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Attaining access, achieving sustainability with off-grid communities

Access to reliable electricity is the first step for impoverished, off-grid communities around the world to secure the other critical, basic services that they so frequently lack and build out a foundation for long-term prosperity. But electricity access alone is not enough for these communities to achieve sustainability. 

Through IEEE Smart Village, such communities attain the electricity they need and much more. Local, in-country entrepreneurs build businesses that utilize local resources to deliver locally customized solutions to local buyers. The entire community plays a role in driving the success of the local electricity business, and it is the people in the developing country who are empowered as owners, shareholders, leaders, managers and employees of a dynamic, growing business.

It’s a proven model for stimulating life-changing social enterprise in some of the world’s poorest and most remote villages, and the opportunity is ripe to replicate successes in dozens more communities around the world in the coming years.

The first key step

IEEE Smart Village is bringing together a host of diverse professionals who are committed to helping impoverished, off-grid communities and who share the conviction that electricity is the keystone on which an array of other advances in quality of life depends. 

Almost 4 billion people globally have no such reliable access to electricity today; around 1.1 billion of them, in fact, have no access to electricity at all. With no good alternative, these people frequently turn to poor and sometimes dangerous ad-hoc solutions to cook meals, light homes, etc. Smoky kerosene lanterns, for example, can introduce substantial health risks, harm the environment and entail costs ranging five to 100 times more than other, more efficient fuels.

But in attaining even a moderate capability for basic electricity, the people in these off-grid regions take a primary, necessary leap forward in securing clean water, sanitation, health services, education, participation in the global economy and the other critical services that are frequently lacking in their communities. This is why electricity is so widely believed to be a major driver to eliminating the worst of poverty and encouraging sustainable community prosperity around the world. There are significant immediate social, economic and environmental benefits in mitigating energy poverty around the world.

A proven model

IEEE Smart Village’s mission is to empower off-grid communities through education and the creation of sustainable, affordable, locally owned entrepreneurial energy businesses. 

Organized in 2010 and formerly known as “Community Solutions Initiative (CSI),” IEEE Smart Village and its local partners project to have served more than 50,000 people in 34 villages through pilots in Cameroon, Haiti, India, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Zambia by end of 2015. Implementations are planned in many more countries; potential partners have been identified in Burkina Faso, Gambia, and Malawi, as well as other regions of India, for example.

How it works is micro-utility equipment is seed-funded to in-country, non-governmental organization (NGO) partners, who then establish self-sustaining micro-utilities that are owned and operated by the communities in off-grid areas where the people are typically living on less than $1 to $2 per day. In addition to equipment, local entrepreneurs receive through IEEE Smart Village’s incubator process the training in deployment, maintenance and franchising that they need to grow a business of the scope and character that best meets their specific customers’ needs. Then, profits are reinvested in community empowerment through economic development and development education. 

In such ways, all of the benefits accrue exclusively to the community in which the micro-utility is launched, and the entire community becomes a participant in the success of its local micro-utility.

Exponential impact

IEEE Smart Village’s work in Nigeria is emblematic of the opportunities that exist and the dramatic impact that is waiting to be achieved.

In 2013, a Nigerian partner, GVE Projects Ltd., brought IEEE Smart Village’s unique portable battery franchise model to and implemented a 6KW PV mini-grid in the village of Egbeke in Rivers state. The project enabled basic lighting and powering of small gadgets, and it provided electricity for a health center and water borehole. 

“Indeed, the effect of introducing electricity to Egbeke community was phenomenal,” said Ifeanyi Orajaka, chief executive officer of GVE Projects. “The joy of the people knew no bounds the first day we powered on the system. Most of the children in the community recall that it was a life-time experience as they had never witnessed such.”

For its work, GVE Projects in 2013 was named a winner of the Power Africa Off-Grid Energy Challenge, an initiative launched by General Electric (GE) and the United States Africa Development Agency (USADF).

Today, not only is GVE Projects expanding its work in Egbeke with implementation of an 18 KW solar mini-grid, it also is part of a major initiative led by the Bank of Industry in Nigeria to bring power to 100,000 off-grid homes through a combination of micro-grids and standalone solar home systems over the next five years.

Nigeria’s national grid today is said to supply less than 4,000 MW --- a stunningly inadequate figure for a population of 170 million people and an electricity demand estimated at 40,000 MW. IEEE Smart Village offers a proven, economically viable model for alleviating the extreme energy poverty that besets the world’s off-grid communities today.

Understanding customers’ unique needs

Of course, the precise needs of each off-grid community that IEEE Smart Village serves through its NGO partners vary from market to market, and so no single solution fits all. The renewable energy systems implemented by IEEE Smart Village’s partner entrepreneurs in various locales worldwide have ranged widely:

* a pico-grid running 12-volt speaker wire to homeowners who pay around $0.20 per week for each 1-watt LED bulb;

* solar home systems with a 5-watt panel, AH battery and 1-watt LED bulbs, rented by customers for $4 per month;

* energy kiosks supporting around 100 homeowners portable battery kits (for which customers pay from $6.50 to $12 per month), and

* village-center micro-grids which support 10 to 50 metered customers paying $10 to $20 per month.

Terrain and climate are among the factors that influence the particulars of the local micro-utilities that IEEE Smart Village’s partner entrepreneurs deploy. In the Himalayan Ladakh region of India, for example, the battery systems and solar panels had to be sized so they could be carried over 16,000-foot mountain passes by horses and donkeys. 

IEEE Smart Village’s vision is to bring electrical and educational services to more than 50 million people by 2025, and you can help. There are a variety of ways to engage:

* multi-national NGOs, humanitarian organizations, government ministries and associated programs are sought to partner and coordinate with IEEE Smart Village in expanding services to more villages worldwide.

* in-country NGOs and other humanitarian-outreach programs are sought to partner with IEEE Smart Village in establish local micro-utilities in energy-impoverished communities.

* individuals with a passion for alleviating energy poverty are sought to advocate for and volunteer through IEEE Smart Village.

* students and young professionals with a desire to work in the field and mentor micro-utility startups are sought to serve as IEEE Smart Village ambassadors.

* foundations, corporations and individual donors are sought for financial support of IEEE Smart Village’s humanitarian mission. IEEE Smart Village is entirely funded by donations. IEEE Smart Village has no product to sell, no internal cash flow from operations --- all revenue on hand to drive this program comes from the generosity of others who donate funds.

IEEE Smart Village has taken a fundamentally new and comprehensive approach to helping poor, energy-deprived communities address their socio-economic challenges and successfully build toward sustainable prosperity once and for all. Please visit to learn more and come aboard.

Dr. Robin Podmore is a co-founder and co-chair of IEEE Smart Village (previously known as “Community Solutions Initiative”), as well as vice president for IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) new initiatives and outreach. He is also the founder and president of Incremental Systems Corp. (IncSys), a private company that helps organizations train system operators to ensure reliability of the bulk power system. 


You can learn even more about IEEE’s Smart Village push this week in Denver at IEEE’s PES General Meeting. Follow the activity online on Twitter with #IEEEPESGM. 







Robin Podmore's picture

Thank Robin for the Post!

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