Last year, we launched the Hidden No More feature series to spotlight women change-makers who have transformed gender barriers, and made impactful contributions to energy access for marginalized communities. For this edition, we spoke with Resha Piya, who has nearly 20 years of experience working in the energy access space in Nepal. During our conversation, Ms. Piya shared key solutions for promoting gender inclusion in micro hydropower projects (MHP) and rich insights from her experience supporting MHP sustainability.
I started my career in the early 2000’s, when I joined Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) in 2001. My inspiration to get involved was mainly due to the disparity I saw between the rural and urban populations. I had observed a huge disparity, mainly in terms of basic amenities; urban people were enjoying many facilities including better electricity, education and health facilities, while the rural poor were deprived of all these basic assets, even energy services. I had seen that rural people were compelled to use kerosene and Jharro (a common plant in Nepal) for household lighting needs.
Being an electrical engineer, I decided it was best to work in the rural energy sector where I could best contribute my knowledge. With my background in electrical engineering, I understand that electricity is the foundation to any and all development activities, which can drive economic activities in rural areas. I believe that rural people have a right to energy services, as do urban people, and energy services can really improve rural quality of life and address the challenges they are facing.
Initially, I started my career promoting solar home systems in rural areas in my work with AEPC, and later shifted toward focusing on sustainable small-scale hydropower. I realized that only installing the energy infrastructure itself -- providing access to electricity -- is not sufficient, because there is a need to make energy systems more reliable and sustainable. This is very important because if the system stops functioning, this creates a burden to rural communities. This is what I found in the field and it is what inspired me to focus on the micro hydro sector, and specifically micro hydropower (MH) sustainability.
"With my background in electrical engineering, I understand that electricity is the foundation to any and all development activities, which can drive economic activities in rural areas."
There have been remarkable improvements in the sector since I first started out in the early 2000’s. To date, 2500+ mini/micro/pico hydro systems have been installed with a total capacity of about 36 MW generation of electricity. These systems are distributed around 69 districts of Nepal, providing electricity access to more than 350 households, as well as many rural enterprises and institutions.
There are around 80 private companies currently working in design, construction and installation of micro/mini hydro plants. In terms of overall job creation, there are more than 7000 people directly employed by the sector. When I started the sector was very small and there were only a few MH companies; after 18 years, there have been lots of changes and improvements in the sector.
Also, the scope of MH has expanded over the course of my career. Previously, MH was designed only catering for lighting needs of the rural people, but now MH is designed to cater for productive end use (PEU) as well. Nowadays, some MH has also been connected to the national grid.
Based on my experience, there are two main ingredients for successful and sustainable implementation of micro hydro. The first is that the MH users committee, who owns the system, must understand that the MH itself is a viable enterprise -- a social business, not a charity. They must understand that they need to sell the maximum amount of electricity that is produced by the plant, instead of throwing it back to the river. If they do so, they can ensure sustainability and generate money for community benefits.
The second main ingredient is developing an understanding of the connection between electricity and overall community development. That is also very crucial, because people think that the MH is only for household lighting, but this is not true. If there is reliable electricity, this can be used to power the agricultural sector, education sector, health sector, small and medium enterprises, communications and much more. This has to be understood by the users committee.
If they understand these two key things, the users committee will start to adopt other improvements and activities that are required for MH sustainability. However, in the process, since they don’t have much knowledge about how to manage the plant, mentoring and capacity development support is required to make them understand different management aspects for running MH as a successful enterprise.
A good example I can give you is the case of Nishi MHP. The MHP had been experiencing a loss and we intervened to provide capacity development support. We trained the committee on how to manage the plant, treat it as a viable enterprise, sell electricity as a social commodity, and also how to include economically disadvantaged households. Previously, poor people who could not afford the connection charge were not provided with electricity access. We emphasized that even rural poor could be connected if they developed a smart approach, and so they adopted an installment payment system. Additionally, previously this MHP had been shut down due to technical problem for more than six months, and the community was struggling to seek external support to repair the system. Our programme showed them how to earn sufficient revenue to carry out repairs and maintenance. Recently a landslide occurred and it damaged the canal of MH, and the community was able to repair and restart the system within a month, using their own internal resources which they generated through a tariff.
Most people understand me more as a solar person, rather than a MH person. As I said earlier, I had never been involved in the installation of MHPs, but I developed expertise in PEU and then MH sustainability.
