Friday, February 18, 2011

Off-Grid Lighting Project in the Niger Delta -- from the field

The Niger Delta is an intense place. We had a short but busy trip to Bayelsa State, where we met with a new local partner, Niger Delta Wetlands Center (NDWC).  NDWC is a long-running local NGO that works on environmental conservation and community development projects in the area. They’re well-managed, and with successful projects under their belt, they have street cred, which seems to be rare in the delta.

The objectives of the trip were to meet with NDWC and other project partners, and be introduced to a community they are working in, called Aduku. The other partners represented were VDI Group and International Institute for Environment and Development, both of whom have long experience in Nigeria.

The format of the visit was an inclusive, 4-day workshop that was attended by all the project partners as well as members of Aduku and other local communities. Miriam, the head of NDWC, organized a great group and the whole proceeding was very participatory in nature—the community members and NGO representatives took turns presenting and discussing various issues around energy, lighting, water, and social development in the community.

Kurt Kornbluth, Director of D-Lab, gave a few different presentations, talking about the D-Lab approach and how we assess project feasibility through the “4 lenses of sustainability.” We also did some hands-on workshops with the groups, walking them through a basic lighting/electricity lab where they learned how to calculate loads, read generators, etc. and also an off-grid lighting demonstration, where we showed different solar lantern products and discussed the various features and costs of each design. We learned a lot about the challenges of working in the delta, and the huge number of (usually nontechnical) barriers NDWC faces in its projects. We trained NDWC staff on some of the concepts of focus groups, and then let them practice running focus groups around the lighting products. Good fun, and lots of mutual learning.

The community Aduku was interesting in a few ways. Situated far from the electricity grid and alongside a creek near the River Forcados, the whole village is strung along the waterway in a thin row of houses. Almost all houses are stick and mud with corrugated metal roofs. Most residents are subsistence farmers and fishermen, with some timber and gari (cassava meal) processing as well. One unexpected finding was that a large number of households own and run small (<1kW) generators, which they use to power TVs, fans, fridges, and lights. Even though fuel is subsidized and costs only US$0.50/liter at the pump, some of these households end up paying more than N2000/week in fuel, or about US$13.   

Obviously these households are not in the lowest income group, but the amount spent on fuel and generators was still surprising if you compare it to someplace like Zambia. Of course, culture is a big driver, and apparently there are some strong social status implications with owning and running a generator—witness the colloquial name for these small generators: “Pass My Neighbor.” So you can imagine that in an area where a fossil-fuel based generator is a primary symbol of a household’s movement up the socioeconomic ladder, there will be some challenges introducing a solar-powered alternative.

Bryan Pon, D-Lab Graduate Student Researcher, PhD Candidate, Geography


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