You may have read previous articles in The Institute about IEEE Smart Village, an initiative to train local entrepreneurs in developing regions to start up their own micro-utility companies. But perhaps you haven’t fully grasped the scale of the mission we have chosen and its challenges. Let me fill you in.
Let’s begin with a sobering fact: 1.3 billion people—nearly 20 percent of the world’s population—live without access to electricity. In the developed world, even a short power outage can be a real inconvenience, and a long one a disaster. These moments are small reminders of how constrained our lives would be if we too lived without any access to electricity.
A village without electricity lacks the basic foundation for a sustainable economy. No lights mean that businesses have to close earlier, communication with the outside world is minimal at best, and irrigation suffers due to outdated equipment. Many of the people’s aspirations in these villages are simply to survive because they are especially vulnerable in times of drought, famine, and war.
Those who try to help typically apply bandages to these emergencies rather than create long-term solutions to address these systemic conditions. Many governments and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, provide top-down approaches that are often unsustainable. They too often create a dependency on handouts that keep communities poor.
IEEE Smart Village is taking a different tack in fostering sustainable economic development in communities without access to electricity. Here’s how.
First, we are focused on listening to these communities to understand their strengths, needs, and aspirations, and work with them to shape their futures. We then identify local entrepreneurs who can generate and distribute renewable energy, mainly in the forms of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, battery storage, and small-scale AC and DC microgrids to create a sustainable business to serve their villages. Access to these energy resources is more affordable than alternatives, such as candles and kerosene, which can be harmful to health. IEEE Smart Village is creating and adopting universal, open-source technologies that can be assembled within each country we are in, which means lower costs and maximum job creation for locals.
These local entrepreneurs become global partners with IEEE Smart Village. Entrepreneurs must first demonstrate sustainability through a jointly designed pilot program, and then on their own find grants and investment financing for growth after the initial funding provided by the IEEE Foundation. Because the need is so great, each entrepreneur pledges to provide access to electricity for at least one million people in the first five years after a successful pilot program, which runs from one to two years.
During the pilot, the entrepreneurs work to provide electricity and Internet connection to schools and learning centers. It is the wisdom of several Nobel Laureate scholars that without an education that empowers people, all sustainable community development programs will ultimately fail.
The IEEE Global Classroom, co-developed with Regis University and located at the Posner Center for International Development, in Denver, serves as a physical space for online interactive educational tools that enable the entrepreneurs to obtain a world-class education in the business of sustainable development. Entrepreneurs can share their lessons learned with other entrepreneurs through an online forum. There are also resources available for grade school teachers to prepare lesson plans on critical thinking and how to improve and develop communities.
Success depends on how well we’ve listened, collaborated with, and learned from these communities. They must see the advantages for themselves and put their own efforts into making a local and sustainable energy-based business a success. We in IEEE Smart Village cannot simply parachute in with our own notion of “solutions,” drop off equipment without local buy-in, and move on. Too many other programs have taken that route and it is a recipe for guaranteed failure.
Several of our successes include micro-utilities set up in Cameroon, Haiti, Nigeria, and South Sudan. New partnerships have formed in the Indian Himalayan region, Kenya, Namibia, and Zambia. For 2016, we have potentially 10 new partnerships with entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Malawi, Papua New Guinea, and Uganda.
IEEE Member Ifeanyi Orajaka, an entrepreneur who has been our partner in Nigeria since 2012, recently received funding for a single-digit interest, long-term loan from a local bank to help build solar-powered microgrids for local communities. His venture, Green Village Electricity Enterprise, is already providing electricity to 200 homes. His goal is to provide power to 200,000 homes next and reach one million people within five years.
We have also formalized a relationship with IEEE Member Paras Loomba, founder of Global Himalayan Expedition, which is building DC-powered microgrid systems for LED-based lighting and recharging devices for families in Rumbak Valley of Ladakh, in North India.
We also work with IEEE member entrepreneurs running KiloWatts for Humanity, in Filibaba, Zambia, in partnership with LiChi’s Community Solutions, a Zambian nonprofit, to install energy kiosks for charging batteries and providing home and small business lighting. Until this year, villagers had to travel 23 kilometers to charge phones and other electronic devices.
A PERSONAL MISSION
For me, IEEE Smart Village has become the biggest opportunity in my life to make a difference in the world. In fact, it’s a privilege.
If every IEEE member donated just US $5 every year, we’d meet our $2 million annual giving campaign goal. We also need volunteers to help entrepreneurs with technical and managerial issues in all phases such as Initial surveys, technical and business planning, in-country manufacturing, and community-based education. If you are able to volunteer, we will find you a job.
Caveat: IEEE Smart Village has an audacious goal for the next decade and needs audacious people to make it happen. If this sounds like you, please consider joining our effort in what I believe can be the adventure—and challenge—of a lifetime.