The Invisible Ubiquity of Energy

April 07, 2016
Forget living on a dollar a day — what if you had to live on a watt a day?

Picture this: It’s 10pm and you’re just getting home from a quick trip to the gym after a long workday. You walk through the front door, flip on the lights, walk into your kitchen, pour yourself a glass of water, pull leftovers out of the fridge, and pop them in the oven. While you’re waiting for your food, you catch up on some texts and open your laptop to prepare for a much-desired Netflix binge.

Sounds like a pretty typical twenty-minute ritual, right?

Well, at the same time you’re embarking on that late night snack, it’s 5am in Kamuli, Uganda, a village 150 miles outside of the capital city of Kampala, and Mary Serwanja is just waking up. She sets off on a two-mile walk to collect her family’s daily water. After returning home with her haul, she heads out once again for a couple hours of firewood collection. She builds a fire underneath a few large stones and places a pot on top to boil water for drinking. By mid-afternoon, Mary begins to cook dinner, spending two hours over the fire. As the family gathers around to eat the sun goes down. Mary lights a single kerosene lamp, which her two children crowd around, squinting to do their schoolwork. Mary’s husband remarks that the family’s mobile phone has run out of battery and asks her to walk to the neighboring village tomorrow, where she will pay to have the phone recharged. As the family gets ready for sleep, Mary lets the fire die out, and the smoke continues to waft through the house.

Mary spent her entire day preparing to experience only a fraction of what you were able to access in your twenty minutes at home.

This story isn’t meant to make you feel guilty — it is to make you, all of us, realize how much energy permeates our daily life. For most of us who are reading this story on a computer or mobile device, energy is so abundant, so readily available, that we forget how much it impacts our ability to see, cook, communicate, learn, entertain, work, and grow.

Our governments and major corporations have invested a lot of resources to make energy, in all its forms, as cheap and accessible as possible. Thanks to municipal water sanitation centers, we don’t have to think about the energy required to clean our water beyond turning on a faucet. Thanks to National Grid, we can heat our homes without thinking about how the gas was sourced. Thanks to Con Edison, we can flip a switch and light our homes without thinking twice about our connection to the grid.

We get a bill each month that reminds us of our usage — but other than that, we rarely think about how connected our everyday activities are to energy.

Conversely, when you hear the word “poverty,” your first mental image probably isn’t a woman cooking over a smoky fire or walking miles into town to charge the family phone.

But when we leave energy out of our definition of poverty, we are neglecting a fundamental resource that is critical to the development, safety, and health of billions of people.

Let’s go back to that late night snack for a second. Whether you’re zapping leftovers in a microwave or heating them up in the oven, you have a quick and clean way to cook meals. For nearly half the planet, that is not the case. With no access to a clean, affordable way to cook, 3 billion people cook over smoky open fires for hours each day. The smoke from these fires cause 4.3 million premature deaths each year — leading the World Health Organization to recognize these fires as “the world’s largest single environmental health risk.”

Once the smoke from these fires wreaks havoc on household members (predominantly the women and children, who are more exposed to the smoke) it continues on its destructive path, aggregating in the atmosphere and damaging our environment. Cooking fires account for 25% of global black carbon emissions, meaning they are the second largest cause of climate changes behind CO2.

BioLite Parallel Innovation

Access to clean cooking is arguably the largest opportunity to lift households out of energy poverty — but it’s only one facet of a broader ecosystem of energy needs. Of the 3 billion people around the globe who lack a clean, safe way to cook, 1.2 billion have no access to electricity which dramatically affects their ability to light, communicate and refrigerate, among many other tasks we take for granted each day.

If we can expand energy access, we can improve health, combat climate change, enable communication and education, generate income, and reduce inequality.

BioLite Parallel Innovation

Our team at BioLite is part of this movement, by working to bring energy everywhere. Our customers live in places where the grid doesn’t exist, so we bring the grid to them — and give them control of their own personal energy ecosystems so they can generate, store, and use energy as they see fit. We build technologies that address cooking, charging, and lighting, which are the most energy intensive needs of low-income families. Our flagship product, the BioLite HomeStove, addresses all three.

BioLite Parallel Innovation

Earlier, I mentioned that Mary’s story wasn’t intended to make you feel guilty. She’s actually a customer of ours and we’ve seen firsthand that access to clean energy has provided her family with a ripple effect of positive outcomes.

After purchasing the BioLite HomeStove, Mary spends half as much time collecting fuel each week. With the extra time, she got a job to bring in extra money to pay her children’s school fees. With access to an outlet she no longer walks into town to charge the families phone and has time to help her children study at night around the HomeStove’s attached LED light.

We’ve spent the last five years building our vision into an active, and effective, business. It’s gratifying to see eradicating energy poverty, the focus of all our hard work, entering conversations in the development and social enterprise communities. Bill and Melinda Gates included clean and affordable energy access as one of their top priorities in this year’s Gates Letter. Acumen dedicates much of their Medium channel to sharing stories of how their grantees are tackling energy poverty. The Millennium Sustainable Development Goals list energy as one of their 17 goals to achieve more sustainable development — it is also central to achieving many of the other goals. Energy access, the invisible mortar that holds our modern lives together, is getting its time in the spotlight.

We’ve seen firsthand that addressing energy access can be affordable, renewable and scalable. With the BioLite HomeStove, we’ve seen women free up time to gain jobs outside of their homes. We’ve seen our customers become entrepreneurs and supplement their income by charging neighbors to access their HomeStove’s power outlet. We’ve children’s health improve. Each time we see our community members benefit from the HomeStove; it reminds us that expanding energy access is crucial to equitable development worldwide.

We believe energy is a universal human right. It permeates our lives similar to the air we breathe and the water we drink. We as a global community need to work together to invest in sustainable solutions that make it reliable, safe and affordable. The path towards eradicating energy poverty is a long one — and it starts with us helping people power their lives one watt at a time.

Road To Impact
This is Part 2 of The Road to Impact, a 10-part series on the business of change and what it takes to bring energy everywhere.