By Dr Rihab Khalid, Isaac Newton Trust Research Fellow, University of Cambridge

28 November 2023 - 12:30

Photo of woman carrying a container on her head, she is walking along a track with bushes and plants in the background.
Water access and collection is one of the most challenging tasks for women in the remote villages of Pakistan ©

Dr Rihab Khalid

In 2021, Dr Rihab Khalid, as part of a team of five researchers, embarked on a project to design a solar energy system for Helario village, one of Pakistan's most remote rural communities, located in the Tharparkar district of Southern Sindh. 

Here she explains how the project, funded by the British Council Researcher Links Climate Challenge Workshops Grant: Delivering a Sustainable Energy Transition for Pakistan, transcended geographical borders as well as disciplinary boundaries, bringing together UK and Pakistan-based researchers from engineering, technology, environmental science, physics and social sciences: 

Our primary objective was to explore off-grid energy generation, with a particular focus on harnessing solar power. This endeavour closely aligned with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, specifically targeting affordable and clean energy, sustainable communities, and gender equality. Through a deep dive into the lives of a community striving for basic amenities, our interdisciplinary team leveraged its collective expertise to understand and address the unique challenges faced by off-grid communities. 

Understanding the community: the heart of the research

Helario Village is one of hundreds of remote rural communities in Pakistan that still lack access to electricity or water. Universal access to clean energy remains a critical challenge in Pakistan and in many developing parts of the world. Globally, estimates show that about 746 million people worldwide are without access to electricity, and much of this population lives in remote rural off-grid areas where until recently, access to electricity was extremely difficult due to the challenges of centralised grid expansion. 

Decentralized renewable energy systems now provide a sustainable and technically viable way to bring electricity to remote areas. But for any energy system to work effectively, efficiently and sustainably, it must be intricately woven into the fabric of the local community. This involves not only comprehending the technical aspects but also gaining a deep understanding of the socio-cultural context and the unique needs of the people it serves. Regrettably, most energy projects still tend to be techno-centric, undermining the social aspects and local cultural needs of communities. In such cases, energy modelling and simulations often rely on estimations and assumptions rather than concrete, data-backed insights. Even when projects collect primary energy data, they frequently rely on single data collection methods (such as electricity meter data) which can be limiting in their scope, missing out on vital connections between material access, socio-economic factors, and energy use patterns.

In response to these limitations, my colleagues and I opted for a mixed-methods approach to data collection, including both quantitative and qualitative data sources. Our quantitative data, gathered through questionnaire surveys, provided us with vital information regarding the community's demographics, as well as the types and quantities of various energy resources available and used by the villagers. Our qualitative data collection methods, including interviews, focus groups, informal discussions and field observations, enabled us to develop an in-depth understanding of the community’s energy needs, shedding light on differential access, social acceptance, preferences and future aspirations. Our interactions with the villagers were pivotal in uncovering the daily challenges and resilience of a community residing in one of the only fertile deserts in the world. 

My visit to Helario Pir proved to be a profound and enlightening experience. The stunning beauty and tranquil serenity of the desert landscape left me mesmerised. However, juxtaposed against this natural splendour was a stark reality – the profound poverty endured by the local community, marked by the absence of basic necessities such as electricity and clean water. The narratives of the women I met during my visit were particularly moving, highlighting the burdens of water scarcity, lack of clean cooking technologies, insufficient education opportunities and their daily struggles to manage household responsibilities.

The distinct gender differences in access to energy were evident in our data analysis, which showed that women in the village had significantly less access to mobility, education and income, leading to profound socio-economic implications. For instance, we observed that women's access to and use of energy was predominantly confined to household chores, child-rearing, and cooking. These activities, often powered by traditional energy sources, placed an additional burden on their health and time. The gendered dimension of energy use was further highlighted in discussions about water access. Women, traditionally responsible for collecting water for their households and livestock, faced increasing challenges due to declining groundwater levels and the brackish nature of available water. This gender-energy-water link became evident during our interviews and field observations and underscored the urgent need for solutions that not only provide energy but also address the intertwined issues of water access and quality.

In our conversations, the women of Helario Pir expressed a strong desire for improved energy access, not just to ease their daily chores but also to open up opportunities for education, economic activities, and better health outcomes. Their aspirations for a future with reliable and clean energy sources were evident, painting a clear picture of how essential energy access is to their empowerment and the overall well-being of the community.