Early on, our sole focus was encouraging MH users committees to promote PEU, such as small and medium enterprises, to increase the revenue of the MHP. Then, a memorable incident took place in 2014, while I was on a field trip in Darnavillage along Kailash Khola in Achham district, promoting this same concept around PEU. My colleagues and I stopped at a tea shop on the side of the road, where we encountered the chairperson and other members of the users committee of the Darna Khola MHP. After we informally introduced ourselves and shared the purpose of our visit, the chairperson got very angry. He told us, “You people say MH is good for community development, but you are wrong.” He went on to say that they had taken out a loan for the MHP development and now they must sell their property in order to pay it back. Furthermore, technical problems frequently required a technician to come in from far away, for which the committee had to bear the cost. The MHP was a burden for them.
At that moment, we realized that promoting PEU is not sufficient for ensuring MHP sustainability. PEU is only one component. We saw that we needed to build the capacity of the users committee to help them understand that MHP must be a viable social enterprise. From that day on, my colleague and I started advocating this concept. It was a very new concept at the time and we advocated for our organization to reform policies and allocate funds for this purpose.
The government has since recognized this idea and has allocated funds to support MHPs to improve their business models and operate sustainably. This concept has been implemented in around 25 MHPs and has proven successful. Now these plants are profitable and the communities are capable of managing any problems that arise independently. In addition to the post-installation phase, there is now also more attention and support provided during the planning and installation phases. However, there are over 2500 plants in Nepal and many are underperforming, thus there remain many cases where this support is required.
A lot of time must also be allocated for capacity building to be effective. A single meeting is not sufficient to change peoples’ perspectives. They remember all the difficulties they faced during the installation phase and understand that the electricity cost should be minimal or free. We need to build their understanding of the links between the MHP and other development activities, and highlight how they can profit from it. We usually have 5-6 rounds of capacity building activities, taking a step-wise approach. Activities include first trying to change their perception, then knowledge exchange and field visits to successful MHPs, and training on account keeping and then on market segmentation.
That trip to Darna is also memorable because I fell in the Kailash river! There was no bridge to cross the river. But, the incident was really a turning point for me, in my career. Building the community’s understanding of MH as a sustainable business is very, very important -- if they understand that, they will perform all management aspects in a way that will support sustainability.
I wouldn’t say I’ve faced any major challenges being a woman, in the work that I’ve done. However, sometimes people ask me “being a woman, don’t you face difficulty in doing technical things?”, or, “don't you feel discomfort in travelling alone to remote areas?”. But, I don’t see this as a major challenge; it’s people’s perception and thinking about women. They think that it’s difficult for women to do these things.
Sometimes, because of the nature of what I’m doing, I have to dedicate a lot of time to my work and it can be difficult to achieve a good work-life balance. I am lucky though, because my family totally supports me and encourages me, therefore I can concentrate on my work. However, it’s not the same situation for all women in Nepal.
It does also remain a male dominated sector. Previously, when my work focused on solar, I would frequently be the only woman in a meeting of 50 people. You can therefore imagine what women’s representation looks like in the sector as a whole. It is slowly changing, compared to the earlier days. Now there are women coming into decision making positions, but their representation is still very low.
Women’s representation in MH is still very minimal in Nepal. There are hardly 1 or 2 companies that are really run or managed by women and not more than 20 female engineers in the sector as a whole.
Within the development of an MHP project there is a compulsory quota for women to be represented in the users committee, but women’s participation and voice in the committee remains insignificant. From the program side, when we organize capacity building workshops, we specifically say that at least 1 or 2 women participants per MHP is compulsory, but in reality, very few women participate.
I don’t think there is any doubt that women can play a crucial role both in the implementation and sustainability of MHPs. Women can do all the work that men can do related to the MHP; they can develop enabling policies, carry out feasibility studies, design systems, construct and install the plant, manage and operate the system, and start enterprises using the generated electricity. Women’s involvement can occur throughout, from planning, to installation, to use of electricity.
I believe that if women are looked upon as equal members as men in society, that can increase participation in the MHP sector. We need to break the traditional thinking and perception that women are not capable of doing technical work as well as men. Besides that, I think we have to design working environments in such a way that women can participate. For example, the number of women MHP operators is basically negligible compared to the number of men. Why? Because operators have to stay alone day and night at the powerhouse, which poses security threats for women. But, if we could provide an enabling environment -- for instance, allowing families to live at the MH site -- participation of women could increase. Security and safety need to be given high priority.
Involvement of women brings many positive impacts to the MHP itself and to the lives of the women who are involved. I have seen these impacts and can say that it will bring a positive change.
Nowadays in rural areas in Nepal, it is difficult to find young men in the communities, as most have gone abroad for employment. Mostly women and the elderly are the only ones in the village. Access to electricity from the MHP can lower women’s burden and save time, as it can mechanize most of the work which usually requires physical labour. There are many examples, such as electric cookstoves and water pumps, which eliminate the need to collect and carry cooking fuel and drinking water.
