For 16 years, in a scene out of pre-industrial America, Thabo Molubi and his partner made furniture in South Africa’s outback, known locally as the “veld.” Lacking even a stream to turn a water wheel and machinery, they depended solely on hand and foot power. But then an electrical line reached the area.
The two installed lights, and power saws and drills. Their productivity increased fourfold. They hired local workers to make, sell and ship more tables and chairs, of better quality, at higher prices, to local and far away customers. Workers had more money to spend, thereby benefitting still more families.
Living standards climbed, as families bought lights, refrigerators, televisions, computers and other technologies that many Americans and Europeans simply take for granted. The community was propelled into the modern era, entrepreneurial spirits were unleashed, new businesses opened, and newly employed and connected families joined the global economy.
People benefited even on the very edge of the newly electrified area. Bheki Vilakazi opened a small shop so people could charge their cell phones before heading into the veld, where rapid communication can mean life or death in the event of an accident, automobile breakdown or encounter with wild animals.
Two hundred miles away, near Tzaneen, other South African entrepreneurs realized their soil and tropical climate produced superb bananas. After their rural area got electricity, they launched the Du Roi Nursery and banana cloning laboratory, where scientists develop superior quality, disease-free seedlings that are placed in gel in sealed containers and shipped all over Africa and other parts of the world.
Educated in a rural school only through tenth grade, Jane Ramothwala was a hotel maid before becoming a general nursery worker with the company. Over the ensuing decades, she worked hard to learn every facet of business operations, taught herself English, and took adult training and education courses – eventually attaining the position of manager for the company’s plant laboratory.
She now earns five times more than she did previously. During that time, the lab grew from 800,000 plants to 10 million, and today the laboratory, nursery and shipment center provide employment for several college graduates and 45 workers with limited educations. Their lives have been transformed, many have built modern homes, and their children have far brighter futures than anyone could have dreamed of a mere generation ago.
Access to electricity, Jane says, “has had a huge impact on the quality of life for many families in rural parts of Limpopo Province.” It has improved her and her neighbors’ lifestyles, learning opportunities and access to information many times over.
These scenes are being repeated all around the world, from Nigeria and Kenya, to Chile, Peru, China, India, Indonesia and dozens of other countries. Thousands of other communities, millions of other families, want the same opportunities. But for now many must continue to live without electricity, or have it only sporadically and unpredictably a few hours each week.
Across the globe, nearly three billion people – almost half the world’s population – still lack regular, reliable electricity. Nearly 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity.
In sub-Saharan Africa, over 600 million people – almost twice the population of the United States, and 70% of the region’s population – still have no or only limited, sporadic electricity. Over 80% of its inhabitants still relies on wood, dung and charcoal fires for most or all of their heating and cooking needs, resulting in extensive smoke and pollution in their homes and villages.
In India, more than 300 million people (almost as many as in Mexico and the United States) still have no electricity at all; tens of millions more have it only a few hours a day.
Countless people in these communities live in abject poverty, often on just a few dollars a day. Sub-Saharan Africa’s per capita income is roughly $1 per day, Zambia-born economist Dambisa Moyo writes, giving it the highest proportion of poor families in the world.
Mothers in these communities spend hours every day bent over open fires, their babies strapped on their backs, breathing poisonous fumes day after day. Many are struck down by debilitating and often fatal lung diseases. Their homes, schools, shops, clinics and hospitals lack the most rudimentary electricity-based technologies: lights, refrigerators, radios, televisions, computers and safe running water.
Their mud-and-thatch, cinderblock and other traditional houses allow flies and mosquitoes to zoom in, feast on human blood, and infect victims with malaria and other killer diseases. Women and children must walk miles, carrying untreated water that swarms with bacteria and parasites that cause cholera, diarrhea and river blindness. Unrefrigerated food spoils rapidly, causing still more intestinal diseases.
Hundreds of millions get horribly sick and five million die every year from lung and intestinal diseases, due to breathing smoke from open fires and not having refrigeration, clean water and safe food.
When the sun goes down, their lives largely shut down, except to the extent that they can work or study by candlelight, flashlight or kerosene lamp.
The environmental costs are equally high. Rwanda’s gorilla habitats are being turned into charcoal, to fuel cooking fires. In Zambia and elsewhere, entrepreneurs harvest trees by the thousands along highways, turning forest habitats into grasslands, and selling logs to motorists heading back to their non-electrified homes in rural areas and even large sections of cities.
As quickly as rich-country charities hold plant-a-tree fund raisers, people around the world cut trees for essential cooking and heating.
Unless reliable, affordable electricity comes, it will be like this for decades to come. Little by little, acre by acre, forest habitats will become grasslands, or simply be swept away by rains and winds. And people will remain trapped by poverty, misery, disease and premature death.
That unsustainable human and ecological destruction can be reversed, just as it was in the United States. A vital part of the solution is power plants that come equipped with steadily improving pollution controls – and burn coal or natural gas that packs hundreds of times more energy per pound than wood or dung or plant-based biofuels.
“Access to the benefits that come with ample energy trumps concerns about their tiny contribution of greenhouse gas emissions,” New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin observed in his DotEarth blog. Africa sits on vast deposits of coal, natural gas and liquid condensates that are largely ignored or simply burned as unwanted byproducts, as companies produce crude oil. Can someone find a business model that can lead to capturing, instead of flaring, those “orphan fuels,” he wondered.
Ultimately, the energy, environmental, climate change and economic debate is about two things:
Whether the world’s poor will take their rightful places among the Earth’s healthy and prosperous people – or must give up their hopes and dreams, because of misplaced health and environmental concerns.
And whether poor countries, communities and families will determine their own futures – or the decisions will be made for them by politicians and activists who use phony environmental disaster claims to justify treaties, laws, regulations and policies that limit or deny access to dependable, affordable electricity and other modern, life-saving technologies … thereby perpetuating poverty, disease and premature death.