How Energy Supplying Programs in Remote Areas Can Have Exploitative Effects to their Beneficiaries

Monday, 09 April 2018 - 13:09:08 WIB
By : Abdullah Faqih | Category: Environment - 1187 hits
Women living in remote areas in the eastern part of Indonesia face a tough challenge called energy poverty. The challenge arises because of limited government resources that renders the State Electricity Company (Perusahaan Listrik Negara) incapable of providing access to electrical energy to these areas. There are still 30 million Indonesians, mostly living in eastern Indonesia, who have no access to electricity, compared to the 227 millions others who have already had access to it.

Energy poverty affects women more severely than men. The lack of access to electrical energy makes it difficult for them to do domestic activities in the household. In the dark, cooking is more challenging, they cannot do their craft works like weaving, and they might be more vulnerable to sexual violence.

Some development agencies have attempted to address energy scarcity in remote areas in Eastern Indonesia by distributing solar-powered lights, particularly d.light S20 and d.light 300, both of which have practical design and are portable particularly for the women. With maximum heat from the sun, the lights can last eight hours, and for four hours if the sun is in minimum heat.

The lights are not given to the women for free, however, as the agencies believe free handouts will not change the women’s lives for the better. The women have to buy it at a price that range from Rp 200,000 to Rp 500,000, with a one-year warranty. To distribute the lights, the agencies recruit some women to become agents, offering them sales commission to supply their household income. The program has been widely implemented in Eastern Indonesia, especially in ​​East Nusa Tenggara and Papua.

Admittedly, the program has provided a glimmer of hope for the lives of local women in Eastern Indonesia. More than 62,775 people have benefitted from the technology, 388 women have been recruited as agents, resulting in an average 12 percent increase in the sales of solar-powered lights.

But this is not the whole story.

In my view, the program will create a new dependency on the use of technology among the women. Solar-powered lights do not last forever. Their lifespan is typically about a year. When the lifespan of the light end, the women will inevitably have to spend their money to replace them. By then they are already “addicted” to the various pleasures and conveniences of life offered by the light, so it might take some adjustment to life in the dark again.

On the other hand, the situation benefits the solar-powered light distributor. The lights are imported from China and the United States. The distributing agency profits from the inability and helplessness of the women, creating a “new economic system” in remote areas of Indonesia out of their new dependence on the technology.

Furthermore, mitigating climate change has been used as one of the reasons behind light distribution programs, immediately raising the program’s credibility at the international level at a time when there is a big interest in new and renewable energy. But as the agencies and companies producing the lights enjoy greater support, more women will be exploited economically.

This reminds me of a similar situation in the mountainous region of Puncak Jaya, Papua, where the normally barefooted local tribespeople were supplied with footwear by some well-intentioned agencies. After the shoes were worn out and the supplies ended, the tribespeople must adapt again to living barefooted.

If the agency really wants to help local women out of their energy poverty, they had better used the mechanism of energy democracy and empowerment. The mechanism allows local women to become actively involved in managing technology and determining the use of technology for their prosperity. They will gain great resources and authority to get involved in determining their own lives, without having to rely on other agencies. In the  concept of technology distribution, only a few women are selected to be agents in distributing the solar-powered lighting technology. The rest are only active consumers.

The agencies claim that as “technology agent, the women are empowered by taking part in various trainings such as on managing household finances, public speaking and communication skills. But the "empowerment" efforts do not directly address the issue of energy poverty. The effort remains artificial and insubstantial to the problems faced by the local women.

What would be better is if the women are empowered to create light technology or other energy sources independently. They are then taught to utilize and maintain the existing technology. Constraints such as human resources and the readiness of the quality of local populations can be overcome if the relevant agencies are truly committed to removing local women from energy poverty.

