Having reliable energy infrastructure is a fundamental step towards giving people the same opportunities that most of us already have. Without electricity, even reading this blog becomes an insurmountable obstacle. In many developing countries reliable energy infrastructure is still scarce, especially in rural areas, which has resulted in widespread adoption of solutions like standalone solar home systems (SHS) which provide enough power for small appliances like lights, fans, phone chargers and TVs.
This level of basic energy access has had an unprecedented impact on the quality of life for off-grid communities around the world, but in order for these communities to take the next step up the energy ladder, they need more power – preferably cleaner and more reliable power. Why? Because with more power, families can engage in “productive use” of energy; essentially unlocking increased efficiencies for the production of saleable goods, and also time-savings for daily tasks which require significant effort and manual labour.
Freezers, e-mobility, cooking-tech, agro-tech and power tools are all considered productive uses of energy that can catalyze rapid improvement in living quality and socio-economic development for a community. We could write an entire report about the nuanced impact of different productive appliances (in fact there are many reports already out there – see here), and how the impact is amplified when combined with internet access, but for this blog, we’re going to showcase the progress made by a Cambodian community that was recently equipped productive appliances with 24/7 power via an Okra mesh-grid.
A day in the life of a rural Cambodian, without productive power
At the end of 2020, the Ministry of Mines and Energy Cambodia and UNDP energized the remote off-grid village of Steung Chrov in Kampong Chhnang province, using Okra’s mesh-grid technology. Prior to the deployment, the people of Steung Chrov village paid up to $4 per kWh for diesel – which had to be brought in from the closest filling station 10km away – to fuel generators to charge batteries and power house lights. For cooking, they solely used firewood which required women to spend up to 20 hours a week chopping and retrieving said wood whilst men farmed rice, corn, peanut and sugarcane, and children went to the local community school where the teachers travelled in from the closest city, 20km away.
Once the Steung Chrov mesh-grid was running, the community received an assortment of clean cooking appliances that were financed by E4A; repayments are made through monthly instalments that are lumped together with energy bills. Currently, there are 24 rice cookers being used in the village and as a result, families are able to produce their staple food without burning wood. To eliminate the need for wood altogether, air pots (a type of kettle) were also provided as a substitute for boiling water over the fire.
Blenders and juicers were also financed to the Steung Chrov community to promote local entrepreneurship. This caused some confusion as many people had no experience using either, but after project officers demonstrated how fruit smoothies and sugar cane juice could be made with these appliances, the air was filled with excitement.
One innovative village member is able to produce 1L of juice in 6 minutes using a 600 Watt sugarcane press. He makes about $0.50 per litre and has inspired other village members to begin selling beverages to their neighbours. He aims to sell 3L of sugar cane juice per day, making him an additional $45 profit per month.
New income opportunities
Maskhmer – a local Cambodian anti-pollution mask startup – recently started attracting more international clients and were looking for innovative ways to scale up production whilst providing valuable job opportunities to rural Cambodians, and so a match was made in heaven.
The Okra mesh-grid can output up to 1.2kW (sufficient power for a sewing machine) at each household, so instead of handing mask production to an urban factory, the team at Maskhmer partnered with Okra and taught the local villagers in Steung Chrov the necessary skills to run their own small-scale mask factories.
One woman within the community already had sewing experience as she had worked in a garment factory previously. With her help, the Maskhmer team swiftly trained interested individuals during a 4-hour workshop which resulted in the production of the very first masks. The first 50 masks were delivered to Maskhmer after a month, with a follow-up order of another 30 masks currently in production.
Go2 is a hop-on-hop-off e-bike rental service company with a goal to simplify intercity transport. After conducting initial market research surveys in Cambodia and discovering that the majority of households only have one mode of transport, they began investigating the potential to provide a pay-as-you-go mobility service in rural areas. Further market surveys indicated that 70% of rural households wanted to use Go2’s e-bike renting services, as long as it was easily accessible and affordable. And so another match was made in heaven; Go2 teamed up with Okra to pilot a last-mile e-bike rental service in Steung Chrov where the mesh-grid could provide enough energy to sustain an e-bike charging network. It was as simple as connecting one of their battery-swapping stations to a household in the mesh-grid.
Go2 was collecting feasibility data from the Steung Chrov pilot where two e-bikes were active. The community has shown an interest in using the pay-as-you-go e-mobility service as it only costs $0.04 per minute to ride, making it much more affordable than tuk-tuks and petrol scooters.
The future of productive use
With ambitious partners and an ecosystem that is willing to adopt innovative technologies, a community has been given the opportunity to grow. We have seen yet again that entrepreneurship is alive in rural off-grid populations and productive use appliances are a key enabler to helping them drive socio-economic growth. Over the course of the next 12 months, we are looking forward to seeing the Steung Chrov Community expand its horizons find new ways to use energy for the good of everyone.
By creating a cost-effective way of energizing last-mile communities, places that would have otherwise been forgotten now have power now. And power changes lives.