Fighting Poverty: It’s a Matter of Time and Energy

By Elizabeth Vargo

With the recent publication of their Annual Letter for 2016, Bill and Melinda Gates have prompted considerable discussion around the issue of “time poverty.” Poverty, after all, is not just about money, but resources. Of course, we could all use more time in the day, regardless of who we are, where we live, or how much money we make. The issue of time poverty, however, is different. One is considered to be “time poor” when he or she works long hours and has no option to do otherwise without falling into poverty or further increasing his or her existing level of poverty. In their letter, Bill and Melinda underscore the need for more time among the world’s poorest families, specifically for the women in those families. In every country of the world, women spend more time on unpaid work than men do. In remote areas of the developing world, this disparity is further exacerbated by a lack of energy access.

The World Bank has identified lack of energy access as a key challenge in reducing women’s time poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, women are responsible for over four hours of unpaid domestic work per day while men are responsible for just 1.5 hours. Women’s work includes tasks like collecting water, gathering firewood, and cooking. In rural Benin, women spend an average of 62 minutes every day fetching water while men spend an average of just 16 minutes on the same task. To collect firewood, women sacrifice another 23 minutes on average each day, with men losing just five minutes. These time-consuming tasks pose an additional burden on women’s health.  For example, carrying heavy loads of firewood, as much as 20 kilograms, across five kilometers every day is associated with chronic back and neck pain as well as pregnancy complications. With access to water pumps and solar thermal or solar electric stoves, women in rural sub-Saharan Africa would gain one to two hours each day—leading to improved health. However, more than three quarters of the sub-Saharan African population has no access to electricity.   

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Because they have access to fewer hours in the day, women and girls lack the time to pursue educational and economic opportunities. In sub-Saharan Africa, women are still lagging behind their male counterparts, with a literacy rate of just 55 percent compared to 71.9 percent of men. Fetching water is a task that must be done multiple times throughout the day, and interrupts activities like school and homework. As a result, in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, just 80 girls are enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys enrolled. Closer proximity to a water source has been shown to lessen this disparity. A study done in Tanzania shows a 12% increase in girls’ school attendance when the nearest water source is no further than 15 minutes away from home. Energy access can increase the availability of solar electrified water pumps and irrigation systems in remote areas of the developing world, thus freeing women and girls of the burden of collecting water throughout the day and allowing them to work and attend school without interruptions.

When women have the time to pursue education and become economically empowered, whole communities and future generations stand to benefit. In Ghana, an increase in women’s incomes is associated with an increase in food expenditures for families. Likewise in India, more earned income for a woman results in more years of schooling for her children. A country’s GDP is shown to improve by an average of three percent when 10 percent more girls attend school. Furthermore, when women achieve academic and economic success, they gain a heightened status within their families and communities, resulting in increased household bargaining power. Studies from multiple countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Mexico, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, show that increasing a woman’s agency over household income leads to changes in spending that benefit her and her children. For instance, researchers in Lesotho and South Africa have encountered resistance from men to purchase improved solar ovens for their wives because they fear what their wives would do with their newfound free time! This, despite the fact that improved ovens and stoves mitigate indoor air pollution, the number one killer of children under five in developing countries. With greater household bargaining power, women are also less vulnerable to domestic violence due to fewer spousal arguments. They are also less likely to contract HIV and other STDs from forced unsafe sex with an infected partner. Women in sub-Saharan Africa experience high rates of domestic violence, ranging from 31 percent in Nigeria to 58 percent in Cameroon. Giving women the chance to earn their own incomes has the power to reduce violence both in the current generation of women and for generations of women to come.

In the United States, women contribute significantly more time than men to almost every unpaid household activity, including cooking, cleaning, and laundry. With women spending over 3.5 hours per day and men responsible for almost 2.5 hours each day, the gap between women and men’s unpaid work in the US is still sizeable. Imagine how this gap would widen if women in America were denied access modern household conveniences. With women disproportionately responsible for the tasks that require these technologies, the gap between women and men’s unpaid work would widen dramatically. This inequality is the reality for women living in time poverty without energy access in remote parts of the developing world.

DSC04382When women have access to energy, and therefore time-saving technology, they become economically and socially empowered. In turn, they make a positive impact on the communities in which they live and work, promoting local economic growth and more equitable societies.

