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

Photo: Solar panels from Grameen Shakti in Khulna, 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. 

Comments

  1. Hatvalami
    United Kingdom
    March 9, 6:55 am

    Tanim Ashraf – I was just wondering. Is it possible that you did not consider the quality of the products which they are using? maybe the one which is half price is not that good quality. Did you consider that they are paying for the service as well? I believe if you buy everything for the cheap price, nobody will install it for you. Nobody will explain how to use it etc. Can you pay the price in 3 years if you want to buy everything for USD 61? What about those technology centres? They have to be financed as well.

    + what if they make a profit? did they rob those people? no. did they realise that there was a demand for accessible energy resource?
    is there a chance that they will use their profit to further grow their organisation and provide more service and accessible resources to people?
    if you dont like their organisation you dont have to use what they provide. but for those poor people this is a big chance for a better life. do you mind that they are benefiting?

    if you dont agree with the price, if you think you can make it cheaper, why dont you start your own business? it sounds like a great opportunity

  2. bubbabubba
    US
    August 7, 2013, 9:22 pm

    This sounds like the Barefoot College thing that got started in India. Look up the Ted Talk about Barefoot Colleges. Really inspiring.

    Oh, here it is on YouTube. Check it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qqqVwM6bMM

  3. Kanu Takodara
    Gujarat INDIA
    June 28, 2013, 1:37 am

    The day when We’ll be able to dispurse Solar pannels to the globe, We could live somthing good to Legacy for our Childern.

    God Save all

  4. Monir Hossain
    East Chandkati.105,Old College Road.Jhalakati.
    June 25, 2013, 5:25 am

    Very Interested to known about Solar System.

  5. Jamie
    Anchorage Alaska USA
    May 31, 2013, 11:58 pm

    I like to have more detail about solar lights
    I hope to hear from you soon,Jamie Garcia.

  6. Chuck Hallowell
    Phoenix, Arizona - USA
    March 12, 2013, 7:45 am

    To: Tanim Ashraf-
    How can
    The solar units can be sold at 170 USD without there being any company “profit” — because there are other goods and services provided by the “non-profit” company that use up the “profit” from the sale of the solar units.
    It is quite obvious that the sale of the solar units is what finances the rest of the company’s operations — resulting in a NET “non-profit” business.

  7. Hasina Khaleda
    Dhaka. Bangladesh
    March 6, 2013, 8:42 pm

    @Tanim Ashraf : You are absolutely correct. They are here to make money off poor people. Non Profit is just a label they like to use.

    @Enginer.A.B.M.Mostafizur Rahman
    So you are the company man. Well if you want to preach religion please pick a different article.. probably article about your religion.

    @ jany akter
    Nobody wants to know who you are and what you do till you make a comment about the article. Say something about the article then give your details.

    I may not like the company Grameen Shakti but I am all for Green… Go Solar…

  8. Enginer.A.B.M.Mostafizur Rahman
    Bangladesh,comila.regional manager, Grameen shakti
    February 1, 2013, 2:06 pm

    islam has the solution for humanity.

  9. Tanim Ashraf
    Dhaka, Bangladesh
    December 29, 2012, 12:28 pm

    Local market price of a 20wp solar panel is BDT 1500; a battery big enough to run two 5 watt lamps and a phone charger is BDT 1900 max; two lamps are BDT 500 and a mobile charger is BDT 100; Regulator, wires and switches are BDT 1000; totaling BDT 5000 or USD 61.

    Now, if Grameen Shakti sells this solar system for 170 USD, how can it be a “non-profit” organization?

  10. jany akter
    narayanganj
    October 24, 2012, 2:14 am

    i am a students and computer teacher

  11. henry estrella
    baltimore md
    July 10, 2012, 8:54 am

    Learn abaut solar energi

  12. [...] On. Leave it to the fairer sex to already get a jump on delivering clean energy to the rural poor. National Geographic News Watch recently reported that Bangladesh has created a solar program that brings clean power to rural [...]