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A Discussion with Richenda Van Leeuwen

September 14, 2012

Background: This conversation took place by telephone on September 14, 2012 between Michael Bodakowski and Richenda Van Leeuwen. Ms. Van Leeuwen described her work at the intersection of development, finance, coordination, and energy access, which includes leadership in forming the UNF’s Energy Access Practitioner Network, a coordinating body for more than 750 companies and organizations involved in delivering rural energy services in developing countries. She focused on the current and potential roles of faith-inspired theologies, actors, organizations, and coordinating networks as contributors to energy access initiatives. She highlighted examples of successful programs for replication, such as incorporating energy access into child sponsorship programs, and areas where faith networks can leverage their capacity and skills to expand access to energy significantly. Ms. Van Leeuwen also touched upon the links between sustainable energy access, and gender, climate change, and economic considerations.

What path took you to a career working on energy issues?

I have a somewhat untraditional background to be working on energy. I’ve been working on sustainable development issues for over twenty years in different contexts with nonprofit organizations, the private sector, and international organizations. I led an organization for five years in New York, called Trickle Up, which was focused on microenterprise development. We were truly working with the poorest of the poor, particularly women in developing countries. We focused on what could be done at the ground level through working together with them, helping them to build small enterprises to increase their income and improve their household situations, in terms of feeding their families, covering basic health care, and paying for education for their children. In that context, some of the energy businesses that we saw that were the most immediately profitable for the poorest women were charcoal-producing microenterprises, but the most unsustainable in terms of deforestation and health impacts for the households using charcoal for cooking. It was a conundrum—how should a very poor woman feed her family immediately without harming herself and her community over the longer term.

I then moved on and worked for a family company for much of the next six years, initially focused on helping with restructuring one of their foundations. This is a well-known European family that is active in the Catholic community, and their philanthropy is very much focused on projecting Catholic social values into communities—for example the dignity of human life and how that relates to work. The family subsequently wanted to add new developing country components to their private equity firm focusing on renewable energy investment. Because I also have a background in investments in developing countries, particularly small and medium sized enterprises I was invited to help on their social and commercial investing in different renewable energy technologies, especially in emerging markets. Through that—and as a founding board trustee of their foundation—I was in a position to bring foundation support through grants, convertible loans, and through some equity investing as well, particularly to businesses that were focused on bringing energy services to households and communities that lacked access to modern energy services.

A background underpinning all of my work has been the growing recognition within the UN system around the Millennium Development Goals that energy was a missing piece of the equation that is crucial for programs in so many different areas, but that hadn't been adequately captured in policy and planning for development programs. Access to modern energy services serves as a great catalyst in terms of helping families to increase their incomes, and also particularly in promoting women’s and children’s health, not only in terms of reduction of respiratory ailments coming from breathing in the smoke from kerosene lights and biomass cooking fires but also in reducing burns for children and fire risks. Energy access also plays a strong role in supporting children’s education, as children can do their homework in the evening with a solar lamp that is brighter than a kerosene lamp or candle, at the same cost to the family on a monthly basis. Affordable energy services with low environmental impacts can make a big positive difference in the life of a family.

On the energy access side, I have been particularly privileged over the last years to see and be engaged very closely in the development of the next stage of bringing renewable energy to poor families as a mechanism for improving their lives. Because of the decreasing prices of solar modules and LED lights, as well as improved batteries we have seen a sea change in the sector and a massively increased ability to provide these solutions to poor families over the last six years. This has been in large part due to the advent of a new category of solar lanterns, providing small scale lighting and cell phone charging capacity combined with new financing approaches to allow poor families pay over time, matched to their household cash flow. They are now really the most immediately affordable options for better light outcomes for low income communities all around the world. Awareness is also rising globally around energy access initiatives. This year has been designated by the UN as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All in order to “shine a light” on these issues and opportunities to engage. It is a perfect storm, if you will, in terms of positive steps forward. What we really want to see now are communities of faith recognizing this and taking it back to their congregations to receive support, and acting to get that word out and move forward in their programming to have a lasting global impact.