In the Kalalé district of Benin in West Africa, SELF has been working to reduce women’s time poverty through the installation of Solar Market Gardens (SMGs). An SMG combines solar-powered pumping with drip irrigation and, thus, eliminates the need for time-consuming water collection and hand-watering of garden plots. This innovation is critical during Kalalé’s dry season, which can last up to eight months. The SMGs give women and girls the opportunity to reallocate their time into educational and economic pursuits. Where formerly they had little influence, the women of the benefiting farming cooperatives have raised their status in the community and are regarded as successful farmers and entrepreneurs—a clear example of what overcoming time poverty can accomplish.  To read more about SELF’s work in Benin, click here.

Haiti’s Future Hinges on Bringing Power to the People

By Cassidy Gasteiger

As a result of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, more than 200,000 people lost their lives, and 1.5 million were displaced. Six years later, in spite of an outpouring of international aid, the socio-economic aftershocks from the earthquake are hindering Haiti’s recovery. A factor that could help to improve the situation is universal access to energy. One of Haiti’s biggest hurdles is its poor energy infrastructure. Modern energy access is integral for the provision of such necessities as clean water, sanitation and healthcare, not to mention reliable lighting, cooking, telecommunications, and heating. Most rural Haitians have to rely on unsafe kerosene lanterns and candles for light. The average rural Haitian spends 6.5% of her income annually on these inefficient light sources, while the average American spends only .05% on superior, reliable electric light systems. Moreover, the smoke from kerosene lamps has dangerous health effects; breathing kerosene fumes is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

In most developed nations, fossil-fuel-powered grids connect households and businesses to electricity, ensuring the majority of the population has access to power. Eighty six nations, from the U.S. to Vietnam, boast 100% electrification rates. However, in less developed nations like Haiti, electricity grids typically only extend as far as the outskirts of major cities. Haiti’s electric utility company is the government-run Electricité d’Haiti, which provides service to only 25% of the population of 10.3 million. Out of those 25%, about half are illegally connected to the grid through unreliable, “do-it-yourself” hookups. Haiti’s grid system also suffers from inefficiency, losing as much as two-thirds of its power during transmission and distribution – the result of problems like technical failure, pilferage, faulty wiring, and poor engineering. Compare this to the U.S., which loses only 6%.

Electricité d’Haiti does not have the ability or resources to expand its capacity, as it already struggles to provide reliable energy access to those living within reach of the grid. This leaves rural families with little hope for electrical grid access in their communities.

Decentralized generation is a viable solution to the struggle for electrification in Haiti. With decentralized generation, energy production occurs on-site, eliminating the enormous losses that stem from Haiti’s poor infrastructure. With micro-grid technology, individual rural communities have small, stand-alone generation systems that connect homes, community buildings, and commercial enterprises by a small power distribution network.

Micro-grid technology has traditionally been powered by diesel generators. However, renewable energy sources are now cost-competitive with diesel due to the ease of integrating many points of clean power generation into a micro-grid system. Diesel motors are difficult to maintain, and the fuel itself is expensive, since price is subject to the whims of the global market, and import costs are high. Renewable energy technologies represent longer-lasting, less-expensive options for powering a micro-grid.


Haiti has exceptional solar electric potential, ranging from five to seven kilowatt-hours per square meter per day. Typically, three to four kilowatt-hours is sufficient for successful solar systems. Just six square kilometers of solar panels in strategic districts across Haiti could annually generate as much electricity as its current electrical grid generated in all of 2011. Solar micro-grids would surmount the challenges of distribution and transmission.

Leaders and innovators have begun to take notice of Haiti’s solar potential. In 2012, Haiti’s President Michel Martelly announced the Ban m limyè, Ban m lavi (“Give me light, give me life”) program, with the goal of electrifying 200,000 rural households. The program provides special credits for solar home systems. In Haiti’s central plateau, the new Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais provides vital health care for nearly 200,000 people, and is powered entirely by solar panels.

In 2015, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) installed a 140 kW solar micro-grid on Haiti’s Southwest Coast.* The micro-grid indirectly benefits as many as 53,000 people through electricity via services such as schools, health centers, microenterprise centers, and street lights. This solar micro-grid model is replicable across many of Haiti’s rural communities.  In fact,  SELF completed another micro-grid in Haiti’s Central Plateau last year.

Additional solar installations by SELF and others can move Haiti toward universal access, but only if the country has the local capacity to maintain solar systems. SELF is establishing a National Solar Training Center* in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. This two- to-three year technical course will provide extensive classroom learning and on-the-job training for a new generation of local technicians to assure Haiti’s clean energy future.

