Energy is a major factor in prosperity. It makes our labour more productive and our lives more pleasant. It powers machines which produce goods more efficiently than slaves or ox or horse or even watermills ever could. It smelts the metals that are the basis for our buildings and most products. It powers transport systems for people and products. It powers the computer and telecommunication systems that drive business processes. It warms our homes and air conditions our offices. It refrigerates food to keep it fresh and provides the heat to cook it. It provides the power to clean homes, wash clothes and mow the lawn.
All of this means that people can produce far more per hour, and by freeing their time from daily chores they can choose to spend more of their time productively or in leisure.
Today, 1.3 billion people live in poverty, without electricity. In remote villages many burn wood and coal for cooking and use kerosene lamps for lighting. These are expensive, dangerous and injurious to their health. The gathering of fuel and water consumes much of the working day, particularly for the women. Hence they have little time for productive activities.
Stewart Craine, a social entrepreneur from Sydney, is providing solar power to remote villages on Tanna Island in Vanuatu to provide lighting, to mill crops and to recharge mobile phones. His future plans include more immediate access to potable water, saving the women many hours walking to fetch it, refrigeration to store meat and fish, and carpentry tools to help rebuild houses after the massive cyclone that hit the country in March 2015.
Stewart’s lighting system comprises a solar battery charging station located at a convenient spot in the village, battery packs and LED lights. It can service up to 50 families. Initially, families were charged $3 per week – the cost of the kerosene it replaces. This has been reduced for the next few years until the country recovers economically from the cyclone.
The villagers do not have the capital themselves to buy the systems for cash. However, their weekly payments cover both interest and principal on the loans and ultimately the solar system is owned by the village.
The projects are funded by a mix of angel investor loans and government grants in the form of investor risk guarantees. Melbourne Rotary committed $20,000 in loans and $11,000 in guarantees to the Tanna project, while other angel investors added $30,000. This enabled Stewart to prove the concept and to win a US government grant of $1.75 million to expand the project, as well as a smaller grant from the UK government and recognition from a French Government Climate Challenge and a top 10 result in Australia’s annual Anthill Smart 100.
The economic benefits to the villagers are that they can spend more time in productive activities. Lighting extends the day; they can use this time to increase their knowledge and skills, helping children with school work, and shifting daytime tasks like basket-weaving into the evening to allow more time in their gardens and fields to grow more crops. The agro-processing mills reduce manual labour for women, so more milling can be done in a shorter time, lowering the cost and effectively increasing the hourly return for the worker. Freed from less productive activities, women now have time to produce craft products for sale, increasing income.
The overall result is that the villagers are healthier, more prosperous and better educated, and begin to establish themselves as good credit risks for future loans, further increasing their access to modern energy services. Stewart Craine is to be commended for his insight and his dedication. Melbourne Rotary is proud to be associated with him and his great work.
For more, read my book The Fragility of Freedom: Why Subsidiarity Matters