7 February 2012 – We’ve heard it all before. The developing world, they are so poor. They live in the dark. They have no other options.

But is this really true?

I’ve been travelling across some of the poorest countries in the  Asia-Pacific with Good Return and everywhere I go I see people with poor-quality light. People using wood fires.

And this isn’t unusual – almost 40 per cent of the world’s population rely on some form of biomass for cooking and heating and 20 per cent have no access to electricity. And yet another 15 per cent only have access to unreliable electricity networks.

But many of the people I’ve seen are also riding motor bikes, using top-quality shampoo and laundry detergent, and are talking on mobile phones.

The International Telecommunications Union stated that by the end of 2011, five billion people worldwide had mobile phones – and the coverage rate in the developing world was 79 per cent.

Which means there are people using kerosene for light and wood for fires, but mobiles for communication.

And actually, there are a significant number of people like this.

How has this happened?
I’ve read over and over that there are three main issues associated with energy poverty; three issues which standards groups, certifications schemes, Clean Development Mechanism schemes, donor funds and entire research centres have spent years working on: access to information, access to after-sales service and access to finance.

But didn’t people face these same barriers before they bought a mobile phone?

Perhaps a few answers
I know people are not happy with their kerosene light and wood fires. But when I spoke to my investment banker brother he was clear: “The benefits of the change do not outweigh the costs.”

Perhaps people do not understand the benefits – maybe because marketers keep focusing on payback. (And tell me, what exactly is the payback on expensive shampoo?)

Perhaps the quality of products is the issue, as found in this highly sceptical GTZ report of solar lanterns

Or maybe a person’s life just doesn’t change enough when they make the switch to good quality light or smokeless stoves –  and so people are just making do until they are reached by more reliable, cheaper sources of modern energy.

A year of sustainable energy for all
This year is the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Energy for All

Over the next year I plan to contribute articles to The Fifth Estate about some of the answers the best companies and organisations have found – from energy companies, to microfinance institutions, to investors, to local entrepreneurs.

May it truly be a year of sustainable energy for all.

Monique Alfris is the sustainable energy field coordinator for Good Return. If you would like to directly fund a microloan to help a woman step out of poverty, go to Good Return

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