Could you elaborate on the United Nations Foundation Energy Access Practitioner Network?

The UN Foundation has been closely working with the United Nations on energy issues for about the last five years, with the charismatic Sierra Leonean leader Dr. Kandeh Yumkella who, as director-general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), has provided significant leadership in making energy issues much more of a major focus of sustainable development work within the UN system.

In terms of energy access work over the years, the UN Foundation had funded some projects, but it was fairly sporadic, with some solid work in Africa and Central America. But when I was brought on board, it was a new position to lead the work on energy access in a more concerted way. At the same time we were developing a new initiative with the UN on Sustainable Energy for All, while working to have UN member states designate 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All to call attention to the issue. One of the components is the goal of reaching universal access to energy by 2030.

The Practitioner Network was built out of energy modeling that has been done to reach the 1.3 million people around the world still lacking access to electricity. The International Energy Agency models showed that in order to reach universal access to modern energy by 2030, conventional grid extension would only reach about 40 percent of the people. Grid extension is expensive and is not practical in reaching particularly remote, isolated, low income households. The IEA data showed that to address the remaining 60 percent of the global population lacking access, micro-grids which are small stand-alone grids at village level, and decentralized solutions like solar lanterns, wind turbines, solar home systems and micro-hydro solutions would be the most affordable and effective means to provide electricity to these communities.

So we spoke with people who are practitioners in this field and asked, “What do you need for us to help you scale up your efforts?” And they said that the market was really fragmented. It was without a central coordination point that could help gather practitioners representing businesses, social enterprises, investors and nonprofit organizations to speak to one another about the challenges they face and how to overcome them, including in trying to advance innovations and incorporate them into their approaches, in raising the investment needed to start and run their businesses, and in employing techniques to help poor communities to pay for energy services (for example at times they may need a subsidy component). They wanted an open source platform for practitioners to work together.

We launched this network over a year ago, and it functions as a global “network of networks,” coordinating rather than replacing regional or technical approaches that pre-existed in the sector. To date we have 750 members. It is a very robust network and has been very engaged in highlighting energy access issues and ways to address them both from a policy and practice standpoint as well as helping to broker new partnerships among members of the network, investors and to help amplify their voice in the sector. We are now moving ahead to focus on specific key countries within the context of the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative to help capitalize on government, business and civil society momentum in those countries, and reach the millions of families who still don’t have access to modern energy.

What are the key countries that you are focusing on?

One is India, where about 400 million people still don’t have access to electricity. Many East African countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and Ethiopia have very low energy access in rural areas, with some countries like Kenya doing a little better but still in need. Access is also low in central African countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and West African countries like Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Ghana is doing better in many areas, and yet 30 percent of the population still live without any access to electricity. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has about 500 million people without access to electricity. According to the WHO more than 200,000 health clinics across sub-Saharan Africa still lack access to electricity, which has a huge impact on women’s mortality, particularly during childbirth. It constrains the ability of health care professionals to keep medical clinics open in the evening to provide needed—at times life-saving—medical services, as simple as being able to see to place an IV solution in someone’s arm. In the Americas, Haiti has the lowest electrification rate, although there are some promising approaches, many of which are led by members of the network. Throughout Central and South America there are also about 35 million people without electricity, particularly among people living in the Andean region in dispersed, rural, mountain areas. A Bolivian entrepreneur recently told me that part of the challenge is that it could take a whole day for a company to install one solar system because it takes so many hours to get there and back by motorbike as these are very remote locations for people to be working in.

What potential roles do you see faith-inspired actors playing and how might they fill in gaps or expand on current initiatives?

