By Hania Bekdash, Graduate Research Intern, and Erin Taylor, Program Officer, WI-HER, LLC
For anyone familiar with Yemen and its history, “resilient” is a common term used to describe its locals, particularly women, who have experienced a long string of conflicts in recent decades. Already the poorest country in the region, Yemenis were no stranger to electricity shortages even before 2015. Still, poverty rates nearly doubled from 2014 to 2016, making purchasing fuel for typical generators increasingly difficult as many parts of the country have no government-provided electricity whatsoever. With food, water, cooking gas, and fuel exceedingly limited since the start of the Arab Coalition bombardments in 2015, many issues that more directly impact women are exacerbated by the near total destruction of the state’s electricity grids.
One unexpected outcome of this disaster has been the rise in use of solar energy. While many places in the world suffer from lack of energy, Yemen is leading the green revolution. Yemen may be the first country in the solar-rich Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and possibly more, to completely stop relying on state-supplied energy and become significantly less dependent on fossil fuels. Nearly half, 40%, of the Yemeni population has managed to include some degree of renewable energy to their homes despite a raging war. The International Finance Cooperation (IFC) has been quoted as estimating Yemen’s solar energy industry at $400 million dollars. Although it came at a devastatingly high price of severe humanitarian crisis, and there are certainly a large number of people still lacking energy in Yemen, it is a remarkable case that may inform humanitarian and development support in other parts of the world. Driven almost entirely by local actors, this green revolution provides two noteworthy lessons: the success of locally-led development, primarily by youth, and the potential for women’s empowerment.
The first “Green Revolution” of the 1960s that reached Yemen from the international development community endorsed industrialized farming methods and an expansion of agriculture through new technologies. This exogenous push for modernization ultimately exacerbated what is now a drought in Yemen. In contrast, I refer to Yemen’s current “Green Revolution” as one led by local youth and women.
Given that energy access is increasingly prioritized by the international development community as an enabler of economic growth, large amounts of funding are being committed to it globally. For example, in 2015 the United Nations launched its “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative and the Asian Development Bank’s “Energy for All Partnership” aimed to be completed in the same year. Even dating back to 1985, development agencies have tried to implement green technologies in Yemen. Many assessment and feasibility studies confirmed Yemen’s abundance of renewable energy, especially solar. One recent study even declared a “perfect match” between demand and potential for solar energy, including in rural areas, of Yemen. Throughout the year in most parts of the country, the sky is clear and average daily sunshine is between 7.3 and 9.1 hours per day. In fact, due to this “perfect match” of conditions, potential, and demand, studies have shown that the economic potential of energy produced by solar devices in Yemen is higher than in any other country in the MENA.
Despite the high economic potential, international development agencies and governments were not able to achieve the kind of success that locals have over the past two years. Researchers have identified the biggest roadblocks to the spread of renewable energy in Yemen in the past to be a lack of supportive policy frameworks, coupled with the cost of transfer to rural areas. Additionally, there is a lack of coordination among international organizations and foreign governments with the Government of Yemen (GoY). Even when the GoY signaled a dedication to a National Strategy for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the Paris COP 21, little progress was made.
Under the current dire circumstances, individual actors and private sector partnerships have proven more efficient. In Sana’a, undeniably better off than the majority of the country due to its position as a hub, Yemen’s capital, and protected by tight Houthi control, solar panels began to be sold everywhere, including electronics shops, home appliance stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, and even by street vendors. Describing Sana’s now as having a blue skyline, residents have replaced older televisions, light bulbs and home appliances with energy efficient solar powered alternatives. According to Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service, a Yemeni development agency that has been tracking the solar industry, sales of solar panels have increased by over 2,000 percent from 2015-2016.
Built on local ambition, necessity, and innovation, it is important to note that no specific party is in charge of the importation of solar panels brought into the country mostly from China. In an interview with Al-Monitor, the head of the Studies and Economic Media Center in Sana’a noted that the Chinese market was so diverse that it provides solutions for everyone, including the poor. Small solar powered lamps, batteries, and power banks about the size of books can be bought for about $20, while Yemeni businessman and vendors also sell larger and more expensive units, imported from Germany and Italy, through installment plans. While this is a significant development for those living in Sana’a, it must be noted that many Yemenis still cannot afford any of these options, as a Ministry of Electricity and Energy official told The New Arab that only 40% of Yemenis have access to solar energy. The rest continue living with candlelight and lacking water, health services, and air conditioning in areas with desert climates.
