Our analysis of SELF's Kalalé project will provide the first controlled feasibility study of rural solar power at the district scale. The project will not directly test the cost and performance of solar electrification against diesel generators and grid extension by comparing, for example, groups of villages electrified in different manners. It will, however, very accurately measure the extent to which solar power can successfully be used in a cost-competitive manner to access the critical opportunities and services elsewhere provided by diesel generators or grid extension. The data generated by this project can then be compared to other technologies for assessment of overall sustainability (e.g. the diesel-driven Millennium Development Villages).
In areas like Kalalé, food production problems are expected to worsen--perhaps severely--under future climate change. Recent work suggests a high probability of significant drying in the Sahel over the 21st century (e.g., Held et. al. 2005). In the absence of viable adaptation strategies, this trend could fundamentally threaten the viability of agriculture in the region. We hypothesize that the solar-powered pump/micro-irrigation system will increase agricultural output with a neutral environmental impact. Through both input/output calculations and monitoring of water levels, fertilizer usage, and local environmental indicators, we will assess the overall environmental impact and environmental sustainability of this technology in the critical Sahelian/Sudanian region. This work expands on the African Market Garden project being pioneered by ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, who is partnering with SELF on the project) and will provide a sizeable and controlled sample to assess the potential for this type of agricultural adaptation.
We hypothesize that the solar electrification described above will have a positive and measurable impact on household income, as local farmers will be able to grow produce throughout the dry season and sell the surplus. Additionally, we hypothesize that community nutrition will improve, due to both year-round access to nutrients provided by fresh produce, as well as a greater availability of capital to spend on staples. Finally, we hypothesize that community incidence of diarrheal diseases will decrease due to improved access to clean water. These assertions are straightforward, but have not been rigorously measured in this context before. The villages of Kalalé district provide a sufficient sample to assess predicted income effects; they also boast an array of local markets to monitor broader economic effects across the district as the technology is introduced. While it remains difficult to assess overall health and nutrition non-invasively, it is possible to measure consumption levels of both produce and clean water and to survey the incidence of diarrheal illness. Additionally, the central health clinic in Kalalé is undertaking a broad campaign to measure and monitor childhood malnutrition in all villages and their annual data will be extremely useful.
Technology-based development projects--even with the best intentions and careful planning--can fail over time due to incommensurability with local norms, lack of technical maintenance expertise, maintenance costs, and free-rider problems associated with upkeep of public goods. The sample of villages in Kalalé provides an opportunity to test the effects of different community political and organizational structures on sustained project success. After initial study, we will create a set of community organization frameworks to be implemented along with the technology and training provided by SELF; we will use these to understand how organizational structure can best be used to support community development.
We will use the pilot phase to test survey instruments and non-survey measurement techniques on both test and control villages, to recruit and train teams of survey enumerators and local technical monitors, and to gather data on the current state of Beninois electrification (e.g. extent, sources, etc.), nutrition, technical capacity (both in terms of materials and knowledge), and public goods provision. In short, 2007-2008 will be used to establish project baselines, pilot the experiment, and finalize the research design for the district-scale project beginning in 2009.
If successful, this project will provide crucial insight into the viability of solar electrification vis-à-vis other interventions designed to meet the much-trumpeted Millennium Development Goals of halving poverty and improving child and maternal health. Many efforts at meeting these goals, including the flagship Millennium Villages Project, involve poorly-evaluated strategies based on almost no data of the sort that can provided by randomized field trials. Our hope is that data from the work proposed here will help shape the debate on how best to promote sustainable rural development in poor regions, in the context of a world coping with climate change and in need of environment-friendly development paths for poor nations. We expect output from the project will include direct outreach to SELF and related development NGOs, input into the larger policy community on appropriate and viable micro-level strategies for development, and publication of results in the peer-reviewed literature.
Sources and Suggestions
The Millenium Villages project homepage.
Freling, Robert and Jeff Lahl, "Renewable Energy Technology: Optimizing Energy Sources for the Development of Millenium Project Villages," Solar Electric Light Fund White Paper, 8 July 2005. [.pdf]
Held, IM, et. al., "Simulation of Sahel drought in the 20th and 21st centuries," PNAS, v.102 n.50, 12 December 2005. [.pdf]