Location: Kabul, Afghanistan
“We worked in areas which were 100% Taliban”
Emal Barekhzai came to Jalalabad in 2002. He was living in Kassel, Germany, and he found a two-month role working as an IT technician at a girl’s school there. Only 3% of girls were going to school in the country – a worthy cause. He was born in the eastern Afghan city, which was still home to his parents at the time. Barekhzai had always wanted to go back and make a difference in his country.
So, how to get the computer class up and running? Step one was find a generator to power the class. There were no renewable energy solutions around at the time; entire villages were lit with kerosene lamps, and wood-burning stoves were used to heat water and cook. 30% of Afghans are connected to the grid, whilst over two-thirds live in rural areas . Step two was to build a small room for the generator. The class became a problem. Not only was there not enough room for the other children, who were now taking classes under trees in the gardens, but the computer classes were proving expensive for the parents to pay for. Plus, the generator was too noisy. The headteacher was forced to close the computer class down. Barekhzai went back to Germany.
In Germany a solar company approached Dr. Reinhard Erös, who runs Kinderhilfe Afghanistan, with whom Barekhzai had worked. Erös was publicising his NGO’s efforts to help children in eastern Afghanistan across Germany, speaking at various universities, schools and businesses. Thanks to this, Barekhzai returned to Jalalabad the following year with two engineers, and they got the computer class functioning again – this time on clean energy, with no noisy generator in earshot. Thus begins the story of how the Afghan German Solar company, later known as Zularistan, came into being in 2004. Zularistan sells solar pumps, lights, water purification systems and more in over 18 provinces in Afghanistan, mainly in the east and south. To date, it has helped over 50,000 families buy solar home systems, and also works on LED street light projects. It also continues its work enabling clean power systems for schools.
Barekhzai, then a 25-year-old, remembers being laughed out of the Afghan electronics stores he would bring German solar panels into. “People wanted to know who was going to pay for this, so I went back to the drawing board and did some marketing,” he says. The strategy paid off; richer Afghans were soon asking whether they could buy solar panels to power everything from running their refrigerators to their air conditioning units. “This time I was laughing, telling them to slow down. Solar panels could only really be used to power lights and fans,” says Barekhzai. “Now everything is DC-powered, except for air conditioning. It was not just richer Afghans – villagers wanted to buy the panels too, but they couldn’t afford it.” There were sticky moments along the way; Barekhzai remembers feeling “young and stupid” when a container filled with solar equipment for the first village they were to work on came in empty from Germany, having been pulled back at customs. He managed to recover some of the stock, but as his grandfather said to him – when you’re learning to walk in a straight line, you will swagger to the left or right at times.
Donor-funded projects meant that Zularistan was able to turn a profit with two and a half years. A World Bank programme encouraged Afghans to buy solar energy at a discount – people could pay 10% for a simple system with a battery, solar panel and 3 lights. “It was a bit expensive, but this was the politics of bringing renewable energy to Afghanistan,” says Barkehzai. “It was a revolution for people.” At the time, there was a lot of construction work in Afghanistan, with the input of institutions such as USAID and ASEAN. Barekhzai speaks about how ASEAN has funded a contentious transmission line to neighbouring countries. Afghanistan is heavily reliant on 77% of its power from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which is essentially their surplus, according to World Bank data in 2016. Barekhzai does not view it in sustainable terms for the future, and believes having younger, educated leaders who have studied abroad will help put in place a change to energy policies.
Whilst solar energy has become much cheaper than it was in the early days of Zularistan, the high prices that are still paid at customs do not reflect topical advantages. Plus, appealing to a local community has not become easier. “I see cheaper solar panels from China being sold on the backs of donkeys in the villages,” laughs Barekhzai. “There is a lack of education, a lack of technical skills here – it does not help the image of solar,” he says. “Some Chinese solar panels are of very good quality, but we shouldn’t let the poorly made panels into our country. It kills our image – they should be checked at the border.”
Barekhzai remembers how the first suicide bomber struck in 2007. “If the whole of Afghanistan had five solar companies, we were the only ones with an office in Kandahar,” says Berakhzai. “We worked in areas which were 100% Taliban.” The key was to trust in a local, who negotiated with the Taliban, making it clear that Zularistan was working for the good of the country. In general, says Barekhzai, foreign companies would stay away from the south, which includes Helmand Province, and focus on the north and the west. Zularistan maintains its headquarters in Kabul, and also another office in Jalalabad. With 35 employees, just one member of the team might be responsible for feeding 20 people in his village. Its impetus for Barekhzai to keep fighting for renewable energy, the jobs it creates, and the impact it has, even if some villages in Afghanistan “look like they could still fit into villages from 300 years ago”.