Is there a General Key for Unlocking the Door to Sustainable Development for Rural Communities?

I’d like to think that there is a general key for unlocking Sustainable Development for rural communities, using renewable energy, training and developing market based value chains. Let me show you why I think so.

The following challenges are quite common in rural communities:

  1. Women and children in particular get health problems from indoor air pollution caused by traditional cooking (4 mill people die prematurely annually because of this, according to WHO).
  2. Firewood is getting difficult to obtain near the community due to deforestation, forcing women in particular to walk long distances. It is risky for the women, and their families suffer.
  3. Farmers lack fertilizers, resulting in small harvests, minimal income, and sometimes malnutrition for the family.
  4. Families and businesses lack power and proper lighting, preventing access to information and use of efficient tools.

The above challenges may seem hard to resolve, but can in fact be resolved by renewable energy technologies, which is why  they are also referred to as sustainable energy technologies.


The traditional way

During a visit to rural Liberia a few years back, I was introduced to the main income source for a village – “cane juice” – alcohol made from sugar cane, in what they called “the mill”. Having observed their current practices, I could not help thinking that a few changes in their practice could make a huge difference in the energy situation for that village (which currently did not have access to modern energy sources).

Their practice was to squeeze the juice from the sugar cane by using an old machine. Having squeezed out the juice, they threw the straws (bagasse) away in heaps. Then, when they wanted to get rid of the heaps, they set fire to them. Later in the process, when heating the fermented juice to make the alcohol, they used firewood that was sometimes hard to find nearby.

The burned heaps indicating the amounts of bagasse being processed


The machine for crushing – notice e.g. the entrance for the sugar cane in the machine


The distillation area with fire for heating up the fermented juice. Notice the firewood burning


Using bagasse as fuel and converting the diesel engine to run on alcohol

The observations induced some thoughts. Firstly, that by throwing the bagasse away and setting fire to it; they wasted a lot of energy. Actually, 2/3 of the plant energy is in the bagasse. If they instead had chopped the bagasse and dried the chips, they could have used those chips as fuel instead of (or in addition to) the firewood, and thereby saving themselves the trouble of finding firewood as well as saving the forest. In addition, while heating the fermented juice, they could e.g. produce power from the heat via a combined heat and power unit (CHP). Even further, by converting the diesel machine to run on alcohol, they could use their own alcohol as fuel and thereby save both money and the environment.


Using the Waste for producing cooking gas, power and fertilizer

Similarly, wastes of different kind were lying around in the village and in the bushes around the village, and there were no toilets. If that waste instead had been used in a biogas plant, they could have got rid of wastes that attract flies and cause health problems. In addition, the smokeless biogas could be used for cooking instead of open fire, thereby avoiding health problems caused by smoke.

Alternatively, it could be used for producing power via a generator. Finally, the biorest (the digested biomass) could be used as fertilizer on the fields, improving agricultural and other produce, and preventing deforestation due to depletion of the fields and clearing of new forest areas.


Using other local resources

Communities have different natural resources . In addition to bio resources, most communities could also utilize solar energy, either to produce power or to produce hot water, which both could be valuable supplements to the described bio energy.


Developing the value chains

Technically the above should be possible, but there are plenty of examples that show that the best intentions fail unless the value chains around the technical equipment are in place too. Being in place means e.g. that related spareparts and services have to be available when needed. To ensure this,   value chains should be managed on a commercial basis – as someone’s livelihood. Only by providing the necessary spareparts and doing the related services, his or her livelihood will be sustained. Like others in the village have their livelihood on growing the rice and the sugar canes, this business could be the ‘Sustainable Energy Business’ (SE business) in the village.  This means that the value chains around the technical equipment need to be developed.


Building the market

A business requires not only someone to offer products and services, but also informed customers with purchase power. In a village where knowledge of renewable energy and money is limited, it would be necessary to increase the knowledge and purchase power og people. That could be done by training in sustainable energy, and in parallel introduce services related to the SE business , where the villagers are paid for services to the SE business, and vice versa. Typically, paying villagers for collecting waste and making fuel chips, while charging them for cooking gas, power and fertilizers. After a period the villagers would become informed customers with purchase power – hence a market would develop.



By using the natural resources in the community to produce fuel, cooking gas, power and fertilizers, and developing the market based value chains around the technical equipment, I’d like to think that this is a general key for unlocking  the door to Sustainable Development in rural communities.


Hans Martin Førsund, CEO, Oslo, Norway, has legal background and more than 30 years of experience from public and private sectors, nationally and internationally. Currently heading NIDECO (Norwegian International Development Company), providing sustainable energy in developing countries.