Let’s try to imagine what it’s like to live without electricity. It’s going to be boring for sure – no internet, no television, no Youtube, no mobile phone. Can you imagine how disconnected and paralyzed you would be? Guarantee that you can actually do some reading, but at night you won’t have light. Perhaps the flicker of light from the kerosene lamps or candlewicks. And both the kerosene lamps and candlewicks are capable of exposing you to danger more than you can imagine. The smoke can turn the air inside your home far more toxic compared to that in industrial areas. You will be worrying about your roof getting burnt as they’re prone to fire hazards. The money spending on purchasing the oil could very well used on other necessities such as providing more food on the dinner table, buying textbooks and even be kept as savings as capital for a future small business. You’re poor, and the lack of light ensures you to stay that way.

This is the life for 1.3 billion people across the globe that lacks access to the electric grid. Do you know that 1 out of 4 people in the world still do not have access to light? Energy poverty has continued to serve as a problem for developing countries in the world. Sad to say that energy poverty hasn’t gotten the attention like human trafficking or HIV have received. Compared to other global issues, energy poverty has never been the easiest to be conveyed to the public. When you talk about starving children or human-trafficking, there are millions of close-up shots of doe-eyed, half-naked, skinny African children in conveying the dire situations they are in.

This is not to say that the other global issues do not deserve the concern they already have or should have, but it’s time for us to look at the less tackled issue – energy poverty.

For the past 2 years, I’ve had the honour in working together with a group of enthusiastic youth in eradicating energy poverty in Indonesia. Never have I taken part in something so gratifying as many youth-led humanitarian projects tend to lack the long term sustainable aspect. The 3 years long Project Light has proven otherwise.

The first gasp of that salty air, accompanied by the familiar smell, made me dizzy with euphoria. Here I was, back in Pulau Air Raja, back at the place with the people to whom I had waved goodbye months ago before. I was warmly welcomed by the villagers who had crowded around the pier, as though they were waiting for my return as eagerly as I had.

Everything still remains the same; the shaky wooden plank dock, the way the cats greet us good morning by brushing their tails against our feet, the salivating fried calamari, the beautiful starry nights of Air Raja and not to forget, the villagers’ enthusiasm.

What’s different now compared to 2 years ago is that all the kerosene lamps at this island are now replaced with a safer, cleaner and cheaper alternative source of lighting that is solar-powered lamps. I vividly remember that back in 2010, during the first phase of our project, 20 of us arrived in a boat on a sole mission to eradicate energy poverty which is lurking beneath all the beautiful landscapes and warm smiles. Then, all the houses were in complete darkness when night fell because they couldn’t afford electricity. Kerosene lamps and candle wicks are their only source of light, which has been shown to cause fire hazards and respiratory-related illnesses.

The idea of a solar-powered lamp was as mystical as a unicorn. Our initial plan was to sell only 5 lamps.

To date, we managed to reach out to over 400 households across more than 10 islands while creating jobs for 8 rural women. How did we manage to do that?

 

It’s definitely no easy work to introduce the idea of solar-powered lamps to people who had never heard of it. Sleeves had been rolled-up and brains are cracked open. A lot of hard-work and effort were put into starting right from the planning stage till the execution part of the programme. We adopted a social entrepreneurship model in which the lamps are not given away for free but are paid for through a simple instalment scheme. A huge amount of time was spent on educating and interacting with the villagers.

Our first phase was focused on introducing the solar powered lamps whereas during the second phase in 2011, we focused on training the local women to be solar lamp entrepreneurs.

 

The training session wasn’t as easy as conducting English lessons. Our training classes for the local women relied heavily on pictorial representations to teach modules such as Product Knowledge and Marketing skills. Most of the volunteer-conducted classes aimed to just get the participants to parrot some modules and move on, leaving them with very little understanding. We didn’t want that, hence direct participation by the women are emphasized throughout classroom assessments in which they had to put into practice what they had learnt. The 1 to 1 sessions between the facilitators and the women was to ensure a close-knitted and more personalized training.

Moving on to the third phase of the project this year, the team will definitely soldier on to bring more light to people. This measure of success might be perceived as small when compared on a global scale. However, it’s important that we wake up every morning, realizing the fact that everyone deserves light – one lamp at a time. As Charles Bukowski once said, “You begin saving the world by saving one person at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.”

Images are courtesy of Nusantara Development Initiatives.

For more information, check out: http://www.nusantaradevelopment.org/

 

- Elaine Neo