We are excited to feature our first change-maker -- Ms. Anita Bohara, an energy access specialist in Nepal. Energypedia and HPNET had the opportunity to connect with her inspiring reflections as a woman micro hydro practitioner. Read below!
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Anita Bohara. I have worked in the Nepal micro-hydro sector for 4 years and roughly 12 years in the energy sector, including both on-grid and off-grid. I completed my Master’s degree on sustainable energy systems and management from the University of Flensburg, Germany.
How did you start your career in micro hydropower?
I started my career in 2004 as a Technical Officer at the District Development Committee in Rural Energy Development Section (DDC-REDS) of Baglung District in Nepal,
What was it like to be on the ground then?
It was a time when the country was in an intense situation because of the conflict between Government and Maoists. Many people were killed during this conflict and the situation was not favorable to carry out development work. I can still recall those moments when there was a massive attack in the neighboring Myadgi District, when I had just signed onto my first employment contract. Since I had never been away from my family in Kathmandu, I had quite a task to convince them to let me start my career in a district so far away from home and so close to the conflict.
We were only three female officers out of 25 technical officers, and I was the only one to stay with the program for more than a year. Later, I was promoted to acting Energy Development Officer and then to Energy Development Officer (EDO). I worked for about two and a half years and received an opportunity to obtain a master’s degree with a scholarship. I must give credit for this opportunity for higher education to the strong recommendation provided by my supervisor and my work experience with this organization.
Tell us more about your work as an Energy Development Officer.
As an EDO, my program was under the umbrella of the District Development Committee (DDC). I was working in coordination with DDC and other line agencies in the district. The program’s main objective was to provide access to electricity through the implementation of micro hydro projects in the very remote locations of the district where there was no possibility for grid extension at least for the next five years. Besides micro hydro installation, the program also supported various capacity building activities anchored on a strong community mobilization process, in order to ensure sustainability in the long run.
Baglung District has very good potential for micro hydropower. While other districts were working with one local NGO on four to five projects, we were working with two local NGOs implementing about ten different projects. To work in such a conflict situation was definitely a big challenge for us. Moreover, the road accessibility was extremely poor in those days that we had to walk for three days at most, just to reach the project area. Despite all these challenges, the local NGO and the community remained active and enthusiastic. With their support, we managed to make good progress with the implementation of the MHP projects. During this experience, I was also awarded with the Best Technical Officer recognition in the region for my work -- which motivated me so much to continue working in the district.
I must say, the experiences and learning I gathered while working with the micro hydro communities, local NGOs and district agencies in this project helped me greatly in all other projects and organizations that I worked for afterward in my professional journey.
Tell us about your work at GIZ-EnDev.
I worked as the Program Coordinator for GIZ-EnDev for 1.5 years. I was involved in supporting teams in managing the Micro Hydro Debt Fund (MHDF) with the Alternate Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC). After 15 years of being away, I was glad to return to a more advanced micro hydro sector. However, I encountered very different challenges in this phase of the sector.
Besides access to electricity through installation of this technology, sustainability of micro hydro operation had become equally challenging in the sector. Lack of effective tariff collection mechanisms, project management capacity of the community, social issues due to lack of transparency during the project construction phase, project shut down due to failure of civil structures and lack of technical capacity of the community, low penetration of electricity based enterprises that generates the revenue for the project, low capacity factor and grid arrival among others -- were all challenges that resulted in defaults for repayment of banks loans provided by the MHDF.
What do you think can be done to make Nepal micro hydro projects long-lived?
Attractive risk sharing mechanisms needed to be developed to encourage the private sector and the financial institutions to invest in micro hydro projects. Intervention of innovative technology in the tariff collection mechanism and loan repayment process not only helps in the loan repayment but can also tackle various social issues that are always crucial to the sustainable operation any community-owned systems.
There is also a need to work with the community and build their capacity to manage the project, at least for some time, may be up to six months before the project is completely handed over to be managed by the community. The usual practice is to pour all the support and capacity building activities to the community before the project comes into operation, and only after is it immediately handed over to the community. Such infrastructures are very big to be managed by the community themselves - even if we are only talking about small scale hydro, we cannot expect the community to get it right, right off the bat.
This leads to major challenges and issues that come right after the project starts operation. There are also big behavioral changes among the beneficiaries that must come with the operation of the project. Therefore, sustained social mobilization and capacity building to establish proper tariff collection mechanisms, plant operation, and good governance long after the project is finished will build the community’s self-confidence and capacity for sustainable operation. While managing other projects such as community owned large size biogas projects and water pumping systems, I found out that the issue was not only exclusive for micro hydropower but also important in other renewable energy systems.
Were there challenges that you faced as a woman engineer?
When I was pursuing my civil engineering degree in the year 1999 to 2003, we were only eight female students out of 80 students in the class. One of the reasons why women were not choosing this field is the prevailing thought that it requires extensive field visits. Most female students were more attracted towards architecture and computer faculties. In those conflict situations in the country (before 15 years), everyone regardless of gender, was hesitant to go to work in these districts. Women engineers like me, were almost negligible in a technology sector that required one to be based away from the home and family.
Initially, because of my age and gender, the community did not easily believe in me and doubted my stay in the district I also noticed that some of them pitied me, which I also heard from other local colleagues. Similarly, communities were almost always surprised to see me at the start. They had a mindset that all engineers and technical persons must be male. On many occasions, I felt like they had more respect for my male subordinates than me. Nevertheless, this was not a huge problem for me; and it was interesting to show off my capacity to people with such mindsets, and oh boy, did I prove them wrong! I believe my work spoke for itself and eventually earned their respect. Hopefully they were convinced that women are just as capable as men in the engineering field.
