She was weak and frail, with her baby on her back and a large and unusually long log of wood on her head. You could sense that she was struggling to move under the weight of the log on her head and the baby on her back, but perhaps the promise of the large firewood and promise of less trips to gather wood egged her on. The water channel on her path was shallow but the fall was very steep, probably 40 m or more, she would have crossed the channel quite easily without the load. She jumped across, didn’t make it, slipped but fortunately held on to the brickwork and then pulled herself and her baby out and moved on. I had my heart in my mouth for a few seconds and was greatly relieved that she and her baby was safe. The women with her baby (see picture) could have easily slipped and dropped 40 m down with grave consequences.
This is a scene I witnessed two weeks ago at Bondo in Southern Malawi –one of African countries where over 90% of the population lack energy access. Several millions of women in Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia make such risky trips every day to gather firewood, twigs and shrubs for household thermal energy use, often putting themselves at physical risk. Such trips often expose these women to rough terrain, natural elements and attacks from animals and sometimes fellow humans. Most of these women then cook food or boil water using inefficient traditional stoves or keep the fire burning through the night to keep themselves warm or keep wild animals away. These traditional thermal energy use results in major indoor air pollution which slowly kills them and their children through lower respiratory diseases. So women are exposed to health risks during the collection and use of traditional biomass for thermal energy.
Against this backdrop, last week, I was pleased to learn from the launch of the decade of SE4All from New York that the first two years of the decade will be dedicated to ‘Energy-Women-Children-Health’ nexus. This is a very welcome development and I applaud the SE4All leadership and partners for the attention to this space. However to be able to effectively address health related challenges of women and children in areas without energy access, electrification alone is not sufficient and providing modern and thermal energy to rural women is central to this issue. Providing modern thermal energy needs to go beyond a product delivery approach which often focuses only on efficient cook-stoves. While energy for cooking is important, hot water for sanitation and space heating are also quite important. While biomass – solid and liquid fuels, electricity and solar thermal could all play a role, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) can also play a supplementary role. The business of providing thermal energy as a service is likely to a low-return, long-term business and may need to be combined with electricity or agro businesses to increase viability. There are also important roles that public sector, private sector, Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) and the international community should play. Solutions will need to go beyond technology to address, financing, supply chain, institutional arrangements as well as policy and regulations. So all of us need to chip at this problem from all possible angles and the attention and support in this space in the next two years due to SE4All is very welcome.
As for the anonymous woman and her child, Peter Killick of Mulanje Energy Generation Agency, the micro-grid electricity service provider for Bondo who witnessed the scene with me, kindly offered to put a footbridge across the channel. While I am relieved that her future journeys to gather fuel will be safer, I hope to be back in Bondo in the future to see that she has access to cleaner energy technologies and fuel supply at her doorstep.