United Methodist Committee on Relief

UMCOR Renewable Energy Access grants transform lives

By Barbara Dunlap-Berg*

About 1.3 billion people lack reliable access to electricity. This means turning to solutions like kerosene lanterns and diesel generators to provide light and energy for charging cellphones, studying, working, lighting remote pathways, powering medical equipment and caring for children. These fossil fuels can be expensive and difficult to transport, and burning them releases soot and emissions that make it hard to breathe and that contribute to climate change.

The majority of people with limited energy access live in rural places where traditional electric grids are not cost-effective. But renewable energy technology now makes it possible to produce clean electricity, even in extremely remote locations.

Grandma and entreprener Julieths grandson studies by solar light Tanzania.jpg
The grandson of entrepreneur Julieth does not have to stop his school work when the sun goes down, but can continue learning into the evening. 

A pilot grant program from the United Methodist Committee on Relief seeks to increase the availability of 24/7, reliable, affordable energy access in communities with limited energy access by providing funding for renewable energy systems and infrastructure. The first two projects of the Renewable Energy Access grant program will improve energy access for communities in Tanzania and Liberia.

In Liberia, the UMCOR board recently approved a $96,500 grant to provide the Gbarnga School of Theology campus with a 25-kilowatt solar array and backup battery system. In Tanzania, Solar Sister received a grant of $100,000 for its initiative to support a women’s entrepreneurship and to supply clean energy across 16 regions.

Women entrepreneurs launch solar businesses

A nonprofit organization, Solar Sister offers women economic opportunity, training, technology and support to distribute clean energy to communities in Africa. The project leverages Solar Sister’s local leadership, extensive grassroots presence and partnerships and will equip 100 women to launch solar businesses.

The work in Tanzania, in east Africa, began in January.

Fatma herds cows by solar light Tanzania.jpgFatma is able to better protect and tend to her livestock in the dark with the aid of solar light.

“The first thing we are doing,” said Felicity “Fid” Thompson, communications director for Solar Sister, “is seeking out women who are interested to learn about clean energy and to take the opportunity to start their own business.”

One of those women is Beatrice Moses, 45. She is from Bangata village in Arusha, Tanzania. Married and the mother of seven children, Beatrice grows vegetables and keeps livestock. She worries most about providing for her children. She doesn’t want to see them suffering for basic necessities such as food, clothing and school fees.

Now, thanks to Solar Sister, Beatrice is becoming an entrepreneur. Trained by Solar Sister, she will soon launch a solar business.

“Women entrepreneurs,” Thompson said, “generate extra income, which they can use in similar ways to take care of their families.” Beatrice, for example, hopes to invest more in her business and in education for her children.

The grant program, Thompson noted, “will help people from the community to save money, which they were using to buy kerosene.” With the extra funds, they can pay school fees, see a doctor when they are ill, cover daily expenses, and improve their family diet by buying more and better food.

Solar lights also improve security, especially for women and girls when they walk at night. People, Thompson said, “can walk in safety against dangerous hazards like snakes. Those with cattle can leave their lamps out at night. And … well-lit houses can be a deterrent for thieves who want to stay anonymous in the dark.

“The other major change we anticipate is that people will be able to work more hours on their livelihoods. Many women, especially, use lights to work on projects into the night and so gain income. We see that children in homes with solar power study later, which often results in better academic performance and learning.”

The project will last for one year. For every small product a woman sells, about five people in the community will benefit. “This number,” Thompson explained, “is an industry standard measurement of calculating how many benefit from solar products and is quite conservative. So, our entrepreneurs will sell at least 2,880 products to reach 14,400 people with clean energy across Tanzania.”

Solar entrepreneur Hadija uses solar light to do business in Tanzania.jpgEntrepreneur Hadija uses solar light to continue growing her small business at night, no longer sacrificing precious hours that could lead to increased income. 

Powering education, improving health

Some 5,000 miles away – in Bong County, west Africa – Gbarnga School of Theology is located at the United Methodist Mission Station. Seminary students come from across the Liberia Annual Conference.

The lack of reliable energy access is a major challenge for the seminary and the community.

Currently, the seminary relies on a diesel generator to power the school. Electricity is only available for about five hours per day. This limits seminarians’ ability to study and complete other tasks at night. Long hours of darkness contribute to security risks on campus.

The goal of the renewable energy access project is to decrease the school’s dependence on diesel fuel for energy and increase the availability of round-the-clock energy. Key steps will include rewiring buildings and installing solar equipment, training a local system manager, engaging in community outreach to explain the reasons for switching to solar and inviting community members to use charging stations on campus.

The seminary plans to use a solar vendor who has installed a similar system and trained staff at the nearby Bishop Judith Craig Children’s Village. Doing so will create opportunities for collaboration.

“The availability of electricity on the campus of the Gbarnga School of Theology is indispensable to our commitment to provide healthy teaching and learning experience for our faculty and students,” said the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, seminary dean. “We have realized that our constant use of diesel fuel is not only harmful to the health of both faculty and students, but it is also impacting climate change.”

For nearly 80 years, UMCOR and its predecessors have worked globally to alleviate human suffering around the world and assist people affected by crisis or chronic need.

“Climate change can intensify extreme weather events and contribute to conditions that lead to conflict and instability,” said Rev. Jenny Phillips, Creation Care program manager for Global Ministries. “UMCOR must not only respond to these crises, but also address their root causes.”

“The Creation Care Program is piloting renewable energy projects that decrease dependence on fossil fuels and increase energy access while contributing to community health, education, safety and economic development.”

*Retired from United Methodist Communications, Dunlap-Berg is a freelance writer and editor.