Sein Win May has spent more than her share of time in the dark. At 51, she has lived her whole life in Shin Hla, a remote village with 600 residents in Myanmar’s Dry Zone, accessible only by boat. Like most of the country’s vast rural stretches, Shin Hla has no grid electricity. For Sein Win May, this meant lighting her small shop, where she sells cooking supplies, dry foods, and snacks, with a single, dim lightbulb, at least when she had the means to recharge the batteries to which they connected, a time-consuming and costly process.
“It took a day to go to the place that refills them,” Sein Win May explained. “Sometimes I couldn’t go because I’m running my shop alone, and when I did, I had to pay a lot.”
Then she heard about an alternative. Pact, a nonprofit international development organization with a long history in Myanmar, was helping villagers buy solar home systems. Sein Win May had heard of solar panels before, but no one was selling them near Shin Hla. She knew little about them, but figured she’d never be able to afford solar. This offer, though, seemed different—and possible. The systems were reasonably priced, especially compared to other lighting options, and a complementary loan program allowed interested residents to pay them off in manageable installments.
Sein Win May decided: she was ready to go solar.
Pact had been working in Myanmar for years when, in 2011, it began an ambitious, wide-ranging development project called Shae Thot, or “The Way Forward,” with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Central to Shae Thot are Village Development Committees, or VDCs, comprised of democratically elected village members, who are tasked with leading local development initiatives. Each VDC received support to launch a fund for local development projects. Starting with an allotment of seed money, VDCs grew their funds by providing low-interest loans to community members. They used proceeds to fund priority projects selected with input from the community—such as roads and schools. Meanwhile, Pact and other Shae Thot partners worked with villages to address other fundamental community challenges including maternal and child health, livelihoods, and water, sanitation, and hygiene.
“As we progressed, we saw that many, many villages were spending a large portion of their development funds on energy,” said Richard Harrison, Pact’s then-country director and current CEO of Smart Power Myanmar. “It was clear this was a huge unmet need.”
More than 60 percent of Myanmar is not served by the electrical grid. Even in areas with grid access, blackouts are routine. While the Myanmar government has made efforts to build and improve the essential grid infrastructure, lack of affordable, reliable energy perpetuates cycles of poverty and limits progress in areas from education and livelihoods to health and food security.
While the Myanmar government has made efforts to build and improve the essential grid infrastructure, lack of affordable, reliable energy perpetuates cycles of poverty and limits progress in areas from education and livelihoods to health and food security.
“Without power, development stalls,” Harrison said. “We were seeing it firsthand.”
With funding from Chevron, Pact launched Ahlin Yaung—“light” in Burmese—in 2015, with the aim to bring renewable energy to 1 million people in rural Myanmar by 2021. Other corporate partners soon joined the effort, including Shell and electrical equipment multinational ABB.
Rather than acting as a vendor of solar home systems, Pact supported the fledgling industry already in place, uniting communities with established suppliers, and provided loans for systems, which cost, on average, USD$60. Building on efforts to organize and empower Village Development Committees, program implementers worked with community leaders to create Village Development Funds (VDFs), a revolving fund whose initial zero-interest loan enabled them to begin lending to individual households at a low interest rate. The resulting interest revenues fund other community development projects while the principal payments return to the Ahlin Yaung Fund, becoming available to expand the program and extend energy loans to new villages.
Consistent access to electricity was a game-changer for families that had never had it before. They were able to run their businesses longer and more efficiently. Their children could read and study past sunset. And compared to other energy and light sources—wood, kerosene, candles, and diesel generators—solar is cleaner, safer, and considerably cheaper.
Pact is now expanding its renewable energy work in Myanmar to include larger-scale solutions like rural solar mini-grids that will allow people to productively use energy and power larger appliances.
“We know developing communities want and deserve more,” Harrison said. “To create real economic development, they need energy solutions that can do much more than power lights, fans, and televisions. They need to power real industry.”
‘We know developing communities want and deserve more,’ Harrison said. ‘To create real economic development, they need energy solutions that can do much more than power lights, fans, and televisions. They need to power real industry.’
In May, the organization launched a new program called Smart Power Myanmar with financial support from The Rockefeller Foundation, to accelerate electrification and economic development. Smart Power Myanmar seeks to achieve universal access to energy through larger-scale energy infrastructure like mini-grids, by facilitating investment, and supporting policy and industry coordination to meet demand.
The promising results in Myanmar have provided the confidence and insight to expand globally. Energy for Prosperity is Pact’s newest program to improve health, livelihoods, and other development outcomes by improving energy access.
“Aside from preventing economic development, energy poverty has significant and wide ranging effects on public health. To this day, in sub-Saharan Africa only 34 percent of hospitals and 26 percent of other health facilities have access to reliable energy,” said Matthew Cullinen, who leads the Energy for Prosperity program. “When we think about the productive use of energy, what could be more productive than medical equipment that saves lives? That’s why we’re looking at ways to target high impact opportunities like health facilities and businesses.”
In Shin Hla, Sein Win May now has a well-lit shop. It took her eight months to pay off her solar home system, and it has been worth it. As soon as her system was up and running, her shop stayed open later, and the day-long trips to charge batteries were history. With higher sales and profits, she has expanded her offerings, and plans to keep going.
“I am earning more and more,” she says.
This article is part of a series on “solvable problems” within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Engagement Forum: Live takes place this October 10–11, 2018, bringing together leaders from across the private, public, and social sectors to co-create solutions and partnerships to address four urgent, yet solvable problems—closing the skills gap in STEM, reducing post-harvest food loss, ending energy poverty, and eliminating marine debris and ocean plastics. Learn more about the Forum here.