First of all, I would recognize the role that they are already playing in many contexts. Some of us are inspired by our faith to be working in this space. Even if we aren’t working for a faith-based organization it certainly is our faith that gives us the values and passion to work with extremely poor and vulnerable families and communities. In many countries, church organizations and churches themselves are already very engaged. And not only churches—in India I am on the board of a solar company that apart from its work delivering solar energy to poor households, is also putting solar systems on Hindu temples, and mosques, as well as churches. These religious groups see the cost benefit for them to add solar solutions where they don’t have reliable or any access to the grid, instead of using diesel generators for their congregations which are very noisy. Diesel can also be very expensive, and difficult to deliver during the rainy season in certain countries, where roads are poor and rivers difficult to traverse. They can see the role of these solar photovoltaic solutions as a way to provide electricity to a community center—since many faith buildings are also used as meeting points for community members. Charging facilities for cellphones can also be provided through these community hub points.

Second, there are benefits on the educational side. Many sister initiatives exist between church groups in the U.S. which support programs in developing countries. One organization I know of provides small scale solar lighting solutions for a child to do homework in the evening as part of the child’s larger sponsorship package. This is another area where faith organizations very active in child sponsorship can contribute much more—lighting can provide energy not only for the child, but benefits the whole family (ChildFund International is one example of an organization doing this). There are enormous opportunities for others to do similar programs. In almost all countries now there are reputable entities that offer distribution channels for small-scale lights. Often, the cost can be as low at $15 for a light. Let’s say you’re paying $20 per month for sponsoring a child, you might only be paying only an extra $1 per month to provide light for that child’s education and for the entire family, and improving their health in the process. Another issue is the high incidence of burns and breathing in fumes from kerosene lights, which are often simply a rudimentary bottle with a rag for a wick filled with kerosene. Children move close to the kerosene lights to read by, and then breathe in the fumes or knock them over and get burned. When I visited a rural hospital in Boucan Carre in Haiti several years ago, I was told that 80 percent of the children in the pediatric ward were there as a result of burns from kerosene lights. They present a huge fire risk as well. Environmentally, there is also the issue of burning fossil fuels, though we focus on the danger issue. Kerosene is also expensive for many families but gives light that is inferior to many of the lights that we can provide.

What do you see as the key links between energy, the environment, and climate change, and how can faith actors play a role in that relationship?

First of all, benefits come from even acknowledging that it is an issue among communities of faith, whether, in terms of “creation care,” “reverence for the environment,” or recognition that while we use the resources provided to us by the earth, we also are responsible for stewardship of those resources. That kind of heritage is part of most of the major world religions.

From a Christian standpoint, I think that “love your neighbor as yourself” and “do unto others as you would want them to do onto you,” is interesting when you see that everyone is our neighbor in a world where we now have a population of 7 billion people. We have a responsibility to pass on to our children and grandchildren a world that is not completely deteriorated. We are working with finite resources and our efforts in areas like solar energy are more sustainable, and have really just begun. The efficiency of solar panels, for example, is increasing all the time, and we are still exploring ways to make them more sustainable. We have a long way to go. We need to explore solution sets to help create a more sustainable energy future for everybody in the world moving forward. At the same time, I am compelled to help alleviate suffering and bring sustainable solutions to the poor who are also the most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change.

I do a lot of work with small, developing island states and they are in crisis already in terms of potential evacuations that are related to climate change. These states face many energy security issues because they are vulnerable to fuel crises and fluctuating costs of diesel. The economic question is: do you really want families who are already very energy poor to have to pay large amounts of their income in energy expenses dictated by the global market, when there are resources available to help meet their energy needs with long-term, lower cost solutions with lower CO2 emissions?

What are the implications for gender in energy access initiatives?

First, there is the recognition that women in developing countries use energy quite differently from men. We recognize this in the microfinance sector: the money that goes to a woman is used to support her whole household, particularly her children. That is also an element in how women use energy, for their households and small businesses that support their families. They are also the most affected by not having access to affordable and safe energy—their health is affected by the smoke from kerosene lanterns and biomass fires that cause respiratory infections, and women out collecting firewood can be at greater risk of sexual violence in certain countries.

