Off the grid but on the ground

Two sustainable development initiatives find solutions in Sindh and Punjab

Off the grid but on the ground
What might the future spell if we continue with ‘business as usual’? The new human era, dubbed the anthropocene, has hit up against into frightening new boundaries. We have broken too many records, and continue to bypass the bars set previously: the world’s hottest year, the highest GHG emissions, the worst oil spill in history, record breaking hurricanes.

By 2050, the planet will have 9.7 billion people, and their corresponding demand for energy, food and water will increase. Seventy percent of the world’s population will be living in what we call mega cities. The 21st century is thus also the time for the Global South to take a sobering lesson from the Global North. Sustainable development is the only plausible way to battle these new challenges. The United Nations Sustainable Development Division is working towards just this by creating global partnerships to implement internationally agreed-upon 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Pakistan, we already have a few examples: EcoEnergy Finance and Combatting Poverty and Climate Change Foundation.

An estimated 140 million Pakistanis either have no access to the power grid or suffer a minimum of 12 hours of load shedding a day. Up to 40% of the population is off the grid, and is using either kerosene, battery-powered torches or diesel generators. For the most part though, their working day lasts from sunrise to sunset after which there is virtually no life. According to a study, ‘Solar Energy Potential in Pakistan’, average daytime lasts about 10 hours with an average solar radiation intensity ranging from 1500W/m2/day to 2750W/m2/day, with maximum radiation coming from Southern Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. EcoEnergy taps into it.

Experts in off-grid energy solutions, and founders of EcoEnergy, Shazia Khan and Jeremy Higgs, teamed up in 2009 to provide last mile energy services in Pakistan. They are working in four districts in Sindh, Thatta, Badin, Mirpurkhas and Sajawal, where they provide multi-purpose solar products to light homes in these villages. These products provide enough power for two lights and a fan per household, for Rs30,000. After a background credit check, customers can pay this off in instalments over a period of 18 months, or, as a one-time investment. They even offer their products on rent for Rs800 per month.

“Ours is a business venture registered for profit with social impact as the end goal,” say Higgs. “For people who have no electrical wiring, no gas and no water, we provide them with the first access to finance and utility.” The team is on the ground and focuses on ensuring follow-up services to keep customers loyal, who then market the firm by word of mouth. According to Higgs, 50% of the customers coming in every month are referred by other customers.
An estimated 140 million Pakistanis either have no access to the power grid or suffer a minimum of 12 hours of load shedding a day. Up to 40% of the population is off the grid, and is using either kerosene, battery-powered torches or diesel generators

How does this become a sustainable solution though? The most obvious reason is that solar energy is simply the use of the sun’s radiation converted into energy and thus involves no fossil fuel extraction or combustion. Yet the impact doesn’t stop there. “When you provide a light in a home, you provide the ability for a child to study longer, you provide women with the ability to become part of the cottage industry,” says Higgs. “You provide local dhabas with voltage for a television that will attract more customers or encourage them to linger longer. This would increase small business profits that will then provide more disposable income for more business ventures, the ability to pay for one’s child’s education and even to purchase more solar panels.” In essence, more revenue, through more hours leads to greater economic prosperity. This reduces health and accident risks associated with kerosene as well. Higgs also points out that this initiative provides financial inclusion. Most of their customers don’t have bank accounts or loans but have now been introduced to ‘mobile money’. He says that solar companies are actually drivers for mobile money which is useful for poorer people. It simultaneously assists to document their expenditure which makes for easy data analysis to make credit checks etc.

Through this sustainable solution EcoEnergy targets the United Nation’s SDG 7 on affordable and clean energy, SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth, SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities; and SDG 13 on climate action.

Poverty & climate

Founder of Combatting Poverty and Climate Change Foundation, Ahsan Rashid, knew that resolving climate change and poverty in Pakistan has become heinously imperative. What began as a vested interest in biochar, charcoal produced from plant matter then stored in the soil to mitigate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, has now blossomed into a greater venture. A life member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and an investments teacher at the Lahore School of Economics, Rashid has made this his life’s work.

“I realised that this close linkage between poverty and climate change gives Pakistan, which has some of the highest nominal levels of poverty in the world, an excellent opportunity to become a global leader in slowing and reversing climate change,” he says. “This would be a tremendous ‘win’ for Pakistan, a ‘win’ that we desperately need after almost 50 years of constant erosion in our national values and a general retreat from engagement with the world.”

Scientists estimate that since the industrial revolution land clearing and cultivation for agriculture have released 136 Gt of carbon from the world’s soil. It is further predicted that the Global South will be the hardest hit with climate-associated disasters. Agriculture constitutes up to 24% of Pakistan’s GDP, and employs 70% of its population via various means. Agriculture and climate change are intermittently linked. In Pakistan particularly, there is a twin hazard of perilously low levels of rain followed by calamitous flooding. With excessive tilling and use of fertilisers, Pakistani soil has also become dangerously low in fertility as it has lost severe levels of nitrogen. Yet we do not realise how truly important it is to keep this carbon in the earth’s matter. Carbon constitutes 58% of organic matter and is needed for carbon-based lifeforms that exist in healthy soils. Carbon in the soil increases water retention capacity and fertility.

The foundation is inspired by the thinking of Zimbabwean ecologist and environmentalist Alan Savory’s holistic systems. It aims to alleviate all of these issues and restore carbon back to the soil through holistic livestock management and regenerative organic farming. These methods mimic nature as a means to heal the environment. The foundation is accredited from the Savory Institute and has established the first such hub in South Asia called the Indus Valley Savory Global Network Hub. It is set up a ‘demonstration farm’ at the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Pattoki, Punjab.

The foundation aims to work in three areas: establish a research and educational program at UVAS and other institutions; provide training to farmers with limited education to learn about these methods that would not only reverse climate change but also double their incomes; and convert several million acres of wasteland in Punjab and Sindh into productive grasslands.

“There is a well understood linkage between poverty and climate change and is recognized throughout the world,” says Rashid. “There is general consensus that without the wholehearted involvement of small-holder farmers it will not be possible to combat climate change.”

The writer holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Conservation from New York University