Renewable Natural Resources Management: Photovoltaic Energy and Rural East African Women

Written by  William A.Twayigize


This research paper looked at the role of Solar Renewable energy or “photovoltaic energy” in promoting and enhancing communal coexistence among indigenous people living in rural remote areas of East Africa region. In broader terms this research examined the “Photovoltaic Energy” initiative formed and run by rural women group in Western Kenya (Murphy, J. T. (2001). This project is supported by two local not for profit organizations: the Green Forest Social Investment Fund (GFSIF) and the OSIENALA project, which implemented the project in Gwassi division, Suba district in Western Kenya (Karekezi, S., & Kithyoma, W. 2002; Dankelman, I., & Davidson, J. (2013).

The paper analyzes the impact of the Gwassi Solar project on the community coexistence among indigenous community members and development in rural Gwassi division (Achola, S. O. (2009). The research focuses on two locations of Achung’ Kenda village and Got Liech village in Gwassi region. The Solar project has a lot activities going on in these two villages. In addition, the main brain of the solar project in Gwassi village are the three women engineers who went to study electrical engineering at the Barefoot College in India. After their studies, these women returned back to their rural homes to teach other women on how to make and manage Solar Energy in their communities (Scheffler, W., Bruecke, S., & von Werdenbergstr, G. 2006; Grimshaw, D. J., & Lewis, S. 2010; Bimesdoerfer, K., & Kantz, C. 2011).

Research Location

The researcher also chose the Gwassi community because of its environmental problems such as erosion, degradation, massive deforestation, illegal logging, rapid charcoal burning, and firewood collection. The Gwassi community also is diverse in its nature (Grimshaw, D. J. 2010). It has several subgroups of people who identify themselves within different ethnic background mainly: Luo, Kipsigis, Kisii, Kalenjin, Kuria, Luhya, and some other Kenyan communities as well (Sunderland, E., & Rosa, P. (1976). This contributes to the richness of this paper and helps the reader understand how the Renewable Technology such as solar energy technology can promote community coexistence among ethnically diverse society in Africa (van der Plas, R. J., & Hankins, M. (1998).We also analyzes the interaction between the Gwassi Village Solar Committee (GVSC) and the  Green Forest Social Investment Limited (GFSIL), which oversees the funding supported by the Dutch foundation Stichting Het Groene Woudt (DFSGW) and from Netherland, Child international, and the Global Nature (Munyao, C. M., Muisu, F., Mbego, J., Mburu, F., & Sirmah, P. (2013).

The main objectives of this study were to understand how new technology aid can contribute to promoting peaceful coexistence among members of various traditional communities through shared economic and social benefits and also as an alternative conflict intervention in areas where communities are involved in ethnic conflicts (Kaimba, G. K., Njehia, B. K., & Guliye, A. Y. (2011). The paper also discusses the rural energy consumption in Suba district of Western Kenya in order to help the reader understand the socioeconomic impact of the solar energy in rural communities such as Gwassi community and how it improves not only their economic activities but also their social activities (Karekezi, S., & Kithyoma, W. 2002; Rabah, K. V. 2005; Jacobson, A. 2007).

Socioeconomic Benefits for Photovoltaic Energy

The study also looks at the socioeconomic consequences that lack of affordable electricity causes to the rural dwellers, especially women and children and its impacts on community coexistence. The study also found out that lack of the affordable energy leads to massive deforestation, less economic investment in the area, and causes health problems due to the use of firewood, which fills the African traditional huts with few spaces for aeration leading to causing carbon monoxide poisoning. This can lead to lung cancer or respiratory infections (Bruce, N., Perez-Padilla, R., & Albalak, R. (2000; Bruce, N., Perez-Padilla, R., & Albalak, R. 2002). All the above problems might lead to social friction due to poor economy and competition over few resources. Eventually, if not prevented poverty caused by lack of access to electricity such as Photovoltaic energy, which is environmental friendly and renewable (Martinot, E., Chaurey, A., Lew, D., Moreira, J. R., & Wamukonya, N. (2002).

