasing, it is not economical to extend grid access to areas of low population density. A significant part of 10 million unelectrified households can afford electrification, but cannot be economically reached by the conventional grid services.
Hence, it is necessary to investigate alternative supply sources and delivery mechanisms for those living in sparsely populated and hard-to-reach rural areas. Community participation in off-grid electrification projects, using renewable energy sources, is a fast-growing method of increasing rural access to electricity. In a recent World Bank study it was found that half a million rural households have the potential to use solar home systems for receiving their electricity. On the isolated island of Char Montaz, a joint project between the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is attempting to tap into this potential by supporting the role of rural women in off-grid electrification.
Char Montaz is an isolated rural island in southern Bangladesh, which periodically experiences the trauma of natural disasters and is continually fighting against poverty. Bangladesh is a flat country intersected by 230 rivers. And every monsoon (June – October) they change their course, sometimes dramatically so. The River Jamuna has never stayed in the same place from one year to the next for over a century and a half. Hundreds of thousands of people are forced to flee their homes every year, as these are swept away.
A char is an island formed by deposits of previously eroded land. Their stability is variable; some remain for decades while others may be eroded away within a year. Most char dwellers are farmers who inherit their land from their ancestors, as the channel of the River Jamuna is privately owned. Within the length of the River Jamuna’s channel, a population of about 2 million people share a unique life. The river channel migrates and floods annually and croplands are often left under water. With a five-hour motor-boat journey to the nearest commercial centre of Golachipa in the Patuakhali District, it is a hostile environment for electrification projects.
Women and Renewable Technology
Char Montaz is the setting for a model project to deliver low-cost renewable energy services. The project, ‘Opportunity for Women in Renewable Energy Technology Utilisation in Bangladesh’, began in 1999 with funding from the Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme (ESMAP), which is a joint project between the World Bank and UNDP. The project grew out of ESMAP’s commitment to poverty alleviation and gender equality by supporting sustainable energy solutions for people in rural areas.
Through consultations with community members and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) about energy needs in the area, electric lighting was identified as a high priority. The project identified a low-cost solution for improving the quality of indoor lighting of rural households by replacing the traditional kerosene lamps with modern battery-operated lamps. The project has trained rural women to produce the lamps in a micro-enterprise manufacturing facility and distribute them through rural markets. The project has helped women move away from traditional farm labour towards skilled labour and gainful employment in the energy sector. It has increased the knowledge base of rural women and exposed them to mainstream commercial activities, while also meeting community needs for lighting.
Within two years, over 1200 households, shops, and boats started to use DC lamps, and 300 business owners adopted micro-grid connections.These lamps and micro-grid services improved the quality of indoor air and lighting; improved household and business security; enhanced productivity; and increased incomes by 30 per cent. Shops now keep longer hours, fishing boats operate electrical equipment, and children spend more time on school work at home. The project has not only brought additional income to households and businesses, but also given women the opportunity to acquire technical and business skills.
A Promising Approach
- Community-owned and demand-driven project.
- Launched after the identification of community needs and wants.
- Tapped into opportunities for rural women and their families to generate non-farm income.
- Used capacity of rural women in micro-credit management.
- Empowered women through technical and business training and skills.
- Demonstrated visible community-wide benefits.
By targeting women, it reduced their social exclusion and increased their decision-making roles in the community. It changed the community’s perceptions of women’s capabilities, breaking down the rigidly defined gender division of labour, and expanded their income-earning potential. If a woman constructs and sells two lamps a day, her daily household income increases by 100 taka (Tk.) – about US$1.6. This brings women to the equivalent wages of a skilled labourer. The high desirability and the visible community-wide impacts of the energy services have gradually elevated women’s status, earning them the respect of their communities and recognition from government as providers of energy services.
A number of advantages of the DC lamps make them popular:
- The lamps use small batteries that are familiar to rural households, and can be charged by solar modules that are constructed by a local co-operative.
