Monday, 8 December 2014

Empowering women through entrepreneurship and reaching the last mile

I spent three days last week  in Nairobi, Kenya at the Advisory Group Meeting of ENERGIA, the international network on gender and sustainable energy.  ENERGIA, led by its beautiful and energetic head, Sheila Operaocha, has transformed itself from a network of organisations (mainly NGOs working with women and renewable energy technologies) interested in mainstreaming gender into energy projects and programmes and empowering  poor women, to a 15 million euro programme intent on providing energy services to poor women, through fostering women’s entrepreneurship in the energy services sector.   The goal of  empowering women  and going to the last mile to address energy poverty is still part of the network’s vision, but this fifth phase programme is a  huge step up  (up?) from what it was doing before, and the organisations delivering the programme ( Solar Sisters, Kopernic etc)  are much better described as social entrepreneurs rather than NGOs.  Interestingly Practical Action (who I and some of my closest friends worked for when it was ITDG) is also one of the partners, and it was with some sense of déjà vu that I participated in the field trip that they organised. 

We visited three women briquette manufacturers, who form part of Practical Action’s Women Energy Entrepreneurs (WEE) project that is supported by ENERGIA.   The first woman we visited (whose name I have forgotten, but let’s call her Lydia) lives in one of Nairobi’s underserved settlements, and makes briquettes that she makes with her own hands for her own use and for selling to neighbours.  
Lydia's briquettes
briquette ingredients

The second, Rose, is part of a self-help group and we met two articulate young men who were also members of the group.  The group makes briquettes using a manual press and uses the premises of a children’s home to store their raw materials and manufacture their product.  They hope to save money to buy an electrically operated  machine so they can make better quality briquettes for sale.  

Mixing the ingredients

The manual press - stages of use

The manual press - stages of use
The manual press - stages of use

The manual press - stages of use

Rose's briquettes

The third woman, Josephine began life as a journalist, but investigating renewable energy technologies as part of her journalistic career, she decided to branch out to making briquettes herself and has invested in an electrically operated machine. She manufactures in her back yard, and employees two people.   

Josephine's machine
Woman worker 
Joesphine's briquettes
Clearly, the three women are on a rising scale of ‘successful entrepreneurship’.  Josephine, at the higher end of the scale, produces briquettes  that are the most sophisticated, and expensive.  Her customers are institutions (schools, hospitals) and business people (e.g. poultry farmers who buy them for providing heat to the hatcheries and for the chicks). Josephine is already beginning to think of new innovative products, such as briquettes infused with aromatic essences that can be used in the heating of homes, or with citronella for repelling mosquitos.   Rose and her self-help group also sell  to institutions and if they do graduate to using an electronic machine, it is likely that their production will increase, the quality of their briquettes will improve and they will be able to command a higher price and sell to a more sophisticated institutional market.  At the bottom of the scale is Lydia, the only one of the three that is supplying to poor women.

There is a tension in this project between strengthening women as briquetting entrepreneurs, and providing quality energy products to poor women.  As far as I could see, poor women in urban areas cannot afford Josephine’s briquettes and will have to limit themselves to buying from entrepreneurs like  Lydia.  If Lydia becomes more economically empowered and improves her business, she will most likely move away from selling to the women in her neighbourhood, and look for institutional buyers.   So unless Practical Action develops an alternate strategy of production and marketing briquettes this type of individual entrepreneurship while empowering individual women, is unlikely challenge  existing inequalities of energy service provision.

Of course this maybe a problem confined to ‘briquettes’.   The distribution of solar lanterns, using women as distributors,  may create less tension between empowerment of the woman entrepreneur (in this case the distributor) and the energy user.  However, the dual goals of entrepreneurship and reaching the poor need to be closely monitored, because there is enough  experience to show that the market on its own is not always the best way of achieving equity. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

There is no such thing as a 'natural disaster'

This may be a strange thing to say after the recent devastating landslide in the Meeriyabedde Tea Plantation  in Koslanda that occupied our thoughts in the last couple of weeks, but there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster.  What we have are natural hazards.   The disaster that follows a natural hazard, whether it is a tsunami,  earthquake, flood, drought, cyclone or landslide depends on  how much impact the hazard has on  people, assets and the environment.   The numbers of people and assets that are damaged by the  occurrence of the natural hazard turns the event into a disaster.  The  damage  of course is largely dependent on the choices we make about how we use our land, how we build our buildings, what kind of government we have, and how our financial system works.

Disaster risk is seen as the frequency and severity of the hazard, the numbers of people and assets exposed to the hazard and their vulnerability and susceptibility to suffer damage. At two ends of the disaster risk spectrum, we have those disasters that are characterised by relatively low frequency  but have high impact on lives and assets.  The Indian Ocean Tsunami is one such.  At the other end of the disaster risk spectrum are those disasters that happen often, i.e. have a high frequency, but have not as high an impact on lives and assets.  For example, the Koslanda landslide.   It is important that our disaster mitigation efforts are not just concentrated on the  first category of high profile, high impact,  intensive disaster, but  that we also mitigate the more frequently occurring low impact, yet extensive disasters such as floods, droughts and landslides.

These extensive disasters are very significantly influenced by our own actions.  A Peradeniya University don was quoted in the Daily Mirror editorial as saying that ‘improper constructions disregarding the vulnerability of the building sites were the main causes of the landslides and mudslides in the hill country.  He has observed that many construction sites are being carried out in the hills without consultation with geologists,  and that mountain areas are being levelled without proper understanding about their long term impacts’.  The consideration of proper Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) as an annoying bureaucratic hurdle in the path of ‘development’ activity is fast becoming endemic in our country, and could lead to long term catastrophic impacts.  Development, as the don points out, can exacerbate risk and make people more vulnerable.   Where EIAs are properly carried out in Sri Lanka(e.g. the Port City) they seem to be narrowly focused to ensure the sustainability of the project rather than the impact of the project on the wider environment.

The Meeriyabedde disaster also reflects the priorities of our elected leaders, our bureaucrats and our private sector.   The Daily Mirror editorial quoted above, goes on to say that the plantation workers had been told by the authorities as far back as 2005 to move out of the area because of the danger of landslides and mudslides, but that they could not do so because no alternate houses were provided.   Their situation illustrates our inability to deal with the dilemma of plantation workers, the breaking down of the plantation worker-estate management link (many of the residents apparently no longer work on the plantation) without a transformation of the ‘enclave structures’ that leave families of plantation workers dependent on the estates for their homes.  Given that there have been moves to provide estate workers with housing on other estates, it is difficult to understand why such an identified group of vulnerable people were not considered for relocation.  

The situation of the Meeriyabedde Plantation workers also illustrates the priorities of our time.  We see the military brought in to forcibly move people from their homes in Colombo to make way for foreign  capital investment in real estate in the city,  and high rise apartments built at lightening speed to accommodate them; but  in faraway Koslanda, the government and its military machine had no incentive to go beyond just warning those who were vulnerable to this impending disaster.