The case is clearly made for expanding solar electric generation in Haiti. Its transformative power to provide sustainable energy to the rural poor will assure the country’s resilience in the face of disaster.

*This project has been funded primarily by the Government of Norway, with additional supportstill being sought from other donors.

A Clean Glass of Water is Beyond the Reach of Hundreds of Millions of People

By Matthew Cullom

SELF is joining Global Giving to raise $17,000 to provide villagers in the Kalalé region of Benin with a solar-powered potable water system. The need is dire, especially for the children, many who die from waterborne diseases. Go to to learn how you can help.

Californians, in the midst of severe drought, are being forced to cut back their water consumption. They take shorter showers and let their lawns and gardens wither. The situation is critical to be sure, but could be so much worse.

Imagine the reality faced by Kalalé residents in northern Benin during the region’s annual dry season. As shallow wells and riverbeds dry up in the Sudano-Sahel region, villagers, mostly women and children, must walk for miles in search of water. Many leave home in the middle of the night to trek to distant rivers and shallow pools that dry up as the sun rises. With cleaner sources unavailable, they must settle for this polluted water, often sharing it with wild animals that have made the same long trek. With no way to adequately treat the water, which is fraught with bacteria and parasites, villagers suffer from high rates of waterborne illnesses. For Kalalé residents, access to clean water is a human right in short supply.

Before SELF’s intervention, local girls were pulled out of school to help their mothers bring water from wells to their houses or gardens.

According to UNESCO, 45 percent of Benin’s population is exposed to unsafe water. ( Overall, waterborne illnesses account for over 19 percent of all deaths each year. Malaria, bilharzia (a disease caused by parasitic worms), cholera, and other diarrheal diseases are constant threats. Children with under-developed immune systems are the most vulnerable, with over half of children’s health center visits attributed to malaria and diarrheal diseases. ( Benin, which ranks 166 out of 186 in the Human Development Index, is desperately trying to reach the Millennium Development Goal of improved water sanitation. To do so, however, it must find a way to provide a quarter of its population access to clean water.

What is striking in Benin is that, unlike its northern neighbors, the country does have adequate under and aboveground water sources. (

However, many Beninese towns or villages lack the infrastructure necessary to safely and efficiently extract water. Like Kalalé residents, nearly half of the population (43%) cannot access developed water sources and relies instead on unsafe sources such as open, shallow wells or easily contaminated streambeds. ( Diesel pumps, a conventional tool used to extract water from safer, deep wells, are incredibly expensive and prone to fuel shortages and breakdowns.

SELF saw this as the perfect opportunity to fight water insecurity using solar energy. We installed ultra-reliable solar pumps to transport water from deep wells to sealed, above ground containers, eliminating the risk of contamination. With six closed water storage tanks, located in the center of five villages, residents now have easy, uninterrupted access to potable water.

On the left, local Children enjoy safe, clean water from SELF’s storage tank. On the right, Kalalé villagers celebrate the installation of SELF’s solar-powered water system.

Compared to diesel powered alternatives, solar pumps are cheaper and more durable as they eliminate the cost of diesel fuel and maintenance inspections. Diesel pumps need routine oil and filter changes and periodic part replacements, while solar panels only need weekly cleaning (a simple hosing down of panel surfaces to maximize PV output). Diesel pumps have an estimated life expectancy of around five years. Solar pumps can last twice as long. In conjunction with our local partner, ADESCA, we have trained Kalalé residents on how to repair solar systems. All six pumping stations continue to run smoothly and not one solar module has broken down since their installation in 2011.

In addition to providing clean drinking water, we combined solar pumping systems with high-tech drip irrigation systems that transport water from rivers and above ground reservoirs directly to the roots of the plant. This requires less water and labor than traditional irrigation techniques and boosts agricultural yields by almost 25 percent. With less water dedicated to irrigation, wells function longer into the dry season, enhancing water security for all villages in the region.

Many villages in Benin still have a great need for clean drinking water. Our goal is to install pumping systems to provide clean water to all of Kalalé’s villages and eliminate water insecurity throughout the region. You can help us by contributing to the solar water system we are building through our partnership with Global Giving. Visit

Access to safe water is a basic human right and yet 783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. (Source: United Nations) Water resources are becoming increasingly strained. Experts project the demand for water to increase 55 percent by 2050. Most of this demand will be driven by developing nations like Benin. At SELF, we believe that investing in renewable energy solutions is the fastest, most reliable path to ensuring the right to safe water in Benin and the rest of the developing world.

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