A library boat brings books, newspapers and solar powered internet access to remote waterside villages.

The remote Chalanbeel of Bangladesh is difficult to get to by road, and most travel is by boat. Many people have no land with which to support themselves and no access to education, training or modern energy supplies.

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha is a charity working to improve the quality of life and opportunities in the Chalanbeel by taking services to the people by boat. Solar photovoltaics (PV) are used to power equipment on these purpose built boats.  

The women of our country face different types of barriers – social, religious and family. This is the main reason we cannot get education and training and we cannot make ourselves self-reliant. After this library came to our village, we started to believe in ourselves and we are able to overcome all the barriers. Those who couldn’t buy books before, it caused them a problem with their education and they left school. Now we can get the books from this library.

Razia Khatun

Background

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha works mainly in the Chalanbeel of Bangladesh, where road access is very limited and boats are the only viable year round transport. Many communities are near rivers or canals.The villages have no mains electricity, very basic sanitation, and use water from wells or rivers. Many families are landless and work as day labourers, earning only US$200- $320 per year. Although all children are meant to get free education, it is difficult to find teachers who will stay in the region, transport is limited, and schools get flooded in the monsoon. In addition, many parents are reluctant to let girls go to school. 

In order to bring regular education and information services to the families of the Chalanbeel, Shidhulai use a fleet of specially built boats; and photovoltaic (PV) electricity is the ideal way of powering the educational technology on the boats.

The organisation

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha is a charity founded by Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan in a small village (Shidhulai) in 1998. Shidhulai’s mission is to provide education and training to poor and marginalised people in Bangladesh (with a particular emphasis on environmental protection) enabling them to develop sustainable livelihoods. In 2009, the organisation employed 200 staff and 2,000 volunteers. In 2007, Shidhulai had an annual budget of about US$1.5 m, the majority from charitable sources. Some funds are raised through income-generation activities, including a recycling business. 

Boat schools enable children to start education close to their homes.

The technology

How does it work?

PV modules generate electricity from sunlight. With re-chargeable batteries to store electricity, they provide an independent source of power which can be used both day and night. A PV system incorporates a charge controller which prevents the battery from being over-charged or deep-discharged, and may also include an inverter to convert dc power to ac, allowing the use of ac appliances. 

The fleet of boats are designed with a flat bottom to allow easy passage through shallow rivers and canals, and even over flooded land. The roofs are multi-layered to keep out the monsoon rain and also the heat, and there are side windows that can be opened for ventilation.

PV modules are installed on the roofs of the boats, providing between 500 Wp and 2 kWp of power, depending on the electrical demand. The PV modules charge an array of lead acid batteries through a charge controller, and power the electrical equipment on the boat. All boats have PV-powered lighting, using 10 W compact fluorescent bulbs, and also mobile phone services. The mobile phone connection allows people to make personal phone calls, and also to talk to health experts and get agricultural advice.

How much does it cost and how do users pay?

US$1 = T65 (Bangladeshi Taka) [March 2007]

Shidhulai sources funding from a range of donors and the majority of its users pay nothing for the services provided, except for mobile phone calls.

How is it manufactured and maintained?

The boats are all built in the region, using locally available materials, and are expected to last for about 10 - 15 years before a major rebuild is needed. Most of the batteries are made in Bangladesh, although some are from India. PV modules are imported to Bangladesh and bought from local markets, and have an expected lifetime of 15 years. The LEDs used in the SHS come from India, China and Japan. The SHS, lanterns and bicycle pumps are assembled in local workshops. 

The PV systems and other equipment on the boats are maintained by Shidhulai’s own trained technicians. Users of the SHS are given some training, but as they are simply using a sealed battery and LED lights, this only needs to be at a basic level. Users of the bicycle pumps are given training in the use of the pump, and the best way to apply the water on the land. 

For Shidhulai, training and support goes beyond the technology installed on the boats: their prime goal is education and training of children and adults including primary education for children, computer education and library services for all ages, education on women’s rights, and training in sustainable agriculture.

Girls in particular benefit from the boat schools, giving them access to education they would otherwise miss out on.

Benefits

In 2007 Shidhulai was running 88 boats, and in addition 13,500 portable SHS and 2,500 solar lanterns have been distributed. The services provided by the Shidhulai boats reached about 87,000 families (over 400,000 people). The PV-powered electricity is a key factor in providing most of the services.

Environmental benefits

Training in sustainable agriculture is a main focus of Shidhulai, and PV-powered equipment has broadened the range of materials available and delivery methods – for instance, using evening film shows to make educational material interesting for people

who have been working all day in the field.

Social benefits

Primary education is mainly for children aged five to eight, although some older children also attend. The focus is on educating girls who in the past often missed out because parents could not afford to send them to school, or would not let their girls leave the village. 

The PV-powered computers and media facilities provide access to a wide range of interesting and relevant materials, and the curriculum is externally reviewed and updated. Attendance is high and after three years of regular education on the boats, children are encouraged to attend the nearest primary school. Support to girls is taken further through the Girl Children’s Rights Association, a distance education programme that provides information to girls and young women on topics such as domestic abuse, child trafficking and prostitution.

Library services allow people to educate themselves, consult reference texts and also read  for enjoyment. The PV-powered internet and telephone access has helped people stay in touch with distant relatives, get advice on health and agricultural issues, and learn more about what is happening outside their local region. Being able to make a phone call or read a magazine is something that city-dwellers take for granted, but is now a possibility for rural riverside communities as well. The ability to gain IT experience and skills using the PV-powered computers has improved the career prospects of young people, giving them more options when they go to seek work.

The emphasis is on education, particularly of the young who would otherwise miss out

Economic benefits

Using PV electricity to charge batteries for off-boat use extends the range of services that Shidhulai can offer. Solar-home-systems provide families with good-quality light in the evening for children to study and adults to do craftwork to earn extra income. They also save on the cost of kerosene, and eliminate the pollution and fire risk of using a kerosene lamp. Solar lanterns have been particularly useful for night fishing, and surveys suggest that they have raised the average fisherman’s income by US$5 (T300) per month – a significant increase in a region where earnings are typically only US$20 (T1,200) per month. Lamps also improve safety on boats: they are now able to signal to other boats in a way that they could not with a kerosene lamp. 

As well as energy and education, Shidhulai also provides micro-enterprise loans, so that mainly landless women can borrow between US$60 to $220) (T4,000 to T15,000) to set up small businesses, including agriculture, craftwork and computing.

A student studying using the solar home lighting

Potential for growth and replication

There is significant potential within Bangladesh for Shidhulai to expand its work, as there are approximately 20 million people living in villages accessible only by boat.

The success of Shidhulai shows the potential of PV for enhancing educational services. With a small amount of reliable power, remote communities can have access to information, education and training, as well as lighting for homes, boats and businesses. However, it is important to recognise that PV electricity alone does not provide the services – what is crucial is how the PV is used within a well-planned and integrated programme, and how it is maintained in good condition so that these services have continuity.

Update: what happened next?

Although some boats had to be taken out of service for a period, by 2009 the total number had increased to 90 boats, with about 60 in operation at any one time. Boats deliver a variety of services, including healthcare (5 boats), libraries (10), information/training centres (9), classrooms/schools (18), solar workshops (2), flood shelter (5) and transportation (10). 

Shidhulai used the Ashden Award funds to develop double-storey boats, so that more service could you provided at each visit. A further 4,400 portable SHS have been provided by the organisation so far. Several new products have also been developed, including solar powered early flood warning devices, floating flood shelters, two-storey boats to provide more services, and floating gardens. About 90,000 families now benefit from the work.