- The lamps are made locally, so users are confident of availability of repair services.
- The lamps use fluorescent bulbs, which produce sufficient light for children’s reading and other tasks of a rural home. The bulbs also last much longer than incandescent lamps.
- The lamps are designed to operate with high efficiency and low energy consumption.
- The price is affordable in relation to the benefits derived.
- The lamps reduce the risks of fires from kerosene lamps, and of smoke and emissions that cause health problems, air pollution and climate change.
Technical training for the women included: the identification of electronic components; identification of tools; printed circuit board assembly; and quality control and testing. After training in the use of the tools, and experience with the electronic components, the women were examined to ensure that their technical skills were adequate for reliable construction of the lamps. Training in business operations, accounting and bookkeeping was also initiated through a series of 28 lectures for the group leaders who were to manage the manufacturing plant. With minimum supervision, the women are able to keep accounts relating to daily production, sales revenues, and costs of the factory operations.
The project advertised the lamps by organising public meetings, distributing flyers, and setting up billboards and posters. In addition, demonstrations of the lamps were conducted at several locations, including shops and residences. The women involved in the project developed a detailed marketing plan based on the business training they received on different aspects of marketing analysis and energy demand assessment. The marketing plan covers aspects such as business location, customer characteristics, target markets, competition, electricity demand, marketing goals and strategies, and budget considerations. The women hold monthly meetings to discuss project operations and local issues relevant to business development.
Tapping into the Sun
Lamp sales are closely tied to the availability of batteries and reliable battery-charging solutions. Battery charging is difficult when charging stations are located more than 2 km away from the point of use. Therefore, the project has established the Coastal Electrification and Women’s Development Co-operative (CEWDC), which consists of trained electrical engineers to assemble home solar lighting systems (see Hands On study ‘A Switch in Time: The Solar Sell – China’ for details of solar photovoltaic modules). The workshop is also entirely powered by solar energy, and there is enough power available from the rooftop panels to set up a local recharging service. In the past, people have made a costly and time-consuming boat trip; now they can drop into the co-operative to buy a solar system:
‘I have decided to purchase a home solar kit because it gives better light. I don’t like the kerosene lamp because it makes the house dirty, but this solar lamp will make it easier for my children to study at night.’
Zakie Matubbar, Consumer
‘Before we had this solar lamp we couldn’t see at night, but now I can use my sewing machine, the children can read and our house is safe because the kerosene lamps cause so many accidents. Also I can work all through the night, which increases my income.’
Runa Khan, Consumer
Benefits for the Women
Although the project is operating on a limited scale, it has had a substantial impact for the empowerment of women through the acquisition of technical and business skills. Lamp production and diversification into solar panel construction provide a new opportunity for women to earn a living: one in which their labour is highly valued. On top of increasing non-farm income and skills of rural women, the project has enabled them to play a role in decentralised energy provision, which benefits the community. The quality of life for the community as a whole has been improved by better lighting, while the status of women and their households have been raised. Regular participation in project activities also requires women to spend more time outside of the home, thereby breaking down traditional social barriers.
Khan, H. J. (2003). “Case-study: battery-operated lamps produced by rural women in Bangladesh”. Energy for Sustainable Development. 7(3):68-70.
Mozumnder, S. and Zaman, R. (2001). “Proceedings of Bangladesh Power Sector Reform Workshop”. ESMAP Technical Paper 018. Washington: ESMAP.
Energy Services Delivery Project
Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme (ESMAP) www.esmap.org
Global Environment Facility (GEF) www.thegef.org
Hatton National Bank www.hnb.net
World Bank: ASTAE www.astae.net/content/asia-sustainable-and-alternative-energy-program
Donor and Supporting Organisations
Department for International Development (DFID) www.dfid.gov.uk
World Bank www.worldbank.org
ITDG Technical Briefs answers.practicalaction.org
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