Women are trained as solar technicians through an initial 15-day course

Nearly 70% of households in Bangladesh are not connected to the electricity grid and depend on kerosene for lighting.

Grameen Shakti was set up as a not-for-profit in 1996 to bring modern energy services to such households, by providing both energy technology (solar-home-systems for electricity, improved stoves and biogas for cooking) and affordable finance, at a local level.

Context

Nearly 70% of households in Bangladesh are not connected to the electricity grid and depend on kerosene for lighting. There are plans to extend the grid, but there is little prospect of substantial change in the foreseeable future. Many people in rural areas rely on fuelwood for cooking, and most still use open fires or very basic stoves. Grameen Shakti initially focused on electricity, by bringing off-grid households the opportunity of buying photovoltaic solar-home-systems (SHS) for lighting and small appliances. Through the network of offices and technology centres which it has developed throughout Bangladesh, Grameen Shakti is now able to move into other energy services, in particular providing safer and cheaper cooking options. 

The cookstoves save time and money

The organisation

Grameen Shakti is a non-profit organisation, which was established by Grameen Bank in 1996, with a mission to promote, develop and supply renewable energy technologies to rural households in Bangladesh. It employs over 2,000 staff at its head office in Dhaka, other offices and technology centres. Its turnover was about £15 million in 2006. 

Technology and use

Solar home systems

Solar-home-systems (SHS) are small, stand-alone electrical systems. They consist of a photovoltaic (PV) module, which generates electricity from sunlight; a rechargeable battery, which stores electricity so that it can be used during both day and night; a charge controller, which prevents the battery from being over-charged or deepdischarged; fluorescent lamps; wiring and fixtures. Initially the rated PV capacity varied from 40 to 120 Wp, with a 40 Wp system powering about four lamps for four hours per day, as well as radio, phone-charger and TV on larger systems. To make the SHS affordable to poorer households, smaller systems based on 10 to 20 Wp modules are now available as well, using low-power LED lights. 

Biogas systems

Biogas systems take organic material such as cattle dung into an air-tight tank where bacteria break down the material and release biogas – a mixture of mainly methane and carbon dioxide. The biogas can be burned as a fuel, for cooking or other purposes, and the solid residue can be used as organic compost. The plants made by Grameen Shakti use a digester tank which is constructed from bricks and concrete in a shallow pit, and  has a fixed brick dome built over it. The structure is finished with mortar to make it gas tight. 

Grameen Shakti's mission is to promote, develop and supply renewable energy technologies to rural households in Bangladesh

Manure is blended with an equal volume of water in a mixing tank (in order to make it flow easily) before it is added to the digester tank. Here it decomposes, producing biogas (typically 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide) which is tapped off via a pipe in the centre of the dome and used for cooking in specially-designed stoves. An outlet tank receives the residue that is displaced when new feedstock is added; the residue is collected and used to make compost.

Improved stoves

The Grameen Shakti improved wood-burning stoves use pre-fabricated chimneys and grates. Chimneys are produced by local manufacturing centres run by trained technicians. Grameen Shakti provides materials, and controls the quality of production. Grates are supplied by two national suppliers. 

The rest of the stove is built on-site by a trained technician, using locally available mud, mixed with water. If necessary the mud is mixed with cow dung and rice husk to make it sufficiently sticky. The stove has a single combustion chamber with one, two or three holes for pots. The chimney takes smoke out of the kitchen. Larger commercial stoves are made to a similar design, but using concrete rather than mud so that they are more durable. Grameen Shakti has started a tree-planting programme to complement its work with fuelwood-saving stoves. 

Woman cooking on new cookstove: a single combustion chamber with three holes for pots

How users pay

130 Bangladeshi Taka (Tk) = UK£1 = US$2 [May 2008]

The PV programme is supported through the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development Project (REREDP) financed by the World Bank and Global Environment Facility (GEF), and managed locally by the Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL). Initially the project provided Grameen Shakti with both low interest loans (from which to provide microfinance for end-users) and end-user subsidies. The subsidy level was gradually reduced, and subsidies have now been phased out completely. 