While working in the district as an EDO, one challenge I faced was the social networking and informal meetings which can impact your work. I used to be very much reluctant for informal meetings because of security reason in the beginning of my professional career when I was in the district. I think compared to men, women professionals must face more challenges to attend informal meetings and networking events to balance work and family life, which to some extent have impact on their work.
Do you think that how a daughter is raised affects her professional journey?
Whether women get equal opportunity to study or choose a career, it remains a fact that majority of girls in a country like Nepal are not raised to be strong as compared to boys. I would like to share that though I decided to work away from my family, I always had a fear of dealing with people. I am much more confident now, but it was very difficult for me to adjust when I started my career working in the district alone, with no family in the area, especially with the constant worry regarding security.
I remember a time during my first week of work, I had to travel to one micro hydro site together with just one of my male staff. I have just started working with him and did not know him well enough. I still remember that I was very stressed travelling with him the entire day, until we reached the village. Especially when we went through very isolated places in the forest, I used to walk so fast, and I think it was clearly obvious to him that I was looking for means of escape and signs of houses or people. Later, I realized how he was consistently kind, supportive, and sensitive throughout the trip and during my work with this organization. I realized that maybe it is also a struggle for men to travel with their female supervisors in our country. We need to be taught at an early age, the essential life skills needed to be strong and handle difficult situations. For this, there needs to be a healthy dose of independence. However, the level of civilization and crime that occurs in the country makes this difficult. It is also understandable how parents would want to protect and shelter their daughters.
How did you think you impacted the community as a woman engineer?
While visiting project sites (including MHP but also other technologies), I was overwhelmed to see children walking long distances just to get to school and young women (who are in their late teens) already having 2-3 kids. I particularly noticed that the girls did not study beyond the seventh or eighth grade and were married off early. Girls either they get pressured from their family for early marriage or they get lured to the fancy clothes and makeup that they could do after getting married and this is really disheartening to see.
So, when women engineers like me visited the site and talked to them, it gives them a positive example of what they can do in life. I always made a point, to talk to these young people and motivate them as much as I can. I also found that they were always positively surprised to see a woman engineer -- and I was glad to be this surprise for them.
Can you describe a memorable incident where you had to push for equal rights for women?
I remember one community that owns a biogas facility where almost all women members do not have their citizenship. Our projects required mandatory representation for equal representation of women in the executive committee, for which they needed to have citizenship as the organization had to be registered. The male members seemed reluctant to go with the process for preparing the citizenship for women.
We had to communicate to the community that we will bring the project elsewhere if there is no equal participation of women in the executive committee. We pressured them to process the citizenship of the women if they really wanted to bring in the project. We even had to delay the project by a couple of months just for the women representatives to prepare their citizenship and get represented in the executive committee.
As I mentioned, many professions are gender biased, like engineering which requires site visits and working in remote stations away from family. Families remain reluctant to give females more freedom. So maybe, engineers like us who have been successful in the field could be role models and sources of encouragement for those families. With these examples I do not mean to say that gender issues should be handled by women professionals exclusively, (especially now when there are many male gender experts and professionals at the policy level supporting and advocating for gender energy issues,) but just my thought that maybe it is more likely for women professionals to be more sensitive towards the women’s issues in those working areas.
What is the impact of energy access on women?
Access to energy can bring lot of changes in women’s life and livelihood especially in the rural areas. Since women are more responsible for cooking, collecting firewood, carrying water, walking long difficult distances in the hills. Access to energy services in the form of electricity, water, clean cooking fuel not only reduces the drudgery and save time for them but also improve their health situation. However, I would like to give following feedback that I think needs to be taken care while designing, planning and implementing any energy access program and projects;
There is higher need to consider the impact they have in their normal daily life during construction phase when they have to contribute labor, considering they already have much more workload and responsibilities in their family. In one of the community-owned projects, I was touched to see a woman who consistently wakes up earlier than normal at 4 am every day just to be able to contribute to the project. This shows the commitment women have towards such projects, but also the increased workload for them who already bear the brunt of daily chores in the household.
I would also like to share one of the instances, where we were doing focus group discussion separately for men and women in one village. It was interesting to see that all men prioritized electricity, but most women prioritized easy access to water as they had to walk 2-3 hours daily for water. This clearly showed that there are separate demands of men and women for which gender-sensitive energy policies are needed. Energy needs for different genders should be considered in the planning process, rather than integrating gender issues only during implementation, monitoring and evaluation process.
Though women have much more work load especially in the rural areas they have minimal access to the income that comes in the house and family. Access to Energy services whether in the form of water, electricity, biogas etc. it needs to be linked to income generating opportunities for women to have better impact of energy access on the women’s livelihood.
Awareness on the need for clean energy use is another aspect to be considered while promoting the clean energy use among the community. Sometime while visiting some community we have seen that going to forest to collect firewood with friends are considered as one source of recreation as time have no value to be used in other productive activities and that is the time for women to be away from home and spent some time with friends. So, for such group there is higher need to aware them on the negative impact the firewood burning and indoor air pollution have on their health. Until they are aware it will be difficult for them to change their behavior and switch to clean cooking even if the technology is available in their household. This is just one example from one community especially in the Terai region of the country, there are other many communities in the hills where firewood collection is very difficult. However, it is also very difficult for them to access the technology. Financing might be the opportunity for them to switch. Requirement of the activity intervention will truly differ from one community to another.
What is key takeaway from your experiences in the rural development sector?
It is still very challenging for women in South Asian countries like Nepal to land in decision making and leadership positions. It is also equally challenging to work in that position as compared to men. I would say that strengthening networking and support systems among women is vital to help women develop and achieve their career goals, while also encouraging other women to move forward in any sector. We must remember that the following is also true for energy access:
“A bird cannot fly with one wing only. Human space flight cannot develop any further without the active participation of women.” - Valentina Tereshkova