Yemeni women go solar in a war zone
“The role of women [used to be] housework only,” laments Huda Othman Hassan, a young woman from Abs, a rural district in the north of Yemen, near the border with Saudi Arabia. “Although we are educated and university graduates, we had no decision-making power and couldn’t work in any field.”
But now, reports Al Jazeera, a new project is helping change that. Last year, Othman and nine other women set up a solar microgrid in Abs, just 32km from the frontline in a war that has so far killed tens of thousands and left more than 3.3 million people displaced.
The project is one of three the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) helped put in place in frontline off-grid communities. The Abs station is the only one run entirely by women. The other two are each managed by ten young men, 30 percent of them displaced. The UNDP provided the seed money and trained the women (and the young men, as well) to set up, manage and maintain the microgrids.
Before the Abs station was built, Othman says, electricity was simply too expensive. “Most people used a flashlight or a five-watt bulb on a small battery,” she says.
With the solar microgrid, electricity is now much cheaper, it’s clean and from a renewable source. The grid also tackles another major problem in this part of Yemen: the difficulty women have earning a stable income and gaining new professional skills; there are very limited work opportunities for women, especially in rural areas.
But for the group managing this project in Abs, the experience has been transformative.
“At first, they made fun of us — that we want to do men’s work. But now, our community respects us, because we are business owners. They come to the station and ask us if there are opportunities. Now, they want their women to participate and succeed like the microgrid girls,” says Iman Ghaleb Al-Hamli, director of the station. “The project has built our self-reliance, confidence in participating in society and broken the red line in dealing with men,” she adds. “And we now contribute to the family monthly budget to cover food and other necessities.”
Even before the war started in 2015, finding food and fuel was already a struggle. Five years on, more than 80 percent of the population requires some kind of support and more than half the rural communities can’t afford electricity because fuel prices continue to surge and embargoes restrict supplies even further.
These microgrids are the first in Yemen that both produce and sell solar power — and they are believed to be the first privately-run energy sources as well. Before, rural communities relied on expensive, dirty diesel generators that were also susceptible to sudden shifts in fuel prices. Now, these three communities have reliable energy and their power bills have been “cut by 65 percent”, according to UNDP’s Yemen project manager Arvind Kumar. While diesel costs US$0.42 an hour, solar is only US$0.02.
As a result of the war, power plants are no longer functional and the grid doesn’t extend to rural areas, Kumar explains. “These rural areas are the heart of Yemen’s economy. Agriculture, water, public services and the local economy largely depend on fossil fuels. With no income, no jobs and rising oil prices, rural communities would always struggle to stand on their own feet . . . Solar microgrids, which can be small or medium, are the way forward.”
Amena Yahya Dawali, a technical officer at the Abs station, says she “learned technical skills, such as charging batteries, connecting wires, measuring power using an Avometer, converting power from DC current to AC current and checking the capacity in kW.” The women’s 20-day training also covered business skills and finance, as well as four days’ orientation on a microgrid model.
The microgrid has had other benefits too. “In my community, we used to go to sleep at seven o’clock in the evening. Now, we can accomplish many tasks at night,” Ghaleb says. “There is a woman who sold one of her sheep and bought a sewing machine and now, she can do sewing in her home at night after her children sleep.”
A spokesperson for climate innovation charity Ashden reports, “Local NGOs [non-government organisations] thought the project would face huge challenges because it is highly technical and these women had never done anything remotely similar. They said if you are going to put this very expensive equipment in the hands of people who have never done that, it could be over within four months. But now more than a year on, the grid is still working, generating energy and incomes, and nothing has been stolen or vandalised. The community sees the benefits of it and protects it.”
The other two micro-grid stations are also functioning at full capacity, providing energy to commercial shops. Across all three microgrids, electricity sold by the project’s 30 owners has helped more than 2,000 people generate disposable income from, for example, sewing, welding, selling groceries and setting up commercial shops. Including those using the services and visiting the shops, about 10,000 people have benefitted indirectly.
Kumar says, “The most revealing part of this initiative is to see people no longer vulnerable and dependent on humanitarian aid as they now have a sustainable way to generate income, whereas, in other humanitarian interventions in Yemen, it is hard to find such evidence.”
These projects are even more important now that covid-19 is spreading across the country. “As we fight back against covid-19, an already strained healthcare system, economy and society have been stretched to new limits,” says Auke Lootsma, UNDP’s Yemen resident representative. “If we want to meet the demand for power across these sectors, we need to continue building bold on-grid and off-grid decentralised energy solutions, and promote these solutions.”
The next step is to secure funding from the private sector and microfinancers to build up to 100 more microgrids in remote areas, to keep schools and hospitals open during the war and the pandemic. The UNDP is also planning to pilot projects to turn waste into energy and to desalinate salt water based on the same microgrid business model.
“The future is promising,” says Ghaleb. “Our dream has been fulfilled with this first station, and now we aspire to cover the entire region.”
ABOVE Abs solar microgrid co-owners repair solar panels
PHOTO SDF YEMEN