Muscle or machine for energy Aug03

On a hillside on the border of war torn Rwanda and Congo, a group of men in prison uniform are using shovels to help build one of Africa’s biggest bio gas plants. It sounds odd, but it does unlock the potential to save trees, soil, homes and lives.


In a refugee camp in the desert wastelands of northern Kenya, a Somali woman unfolds a sheet of shiny cardboard and a clear plastic bag that she will use as a solar cooker to heat ingredients for a supper for her family of six children. She feels better than most other women in her country who continue to spend each day in search of dwindling firewood.


On a wet and cool day in East Anglia a cattle farmer tips a last load of slurry into a tank, parks his tractor, strips off his overalls, takes a hot shower electrically powered by transforming the slurry – waste into power!


How can we help local people to secure their energy locally, preferably from waste using simple technology and requiring neither muscle nor a day’s walk in the scorching sun?


Every developing country needs to provide its people with easy and affordable access to water and energy. Without these two essential amenities, the poor cannot hope to be free of hunger, disease and perpetual misery. Yet despite decades of EU and other western assistance to these countries, fewer people have access to water and electricity in Africa than a decade ago! At present rates, it will take more than 400 years before every Kenyan household will have direct electric grid access. Africa’s dependence on expensive fossil fuels or uneconomic hydro plants will not facilitate affordability even if access on the grid is available. Meanwhile the bulk of 2000 million poor people continue to rely on the supply of wood (or charcoal) as their basic fuel for cooking and heating. Africa plants one tree for every 28 trees felled and at this rate much of the productive land could be arid or desert in a couple of decades.


Why have the rich western countries not offered simple gadgets that use solar, wind and biomass for local energy production to the poor countries? A solar panel pulsing power to an X-ray machine in a rural mobile medical screening laboratory, a wind turbine driving a water pump for irrigating dried-up fields in remote areas, and a biomass conversion scheme for producing gas to heat seawater for salt production, would transform the lives of the world’s poorest. They promote environmental sustainability, improve health and sanitation and offer an opportunity for employment that can create a surplus to pay for food and the basic needs of life. It is a passport to self-reliance that the poor crave for.


Use of local renewable energies can curb forest destruction, reduce soil erosion, drastically lessen the dependence on polluting expensively imported fossil fuels and provide potent organic fertiliser for hungry fields. It can free women from hours of drudgery collecting firewood each day and save them and their children from the toxic smoke that often fills their inadequate mud huts. It frees children from their chores and offers them better opportunity to acquire education and vocational skills that will lead to a job rather than a life as a beggar or a thief.


Developing countries must do more to help themselves and their poor. There is no longer any justification for state monopolies in power generation and distribution. Local communities, schools and voluntary agencies should be encouraged to seek appropriate local and foreign assistance to generate and distribute energy within their locality.


The EU must change its aid policies to reflect greater direct technical assistance in rural areas to create energy infrastructure that integrates supply of water and energy to every rural household. Western aid should be focused on helping rural economies in poor countries by offering them the transfer of technology that will use solar, wind, water and biomass as sources for energy. Anything short of such help will make the poor even poorer!