x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Lighting up lives in Bangladesh

As the Zayed Future Energy Prize 2009 opens for entries, last year's winner talks about his mission to spread solar energy across a poor country.

Kulsum Akhter, 18, one of Grameen Shakti's 'green entrepreneurs' says life has changed for her whole family and now she can afford to put her younger brother through school.
Kulsum Akhter, 18, one of Grameen Shakti's 'green entrepreneurs' says life has changed for her whole family and now she can afford to put her younger brother through school.

Kulsum Akhter was eight years old when her father died and left her family struggling to survive in Tangail, an agricultural area in the central region of Bangladesh.

She was the family's sole money-earner, and the 600 taka (Dh32) a month she made from tailoring work did not go far. "My father died so we had a lot of misery in the family," said Miss Akhter, now 18. "We were living in a very poor condition and couldn't meet daily requirements for food and clothing." Miss Akhter's luck changed earlier this year when she was selected for a training programme at Grameen Shakti, a company set up in 1996 to bring renewable energy to rural communities. She now works as a solar technician, making component parts from her home.

One of the top performers on her training course at one of the company's centres, she was awarded a scholarship to set up her own business making parts for solar energy systems. The opportunity has transformed her life and she now earns 7,000 taka (Dh373) a month, more than 10 times her previous salary. "Now I'm now feeling so much happiness," she said. "There's been a huge impact on the family. My brother is 14 and now I'm taking care of my brother's education. He will be educated and it will be good for the family."

Dipal Chandra Barua, the founder and managing director of Grameen Shakti and formerly a director at the Nobel Prize-winning Grameen Bank, which provided micro-financing to impoverished Bangladeshis, set up the scholarship scheme after winning the US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) Zayed Future Energy Prize in January, becoming the first recipient of the award. His aim is to bring solar energy to millions in rural communities of Bangladesh who still live without electricity, and along the way give thousands of women the chance to lift themselves out of poverty.

Grameen Shakti runs 45 training centres across the country, where it has trained thousands of women to make solar parts and teach the customers that buy them how to use them. Previously, women had to travel to the training centres to work. Now, the scholarship fund from the Zayed Future Energy Prize money allows them the freedom to set up their own businesses. "Now they get scholarships and they can start the businesses in their own homes, they are independent, this is the added advantage," Mr Barua said.

"We are recruiting women from the rural areas, they are high school dropouts, they are unemployed with nothing to do. They are very poor, but they have an eagerness to do their best and change their life." Eleven women, chosen from the best performers on the company's training schemes, have received scholarships so far, and that number will rise to more than 100 by the end of the year. "It's a kind of performance-based reward system," said Mr Barua. "They know now that if they get the training and if they perform well on the training there's a scholarship waiting, and then they have a job."

Only 40 per cent of Bangladesh's 150 million people have electricity. The Grameen Shakti company has already installed 240,000 home solar panels, bringing light and electricity to more than two million people. That is just the beginning; Mr Barua hopes to install solar energy for 75 million people in the next seven to 10 years. Though training schemes were already in place, the scholarship fund allows the women to set out on their own and Mr Barua now hopes to train 100,000 independent, green entrepreneurs by 2015.

"I'm very happy to have received the award and very happy to be able to transfer this money gradually to 100,000 entrepreneurs in Bangladesh," he said. "We are protecting the environment, protecting the planet. At the same time people in rural areas are getting light and electricity and it's also alleviating poverty and creating an income for these women." Ripa Chakma, 23, is another of the 11 women who have received scholarships. Mrs Chakma, from the Chittagong Hill tracts in south-eastern Bangladesh, said it has given her independence.

"I'm earning now, I don't have to rely on my husband to give me money, I have my own income. Before if I wanted to buy something I had to ask my husband and my husband didn't always give me money to buy small things. Now I can fulfil my son's dreams and mine also, I don't need to request anything from my husband." Mrs Chakma is also training two young girls as apprentices, and said she hopes they would also be able to become self-reliant.

Though the panels and batteries for the solar energy systems must be imported, the women can make regulators and converters, and will be trained to install and maintain the solar panels for customers. "Before I was almost unemployed, only doing a little tailoring, earning only 500 taka month," said Mrs Chakma. "Now I'm getting a lot of respect, my husband respects me, the community respects me." Another scholarship recipient, Khadiza Akther, 30, from Potuakhali in south-west Bangladesh, said the money she now made meant her family household income had been tripled and she had been able to enrol her two sons in a better school.

"Before the scholarship the family depended only on my husband's income. Life was very hard," she said. "Now I'm so happy because I can earn good money and help to put money for my sons' education." The scholarships and solar project not only changes the lives of the women and their families. It has brought light and power to thousands of villages. "Everybody's happy with the solar energy, we have light and we are not in dark," Mrs Akther said. She said that communities would rather have solar power than electricity from the national grid, because there are no bills.

"Before we couldn't watch television or have news. Now we can watch TV and have news, we are getting modern information. "Solar energy has helped us to know more about the country's situation and the international situation, we can see news from the whole world." lmorris@thenational.ae