The data gathered laid a solid foundation for the subsequent phases of the project, aiming to design a tailored, sustainable, and inclusive energy solution that resonates with the real needs of the community, particularly its women.

The power of interdisciplinarity: combining socio-technical expertise for holistic solutions

The success of our project hinged on the collaborative efforts of an interdisciplinary team. We combined insights from energy technology, economics, and social sciences to develop a comprehensive understanding of the community’s energy needs. This collaborative approach allowed us to design a solution that was technically feasible while also socially integrated, culturally relevant and economically viable, ensuring that the proposed solar energy system would be well-received and effectively utilised by the community. 

The findings from our mixed-methods approach were instrumental in modelling and optimising a solar-battery mini-grid system for the village. The socio-demographic and energy-use data showed significant variations between the incomes and affordability of households. This, together with the qualitative data, translated into differing needs for energy and varying levels of demand which suggested that a one-size-fits-all solution would not work. So, we developed five distinct electricity usage scenarios, drawing from the Multi-Tier Framework for energy access, adapting it to households’ differing levels of affordability and needs in correspondence with different tiers of access. With increasing level of access in the energy scenarios, provisions expanded to include refrigeration, ICT, and domestic appliances like electric cookers and washing machines, crucial in reducing the burden of household chores that predominantly fall on women. In acknowledging the energy-water nexus, we also ensured sufficient electricity provision for improved access to clean water across the energy scenarios.

Further higher-level energy scenarios incorporated the needs of small enterprises, acknowledging women's aspirations for economic empowerment through income-generating activities, like tailoring and sewing. During our visits, we found that women were already involved in such activities, producing beautifully embroidered clothes and handicrafts, but were unable to work on them during the evenings due to insufficient lighting, or due to their time poverty from managing other household chores that involved greater drudgery. By ensuring the provision of evening lighting and improved efficiency of household tasks through clean electrical appliances, our comprehensive spectrum of scenarios could cater to diverse energy needs, ensuring affordability, and prioritising women’s empowerment in energy system design.

Understanding and addressing the various socio-cultural needs of the community, alongside the technical and financial aspects of the energy system enabled us to design a more holistic energy system, improving the chances of long-term success. Such a holistic approach is vital for developing sustainable and equitable energy solutions, particularly in ensuring that women’s needs are addressed, so empowering them, and enhancing their participation in community development. 

Powering communities for empowerment: envisioning just future transitions

The Helario Village research project was an insightful collaborative experience that highlighted the transformative potential of socio-technical sustainable energy solutions in remote off-grid communities. Our interdisciplinary approach was able to bring together our diverse perspectives and knowledge bases into a unified whole that was more than its parts, ensuring a reflective and responsive approach to the needs of the community it aimed to serve. 

The broader implications of our study extend beyond Helario Village, offering valuable insights for policymakers and project developers. It demonstrates the need for designing energy systems that are not only efficient and sustainable but also equitable and inclusive, taking into account the unique challenges and aspirations of rural communities, especially the role of women in energy consumption and management. In the next phase of the project, we hope to secure sufficient funding to practically implement our proposed energy system on-site and learn from its real-world application.

Traditional round mud hut, with a deep, cone shaped thatch roof.
Traditional mud thatch hut in Helario Village ©

Dr Rihab Khalid

Photo of people sitting inside, on the floor listening to a man standing at the front speaking.
Focus group discussion with the villagers ©

Dr Rihab Khalid.

Photo shows a basic square hearth on the floor, with traditional pots and a bundle of twigs.
Traditional mud cookstoves lead to health risks and indoor air pollution ©

Dr Rihab Khalid

Short sleeved purple jacket with rich decoration around the collar, hem, arm hems and each side of the centre front opening, it is lying on quilted material with geometric patterns.
Beautifully embroidered handcrafted goods made by village women ©

Dr Rihab Khalid

Dr Rihab Khalid is an Isaac Newton Trust Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. Her research explores the intersections of gender, energy and space-use in the Global South. She is passionate about problem-driven research, believes in interdisciplinary collaborations and dreams of doing fieldwork across the globe. Follow her on Twitter and Linkedin

Read the full journal paper.

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