Remembering Teresa Marston, May Her Tribe Increase

I first met Teresa probably in 1995 and she had a big smile on her face. That Smile is something I have associated with Teresa for the next 10 years until 2004, during the period when I had the privilege of working with her. I learned yesterday from her family that Therese had passed away peacefully on the 22nd of January and that she was suffering from a neuro-degenerative disease called ALS for the last 3 years. She had faced the disease with an incredible optimism and courage and  passed away gracefully two weeks ago.

I remember Therese as always very kind and would often go out of her way to help people in need. I recall the three dogs  she adopted while living in India and she would always take in the weakest of the dogs. She felt very strongly for the street children begging for money at traffic intersections in Delhi and taught me not to give them money but chocolates, toys old cloths etc. While in Pondicherry, Therese was always at the forefront of any socially oriented initiative that the company IT Power organised. I recall that once, she got a professional troupe from Mumbai to Pondicherry to go around performing at schools in Pondicherry to create awareness on environmental protection.

An incident which I recall during our time at IT Power being is something which defines Therese. We were both interviewing several candidates for an open position. One particular interview wasn’t going well and when we were about to complete the interview the candidate broke down. He said he had appeared for a large number of interviews and has now lost hope of ever finding a job. My instinct was to console and thank him but select another candidate who was the best recruit. Therese however impressed on me that as a company active in sustainable development, we had a responsibility to select and mentor such professionals as well. I reluctantly agreed and for the next several months I thought we had made a mistake. But over a period of time, the employee shed his inhibitions and bloomed. Now he is employed in another reputed company, has started a family and remains a friend. It’s possible that the story might have been different, if not for the role Therese played.

I was in touch with Therese over the past year about a get-together and treatment in India but did not realise that she was unwell. I had suggested few months ago that we meet the next time she would be in India but I now realise with great sadness that there won’t be a next time…

Let’s celebrate the life of Teresa Marston for the kindness and support she has shown to everyone she came across. I’m sure that she has influenced several people like me to be more accommodating and kind. So thank you for the privilege of knowing and working with you Teresa.

Rest In Peace.

A Man and an Island Called Pediatorkope

The man was old and frail but had a commanding presence and a strong voice despite needing a walking stick to move around. I suspect that he was in his late 80s or early 90s but looked a lot younger, was strategic and spoke intelligently His name was Chief Nene Pediatorkope IV – the supreme chief of the island of Pediatorkope in Ghana whom I met last week.

Pediatorkope is an island in the Volta River inhabited by agricultural and riparian fishing communities. After the Akosombo dam was built in 1966, water levels downstream decreased significantly and with it the fish catch also dropped just like the water level. Many of the men left the village moving upstream to continue fishing or migrated to nearby cities find other jobs. There is still limited amounts of agriculture and fishing in the Island but more at a subsistence level. The island now has a government supported school and a health centre but the houses does not have electricity or water supply. Once darkness sets in, the village life literally comes to an end. Some of the wealthier households have either a solar home system or a battery power pack, primarily for lighting, phone charging and for powering radios or televisions. Those with the battery power pack recharge their batteries periodically at the village solar kiosk operated by an NGO – Empower Playgrounds. Income from agriculture and fishing has also dwindled over time due lack of irrigation and absence of a cold storage.

The situation Pediatorkope where absence of energy constrains social and economic development is very similar to the situation in remote communities I have seen. Availability of modern energy allows such villages to irrigate fields which are not cultivated, have cold rooms and freezers to avoid poultry, milk and fish and also find other productive uses for energy. This also allows children to read and study in the evenings and have shops and markets open into late evening. The Chief was very sure that the Pediatorkope island community will grow from strength to strength once there was energy supply.

The village also had some feedback on the way rural energy programmes should be implemented. Rather than government institutions installing solar home systems or street lights which fail in a matter of time, their preference was for the energy to be delivered as a service to them for which they will pay. What the villagers were willing to pay was the avoided cost of what they were already paying for dry cell batteries for torches. They also did not want the community themselves to manage the energy systems as they thought the social compulsions would result in inadequate revenue generation and eventual failure. They wanted the systems to be managed by professional enterprises and that people in Pediatorkope were available to be employed by such companies.

For me it was interesting to hear people preferring paid energy service over hardware donations, like I have heard in the Sunderbans villages in India few years ago. It was also interesting to hear that they also wanted an external enterprise to manage the service arrangements like I have found out in Mokhotlong in Lesotho last year. I can see an increasing desire in remote rural village communities to received energy services than products and pay for these.

Once back in Accra, I spoke to my friend Wisdom who is the Director at the Ministry of Energy about the island and its electricity needs. Wisdom thought that it should be possible to get grid electricity to the village through overhead cables or a mini-grid system to meet the household and productive needs in the village. Either way, I do hope that Pediatorkope will be electrified soon as part of the government’s rural electrification efforts. Next time someone visits Pediatorkope, I hope they will be able to see a more prosperous island, where men stay on in the village, children doing better academically and agriculture and commerce prospering.

The Woman and Child in Bondo and Modern Thermal Energy Access

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.