The cost of a 50 Wp PV system is about Tk 27,900 (£215), which is equivalent to about half the average annual income of a rural household. A small 20 Wp system costs only Tk 15,000 (£115). 

Customers can chose from three payment options. Those with limited cash income can pay a 15% deposit (£17 for a 20 Wp system) and receive a loan for the remaining 85% of the price. This loan, with the addition of a 6% service charge, is paid back in monthly instalments (£2/month for a 20 Wp system) over three years. A more rapid payment method is to pay a 25% deposit and pay back the loan, charged at 4%, over two years. Alternatively, a 4% discount is offered for cash purchases.

Women no longer have to breathe wood smoke and cooking is much quicker

Contracts are signed with either men or women. Grameen Shakti tries to sign with women where possible, since they are in the home more than men and use the SHS more. The monthly payments are collected by field staff from the local Grameen Shakti unit office, who also check that the system is working properly.

Training, support and quality control

From the start of its work, Grameen Shakti has actively involved the local community in the planning, installation and maintenance of SHS. One of the reasons that the programme has been able to scale up so rapidly is the effective way in which Grameen Shakti has provided sales, components and servicing at a community level, by local people who are familiar with community needs. 

Grameen Shakti has started a network of ‘Grameen technology centres’ (GTCs), managed mainly by women engineers. The GTCs train other women as solar technicians, through an initial 15-day course in which they learn to assemble charge controllers, mobile phone chargers, lamp shades, and electronic inverters for fluorescent lamps, and how to install and maintain SHS. With further training, they are also able to repair systems. There are now 20 GTCs in operation, and these have trained 1,037 technicians. At least 300 of these technicians are working for the GTCs or independently. The GTCs also train users to take care of their systems and undertake minor repairs.

‘Grameen technology centres’ train women as solar technicians

Grameen Shakti has helped about 50 of its best technicians to set up as independent entrepreneurs, and pays them to assemble solar accessories in their own homes and to install systems. The GTC provides marketing, management and business support to the entrepreneurs, as well as providing them with business. The aim is that eventually the entrepreneurs will generate much of their own business. 

Grameen Shakti is committed to training women in order to build their confidence and give them employment opportunities – usually their first paid employment. It also recognises that women are the main social force in communities. However, there is also a practical benefit to having female technicians, since they are allowed to visit homes during the daytime if the men of the household are away. 

Training women builds confidence and gives them employment opportunities

For SHS, the main components are covered by warranties: PV modules for 20 years, batteries for five years, and charge controllers for three years. Once components are out of warranty, Grameen Shakti offers SHS owners a service contract for Tk 500 (£4) per year. Including a quick check of the system with the monthly visit to collect payment is a very effective way of sorting minor problems, and preventing major ones. 

Benefits

As of April 2008, Grameen Shakti had installed 150,000 SHS, with 6.75 MWp total capacity (45 Wp average per system). Over 50,000 of these installations were carried out by GTC-trained staff. Although the cooking technologies have been promoted only for the past two years, already 3,000 biogas plants and 15,000 improved cook stoves have been installed. Together the technologies installed by Grameen Shakti provide services to more than one million people. 

Direct benefits to users

Solar-home-systems replace kerosene lamps for lighting, and in doing so provide several benefits. The immediate benefit to users is avoiding the fumes and fire-risk of kerosene lamps. Women, who usually spend more time in the home, benefit most from the elimination of kerosene smoke and the risk of burns. 

Woman installing solar PV on roof

The use of SHS brings significant social benefits. Families can listen to music and, with larger SHS, watch television. Domestic chores and studying can be carried out more easily, for longer, and more safely in the evenings with PV lighting. Many clinics use SHS to provide lighting during check-ups or operations. The availability of PV power for phone chargers has made it possible for people in rural areas to use mobile phones. This increases business opportunities, and also allows people to maintain contact with family members throughout Bangladesh and abroad.

Cooking conditions are greatly improved: women no longer have to breathe wood smoke, which is known to contribute to respiratory and eye diseases, and the kitchen is also much cooler and cleaner. Cooking is much quicker, and more time is saved if wood had previously been collected. 

There are significant financial savings. Owners of a 20 Wp SHS who previously used about 7.5 litres/month of kerosene save Tk 335 per month, at the current subsidised price of Tk 45 per litre. This is the same as the repayment cost on a 36-month loan. So for the price of kerosene come brighter, safer light and all the other benefits of solar electricity. Users of improved stoves reduce their monthly wood consumption from about 40 kg/month to 20 kg/month, which saves over Tk 100/month, if wood is purchased. Thus the cost of the stove is repaid within about six months.

Environmental benefits

There is a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the use of such large numbers of SHS. A recent figure from the CDM carbon-finance assessment found that households using an SHS save about 500 kg/year CO2 per 50 Wp system. On this basis, the 6.75 MWp of PV installed to date by Grameen Shakti saves an impressive 68,000 tonnes/year CO2.

Biogas systems and stoves also reduce the consumption of unsustainable fuelwood, thus preserving wood supplies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Overall wood savings, assuming 20 kg/month saved per stove and 40 kg/month per biogas plant, are about 5,000 tonnes/year. If wood production is completely unsustainable, this represents a greenhouse gas saving of about 8,000 tonnes/year CO2.

Women have more employment opportunities

Economic and employment benefits

Owning an SHS increases opportunities for income generation. Many women have used the increased working time provided by an SHS to start small-scale businesses such as poultry rearing and handicrafts. Businesses can also remain open for longer, including tailoring shops, restaurants and grocery shops. New business opportunities and jobs have been created, such as running community TV stations and renting mobile phone time.  

Grameen Shakti itself employs over 2,000 people and, with the growing numbers of unit offices and GTCs, an increasing proportion of its employees are based in the rural areas. Stove technicians receive Tk 200 per stove installed, and an experienced technician can install 40 stoves per month, thus earning Tk 8,000/month (£62/month) – over twice the Government minimum wage. The solar entrepreneurs have only just started working independently, but already they are earning Tk 4,000 to 5,000/month. 

Potential for growth and replication

The SHS programme has expanded enormously since Grameen Shakti first won an Ashden Award in June 2006. At that time, it had sold about 65,000 SHS, and biogas installations had just started. As of April 2008, there were 150,000 SHS installations, with nearly 5,000 more installed per month. The biogas and improved stove programmes have both achieved significant scale in less than two years, with over 3,000 biogas plants and 15,000 stoves installed. All programmes are popular, and marketing is largely by word-of-mouth. 

Dipal Barua with future plans for Grameen

There is significant potential to roll-out large scale programmes of local sustainable energy in other countries, using the Grameen Shakti approach. Grameen Shakti staff have promoted the approach at seminars in India, Thailand, Sweden, USA and Germany. Presentations have also been made at leading international universities. Many donors consult Grameen Shakti when planning programmes to provide local, sustainable energy technologies. Many organisations, especially in Africa have shown interest in collaborating with Grameen Shakti to replicate its approach. 

Management, finance and partnerships

Dipal Barua, Managing Director of Grameen Shakti, is in overall charge of all the programmes. Grameen Shakti employs over 2,000 staff in its head office, 387 other offices and 20 GTCs. 

The office organisation is in a pyramid structure. The head office is responsible for orders and storage of equipment, finance, monitoring and auditing, and also has a production facility. It has overall responsibility and direct oversight of seven divisional offices, which oversee 60 regional offices, which in turn oversee and monitor the 387 unit offices.

The initial funds to establish Grameen Shakti came from the Grameen Trust and Grameen Fund. Later on, it received both subsidy and low-interest loan finance from IDCOL under the REREDP. Some loan finance is still available, but Grameen Shakti is increasingly funded through revenue from sales and loan repayments. Direct donor support for specific programmes comes from the UNDP, USAID, GTZ and KFW. 

Grameen Shakti runs joint training programmes on renewable energy with the Bangaldesh University of Science and Technology (BUET). It has given placements to over 100 interns from Europe, USA and Canada.