Habitat Observatory

    Renewable energy for rural livelihoods - Lighting up Women’s Future

At night, the bright white light from a single bulb lighting up each courtyard is the only guide to homesteads in a terrain without roads or demarcated pathways. What is remarkable is that four young women – barefoot engineers, have assembled these lights from scratch and are paid to maintain, repair, assemble and fabricate circuits for solar lanterns, solar lamps, charge controllers, choke coils and transformers.

The villages, which are a series of homesteads scattered across an undulating desert landscape of Rajasthan, have never been connected to the power grid. But today, their homes are lit up because of four women – Bhagwati, Sajani, Saleemati and Chano – the light bearers. They have attended school only up to class five or eight. None of the four had ever lived away from their families or travelled beyond a neighbouring village. Three of them are married, while the fourth is engaged. These barefoot solar engineers work as a part of the Government of India and United Nations Development Programme project ‘Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihoods’.

The residents of the four villages wanted their men to receive the training, but the project was meant only for women. Convincing the villagers to allow their womenfolk to participate in this project took some time, after which these intrepid women spent two months at the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) campus in Tilonia followed by a month-long field training. Duly trained, these women put together each of the lights and lanterns in their individual villages and oversaw their installation. Presently, they undertake regular checks in the village, respond to complaints, repair faulty lights and maintain the batteries that power them.

It took a leap of faith and a great deal of persuasion for the families to allow four women to be trained as ‘barefoot solar engineers’ and serve their communities. Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), a Tilonia-based NGO, which implemented the programme in Barmer, runs a residential training programme for barefoot solar engineers at its campus in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan.

These young women who, until a few months ago were just like the others – cleaning the yard, fetching water, cooking – are now called ‘engineers’. Each family with a light in these four villages contributes to a village fund from which their barefoot engineer is paid a salary ranging from Rs 1000 to Rs 1350 a month. The future of these villages is bright indeed!

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    Water-powered Computers: Impacting Lives

The Batuwangala Maha Vidyalaya School in Galle, Sri Lanka has transformed the lives of both its pupils and villagers by introducing the internet and providing online access to the modern world. A computer centre with 23 desktop computers has been funded through the Secondary Education Modernisation Project (SEMP).

But there was a catch involved. The SEMP grant only covered the cost of the equipment and the monthly internet bill. It did not stretch to paying for the electricity. As most of the students came from poor families, they were unable to contribute to the cost of powering the centre that had had such a positive impact on their lives. With a rising electricity bill, the school faced being cut off from their link to an online world of knowledge and resources.

The school's plight was brought to the attention of the Practical Action's Enhancing Renewable Energy Options (EREO) project. The EREO team set to work to secure an alternative power source. A visit to the school revealed plenty of natural water sources in the proximity and the plan for a 'pico' hydro energy scheme was hatched. Pico hydro can produce up to 5KW of energy from the smallest of streams.

A power house was built by students of the local Open University of Sri Lanka and materials were sourced from a pico hydro machine manufacturer. On completion, the power centre was able to produce 650 watts of electricity-enough to power the computer lab and empower the students through Information Communication Technology (ICT).

The Batuwangala Maha Vidyalaya School is now considered a pioneer in sustainable energy. No longer does it rely on the main Sri Lanka grid. The pico hydro system can power four computers and all the light bulbs in the school at the same time.  The school's overall electricity bill has been halved as a result. The students have gained not only a sustainable source of electricity, but also learnt how they can produce their own energy. They have now set up a maintenance committee which takes turns in making sure the pico power system is working properly.

For a school facing an energy crisis, a small 'pico' hydro scheme installed with the help from Practical Action has come to the rescue. Pico hydro manages to produce energy from the smallest of river streams—typically a pico hydro scheme can produce up to 5KW of energy.

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