Our study found that lack of electricity in Gwassi community continues causing socioeconomic constraints and environmental problems such as less investment, slow economic growth, and massive deforestation (Chazdon, R. L. (2008). These problems make people spending most of their time running after life to find something to make their lives better and put food on the table for their families but taking away the most appreciated cultural value of social life such as family gatherings. We also found that by introducing green energy to the rural communities of Gwassi village has helped the communities improve their living conditions (Moebius-Clune, B., Van Es, H., Idowu, O., Schindelbeck, R., Kimetu, J., Ngoze, S. Kinyangi, and J. 2011). For example, since the introduction of photovoltaic energy in the region, a Community Pharmacy in the trading centre of Suba has started using Photovoltaic energy to refrigerate their medications such as injections for their patients. This has reduced the cost that the pharmacy used to incur because of the frequent lack of electricity. Now they have a reliable and cheap energy for their business (Wentzel, M., & Pouris, A. 2007). This has improved the level of healthcare services that the pharmacy provide within the community (Wei, M., Patadia, S., & Kammen, D. M. 2010).

The study also analysed the Photovoltaic project as not only a development intervention but also as a peacebuilding and conflict prevention intervention. We found that the project can be expanded to communities that fight over limited water resources such as Marsabit and Turkana in Kenya and Munduli in Arusha, Tanznaia so that pastoralists who live in these regions with their livestock can have access to water for their livestock and also for their domestic use. This would reduce or even prevent many tribal conflicts that we experience in East Africa due to fight over limited water for both domestic and livestock use among communities in these areas.

Research Methods

The study utilized both quantitative and qualitative data collection methods. Quantitative method: this involved collecting data from government local institutions and non-governmental institutions which have been involved in collecting data in the region. This process helped the study collect data on electricity use in the region, number of population in the region and other statistical data that the study needed to make informed conclusion on the issues affecting the people of Suba district, especially those living in Gwassi division.  Qualitative method: due the limited literacy in the region, especially among the women who are the study’s primary target (Hennink, M., Hutter, I., & Bailey, A. 2010). We found it appropriate to focus more on qualitative data collection method to achieve the research objectives. To achieve this more interviews were organized and conducted through organized 11 focus groups. The survey was organized as follows: Each group had 11 respondents and 5 of them were selected from Gwassi Village Solar Committees. Another group of 4 people were selected from OSIELANA, which is an organization that work closely with the Solar Women Projects. The last group of respondents was composed by 3 people who are not affiliated to any project of the above projects. These people came from the neighborhood and not members of OSIELANA project nor of Gwassi Solar Women projects. This was to give our study an independent view from those who are affected indirectly by the project (Liamputtong, P. 2009).

Through extensive desk research by reading different relevant articles, websites, and books, the study found that though there is much written on solar energy in East Africa, there have been very little writing on how renewable energy can become  an instrument for promoting socioeconomic activities in the region, especial focusing on social development such as promoting community coexistence through economic development and improved living conditions of marginalized communities in East Africa such as women and children in Kenya.

Do No Harm Approach

The study also analyzed how the project itself apply the development sensitivity principles of the “Do No Harm Approach” not only to bring economic development but also to be sensitive on both cultural values of the communities and conflict sensitivity of the projects (Wessells, M. G. 2009). This approach was implemented through the participatory development approach that involved the project’s recipients from the start of the project to its completion (Paffenholz, T. 2005).

One of the project biggest impact is that it addresses not only economic discrimination but also gender equality. Around 90% of the people involved in the project activities are women. This provides them with a platform to discuss issues affecting them and participate in looking for a solution to address them. It has promoted gender equality and boosted women’s self-esteem. It also contributed to the household’s income giving women ability to manage their resources and also contribute to the economy of their families (Fennell, S., & Arnot, M. 2007).

Breaking Social Barriers

Although there were no many reported cases of domestic violence caused by the project, our informants said some men were not happy seeing their women leaving the house in the morning and coming back in the evening on daily basis (Aikman, S., & Unterhalter, E. 2005). This created some conflict and domestic abuses in some families’ husbands preventing their wives from participating in the solar project activities. These non-supportive husbands needed more information on the projects to educate them on the benefits of the projects and what their women go to do in those solar workshops so that there is good relationship in the family (Grown, C., Gupta, G. R., & Kes, A. 2005). That is why in this study we recommended that the OSIELANA project and the Gwassi Village Solar Committees carry out a campaign to reach out to men who don’t support their wives when they go to participate in the project and educate them about the program in order to avoid family conflict. This should involve those husband referred to in the project as supportive husbands so that they help to convince their fellow men (Hausmann, R., Tyson, L. D. A., & Zahidi, S. 2008).

