Seeing stars in Chin villages

Posted on Posted in Work in energy development

After sunset, a remote Chin village in Western Myanmar, Tong Daw, plunges into darkness. Our home stay mom has finished preparing our dinner, so the kitchen is full of smoke. We soon get used to the heavy air and don’t care anymore, because the food is so delicious. Also, this is an exciting reality for us, living like locals, so we can endure a day or two like this. School and house chores are from now on done under the tinkering light given by three candles and the cookstove fire. When the candles grow small and this romantic atmosphere ends, I remember to bring a few d.light solar lanterns that would now shine a brighter light on the little life created from play doh by our new friends.

Dinner is served by the light of the fire
Dinner is served by the light of the fire

Dark reality

Over 70% of Myanmar’s population has little or no access to reliable, affordable electricity which significantly limits the economic development and education possibilities in rural areas. People invest their scarce and often season-dependent income in basic energy sources: candles, kerosene, and flashlights on an individual level or community-owned diesel-powered mini-grids providing a couple of hours of electricity in the evening. The cost of one hour of such power is roughly equivalent to 24 hours of power in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital – which leads to a deeper socio-economic gap between the urban and rural communities.

The local priest in Hi Laung village managed to install a micro-hydro system with the help of the villagers, sourcing the turbine, pipe and other components in Mandalay. Such effort is impressive and I am glad to say that it is not unique in this country – Myanmar people often independently build solutions with limited knowledge and no external inputs, executing trial and error approach. The system in Hi Laung village is now providing power for the school and church compound. In the evening, we could hear children chanting and memorising their school texts. Before having this electricity, they simply went to bed when the night fell. The priest would like to extend the distribution system to the whole village but the river is too small to cover such electricity demand and the villagers have limited finances to pay for the setup and monthly tariffs, as their income is highly dependent on agricultural crop and that’s honestly not much. The desire to have reliable electricity is obvious. The priest immediately offered church land when I was talking about a general opportunity of installing solar mini-grid providing power to the local community.

Local challenges

The priest would like to extend the distribution system to the whole village but the river is too small to cover such electricity demand and the villagers have limited finances to pay for the setup and monthly tariffs, as their income is highly dependent on agricultural crop and that’s honestly not much. The desire to have reliable electricity is obvious though. The priest immediately offered church land when I was talking about a general opportunity of installing solar mini-grid providing power to the local community.

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While the Myanmar government and development actors are investing significant funds in the supply side of Myanmar’s energy infrastructure, it will take many years for the national grid to reach these remote communities and if so, households will not be able to connect in a cost-effective way. The total expense for a household to connect in the far-away areas is estimated to climb up to 1200 USD, according to the Myanmar NEP Geospatial Plan. Communities and individuals are ready to deploy in energy solutions now but lack the technical knowledge, access to efficient market solutions and, primarily, immediate financial means. Approaches addressing these challenges need to be developed to facilitate clean energy access for these lovely people.

Chin woman proudly owns a d.light lantern now
Chin woman proudly owns a d.light lantern now

Sun as the solution

Solar power is known and understood in the communities as being a cheap energy source – even free as people rarely consider costs of battery and cables as part of the solar system. Some houses are lit by low-quality solar flashlights and light bulbs connected to battery packs that had been charged by small rooftop solar panels during the day. People can buy those at bigger town markets and assemble themselves. However, no charge controller is included nor proper cable and battery sizing is ever done and these systems are thus not very efficient and often fail. The local awareness about the benefits of solar was clear when I was giving away those simple d.lights and didn’t need to explain the details how the lanterns work. Locals were nodding happily and smiled at my efforts to explain in broken Burmese how the sun will charge the light.

Local shop selling solar panels
Local shop selling solar panels

Giving light is just the beginning

There is a huge opportunity to serve these local rural customers with higher quality renewable energy solutions as well as with capacity building approaches. I was overwhelmed by the gratefulness of people when I gave them my little lanterns. Such a small gesture that cost 6000 Kyat (less than 5 USD) can make a huge impact on these people’s lives. I’ve already experienced people in remote Himalayan monastery switching on lights and electricity for the first time in their lives. And giving away light in Chin villages brought that ‘Oh, that’s awesome…!’ feeling back. It was maybe even more personal and impactful. And it’s so easy! Such precious moments assure me that even though I have no idea what direction my life will take in the next months, I have done my something to make someone’s life a bit better.

This house now has a little solar lantern to brighter the night
This house now has a little solar lantern to brighter the night

More than 70% of Myanmar population is not connected, so the potential scale for market development is substantial. Overcoming the financing, technology as well as policy bottlenecks by close government-donor-civil society collaboration and informed decisions making reflecting the needs of the local communities will be key for accelerating the rural energy access in Myanmar.

If you wish to explore how you can contribute as an individual to lighting Myanmar, leave a comment below and spread the word by sharing this post.

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