In addition, reliable electricity access can encourage women to participate in income generating activities. There are lots of examples where AEPC and development organizations have promoted the development of women-owned enterprises. Likewise, powering agriculture (e.g. irrigation pumps) can make women’s lives easier and support them to generate more income. Another key element is powering communication, which enhances women’s knowledge thereby encouraging participation in social and development activities. Powering healthcare, furthermore, improves maternal health by enabling the use of ultrasound systems. Powering education has given opportunities for women and girls to attend online classes, making them more competitive for future job opportunities. Therefore, energy is very crucial to every development-related activity; MHP is very important to the economic development of the community itself, as well as for women’s empowerment.
Moreover, if we empower women to use electricity, this increases MHP revenue. It contributes to the sustainability of the MHP, by supporting sufficient income to cover maintenance and repair costs.
First, it is important to empower women’s families and male counterparts to understand the importance of women’s participation in the decision-making process. This encourages women to participate and supports their empowerment more broadly. Without the family or husband’s support, it can be very difficult for women to participate in any MHP, development or business activity.
Once their families are empowered, we need to empower women themselves with the capability to participate actively and meaningfully. Sometimes when we ask a woman to join a meeting, she doesn’t understand what the meeting is about or what contribution she can make, and doesn’t have the knowledge to actively participate. Therefore, awareness raising and empowerment activities must be carried out beforehand. Just telling women to participate is not enough.
Additionally, with regard to mentorship activities, it is important to make sure that women are comfortable with the mentor. Sometimes women-to-women connections form faster and, in some societies, women aren’t allowed to interact with external men without the permission of their husband or father (e.g. in some communities in the Terai region). Some women may be comfortable with a male mentor, but we need to understand the situation and the social norms in the community.
When rural women see women participating in this field, I think that this also motivates them to contribute and to work. When they see me in the village, talking about the project, they think, “if she can do it, why can’t I?” This is my perception, at least.
Additionally, when we go to the field, if we don’t see women participating, then we ask why they aren’t there, and we wait for their presence. We always ask people to bring a woman representative to the meetings and training programs. This also encourages women to come out of the house.
"Just telling women to participate is not enough."
The pandemic has impacted the micro hydro communities that I’ve worked with, mainly in that the revenue collection has decreased due to non-operation of enterprises. Also, because of the lockdown, customers are not able to travel to the plant to pay their monthly bill.
Additionally, many migrant workers have returned to their villages, having lost their jobs abroad. The positive side of this is that these individuals might start thinking of starting new businesses in the village itself. If they do engage in economic activities in the village, this might increase the health and revenue of the MHP in the long term.
I mentioned previously about the impact of rural-urban migration on gender relations. With that in mind, there might be an impact in terms of competition between men and women. However, I think that empowerment activities and gender-inclusive programming can add value and enable women to participate equally in the competition process.
What are your hopes for the future of renewable energy and energy access in Nepal?
Recent data from the Nepal electricity authority shows that around 90% of households in Nepal are connected to the national grid, to date. This shows that there are not many households left without access to electricity. Therefore, along with increased access, we must focus on improving the reliability and sustainability of energy supply, as I’m advocating for. For unelectrified off-grid areas, we need to promote decentralized mini-grids and renewable energy technology as an alternative energy service to rural households, enterprises and institutions.
Additionally, last year in FY 2018/19 Nepal imported more than 37% of our electricity from India, spending almost 20 billion Nepalese rupees. Similarly, we imported around 216 billion Nepalese rupees worth of petroleum products last year, including cooking fuel; this import was around 2.2 times more than total national exports. There is evidence that India does unofficial blockades, which results in problems around energy access. Therefore, there is a need to increase the share of renewables in the grid, to reduce dependence on imports and enhance national energy security.
In addition, hydropower generation is increasing in Nepal. It is expected that about 1300 MW of hydroelectricity will be added to the national grid in the coming one years time; hence, we also need to work on increasing electricity demand in domestic markets, by promoting electric vehicles, electric cooking, powering agriculture, powering tourism, etcetera. If we can do this, while working on cross-border power trade, we can ensure energy security and increase revenue.
What key message would you like to leave our readers with, especially for the next generation of women micro hydro champions?
I think there is no doubt that electricity is the foundation of every development activity, whether it’s agriculture, education or transportation. There are lots of opportunities in the sector, therefore I would like to encourage women to grab these opportunities. Ladies, you can do it, and you can make positive change in the sector, as well as in the livelihoods of the rural people. You can do it if you believe in yourself.
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