The booming green energy industry is especially significant for Yemeni women, since gender differentiated studies show that a lack of electricity disproportionately affects women. Activities considered as women’s work such as cooking, helping children with studies, and, crucially, pumping water for the house all require electricity. A young Yemeni female interviewed for this blog humorously explained “As for cleaning, we are back to using old nonelectrical methods, which is quite good really, just extra work and extra pain to the back!” Access to energy allows greater efficiency for women performing such household duties, thus freeing up time to participate in other activities.
Single women or single-family households, increasingly common in Yemen due to the war, face additional barriers to electricity due to limited income and risks related to hacking or stealing energy. Another Yemeni woman interviewed for this blog, a single mother, explained her innovation in this regard, “I bought a solar system but that did not cover using both the fridge and washing machine at the same time, and it costs me a lot of money to buy food from outside and do laundry as well. So I came up with a system in which one day I use the solar energy to turn-on the fridge only and the next day is off and so forth.”
For both rural and urban women, greater energy access correlates to higher income and work opportunities. Even in non-single family households, the war has enabled more women to enter the labor market with men often away working as day laborers, women have started their own business, some working as butchers, barbers, or chicken sellers, and thus assume greater decision-making power in the household. Another employed Yemeni woman, part of a two-parent household, interviewed for this blog explained “We bought several solar powered lamps with USB ports to charge our phones and power banks, and used the laptop batteries in moderation so they would last 2 hours at night. Grocery stores also charge your stuff for a price, especially those with a big fridge. It is impossible for phones to be on for 24 hours especially with using 3G to access the Internet, which is of course pricey. The first year was a hellish year, it was the year we learned to walk in order to save gas and to stay long nights with no light, until we got solar panels.”
Studies have shown that employed women play a significant role in the increased purchase of solar energy, since women have particular sway in decisions to purchase green technology because they disproportionately require it and are increasingly taking on decision-making power in the household by turning to more formal employment to support their families. The decision of women to seek green energy solutions also has an overall multiplier effect on their children’s education. Evidence shows that girls in rural areas with access to electricity are 59 percent more likely to complete primary education by the time they are 18 years old than those without.
Not only do new technologies enable women to enter the labor market, have more household decision-making power, help their children, and develop their business, but women’s participation is also a direct investment into the energy sector. A group of female youth were one of the pioneers of Yemen’s solar industry. Wafa Al-Rimi established a solar-powered appliance company, Creative Generation, at the age of 16. Leading a team of female youth, Al-Rimi developed appliances capable of running between 6-12 hours through batteries capturing solar energy. Creative Generation later won a regional entrepreneurship competition in 2013.
In fact, youth have been leading the local green revolution just as they did the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. A large number of youth-led solar energy companies have started operations in Yemen. Khairullah Ali al-Omeisy, aged 24, owns his own electrical supply shop and taught himself to be an expert on green technologies through the internet, and 30-year old Emad Al Sakkaf launched his own solar business a few years ago. A 24 year old Yemeni woman interviewed for this blog even reported, “Almost everybody is an expert in solar energy today, it’s amazing. They know how to clean it, store the right amount of voltage, where to point the panels, and how to regulate it properly. If a Yemeni doesn’t know how to use solar energy, they must just be lazy!”
Yemeni youth have developed, funded and organized many other volunteer-based charity organizations to help those who cannot afford it to survive. They collect money from wealthy business owners, some of the same profiting off solar technology sales, and other private individuals or companies. One organization, Hemmat Shabab, stood out as an innovative organization and secured international private sector sponsorship, from Pepsi, to support their efforts to bring light to Yemeni families who cannot afford it.
The green revolution in Yemen is truly extraordinary, and one of the few uplifting outcomes of the otherwise devastating war in Yemen. Building on the resilience, innovation, and spirit of the young generation, and through empowerment of women, development organizations looking to support energy access initiatives can learn important lessons. For example, organizations may find greater success through improved coordination among each other and the local government. Additionally, given Yemen’s overwhelming potential for solar energy, there should be greater investment in this area of renewable energy. The most important lessons, however, may be the recognition that locally-led efforts are crucial, energy needs and decision-making is gendered and must be considered, and involving women and youth from the start can ensure sustainability and durability.
WI-HER supports renewable energy and disaggregated studies of development projects with significant local buy-in. We are especially encouraged by the youth and women-led use of renewable energy in Yemen and look to build on this for the country and greater region, drawing on lessons learned for other contexts. We believe that youth and women’s empowerment is key to gender equality and can be integrated across the full spectrum of sustainable social and economic development activities.