This report summarises the information presented at, and conclusions arising from, the second major international workshop of the Smart Villages Initiative. The workshop took place in Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak, Malaysia, on the campus of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), and marked the beginning of a 12-month programme of engagement by the Smart Villages Initiative in Southeast Asia. It brought together a diverse group of around 80 people working on energy access for off-grid villages to review their experiences to date, and to identify barriers to further progress and how they may be overcome.
Akademi Sains Malaysia (the Malaysian Academy of Sciences), UNIMAS and the Smart Villages project team collaborated to set up and run the workshop. It was funded by the sponsors of the Smart Villages Initiative: the Cambridge Malaysian Education and Development Trust (CMEDT) and the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF).
The workshop was held over three days, from 27 to 29 January 2015. Day one began with an overview of the smart villages concept followed by presentations of five case studies of smart villages, stimulating a discussion of key characteristics and issues arising in advancing the concept. Attention then shifted to rural energy uses in Southeast Asia: a series of presentations led into breakout groups to identify distinctive energy needs, consider how they may best be met, and discuss how energy-access initiatives can effectively be integrated with other strands of development. The official launch of the global Smart Villages Initiative, as well as the Southeast Asian engagement, was held on the afternoon of the first day and was followed by two keynote speeches on the village-level energy situation in Malaysia and the socioeconomic impacts of energy access.
The morning session of the second day provided for 12 short presentations, ‘elevator pitches’, each summarising experiences of implementing village-level energy services and highlighting technologies used, delivery/implementation methods, acceptance rates and outcomes. Parallel sessions in the afternoon on cultural acceptability, biomass and biogas, and system optimisation were followed by two keynote addresses on best practices for village-level energy access programmes and on entrepreneurship.
The final day began with a series of presentations providing additional perspectives on off-grid energy in Southeast Asia, leading into a discussion on what the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can learn from each other and what common initiatives they might undertake. Breakout groups then discussed four overarching themes of the workshop, focusing on how to establish the necessary framework conditions to support off-grid energy for development. A final panel discussion considered what messages should be given to principal audiences.
- To be successful, off-grid energy initiatives in Southeast Asia require an understanding of, and sensitivity to, distinctive local cultures without which local needs and aspirations may not be met, resulting in lack of buy-in and possibly in resistance. This takes time, and requires an interdisciplinary approach involving anthropologists and social scientists. Social audits should be undertaken at an early stage and repeated regularly. In respect of the development outcomes targeted for energy-access initiatives, it is best to aim for incremental improvements that are consistent with what villagers have and value, and that embrace local wisdom. Villagers should be afforded control over their development path, which should build on their unique endowments and strengths.
- A major part of the effort of any energy-access project should be devoted to engagement, and building good relationships, with the local community, partnering with individuals and organisations who are already known and trusted by the community if possible. This is essential to secure community buy-in and ownership, which are key to achieving successful outcomes. It is appropriate to make use of community resource management systems and in-kind contributions, and to identify, train and support local champions who have the future of the community at heart and a vision for where it should be 10 or more years’ time. Resistance may be met at different stages of the project; this needs to be monitored and a flexible approach taken in evolving strategies to deal with it.
- The use of energy access to support new employment opportunities and productive enterprises should be emphasised and supported in order to secure the financial viability of projects and to enable further progress up the energy ladder. Otherwise, energy services may largely be used for leisure activities or innovations aimed mainly at improving quality of life. While such uses may well be appropriate, coupling them with productive uses is likely to enhance the sustainability of initiatives in the longer-term. Steps should be taken to ensure that the poorer members of rural communities have access to the opportunities arising, not just the more powerful.
- There is an urgent need for capacity development to enable the benefits of off-grid energy solutions to be maximised. This capacity development includes increasing the awareness of villagers of the benefits of energy access and the possibilities to enhance existing, and to introduce new, productive enterprises. It should also provide for training in the maintenance and use of technologies, and the skillsets needed by new enterprises to provide and use energy services.
- Information and communication technologies (ICT) are often an early priority for villagers once they have an electricity supply. Key drivers are a desire for improved education and Internet access: the latter provides a desired connection with the outside world and is seen as a key enabler of new income streams from commerce and tourism. While ICT and Internet access hold some dangers and can be divisive, if appropriately managed they can bring together the young and old, for example in initiatives to preserve indigenous traditions such as music, dances and cooking methods, and local knowledge of biodiversity and life-skills (‘living in the rainforest’).
- There are sufficient examples to date to provide confidence that the smart village concept can be delivered and that the development benefits will flow. ‘Seeing is believing’ and more good and well-publicised case studies of smart villages are needed. First steps are important, and early successes can have a snowball effect.
- Supportive policy frameworks should be put in place, but often are missing. They need to facilitate scale-up, which means bringing in private investment. Finances will be more readily available if effective mechanisms can be established to reduce transaction costs, for example by bundling many small projects.
- Energy initiatives should not be led by technology; rather the choice of technology should be responsive to users’ needs. These needs will evolve and so there is a premium on flexible and modular technologies such as solar panels. Micro-hydro systems are often a preferred choice in Southeast Asia given their ability to offer power levels sufficient to support productive enterprises at a competitive cost, but they are somewhat less flexible in meeting evolving needs. Direct Current (DC) nano-grids supplying a cluster of homes are emerging as a promising technology, particularly when combined with low energy DC appliances, but may have limited capability to support productive enterprises. The choice of technologies and the design of energy systems should have regard to their operation and maintenance in remote communities possibly with limited skill levels locally available. Villagers need to be educated in the use of energy technologies, not least to avoid misuse of batteries, a frequent cause of system failure.
- Energy needs for cooking in rural communities in Southeast Asia are much higher than those for electricity, and there is a good case that cleaner and more efficient cooking technologies should be prioritised in energy access initiatives. Substantial gains in energy efficiency and cleanliness can be achieved with simple technologies and at low cost, so in many ways this is an area where there are ‘low-hanging fruits’.
- Better metrics are needed to inform policy, for example on levels of energy access, as monitoring and evaluation schemes often do not reflect realities on the ground. Evaluation of the effectiveness of energy schemes and of the development impacts that follow should be routinely embedded in all initiatives. Both quantitative and qualitative measures are needed and may usefully include measures of individual and community ‘happiness’ or well-being. Mechanisms need to be in place to learn from failures that may otherwise not be shared publicly.
- Workshop participants agreed that there is substantial value in initiatives to share experiences in off-grid village energy access across the ASEAN region, and that the Smart Villages Initiative can play an important role, not least in enabling ongoing links and communication between the various individuals and communities with whom it has engaged.