December 21, 2011 / Praxis
In this Advent reflection, Tom Ryan wonders whether we really want what Advent prepares us for.
August 8, 2005
Like many African countries, São Tomé e Principe (STP) is struggling to stand on her own after being raped by colonization. “Discovered” by Portuguese navigators in the late 1400’s, STP quickly became Africa’s top sugar exporter in the 1500’s due to the colonized slave labor. Sugar cultivation eventually waned, but fortunately for the Portuguese plantation owners (and unfortunately for the São Toméans) two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced. By the first decade of the 1900’s Sao Tome had become the world’s largest exporter of cocoa.
It wasn’t until 1975 that STP received its independence from Portugal. Today anyone who walks the 1,000 km2 island of São Tomé (about 1/3 the size of Rhode Island) can still see the remnants of the plantations. The once lavish plantation mansions are now crumbling structures that house one São Tomén family (4 to 12 people) per room. The slave quarters surrounding the plantation mansions seem as though they have remained unchanged for 100 years. They stand indistinguishable from the horse stalls they were built next to – consisting of tiny one-room shacks often in long block formations. Today both the slaves and horses are gone so, like the slave quarters, stable stalls are inhabited by São Tomén families.
Africa is an incredibly diverse continent. For this reason, it is important to view STP in light of the rest of Africa and understand its uniqueness. STP’s most significant defining trait is its classification as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS). There are about 45 countries around the world classified as SIDS and these countries face difficulties specific to their small size, remoteness and insularity, disaster proneness, and environmental fragility. Every SIDS walks a tightrope of vulnerability. Their small size presents no hope of growing an economy of scale exploiting specialization. Instead, SIDS remain excessively dependent on outside resources with little to no market or price influence. Transportation is difficult and expensive, climate change threatens each country’s very existence, waste disposal and management is extremely cumbersome, while freshwater and energy resources are often very limited. All developing countries face significant challenges, however Small Island Developing States face a particularly complicated and difficult development process.
Uba Budo is a São Toméan community that used to be the central hub of one of the dozen of larger plantations in the country. At its peak, the community had its own hospital (as did most of the larger plantations), a school system, and even a railroad. Now the entire country shares one hospital and one high school and a very broken road that is in such disrepair that one section is completely washed away; this makes driving the entire circumference impossible. Today Uba Budo’s railroad engine lays in a rusted mass in a large central yard in front of the once beautifully ornate two story hospital. Faint outlines of its sweeping archways are only slightly more distinguishable then the railroad tracks which were long ago pulled up.
It is a cruel irony that while under Portuguese colonization, this country boasted one of the best road systems in all of Africa, and now 30 years into its freedom, each day seems to bring more deterioration. When the sun sets on the equatorial island, the lights literally go out for 70 percent of the population who do not have electricity. A family in Uba Budo will spend between 30,000 to 60,000 dobra (3 to 6 US dollars) on candles or kerosene each month. For a fraction of this price, fuel could be communally purchased to power an electric generator bringing light to each of the 200 homes in Uba Budo.
I first travelled to Uba Budo in June of 2005 with my academic advisor, a professor at Columbia University and energy expert who often advises the UN on energy matters in Africa. As we walked through Uba Budo, a group of community leaders explained how the village had once been given a large 18 kW diesel generator, transmission lines, light bulbs, and power receptacles as a gift. But, after the gift was installed, no collection framework was established for obtaining aggregated payment for ongoing fuel costs or maintenance. In time, the generator broke and fuel ran out. Like so many development projects across Africa, a well-intentioned gift became a skeleton of dead transmission lines and broken light bulbs.
We met with the larger community to discuss possible solutions for their desire to have electricity. Together we ironed out the details of a system that would be much smaller than the previous gift, but would be more manageable to maintain. In fact, management and maintenance was the focus of the plan. The project was to be completely owned and developed by the community – its success depended on their participation and use, not on future outside “gifts.”
A 4 kW diesel generator was to be installed and two community leaders were to be trained as local technicians. They would only run the generator for four hours each night. Each home would have one special 10 watt efficient light bulb only, and no appliances or additional electrical devices would be attached to the micro-grid, except one community television. This would result in a very small amount of fuel consumption each month, less than 25 cents worth of fuel per home. Local leaders in the community would also collect a monthly electricity bill from each family, about 30,000 dobra (3 US dollars), the same price they were already paying for candles. Some of this money would be used to pay for fuel and the majority would be saved to pay for maintenance & repairs. In a year’s time if all went well, a bigger generator for increased power consumption would be affordable.
The central focus would be empowerment. Four hours of electric glow each night would not immediately revolutionize their lives. But small steps to developing a dependable community structure would provide a sense of ownership and a frame work for future projects. This is the key to the marriage of appropriate technology and sustainable development in the two thirds world – local ownership, small steps, and empowerment.
Sadly, I had to leave the Uba Budo community to return to my graduate classes in New York. These past six months I have been supporting the project from afar.
The national electricity company, EMAE, became a key partner in installing equipment, acquiring infrastructure, and establishing permanent supply chains for bulb and fuel transport to the community. In fact, EMAE and Uba Budo were so proactive that it was hard for my advisor and me to keep up. Just weeks after we had left Uba Budo in June, community leaders met, drafted an energy commission bylaw document, formally registered with the government, and opened a bank account to save aggregated funds. EMAE quickly found a generator and began to repair the existing transmission lines, training the new technicians as they went along.
EMAE manages the national grid which is plagued with all the difficulties of a SIDS energy system. Connecting a rural community like Uba Budo to the national grid is cost prohibitive. For this reason, EMAE was very excited to try the micro-grid approach, hoping to eventually empower other communities to implement the design as an intermediate step toward greater energy access.
Rural electrification sounds like a trite focus when I consider the vast poverty, water quality, education, and health care problems in STP. However, imposing my own values, being paralysed by the magnitude of the problems, or spending years trying to create a panacea does little to help. Small steps can be made toward a lasting impact. Rural electrification itself can have significant impacts on community health , reducing indoor air pollution, empowering women and girls by freeing up time previously used in preparing meals and gathering firewood, and providing more opportunity for evening study sessions to improve education. In Uba Budo, the hope is that a micro-grid will bring the glow of a higher quality of life by empowering the community to participate in their own development, making their own decisions about their future, and finally having the resources to do so. Nearby villages have already visited Uba Budo, meeting with the community leaders to ask how Uba Budo is being transformed. In time, I hope that a network of tiny micro-grids will grow as Uba Budo trains its neighbours. The management practices and confidence that communities learn along the way can hopefully be used to address other problems like water and health care, one light bulb at a time.
2. United Nations. Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States: Report of the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States Bridgetown, Barbados, 26 April-6 May 1994. New York: United Nations; 1994. iii, 91 p.
3. Briguglio, Lino. Small island developing states and their economic vulnerabilities. World Development. 1995 Sep; 23(9):1615-1632.
4. Spalding-Fecher, Randall. Health benefits of electrification in developing countries: a quantitative assessment in South Africa. Energy for Sustainable Development. Volume 9, No. 1, March 2005.
Matt Basinger is a graduate student in earth and environmental engineering at Columbia Unversity in the city of New York. He has a published technical article in Electronic Product Design and loves to play the guitar and MIDI synthesizer.