Cash seeds grassroots dream

Being presented with last year's inaugural Zayed Future Energy prize, says Dipal Barua, was like winning a Nobel Prize for the environment.

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Being presented with last year's inaugural Zayed Future Energy prize, says Dipal Barua, was like winning a Nobel Prize for the environment. "I was delighted, honoured, but also very aware of the responsibility that it would bring," he says. This year's award will be made at a ceremony at the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday evening. The prize, named after the late founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, was created in order to inspire and recognise individuals, companies or non-governmental organisations that have contributed to the field of renewable energy.

As the managing director of Grameen Shakti, one of the world's fastest-growing companies promoting solar energy in rural communities, Mr Barua has overseen the training of 5,000 Bangladeshi women as solar engineers and entrepreneurs, equipping them to produce, sell and maintain a variety of small-scale solar accessories. According to Mr Barua, there are now 40,000 solar panels across Bangladesh powering lamps, mobile phones, televisions and even homes. Many of the women have set up shop in their front rooms, selling accessories to their neighbours and companies. Some have even taken on assistants to help them with distribution, generating jobs in a country that has few opportunities for the unskilled.

Of the 5,000 women, about 2,000 are doing "very well", says Mr Barua, meaning they earn between US$100 and $200 (Dh370-740) a month, vastly surpassing what they would earn working in Bangladesh's mainstay, the garment industry. But Mr Barua has an even more ambitious vision: he wants to turn Bangladesh into the world's first solar nation by 2050: "I believe we can do it. To be efficient, solar energy needs human resources and lots of sunlight. And Bangladesh has both."

It can't come soon enough in a country facing a dire energy crisis. Sixty per cent of the nation - 85 to 90 million people - do not have electricity and those who do, suffer hours of power cuts as the demands of technology far outpace the country's ability to generate sufficient electricity. Bangladesh is also facing the consequences of climate change, brought on by the burning of fossil fuels for conventional power. Some of the low-lying areas of the country are already subject to annual flooding and if the rise in global temperature continues unabated, one estimate says 15 million Bangladeshis could become environmental refugees by 2050.

Mr Barua says his vision of creating a solar nation starts with training at the grassroots level. Using the $1.5m prize money, Grameen Shakti has set up a scholarship fund that will allow women to be trained as solar engineers and then take their skills to the villages. In the next 10 to 15 years, Mr Barua wants to see at least one in each of Bangladesh's 98,000 villages. "If you have the engineer at the grassroots level she will know what her neighbours need and can tailor it to them. She will also help them to understand, to make sure people don't think this is something too advanced for them."

The next level is infrastructure. Schools and homes in the countryside will be wired up so that they are dependent on solar energy. Already, there is a simple solar home set, using a 50 watt solar panel and a battery, which costs about $350. The panel is enough to power four lights, one black and white television, one mobile phone charger and a radio ? typical demands in the countryside, Mr Barua says.

Grameen Shakti, which is an offshoot of Grameen Bank, the pioneer of microcredit loans to rural women, has organised a payback scheme for Bangladeshis who want to set up a solar home. There is an initial down-payment of 15 per cent, paid back over three years at 15 per cent annual interest rate. Mr Barua admits that it will be a tough challenge, not least because the country just does not have the money to support the industry. But he believes that it will work, and has committed his life to this vision.