Transforming Lives and Empowering Women through Lighting Up Communities with Solar Energy

Date: Monday, November 5, 2012

In late 2011, the Governments of Pacific countries and India as well as Barefoot College entered into a partnership with UN Women Pacific to send women from the Pacific to India to become solar engineers.

This transformational project brings about catalytic changes to the lives of not only the participating women but their communities, the private sector and the supporting governments. The women return and are accepted as professionals, communities own their development, the private sector and governments are encouraged to invest in a ‘bottom up’ paradigm which recognizes the impact of grassroots solutions.

Fiji is among the first countries to benefit from the “Pacific Rural Women Solar Electrification Project”. Ten (10) Fiji women have already graduated as Solar Engineers and on their return from India in September 2012 have been re-integrated into their communities, awaiting the arrival of their solar equipment to begin the work of solar powering their villages. For Fiji alone, at least 500 homes are expected to directly benefit from this solar electrification programme, whilst another 5,000 will benefit indirectly.

The project has since extended into Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu from which 24 women were selected to be the next intake of solar engineers with the Barefoot College. These women are currently in Tilonia, undergoing solar training for duration of 6 months.

As part of collecting baseline information, the UN Women Pacific team together with local CSO partners visited the far flung village, Vunidogoloa, in Savusavu, Fiji. Nestled along the Natewa Bay, Vunidogoloa village is located on Vanua Levu, the second largest island of Fiji, and shares perhaps one of Fiji’s most popular coastal bays with its beautiful beaches and swaying palm trees.

However, Vunidogoloa is one of the villages in Fiji that has become susceptible to the effects of climate change and was identified by the government some years ago, to be relocated to higher ground. This did not happen. The village which has a population of 199 men, women, girls and boys, in the meantime experiences flooding constantly, and often the villagers have to use little punts to get from their farms to their homes.

The cost of drawing power sources from the national electrification grid is so high that for remotely located villages like Vunidogoloa and its immediate surroundings, becoming electrified would be a distant dream. Power or energy sources are unreliable forcing the use of temporary and costly options like kerosene lamps.

For 64 year old Sera Naiqua, a villager and the grandmother of Vunidogoloa, life is a daily challenge. “The cost of maintaining our daily existence and buying needs like kerosene for lamps and lanterns is a struggle. The lack of basic amenities like electricity and access to transportation that could have reduced costs of basic needs or provided alternative employment opportunities for us adds to our woes and we women are instead forced to go out to sea for a whole day or join our husbands in the plantation. When we return home in the evenings, we are also expected to do our house chores,” she said.

Vunidogoloa Headman Sailosi Ramatu highlighted that his family spends at least $50 a week on purchasing kerosene for their lanterns.

Therefore the villagers of Vunidogoloa have warmly welcomed the Solar Mama’s Project, as the feisty grandmother engineers are now known.

Sixty-one year old Asilika Kalokalo, who is also from Vunidogoloa village, says: “This assistance by UN Women is like ‘mana’ for us. It means we can now engage in more income generating activities like sewing clothes, or creating handicraft like doormats which many are selling at Savusavu for high prices. There are endless opportunities and I know many of us will also appreciate being able to spend time at home during the day as well with our little ones. Currently we spend all our days in the farm or at sea and our children tend to be left alone with grandparents who are unable to really keep up with their activities and boundless energy, thus the safety of our young ones often get compromised.”

The Solar Mamas’ Project is a greener form of energy usage; it has raised the awareness of the villagers of the importance of reducing the impact on climate change. In addition, the community is empowered to manage and oversee the implementation and training of villagers through the setup of a Solar Committee and the establishment of a Solar workshop in their village site. The Solar Project is also expected to have impact on the communities and surrounding environments of a population close to 500, where for example, schools, local health centers, shops and other critical services can tap into the same source of power, and in return, provide the essential services they specialize in for the communities at more affordable and reachable means.

An important outcome of this ground-breaking project is the shift in perception of the value of elderly women in the community. Since the project targets grandmothers, the Solar Mamas’ project has shown that not only do aged women but also illiterate or semi-literate women can contribute to their homes and communities. The project also showcases a classic example of how the poor and underprivileged in society can be empowered to help themselves out of poverty and discrimination.

Replication and Up-Scaling

As the widespread benefits of the pilot project are becoming evident, UN Women Pacific is working with the Barefoot College, and countries in the Pacific to expand the initiative into a long-term programme to “Increase Community Resilience through the Empowerment of Women to Address Climate Change and Natural Hazards” (IREACH).

The aim of the new Programme is to use community-based initiatives to strengthen the role of women in their own communities not only as managers of solar energy panels but in the areas of Climate Change (CC) and Disaster Risk Management (DRM) and Reduction (DRR) as well as link community based initiatives and lessons learnt to the provincial development planning and implementation as well as national policy making.

UN Women is proposing a comprehensive, transformative approach to bring out the role of women, focus on women as change agents and work in partnership with government and other stakeholders to address gender in climate change and disaster risk management.