Ending Energy Poverty: The Missing Millennium Development Goal

Ending Energy Poverty: The Missing Millennium Development Goal

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“Most people don’t appreciate the extent to which women bear the burden when it comes to energy poverty,” said Bob Freling, the Executive Director of the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). “They breathe indoor air pollution, have to haul water long distances, and can’t safely deliver their babies at night in darkness.  Just think about what it would mean to give women alternatives that free up their time.  SELF is specifically working with women leaders in communities to demonstrate ways that they can uplift their own lives and the lives of community members by looking for solutions that offer economic empowerment and champion women as leaders.”



“I am determined to end world energy poverty.  I’ve been in this business for over 15 years and have traveled to the farthest corners of world, including Bhutan and many parts of Africa, and seen the devastation created when people are deprived of modern energy services.  I’ve seen how this prevents them from uplifting their lives.  I’ve also seen what can happen when you introduce a community to small, modest amounts of solar electricity.  It lets kids study at night, not having to breathe in kerosene fumes; it gives access to refrigeration for vaccines; pumps water for irrigation; and becomes the driving force to empower people to live healthier, more productive lives.”




As the Clinton Global Initiative meets September 21st through 23rd in New York City, Freling says that he is excited to see the world come together behind the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  The MDGs include eight specific time-bound goals for ending world poverty through education, health, gender equality, environmental sustainability and global partnerships by the year 2015. 



Simultaneously, Freling was surprised and disappointed that ending universal energy poverty was not included as one of the MDG goals. “Energy poverty is the missing MDG,” said Freling.  “I’ve been talking about this for over a decade, and yet only in the past few years has the United Nations come forth to talk about universal energy access.  It’s good that there is a growing consensus and critical awareness of energy’s critical role in poverty alleviation, but the foundation and development community’s response to the crucial role energy plays in development is still horribly fragmented and disjointed.”

Every day, SELF gets requests from all over the world from people who want to bring energy to their communities, but the demand far outstrips SELF’s current ability to respond to the enormous need for solar in the world’s poorest communities.  SELF was a winner in Ashoka Changemakers and ExxonMobil’s Women | Tools | Technology competition for its Solar Market Garden project, which not only brings light to rural villages in Benin, but also combats malnutrition and enhances economic livelihoods through the introduction of solar-powered drip irrigation to the villages’ farms.

Here’s how that project started:  in 2003, SELF was working in Nigeria with support from the US Department of Energy.  They were putting in place a holistic village model that would go beyond providing solar energy to homes, but also create an integrated approach that provided energy for water pumps, schools, businesses, and health clinics.  “Through this work in Nigeria, I started to think about how what we were doing was just a drop in the bucket for Nigeria,” said Freling. “One out of every five Africans is a Nigerian.  So I started to ask myself, ‘why not pick a small country and work on a large scale to transform the entire energy landscape?’”

In 2005 Freling learned that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent U.S. foreign aid agency created by the U.S. Congress in 2004, had selected Benin as one of their eligible countries.  The MCC forms partnerships with some of the world’s poorest countries, but only those committed to good governance, economic freedom, and investments in their citizens.

That same day, Freling received a call from Dr. Mamoudou Setamou, a native of Kalalé, Benin. Setamou had received a Ph.D. in agricultural entomology from the University of Hanover in Germany and was now a Professor at Texas A&M University.  Setamou had just returned from a visit to his home country, where he participated in a meeting of Kalalé’s district council.  The council knew that it was unlikely that they were ever going to get electricity, and were desperately looking for alternatives. The Kalalé district, located in North Benin, has 44 villages and a population of 100,000 people.

“I told Mamoudou that I didn’t want to do just one village,” said Freling.  “We had to go to scale and look at doing the entire district.  Over a series of conversations it became clear that this district was a desperately poor and desperately cut off.  They needed power for their clinics, light for their homes and schools, communication, and access to water.  But their number one concern was food insecurity.

“In that part of Benin, for six months from November through April, there is no rainfall and no local food production.  Malnutrition is fairly widespread.  Food is a top need.  I knew enough about drip irrigation to know that if we were going to do anything about food, we would need drip irrigation to deliver water directly to the roots of the crops.” 

The major challenge with farming in arid regions is that one needs reliable access the water.  Freling’s research led him to Dov Pasternak who pioneered drip irrigation at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).  Pasternak’s African Market Gardens grow high value fruits and leafy green vegetables in Niger, Senegal and other parts of the Sahel region of Africa.  A partnership to work in Benin was forged, with Freling insisting to a skeptical Pasternak that instead of the diesel generators that currently powered ICRISAT’s drip irrigation systems, they should substitute solar pumps.  SELF believed that the creation of Solar Market Gardens would be more affordable, sustainable, and cheaper over time than diesel.

Within a short period of time, the women in two pilot Kalalé villages were not only feeding their families and combating malnutrition, but also earning additional income selling vegetables and seeds. Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment reported the outcomes of this initial effort in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  And now that Pasternak has experienced firsthand the multiple benefits of solar pumping, ICRISAT won’t consider going back to diesel powered drip irrigation.

So exactly how does solar drip irrigation work in desperately dry regions of the world?  The two pilot villages in Benin serve as perfect examples.  A river runs past one Kalalé village where a solar electric system pumps water to an elevated reservoir tank.  The tank uses gravity to water the crops.  In the other village, which is not near a stream, water is being pumped to the fields from a borehole at a depth of 35 meters.   

“Each woman farms a plot that is 120 square meters, but ultimately, Pasternak would like to see that increase to at least 500 to 1000 square meters per woman,” said Freling.  “The beautiful thing about drip irrigation is that it is concentrated and directed, and can use ‘fertigation,’ putting water soluble fertilizer to the roots of the plants.  Girls don’t have to be taken out of school to fetch water, and families are now earning US $7.50 more per week that they can use for school fees and medical supplies.  About 20 percent of the crops are consumed by the women’s families, but the rest of the tomatoes, okra, peppers, corn, moringa, cabbage and lettuce, as well as other fruits and vegetables, are sold at the markets for income.”

Women participating in the Solar Market Garden pilots have reported they spend up to 50 percent less time working on their current plots than when they previously hand-watered plots, which were 10 to 30 times smaller. They are able to spend this extra time in the gardens engaged in more income generating activities.


ON TUESDAY:  Learn more about Freling’s vision for ending energy poverty, how he has filled his 2006 pledge to the Clinton Global Initiative, and why he believes that ending energy poverty is key to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.  Learn more about his participation in a Monday, September 20th TEDx event with Melinda French Gates.

By Changemakers contributing writer Carol Erickson  


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