About two weeks ago, Alison and I (with the help of Jeremiah, Pete, and Pascal) began surveying local community members about the impact of the hydro sites on their lives and on Banda as a whole. Surveying has had its up and downs, but in general, it’s been the best part of the trip for me so far.
Many of our results have been quite uplifting. Our most widespread impact seems to be increased cell phone usage. We’ve found that before 2008, when the sites were initially implemented, few people in Banda owned cellphones, and those who did would hike 6 hours (one way!) to charge them at the nearest electricity source accessible by foot. Now, most of the people we surveyed have at least one phone in their household, sometimes two, sometimes five… This increase in cellphone ownership is not just among battery owners; most non-battery owners have cellphones as well, and charge them at one of the many charging shops in the town center, which use our sites for electricity. One man said that our sites had actually “motivated people to buy cell phones.” People use cellphones for a number of things – communication with family members and friends, solving problems related to money, business, and even to access the Internet in some cases. Thus, we have found that it is not only battery owners benefitting from our sites.
Same goes for barbershops. When we ask about how people think the site has impacted Banda towards the end of the survey, battery owners and non-battery owners alike frequently mention the newfound barber shops in town, which use electric razors that are powered by batteries charged at our sites. Though it’s hard for me to imagine, people also used to walk 6 hours to get their hair cut with an electric razor.
Another positive impact, which I mentioned in a previous post, is the use of batteries by churches to power instruments, microphones, and sound mixers. Since pretty much everyone in Banda attends church and six of the seven churches own batteries, this is another way in which the sites affect both consumers and non-consumers. All the choir leaders we interviewed have said that people are much happier at church now, and sing and dance with enthusiasm. One said that church has become somewhere where “People can be happy and forget their burdens.” Another choir leader (/pianist/DJ) said that hydropower sites have made people’s voices better because they now can actually hear themselves sing through the microphone, instead of just blending in to a group. Talk about unintended impacts…
Radios are another common device powered by batteries charged at our sites. Though most non-battery owners use disposable batteries to power their radios (if they have them), most battery owners charge directly from their batteries. Almost everyone listens to the news on their radios – mostly national news, some international – and some listen to music or theater. My favorite finding on this topic came from one consumer who told us he uses his radio to listen to a BBC program about STD prevention. When I heard this, my infectious disease obsessed self freaked out and nearly started yelping with excitement – to Alison’s great surprise. I’d added the question “What types of radio programs do you listen to?” to the survey with the hope of linking radio usage to increased health knowledge, so as you can imagine, I was ecstatic.
Our final commonplace impact seems to be in lighting homes and businesses. Many battery owners have mentioned that their children use electric lights to “revise their notes” (the Kinyarwanda translation of study/do homework) at night. Others have said that they can now use electric lights instead of petroleum powered ones or firewood. Customers have proudly told us that changing to electric lights gives them better light quality and eliminates dangerous fumes that might harm their health or the health of their children.
During one survey, our interviewee told us he uses his battery so that he can use his typewriter. Being an (apparently naïve) child of the 90’s, I simply assumed typewriters must use electricity, and that I had been incorrect for ever thinking otherwise. However, the man ended up elaborating that he uses his electric light to see in the dark, so that he can type wedding invitations on his typewriter all night, rather than having his schedule dictated by the sun. Again, this wasn’t something I anticipated hearing during surveying, but it was wonderful to see how happy he was about the new opportunity.
While cell phones, radios, electric razors and lights seem to be the most common devices charged off our batteries, we’ve also had a few surprises. One schoolteacher casually mentioned that she used her battery to watch movies with her family. Confused, we asked her how she watched them. She proceeded to unveil a small TV, previously covered by a towel, sitting on the table across from us. Another person mentioned that his church uses their battery to do movie showings for members of the congregation. One man said he used his battery to charge his camera, as he is a photographer in addition to his normal work. Our host, Jeremiah, uses his battery to charge his laptop so that he can use it to keep up on medical research and to complete his coursework for his Masters in Public Health.
Thus, surveying has been wonderful because we actually get to witness and hear about the direct impact the DHE hydro sites have had on people’s lives. However, in addition to the aforementioned roses, we have also encountered a number of thorns during our surveys.
One of the most disheartening aspects of surveying is that it sometimes feels more like need finding than impact analysis. Particularly with regards to home-lighting, most non-battery owners seem scarcely better off than they were five years ago, but still show how much they want electricity.
When asked what she used to light her home, one non-battery owner we surveyed picked up a wooden box from the small table in her one room home. Upon inspection, the box turned out to be a makeshift battery box containing 3 disposable batteries wired to a single LED light bulb about the size of a tic-tac. It couldn’t have lit a radius of more than a few inches. It was clear that the woman really needed electric light and went to great lengths to get it, but she said she could neither afford a battery that could be charged at our sites, nor afford to charge it regularly if she had one. It is in moments like these that I sometimes feel our project has failed – or at least left out much of the population in its success.
Another non-battery owner, when asked about home lighting, responded that used wood from her cooking fire. At this, two of her friends who had crowded into her home for the survey started to laugh. In response, she sheepishly claimed, “I know… But I just can’t lie.” Again, it’s hard to consider ourselves successful when people continue to use fuels as dangerous (and inefficient) as firewood to light their homes. If we were doing need-finding interviews, we would be delighted to note that everyone who doesn’t have power truly feels that they need it. Unfortunately, five years post-implementation, it’s disheartening to realize that many people’s needs are left unfulfilled.
The other main cause of distress that we’ve come across while surveying is battery owners complaining about the poor customer service at the sites. Many have reported that site operators are sometimes not at the site when they go to drop off batteries, which greatly inconveniences the customers. Even more problematic, most of the battery owners we’ve surveyed have been returned uncharged or partially charged batteries from the sites at least once, making them feel both inconvenienced (because they have to go back sooner) and cheated. Finally, when people wish to voice these or other complaints to the site manager, they find that he is dismissive, and they are unable to fix the problems they’re facing. For some, these problems are so frustrating that they wish to stop charging their batteries at our sites. However, all still do, as they have no other option. Customers’ reluctance to use the sites indicates how serious the problems are. Moreover, one person said that the bad customer care has made people unmotivated to buy new batteries. This is even more worrisome, as it means bad customer care and site management are directly limiting our impact on the community.
We’re working on addressing both of the aforementioned problems. With regards to the former, we’re exploring options for sourcing small, affordable batteries and setting up a sustainable way of selling them, thus increasing the likelihood of poorer families (who can neither buy big batteries nor pay to get to Kigali to buy smaller ones) having access to our site. As for the latter, we recently held a battery owner meeting in which customers could voice complaints about the sites, as well as make suggestions about ways we can fix them. In addition, we’ve been tal