Today marks World Humanitarian Day, a day to remind ourselves of the difficulty faced by people around the world. But it’s also a day to celebrate the efforts of people trying to alleviate that suffering. Access to reliable energy is a key enabler in allowing people to overcome many of these difficulties, such as accessing clean water, healthcare, security, transport and communication.

I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, a place like many others in the world, with an electricity grid where supply doesn’t quite reach demand. So there was a compromise that meant you had power… but only for a few hours at a time. I have distinct childhood memories of music cutting out midway through birthday parties due to power loss, or missing key sporting moments, like football World Cup finals (Nigerians love their football) – and hearing the frustrated yells of various family members left in darkness while someone ran quickly but carefully to get the diesel generator switched on. And don’t even get me started on attempting not to singe my hair while reading the latest Harry Potter book by candlelight late at night!

I can make light of my particular problems with power because I was lucky enough to have access to enough power to give me relatively tolerable problems. But many other people in Lagos and around the world are not so lucky.

There are an estimated 1.2 billion people across the globe living without access to a reliable source of energy. There are currently 2.7 billion people still using traditional biomass for cooking, which poses a serious and on-going health risk to women and young children in particular.

Open, equal and reliable access to energy for all people should be a basic human right – that said, it’s not just about giving people the ability to turn the lights on and off at will. Access to energy is a vital factor in enabling people to improve their quality of life. It allows access to better education, improved healthcare services with more complex equipment, computer and internet access, improved productivity for industrial and agricultural processes and countless other services. All of which are critical to economic development and lifting people out of poverty.

There are two main methods of providing people with power. The first is extending the existing electricity grids. The second is providing decentralised or non-grid connected electricity.  And with 80 per cent of people without energy access currently living in rural areas, it is likely that the latter will play an important role, as it is often too expensive to extend the grid to these areas.

There is also a growing population of people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, living ‘under-grid’, meaning they live within proximity of a grid (often less than 200 metres away), but can’t afford to be connected to the expensive and often unreliable network. However, the continuously decreasing price of solar and other renewable energy sources has begun to accelerate technological advancements in energy storage, which could have huge impacts on the future of decentralised sustainable energy access.

We need to start backing new approaches and methods to ensure they get the funding they need to reach the people that need them most.

More recently, we’ve begun to see more collaborative approaches to tackling this problem. Here we see people working side by side with individuals and communities to produce solutions that work for their specific needs and that they are a part of creating. An example of this is the Makoko Floating School*, a prototype alternative floating school structure which is powered by solar PV panels on its roof. It was built in collaboration with the Makoko community, who are living in homes on stilts above the Lagos Lagoon. 

These newer, more systemic approaches that are able to bring wider community value in the process of bringing power, are signs that we are heading in the right direction.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, open access energy, floating school

To celebrate World Humanitarian Day, we want to remind ourselves of the incredible humans working tirelessly worldwide to improve people’s lives. And since access to reliable and affordable energy is at the heart of many humanitarian issues this is an important area to consider.

Over the coming weeks Virgin Unite will be sharing the unique stories of some serious efforts people are making to improve lives through energy access. Aneri will share the story of her company ENVenture’s efforts to equip eastern Ugandan entrepreneurs with relevant skills to build successful energy access business. Sameer will share the story of his company, Nuru Energy working in Kigali, Rwanda to provide energy solutions to communities there and Sunfarmer will share their journey on how their solar solutions are improving life across Nepalese hospitals, schools and farms.

We have a long journey ahead if we are to bring the type of energy access that can transform billions of lives. And with our co-current climate challenges we can and should do this in a way that is sustainable and protects local environments that the same groups of people often rely on for their livelihoods.

This blog is part of a series of stories that highlights the serious efforts people are making to improve lives through energy access. Read the other blogs in the series by:

*The Makoko Floating School is currently being rebuilt after being damaged during a storm. It is still an incredible example of the value that can be created when innovation works alongside communities.

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