Hundreds of millions of people around the world lack the energy access necessary to support economic and human development. This “energy poverty” not only severely impairs their quality of life but also has profound implications for the governments, businesses and NGOs trying to connect these disenfranchised communities to mainstream society. While there is a moral imperative to bring reliable energy access to these communities, the impending threat of climate change underscores the importance of doing so sustainably. Expanding grid infrastructure to reach these rural populations is not economical, and relying on traditional energy sources such as coal and gas would greatly increase CO2 emissions. Thankfully, modular renewable energy sources have the potential to dramatically improve the livelihoods of these communities in a sustainable, economical manner.
In rural Nepal, only 5 to 10 percent of the population has reliable access to electricity. These areas are overwhelmingly agricultural, but for generations, energy poverty has consigned farmers to a fate of drudgery and subsistence farming. I spent my summer trying to tackle this challenge at an internship with a startup solar company in Kathmandu called Ecoprise. My goal was to help them build the business plan and theory of change for their newest product, AgroHub, which is a collection of solar-powered agro-services, including solar water pumps for irrigation, water purification for safe consumption, solar drying for fruits and vegetables, and milling for grinding crops into flour.
While nearly two-thirds of Nepal’s workers are farmers, most can only farm for subsistence and do not have the resources to generate income from their land. This is particularly true for farmers on small parcels of land who suffer from low agricultural productivity because they can’t irrigate their crops except during the rainy season and have to rely on manual labor for all their tasks. This means that women lose opportunities to engage in more productive activities, and children forgo time they could use in study and personal development. AgroHub’s services are designed to help these farmers be more productive, because increasing productivity in the agriculture sector is widely recognized as one of the most effective ways to fight poverty and stimulate socioeconomic development.
Building the business case for AgroHub involved visiting project sites, drafting numerous grant applications and old-fashioned desk research. Over the course of my internship, I realized how services that focus broadly on enabling human productivity, like AgroHub, can address numerous challenges related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I always considered the primary mission of renewable energy to be reducing CO2 emissions, but I’ve
come to appreciate how developing new sources of renewable energy can have a significant positive impact beyond that—particularly in emerging markets. If we consider energy a service instead of commodity, it becomes impossible to ignore how communities and individuals can use it to improve their livelihoods. Whether it’s providing lighting to allow children to study at night or water purification to save women from spending hours carrying and boiling water, a multitude of modest improvements can combine to dramatically transform how these communities live.
By using renewables to tackle energy poverty, projects like AgroHub can address the SDGs in ways such as these.
- No poverty: Increasing agricultural productivity helps boost income in rural communities, with the UN Environment Programme estimating that a 10 percent increase in farm yields could reduce poverty by 5 percent.
- Zero hunger: While many farmers historically have had to rely on monsoon season for irrigation, solar-powered irrigation systems ensure that they can grow crops year round, reducing food insecurity.
- Health and well-being: Increasing the supply and diversity of food production leads to better health outcomes for farmers.
- Quality education: Women and children are predominantly responsible for menial farm labor, incurring significant opportunity costs as they spend hours each day on tasks like water collection. By mechanizing these tasks, more time can be spent on education.
- Gender equality: 1.4 women (for each man) work on smallholder farms. Solar-powered agricultural services not only reduce the physical drudgery for these women but also provide opportunities for entrepreneurship and asset ownership.
- Clean water and sanitation: Services like AgroHub can use solar power to purify water and ensure the community has clean drinking water.
- Affordable and clean energy: Given the lack of access to the grid, farmers rely on diesel generators. However, the high price of gas makes switching to solar an attractive option.
- Decent work and economic growth: Increased agricultural productivity boosts economic growth and provides opportunities to pursue additional employment.
- Reduced inequalities: Targeting underserved communities ensures that the benefits of increased renewable energy production go primarily to those who most need it.
- Sustainable cities and communities: Modular renewable energy sources help communities build sustainable infrastructure on their own terms.
- Climate action: Switching to solar power increases resilience by reducing reliance on a changing climate.
- Life on land: Modular sources of renewable energy can preclude solutions such as grid expansion or diesel generation, limiting biodiversity loss and land degradation.
Services that are designed to tackle energy poverty, like AgroHub, can help contribute to a wide range of SDGs. My hope is that the decision-makers responsible for tackling these challenges consider this as they weigh potential solutions that can make a meaningful impact across multiple SDGs. Transitioning a global economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a gargantuan task, but remembering the benefits to the livelihoods of energy-poor communities around the world can make that task more meaningful. I don’t know what the final destination will be, but I’m excited to see where the journey leads.