Women Workers Tap the Sun to Light Up Homes in Rural Bangladesh

Solar panels provided by Grameen Shakti (like this one in Khulna) help bring power to rural Bangladesh. Photo: Marufish, Flickr Creative Commons

 

In the developing world green jobs can have a double-barreled impact; providing work and wages while tapping renewable energy technology to deliver “developed nation” services to people who desperately need them.

These twin benefits are converging in Bangladesh, where female entrepreneurs are gaining economic independence as solar power contractors and providing life-changing electricity to their nation’s many poor and “off-the-grid” communities—home to some 70 percent of all Bangladeshis.

Women are well-suited for this role in Bangladesh, where they are often responsible for all household management activities, including providing power—be that from kerosene, wood gathering, or solar power.  Solar jobs have made many of these women primary wage earners as well. They provide a good income, perhaps $150 (U.S.) a month, a number similar to Bangladesh’s Gross National Income Per Capita.

Bangladesh’s programs to train poor women as technicians for solar home systems arm them with the expertise to assemble, maintain, and repair household solar arrays. The technology enables millions to “leapfrog” into a world of modern lighting and communications without the construction of conventional electric infrastructure, which for many won’t be available in the foreseeable future. Clean solar also replaces dirty, nonrenewable fuels like kerosene (for lighting) and wood (for cooking) that have harmful impacts on both human health and the environment.

The government-run Infrastructure Development Company Limited launched a Solar Energy Program in 2003 supported by the World Bank and other international funders. Using grants, tax breaks, technical assistance, loans, and other incentives they spurred partner organizations to invest in spreading solar technology towards the goal of widely disseminating household solar system throughout the country. Some 50,000 home units had been installed by 2005. Today that number is approaching 1.5 million installed and the target is 2.5 million by 2014.

The nation’s top solar training program partner is Grameen Shakti, a non-profit founded by Dhaka’s Grameen Bank, which had driven the installation of nearly 800,000 solar home units. (Grameen Bank is the world’s biggest and best-known “microfinancing” institution with some 8 million borrowers, mostly poor rural women.)

Grameen Shakti has established dozens of Grameen Technology Centers, which are essential to the solar program. These centers provide jobs manufacturing accessories for solar home systems in the localities where they are used, and train women as solar technicians who can then sign annual contracts with home owners to maintain and service the units that are sprouting up at an impressive pace. More than 1,000 women have been fully trained in these facilities and thousands more have played related roles in solar construction and installation. Training for solar contractors under the public-private partnership is also being supported by the International Labor Organization’s Green Jobs in Asia Project.

The simple solar systems sprouting up across Bangladesh have a photovoltaic module, a rechargeable battery that enables both day and night use, and a number of lamps and fixtures. They come in different configurations. A simple 20Wp (Watts peak) system to run two 5W lamps and a mobile charger for 4 or 5 hours a day costs $170 USD. A more complete system of 130 Wp, which can run 11 7W-lamps, a TV, and a mobile charger for the same time period costs $940 USD.

Those fees, even when reduced in part by grant money, are a significant percentage of what many Bangladeshis make in a year. But the systems are financed, often at 15 percent down with the remainder paid off over 3 years. Many homeowners are able to make their regular payments by simply reallocating the money they now dedicate to expensive fuels like kerosene. “Micro-utility” systems can also be created that allow power-sharing among neighbors who cannot afford individual systems.

And while lack of modern electricity paralyzes economic development, communications, and education—the new systems are sparking growth in all those areas.

The extra light at night allows students more time to stay current with classwork, and workers can pursue studies at night. Women might create an in-home handicrafts business, keep a shop open late, or cook catered food. Some solar users launch green businesses of their own by renting use of their renewable power for charging neighbors’ cell phones or allowing others the use of light and power to pursue their own opportunities.

Solar systems in Bangladesh have become one of the world’s fastest-growing renewable energy programs. They’ve also become a prime example of the kind of sustainable future envisioned by leaders at Rio +20—one where economic development and environmental responsibility grow in synergy to the benefit of both.

 

Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire. 

Changing Planet

Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire.