The productive uses of energy, an integral propose for development

Escrito por: Walter Vásquez (periodista independiente para Practical Action)

Leaving no one behind in the race for development is an ambitious goal that cannot be achieved unless other goals are moved forward. One of these goals is equal access to energy, which is also a right recognized as a governmental competence of several governments and that must reach everyone, regardless of their social status, gender, income level, ethnicity, age or geographic location.

“Energy is the central nucleus of the whole society,” emphasizes Víctor Yapu, country representative of Practical Action in Bolivia, one of the main promoters of energy democratization in the country.

Organizations, companies of all sizes, cooperatives, communities, enterprises and other productive units use alternative and modern energies in their production processes, transformation, conservation and commercialization of products of all kinds. These are the models that should be promoted to integrate energy access not only for lighting and other social uses, but also in productive uses in the agricultural sector, aimed at diversifying and promoting, not only local economic development products, but also food security.

Energy increases productivity; it increases the income of rural populations –generally the most vulnerable – creating permanent work sources. It increases access to health and education services. It has the potential to reduce gender gaps and reduce environmental pollution, and it allows working together for the common good.

Combined with increasingly modern technologies, it also allows communities to produce more by using less resources, time and effort, as it improves the quality of goods and services. It enhances market access and income generation; and it increases the self-esteem and confidence of the producers, which, in an indirect manner, may increase the leadership of women in rural, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as in livestock and farmer organizations and agricultural cooperatives, allowing them to gain a foothold in the public productive sphere.

The leap of faith towards new integration models

Universal energy access is the seventh Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and 10 years after reaching the deadline to achieve that milestone, the goal seems still distant. There is progress, but it seems small compared to the scale of the challenge.

In recent years, some progress has been made towards achieving this sustainable development goal though outstanding barriers for energy to reach everyone remain, and this year have increased due to the economic debacle caused by the Coronavirus pandemic that has pushed millions of people towards poverty and has caused a 10-year setback in the fight against poverty around the world.

«How many people (even before the pandemic) that had started cooking with gas have gone back to cooking with firewood today?» wonders Dora Camargo, legal representative of the national technology provider Sentir.

One positive prospect, in the midst of the many concerns, is that there is not only a large market for this type of development and for the combination of technologies, but new integration models can be applied in the sector, and its occurrence has been expedited due to the global confinement caused by Coronavirus.

Miguel Fernández, Executive Director of Energética, highlighted the tremendous field available to renewable energies in the –labor intensive– Bolivian agricultural chain, in which the alternative is already being applied to silos, grain dryers and greenhouses.

Power derived mainly from the sun is essential to ensure that the increase in agricultural productivity is not based on agricultural frontier expansion and deforestation, but rather on increased efficiency in the use of resources, he comments:

«There is a very large arena to conquest regarding these issues and the challenge is very interesting, but we must find institutional and financial mechanisms that support the relationship between supply and demand.»

Moving towards the future

The use of energy in production complexes not only allows diversification, the generation of added value and the birth of new ventures, but also the emergence of innovative equipment, planting, harvesting, roasting, pulping, packaging and venting.

Solar ovens installed by Practical Action and Inti Illimani in communities of the Bolivian Amazon, for example, do not only promote productive diversification through the obtainment of cooked or dehydrated food, both during the dry season or in the rainy season floods. This technology also enriches the nutrition of families, by allowing a greater variety of food; it helps to reduce the collection and use of firewood, which in turn improves the quality of life of the people –especially women– who are engaged in this activity. It helps to improve health, through less exposure to smoke; it reduces the effects of global warming by requiring less firewood and causing less deforestation, and it reduces the workload on women, contributing to a universal model of clean cooking. Like this case, there are many others that show that these systems generate well-being for these families.

“A carpenter sold off his furniture for practically nothing because they were damp and would easily bend. Now that they are dry, he can charge a fair price”, says the technical manager of Ecoenergía Falk, Reinhard Mayer, regarding the impact of their variety of solar dryers in rural areas, used for wood, fruits, coffee, potatoes, cocoa, peanuts, nuts, coca, quinoa and other grains, in addition to their customized post-sales support.

Practical Action has tested how the use of a photovoltaic system for pumping water has allowed the Sumaj Qmaña producers association in Huatapampa, a community near Lake Titicaca, to access technical aspersion and drip irrigation systems to increase production performance by nearly 300%; this is also seen in the number of production cycles per year.

Among other systems that emerge from this flourishing market, is the photovoltaic method. This includes water supply pumping and irrigation, lighting in homes, meat and banana-flour drying, and the cooling of milk and fish, in addition to its application to mills, troughs and fences for camelid livestock as well as to the genetic improvement of animals, and others processes.

Another benefit that developed from these processes, in the long term, is the economic and financial sustainability of companies that carry out rural electrification projects and of those that provide different technologies with modern energy methods for productive use.

The alternative-energy business, therefore, looks promising in the long term, even more if it focuses on reducing the carbon footprint and strengthening the self-sufficiency of sectors such as artisanal fishing.

An outstanding example of the incursion of youths in this sector, with great potential, is the Groon team, conformed by of Angie Redondo and Jorge Polo.

Their project benefits the community of Bojayá, a Colombian marginal town located on the Pacific coast and whose economy depends on fishing and agriculture, though it loses 22% of its fish production due to insufficient electrical refrigeration.

Groon’s award-winning sustainable business model is supported by solar and biomass energy technologies that allow the cold chain to be maintained and through which local products may be stored and its distribution improved. This model additionally contributes to the use of traditional fishing techniques, the application of fishing quotas that do not compromise the future supply of fish, the recycling of waste as biofuel, the installation of solar-powered refrigeration and the development of local supply chains.

Benefits: the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the preservation of traditions in local activities and the improvement of income for fishers.

And funding is essential to all these energy projects and new technologies.

Real BeniPractical Action, on a smaller scale, has installed a photovoltaic cooling system in Real Beni (indigenous community), located on the banks of the Beni River, benefiting the productive vocation of the community, reducing the loss of fish due to exposure to high temperatures of this area. An association was formed by women who provide a meat conservation service to the community and that have also diversified their provision by selling ice cream, soft drinks and other products, generating sustainability of the endeavor as well as resources for the maintenance and operation of the system.

Funding to mitigate global warming 

«Hopefully the financial sector will offer lower rates so that producers may access all this equipment,» underlines Mariana Butrón, coordinator of the international program Energizing Development (EnDev) of the German Cooperation (GIZ) in the country, who identifies some pioneering funding agencies in the sector of efficient technologies and renewable energies in Bolivia: FIE, Prodem and the BDP.

«We need everyone to get involved because the credit products than can make these technologies actually reach the producers are in their hands» says Mariana Butrón. Of their nationwide investment, 60% is related to production activities, and from which energy access and modern technology has improved governance for equipment management and productivity by 43% .

Paola Velasco, manager of technical assistance and productive innovation of the Banco de Desarrollo Productivo (Productive Development Bank – BDP) announced that this financial institution of the state designs two «green» products to support the advancement of these sectors.

BDP Energy Efficiency is aimed at companies that apply and produce solutions for technological adaptation and incorporation of energy efficiency as well as the use of renewable energy. It includes the diagnosis of the activity and its consumption, energy alternatives and equipment through coordination with suppliers, cost and savings evaluations, and making payment and time proposals.

BDP Producción Más Limpia (Cleaner Production) will help minimize waste and harmful emissions to the environment in the transformation and manufacturing companies of the country, while maintaining or improving their productivity.

“We have been thinking about these products” –explains Velasco– “precisely in order to be accredited in the Green Climate Fund” of United Nations resources for adaptation to climate change and mitigation of its effects.

Both loan products will be launched «at best during the first quarter of 2021», while the accreditation application will be presented within the first half of this year.

With resources from the Green Climate Fund, the BDP plans to reduce the carbon, water and ecological footprints of its clients, promote a cleaner production ecosystem in the country and generate credit technology for green financial products. «Once we work within the global agenda against global warming, we can access climate funding from several international organizations or banks,» says Velasco.

Rights are for everyone

Energy and modern technologies are also transformed into a powerful tool to attack persistent gender inequality, for it gives them more time “not only for their activities at home, but others related to their productive environment, and therefore are both participating in public spaces, and also may have time for highly deserved rest, with even triple work shifts in which they are engaged, depending on their exposure to greater stereotypes due to gender roles, race, class or other vulnerable situations», says Mónica Cuba, head of gender-based issues for Practical Action.

“Participation of women in the energy sector has been gradually increasing in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. Progress is slow.” says María Elena Ferrel, general manager of Ecoenergía Falk.

Not only labor legislation and the reproductive burden endured by women make their participation in the energy sector more difficult, in rural areas customs help assume that the man should be the leader of any task, and government programs carried out in the sector «define men as their counterparts,» although women are the ones who participate most in productive projects and are in charge of paying their credits, comments Ferrel.

«The main limitations» for greater female participation in the renewable energy market «are gender prejudices and stereotypes, such as the idea that cooking and feeding are women’s things.» comments Magda Catorceno, general coordinator of Inti Illimani, an institution that has aided the communities with solar ovens to help gain time and financial independence.

This non-profit association demonstrated with its business model that they are not only capable of merchandising these devices, but also building and maintaining this clean technology for up to 10 years.

To achieve these results, Inti Illimani had to adapt its training workshops’ schedules, so that the women can take part, once they have finished with housework related to cooking in particular and care-giving in general.

All these experiences also allow women to empower themselves and to begin to enter and take part in training and negotiation spaces where previously only men debated. The sector, meanwhile, is enriched by their presence because they are generally the ones who take care of the sustainability of the endeavors.

Access to modern technologies and energy, such as cereal mills, spinning machines and electric pumps, will also improve the quality of life of women and revalue it in the family, the community and their environment, according to EnDev. “Now things are changing” says Catorceno.

A farmer, Martha Helguero, for example, stopped washing carrots with her feet, a job she did from six in the morning to four in the afternoon, twice a week in the river, with great physical effort , and in the midst of cold, humidity and risk of diseases such as rheumatism. Now, since the association Ceproagro, with the support of EnDev, bought a vegetable washing machine, she must only make sure that the machine is functioning properly and she can now wash 20 loads in two hours and not 10 loads in 10 hours, by using her feet.

«I have already grown more carrots and in the hours I have left, I do another three or four things, choose potatoes, prepare onions.» says the producer, who can now also spend more hours with her small son, who no longer has to help her with washing vegetables.

Access to modern technology today allows Martha to have dreams in the short, medium and long term.

In this context, Butrón states that in Bolivia the main obstacles to overcome still in the sector are the limited possibilities of access to modern energy for productive use in rural areas -an important factor to move forward in value chains and access to markets- and the greater participation of women in access to technology, as well as training and empowerment to participate in a market that is just now being organized.

Finally, the inclusion of the gender-based variable is a challenge in which many of the sector’s actors are involved and that now not only considers the basic needs of women (access to water, electricity, food), but also strategic ones (information, training, participation, reduction of gender violence, etc.), as is the case of Practical Action and other institutions with greater specificity on the subject.

How can energy move further transformation ahead?

Expanding energy access is a major challenge that requires large growth in investment, innovative business models, changes in policy models, institutional capability, increased awareness, better technical solutions that may be applied locally and other elements that are identified by other actors in the sector.

Shirley Pazos, leader of Practical Action’s agriculture program, highlighted two challenges: the need for technological innovation to be user-centered and adapted to the conditions and contexts of small producers, and the incorporation of young people in all local development processes, especially in the research applied to the needs of urban and rural areas and adapted to the reality of each country.

For María Elena Ferrel, from Ecoenergía Falk, the first challenge is to increase the participation of young women in the use of renewable technologies and secondly, to increase the presence of women in the sector. The development of policies for the inclusion of this segment in the energy market may also be added to these challenges.

Rafael Escobar, general manager of the Peruvian NGO Energía, Ambiente y Sostenibilidad considers that the involvement of producers, from the beginning of these processes, is key if they are to be maintained over time. To accomplish this, it is essential to be honest with what is offered to them, to use the available resources to the best of their ability and to organize themselves respecting community parameters.

“It is important to work on building relationships with customers and gradually incorporating their suggestions for improving technologies and satisfaction in their experiences”, adds Mayer, who also mentions that over the years the demand in rural areas has increased from simple technological products to increasingly complex solutions.

Escobar also shares other lessons learned in the various years of work with Practical Action in Peru and Bolivia on the subject. It is key to identify the target population, because not everyone may be given the same information or the same subsidies; to establish and prioritize the productive potential, for there are some groups with better competitive advantages than others; to respond to the most relevant electricity demands; to maintain communications with all the stakeholders; to ensure institutional sustainability, establishing alliances; and to establish lifelong learning, relying on feedback.

On the other hand, in order to be successful and contribute to development, energy access programs must explicitly have a direct impact on livelihoods and income generation. «I have always said, a technology will be successful if it allows the farmer, the producer, to have more money in his pocket»  according to his experience.

Likewise, Butrón also sees the need for greater participation by women in these processes. There is a need for support of the different levels of government to renewable energies public policies, so that these technologies enter the field effectively, as well as the involvement of the financial system in the development of efficient technologies and renewable energies in rural areas.

This last issue is crucial, due to the fact that these ecological technologies are not inexpensive, especially for families with limited resources in rural areas, who are the ones who need them most to – in the first phase – cover basic needs, such as access to drinking water through pumps.

Other challenges are to identify, learn and apply experiences to achieve improved development of the sector, and the generation a greater awareness within the markets regarding the urgency of real change in order to face climate change.

Regarding the latter, María Andrea Ortega, manager of Sustainability of International Operations of the Schneider Electric Foundation, assures that agribusiness customers, for example, are demanding traceability of food and that throughout the chain the processes be health and environmental-friendly.

For this, the Gala company offers photovoltaic systems for land irrigation, domestic water supply, fish farming, livestock, pools and fountains. If it invests in these solutions, the agribusiness sector in 10 years will generate savings of up to 70%, highlighted Ortega. «Photovoltaic solutions are not just a short-term business, but a business for the future» he states.

Other suppliers also draw their own conclusions.

“You cannot have a single standard solution. Each product and each region have its qualities to which one must adapt”, points out Mayer, who also emphasizes that “the technique must adapt to the people and not the people to the technique ”.

In Peru, «we have realized that beyond the technological gap regarding access, there is a gap in the information that not only end users have but also sometimes policy makers do as well» notes Rafael Escobar, the general manager of the NGO Energía, Ambiente y Sostenibilidad, who also believes that «it is time to (apply) multisectoral approaches».

Renewable energy technology suppliers such as Enersol, Inti Illimani and EcoEnergía Falk also see road infrastructure, needed to transport technology to remote and inaccessible areas, as a limitation in the development of rural markets. Other limitations are the lack of incentives for the acquisition and use of renewable energies, political instability in the country -causing blockades and strikes, entrenched and traditional agricultural processes -that slow down technological advancement due to mistrust and ignorance, the high cost of these technologies, even with access to credit, and the fact that many of the members of the associations have worked with international cooperation or with the government, which has accustomed them to receive support for equipment acquisition, thereby expecting private companies will also grant them the technology at low prices.

At the municipal level, decision-making is very extensive and slow, which is inconsistent with the immediate needs of users and with the working times of companies.

The actors emphasized the need for: integral public policies that benefit productive, social and environmental development and gender equity; the evolution and adaptation of the sector’s programs, projects and products and their association with the SDGs; the approval of adequate institutional frameworks, in accordance with the local actuality; the identification of productive opportunities that allow local social and economic development and the recognition of sustainability mechanisms for these projects and the community; and the promotion of propositional debate regarding these resources.

Meanwhile, to face the negative effects of the pandemic, suppliers have already jumped on the technological wave and included virtual forums and fairs, a new social media strategy and a modern approach to traditional media in their business models, such as radio, in addition to the involvement of new services.

Recommendations for better energy development

Several recommendations also emerge to support productive uses of energy.

Miguel Fernández, executive director of Energética, considers that consensual action between the State, international cooperation and the private sector is necessary. The State will promote development and funding, international cooperation could provide multi-level technical assistance and some resources, and the private sector will have to provide an active supply of quality goods and services.

“I think that in our countries there are many laws, there are tons of laws. In our general frameworks it is said that the productive use of renewable energy must be promoted, but we do not know how; we need to have (that information) with more specificity ”, considers the General Manager of the NGO Energía, Ambiente y Sostenibilidad.

The need to articulate and interrelate the different regulations from the different sectors as support to guide the planning priorities from the local to the national level, that they may use energy services not only for supply, but also for productive and social purposes, at home, in productive spaces, in the community, etc.

“The positive impact of productive technologies is not achieved automatically nor is it guaranteed through access, social adoption or even replication alone. The most important thing for its sustainability in associative contexts is good governance, that is, clear procedures and rules that ensure social and economic mechanisms to regulate the use, maintenance and replacing of these technologies”, explains Butrón.

This implies having trained men and women leaders as well as the active participation of the members in the decisions of the organization and in the social control of machines and equipment, said an expert from EnDev, a program that is already running for its fourteenth year in Bolivia and that is enriched with education based on the exchange of experiences with productive associations, micro and small enterprises (MSEs) and Rural Economic Organizations .

For Fernández, additionally, «there is no obvious relationship between supply and demand in the renewable energy market, consequently the link between the two is «the project.»

Nowadays, a high initial investment is required by these technologies due to technical assistance and their monitoring, and this is why subsidy offered by projects carried out by public and private institutions is indispensable, which in some way distorts the real costs encountered by companies that supply these technologies and this causes the market to not work efficiently.

It is precisely in this framework that the study “Poor People’s Energy Outlook” (PPEO), carried out since 2010 by Practical Action, includes as key points: the need to expand off-grid renewable energy solutions, with approaches to supply and demand that include and empower women and that are based on public policies as well as public and private funding that meet small-scale needs.

Experience enrichment

All the interventions were carried out within the framework of the cycle of virtual seminars on «Productive uses, gender and energy», from this past August 25th  through September 3rd , held by the EnDev Bolivia project of the German Cooperation together with its national partners the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and Practical Action.

The goal of this series of three events[1] was to share experiences, learning from accomplishments and missteps, research, successful cases, solutions, difficulties and challenges related to the access and use of modern and inclusive energies for the rural area, agriculture and other small and medium-scale productive sectors of Bolivia and Latin America, as well as proposals that may be discussed and considered within development programs and projects of the public and private sectors.

“We were creating poor people with energy, just for lighting (…) That is why we have expanded coverage, but I don’t know if we have reduced poverty,” admits, for example, the General Manager of the NGO Energía.

The result of the series of workshops was a integral framework with the intent that sector actors may work with a more inclusive approach regarding energy access that takes planning, funding and supply into account.

Covering “the last mile” to achieve the seventh SDG will not be easy, although more and more actors are committed to bringing energy to people excluded from the system through approaches that are different than customary ones (PPEO, 2019).

The seminars were «very timely for this context of Covid-19 and what it will leave in terms of reactivation» comments Víctor Yapu, who considers that the advancement of rural development together with the incorporation of essential services is responsibility of all the actors involved in the energy sector: producers, suppliers, funders, different levels of government and universities.

[1] Sesión 1

Sesión 2

Sesión 3