Morocco is the best example of this. Greenpeace developed a DIY solar cooking set in single households and to create decentralized solar energy utilization. They recruited 20 volunteers to be in charge of training residents to maintain the technology. The implementation of solar energy for cooking in communities in Morocco is an example of how the full use of energy by the will of the community can contribute to the energy independence of a country.

Local women living in rural areas do not have the political power to voice their hardship. Their weakness and powerlessness are vulnerable to exploitation by certain parties, so they need to be liberated from "new economic systems" that can potentially exploit them.

Abdullah Faqih is a student of Universitas Gadjah Mada Indonesia majoring in Sociology who is interested in indigenous people related issue.

Got an opinion on this issue? Let’s talk about it in the comments section below.

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Elsa | 11 April 2018 | 14:16:52 WIB
Hi Faqih! I am glad to know that you pay attention to the issue of energy poverty and women's empowerment programs running across Indonesia. It is a sign that we are on this together. I am one of the staff at an organization working on the program you are referring to. In fact, as far as I know, there are two organisations working on this and I have been involved in both of them. However, I would like to clarify a few things here on behalf of myself, in the spirit of sharing.
Elsa | 11 April 2018 | 14:17:41 WIB
First, in regard to “new dependency on the use of technology” in which you stated that the lifespan of the solar lamps are typically about a year and so the women will have to replace them every year, I would like to confirm that the typical lifespan of those products is 5 years. We have found that in some cases, it lasts longer than 5 years. So, let’s do the math here. Prior to the using of solar lamps, the people that don’t have access to lightings were using kerosene lamp which is not only harmful to their respiratory system but also cost them some amount of money to buy the kerosene which cost 6000-8000 IDR per litre (depends on the location).
Elsa | 11 April 2018 | 14:18:01 WIB
A small family would typically spend 1 litre per week for the lamps only. It means they spend around 360.000 IDR per year just for the kerosene. So, when they buy a solar lamp for 200.000 that lasts for 5 years, that means a lot of saving for them. Besides, they do not have to pay in cash, if they can’t. There is an instalment system that makes the purchase less of a burden for them.
Elsa | 11 April 2018 | 14:20:30 WIB
Second, to say that they are “addicted” to the pleasures and conveniences of light is not appropriate here. Recently, I spent almost two months in total, doing a survey, monitoring visit and implementation in Sumba and Timor Island. We stayed with the villagers and experienced first hand how it was like to live without energy access and lighting in particular. People don’t get “addicted” to energy access. They need it as a basic need. Women cook dinner for the family, children do their homework, fathers check their livestock at night, family members need to go to the toilet, all of those activities are relying on lighting either from kerosene or solar lamp. Otherwise, no activity at all from 6 PM on and this situation has probably (based on my conversation with a local midwife) affect the birth rate as in increasing the number of unplanned pregnancy in some of those villages. That is how fundamental the need for lighting is.
Elsa | 11 April 2018 | 14:25:42 WIB
Fourth, while I admit that this program is not perfect and I personally have a few questions as well, I don’t agree that the women are economically exploited through this program. All they need to sacrifice is 15 hours of their time to attend the entrepreneurship training at the beginning of the program. Then they will be equipped with some products to start the business with. They do not need to spend money at all. They only have to pay back the basic price of the products once they can sell it. The basic price is including the tax and shipping cost of the products, that is why the price is reaching 200.000 IDR or more. Even if there is a very, very thin margin, it is being used to implement the program in another village. In fact, it has never been enough to cover the implementation cost. The main source of the fund is from the organisation’s donors. While the women will get additional income that can support the daily needs.
Elsa | 11 April 2018 | 14:27:13 WIB
I still have a lot to share with you and the Magdalene’s readers to address your claim on how artificial and insubstantial the efforts we have made and also about your idea on energy democracy and “empowering women to create light technology”. Maybe if you have time, we are inviting you for a sharing session with our team. You know where our address is as you have requested a schedule for an interview with us before, but you didn’t show up. Finally, thank you for your interest and critics! :)

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