Project Impact

The project positive impact on the community is visible, from increased household’s socioeconomic, healthcare, environmental, and coexistence benefits to educational benefits. The program has impacted lives beyond the ordinary. Healthcare: when you walk around Gwassi community you find that many families are willing to give you their testimonies on how the solar energy improved their family health by reducing indoor pollution due to firewood smoke. According to Apidi who is a teacher in one of the schools, “before they used to have many pupils missing classes either ,due to cough or eye infection but now since the introduction of the solar energy into various families in this community, those children who used to have frequent eye infections no longer suffer from the infections. This is a good thing to be proud of.”

The economic benefits are diverse. Families no longer spend a penny buying the unhealthy kerosene paraffin to light up their houses at night. In the community there is a Maize Milling Machine that has replaced the diesel one offering alternative to the community (Wamukonya, N. (2007). This machine is quiet while doing its work and also it does not pollute the Ozone layer. Mama Akinyi said that she is so delighted to see that electricity which is a God given resource can be harnessed and change the lives of the community. “We hope that more investors and development partners will come in and establish more projects beneficial to the rural community,” Mama Akinyi said.

Children who attend schools no longer wait for the day to come so that they can work on their school home work. Just a switch of a button brings light. They no longer have to use Koroboi, a Kiswahili word for kerosene lit lamp that many African families use to light their houses at night. Daphrosa Okach said that the school performance among the children of Gwassi community has been improving greatly thanks to the solar energy project in their communities. Children now are eager to go home after school and do their homework to hand it over on time. Children now can be able to read stories from their books and share with their parents.

There is also environmental benefits. Households have reduced the amount of firewood they use a day to light their houses (Carmody, E. R., & Sarkar, A. U. 1997). This has reduced the environmental risks that the region is facing due to massive deforestation and land degradation due to huge demand for firewood. Fishery industry also has benefited from the solar projects. Fishermen no longer buy kerosene to light the fishing lamps at night when they are involved in finishing activities at Lake Victoria. Ambrose says that before they used to be worried about hundreds of litters poured in the lake on daily basis by fishermen due to using kerosene lamps, but now those worries are gone people can fish throughout the night without poisoning fishes with kerosene (Yadoo, A., & Cruickshank, H. 2012).

Some youth are now thinking of starting community based business whereby they will apply loan from local banks and start a Community General Refrigerators. This model of business would establish various refrigerators in the community where people can pay a fee to keep their perishable products such as milk and fishes at the end of the Market Day for the next Market Day. This saves families a lot of money that would have been wasted. This is all the benefit of the solar energy in Gwassi community. It also creates employment for the unemployed youth and also gives families which have no money to buy their own small refrigerators to keep their products cool until they can find a market (Wei, M., Patadia, S., & Kammen, D. M. 2010).

Solar Energy Groups as Platform for Dispute Resolution

The solar community groups are not only a medium of economic emancipation for rural women but also a place for fair justice. If there is something in the community, members of the solar group bring it forward to their meetings and discuss it and found a solution. If it is something that involves dispute resolution, members come together and talk about it and look for a common way to bring solution and justice to the offended ones. They also share everything as a community. This is in line with the African philosophy of Ubuntu says that “I am because you are.” This African philosophy of Ubuntu has been helping African communities solve their own disputes peacefully without resulting to conflicts. It brings restorative justice instead of retributive justice (Murithi, T. 2009; Okoro, N. K. 2010).  At Gwassi Solar Community Group members of the solar project applies the same philosophy to solve their differences for the sake of the society and their relationship.

Solar energy is very importantly for the African rural communities for both economic revolution and gender equality. As it is in the Gwassi Village where women have come together regardless their social background, whether they have gone to school or not and are doing something useful to the society it is the same way this project should be used to promote community coexistence in other communities in East Africa (Murithi, T. 2006). This paper believes that the governments in the region should put policies in place to promote the use of new technology as tools for socioeconomic transformation and social equality in Africa. We recommend that the government harness renewable energy which is readily available in Africa to empower marginalized communities such as women and youth in order to contribute to the development of their nations. This would not only benefit the marginalized groups but also the economy of African countries where the demand for energy can reduce tremendously if we harnessed our natural resources and manage them effectively (Krebs, F. C., Nielsen, T. D., Fyenbo, J., Wadstrøm, M., & Pedersen, M. S. 2010). It would not only benefit ourselves but also benefit our descendants in the future (Karekezi, S. 2002).


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