February 24, 2009 — Imagine what life would be like if you had no electricity! Millions of people in developing countries don’t have access to electricity. This situation has improved dramatically in Laos as the rate of electrification has been growing rapidly from around 15% in 1995 to about 60% as of October 2008.
Extending the electricity grid to the poor
Providing electricity to 90% of households nation-wide by 2020 is one of the Government of Laos’ (GOLs) aims as part of poverty reduction in the country. Despite the growing rate of electrification, connection rates have begun to fall short of targets as the network expands to rural and marginalized areas of the country where initial connection costs becomes a burden to many—foremost the women-headed households. These households—unable to mobilize money for the connection cost—may be left without access to electricity even though the grid is passing right through their village.
Launching of P2P in the first 29 households of Mounlapamok District - one of the 72 poor districts of Laos
72 out of the 141 districts in Laos are classified as ‘Poor’ according to the government criteria (Socio-Economic Atlas of the Lao PDR, 2005 ). Mounlapamok District is one of the 10 districts of Champasack Province, not only facing development challenges as being one of the poor districts, but also being the district with the highest number of households without electricity and difficult road access—hence Mounlapamok District is seen as a meaningful yet challenging place to launch this pilot project.
The Power to the Poor Pilot Project (P2P) was officially launched at Deuaytia Village in Mounlapamok District, and celebrated the successful connection to the grid of the first 29 households in two pilot villages—Deuaytia and Khaidiow.
Several visits to the two villages made by Electricite du Laos (EDL) and the World Bank representatives shed light on the lives of people who lived without electricity for years. The tranquility of the villages and the occasional sound of birds chirping may seem exceptional for people from an urban area. However, the villagers have little opportunity to enjoy it, as during the day time, they all go to work either on their own or others’ rice paddies or to do bricklaying or fishing.
While walking down the long winding path to Deuaytia Village, the team was lucky enough to meet with a beneficiary of P2P—a man tending his four children while his wife was working in the rice paddy. He was initially taken aback by the unexpected visit, but when asked about his feelings of having electricity of his own, he eagerly and joyfully told the team his story.
"Before, I used to share electricity with my neighbors, but now I have my own. I am very happy and it will support me to do work at night. At the same time, my children will be able do their homework in the evening. I also plan to buy a water pump so that I can bring water from the river which will reduce time and energy from having to carry bucket of water home."
By the time the sun was setting, the team arrived at Khaidiow Village, which has a better road than Deuaytia Village and is more easily accessed. It was impressive to see houses starting to light up, a more lively surrounding, and most importantly, more women around.
We arrived at a house with six children outside who called to their grandmother as they saw a group of people approaching. Grandmother Chanh, who looks after her six grandchildren while her children are away working in the city, shares her heartfelt feelings: "This is my long-awaited moment to have electricity in my house. In all my 78 years of life without electricity, now I am speechless and delighted to see my house bright and I can see all my grandchildren’s faces clearly at night...Hopefully, my grandchildren will be able to benefit from having electricity, not only in agriculture work, but also for their education as well as finding some part-time activity that they can do at night to earn income for the family."
With the delights that electricity have brought to the villagers, many of them are thinking of using electricity in such a way as would improve their incomes and lives. The head of Deuaytia Village, sharing a similar view, is aware that electricity will bring about many changes in the villagers’ livelihoods. He stated that, “where there is power, there will be development”. At the same time, he encouraged the villagers to use electricity optimally, because although it can replace human labor, the people must still work hard.
Overall, although the number of houses installed with electricity seems small, the villagers’ happiness was more than numbers could measure. Many are looking towards longer nights of housework activities and using electricity optimally to improve their income generation and livelihoods. The outcome is surely a valuable new year’s gift for many.
Challenges ahead - Lighting more houses and lives
To date, 119 households of 410 in the five targeted districts of Champasack have had electricity supplied. The road ahead is to complete connections to 1800 households in Khammouane and Savannakhet by mid-2009 and to four more provinces in southern Laos by the end of 2009. Challenges for P2P include managing credit repayment that would allow the funds to benefit more poor households in other villages, and improving access to the project villages that suffer from poor roads.
What is P2P?
The Power to the Poor Project (P2P) is providing support to the targeted poor and women-headed households that are unable to finance the initial cost of connection to the grid. The project will empower the beneficiaries to improve their quality of life and access to information, generate more income, save money in the long term, and support their children to do housework and homework at night.
P2P, co-financed by the World Bank and AusAid and implemented by Electricite du Laos (EDL), is designed to demonstrate the practicality of providing financial support to households which would otherwise would be unable to pay the initial cost of a grid connection.
The project introduces an interest free loan which households will pay back as part of their monthly electricity bill, with the money they would otherwise have spent on more expensive alternative energy sources. The project ensures that households understand thoroughly the project and their eligibility, electricity safety issues, and benefits of the project. Upon 45 days of signing the contract between the households and EDL, electricity is to be installed.