Lighting Up Rural Southeast Asia

[This was first published 31 Jan 2015 on SciDev.net]

According to Smart Villages Initiatives, of the 600 million people in Southeast Asia, 140 million live without electricity, and 300 million cook on traditional stoves that produce lots of smoke and little heat. Without electricity, these people also lose out on better sanitation, education, health care and information technology. Most of them live in rural villages.

United Nations aims to achieve universal access to sustainable energy by 2030. In Southeast Asia however, fragmented communication among the parties involved slows progress. That may soon change.

At the Workshop on Energy for Off-Grid Villages in Southeast Asia, held 27-29 January 2015 in Kuching, Malaysia, various parties gathered to discuss and share experiences on rural electrification in the region. There were special interest NGOs, companies, social enterprises and researchers. Fourteen countries from Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa and South Asia were represented.

The workshop was organized by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) in collaboration with Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. This workshop is the second of six across Africa, Asia and Latin America, planned by the Smart Villages Initiative. The workshops serve to link parties that work to provide electricity to rural communities.

Smart Villages Initiative aims to generate insights on the challenges and solutions to bringing electricity access to rural villages. The Initiative is run by a team in the United Kingdom that partners with science academies. The Cambridge Malaysian Education and Development Trust and the Templeton World Charity Foundation fund the team.

“A smart village will be where somebody will want to choose to live in the future instead of thinking they have to migrate to city for a better life,” explains Dr. John Holmes, co-leader of the project.

Participants of the workshop learned that socio-economic capacities vary greatly across Southeast Asia, “perhaps more than we anticipated,” says Professor Sir Brian Heap, Senior Science Advisor on the Smart Villages team. Some governments could light up most of their rural communities, whereas others are too cash-strapped to pay. While rural communities in some countries may be chatting on Facebook, those in Cambodia would first need clean cooking stoves and water filters.

Participants shared many technologies and approaches to power up villages, but caution against a one-size-fit-all solution to rural electrification. Benjamin Frederick, manager in a Myanmar company that specializes in renewable energy, agrees but thinks “it is incredibly helpful to have some guidelines” on rural electrification.

Front line workers emphasized the importance of strong and long-term engagement with the rural communities; otherwise, rural energy services will trip. Dr. John Holmes, co-leader of the Smart Village Initiative, singled out community-involvement as a “key message of the workshop”. Holmes says that ultimately the rural communities must own electricity and drive development according to their visions.

Few participants showed failures of introducing electricity and technology to rural communities. In one example, a telecommunication center was built with a solar-diesel hybrid generator in the rural villages of Bario, Malaysia. Parents began to complain that their children would rather use the phone and internet at the center than spend time with the family.

Salinee Tavaranan, founder of a social enterprise that delivers energy services to Thai rural communities, says it would help to have a platform “to share failures and build up from that.”

The Smart Villages team will summarize the workshop findings in a policy brief. Science academies and partners of the Smart Village Initiatives will receive the brief, which Holmes hope will support their discussion with policy-makers on rural electrification.

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