The second area is recognizing that there is much room for increased participation by women in entrepreneurship in energy companies. It is traditionally a space that has been male dominated, but as we work in supporting women in the microfinance phase, the next level up is small and medium sized enterprises where terrific women leaders don’t necessarily have equal access to capital to start and operate a business.

There are two angles, then: how women use access to better energy services to help with their family and community, and the role of women more broadly in the entrepreneurial stage across different parts of the energy sector.

What roles do you see for faith actors and networks in education and advocacy around energy access issues?

I think they have a really key role in this context. As I mentioned, supporting the replacement of a diesel generator in a church with solar panels could lead the way, if that church or temple has any electricity at all. Existing international networks among faith communities help to assure that there are many situations where a church in the U.S. could sponsor a church in Cameroon or Tanzania—and it could be a mosque, or a Jewish or Hindu temple, that follows the same premise in leading the way to putting solar energy or other renewable energy solutions in their area. Because those religious institutions are centers within the community, they can educate about energy and act as a hub. Since churches, for example, aren’t fully utilized 24/7 and may have excess power capacity, you can build community charging centers for lanterns for household electricity. The incentive for bringing in those solutions could be, for example, helping children not only to complete their homework, but also allowing families to read their Bible in the evening. That is a Christian example, but it is true in other religious contexts as well.

I can give another example from southern India. There is a group called the SKDRDP (Shri Kshethra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project) that is associated with a Hindu temple in the state of Karnataka, and is a key pilgrimage site for the whole region. Some 20,000 people per day visit the temple. The organization—in partnership with Indian solar company SELCO—has set up an innovation center that showcases some of the renewable energy technologies and solutions to educate the people on what solutions are available to them—whether it’s solar powered water pumps, heating, lighting, improved cook stoves, and so on. At the same time, the temple is using a microfinance organization it started that now has more than 1.4 million members, to provide small loans to support bio digester programs in local communities that provide improved cooking facilities that are much better for women’s and children’s health.

Who are the leading coordination bodies and actors? What are the key challenges that they face, and how can faith-inspired actors be brought further into coordination efforts?

One of the challenges that I fear after almost 25 years of work in international development in both the nonprofit and private sectors—and as a Christian who has been engaged with many churches over the years—is that the drawback of faith communities is that some are not practical, technical level experts in the initiatives that they are supporting. They need to have openness to technical expertise in this space, whether it is coming from a faith-based or non-faith based arena. I say that because on the energy side, we have seen well-meaning efforts where people have donated a solar panel system to a community, installed it there, but then within six months the system failed because they didn’t consider that it would also need maintenance, spare parts, etc. Once it doesn’t work, you’ve destroyed that community’s faith in that solution set for the next five to 10 years. What we suggest is to find partners—particularly with businesses that are developing a supply chain—to provide not only product solutions, but also the services for that solution set. As for pure donations, that is also very hard from a business standpoint for communities, though they can prove invaluable for churches and medical centers where purely market-led approaches aren’t going to bring needed solutions. For communities, it may be better to set up an agreement with a trusted local business to ensure that the benefits will last for the 20-plus year life of the solar panel, and that batteries can be properly maintained and replaced as needed.

Coming back to the networking, there are two levels of coordination. There is first coordination at the project level, on the ground, in the country, that makes sure you are keeping the long-term in mind and not just focusing on the short term benefit of the feel-good service that can ultimately do a disservice to this community through not keeping in mind future maintenance requirements. The second area of coordination is working with trusted local providers, or with a wider coordination body, like the UN-Foundation led Practitioner Network, whose members are working in 125 countries around the world. Through this network names can be provided of companies that are trusted and experienced, who could do the local work professionally.

Within the Practitioner Network, we are not particularly coming from a faith-based perspective, although many of the organizations in our network are faith-inspired or have worked with organizations that are working from a faith-perspective. What I hope is that we can engage more people like Rev. Mitchell Hescox from the Evangelical Environmental Network who is putting together a new initiative particularly focusing on applying savings from more energy efficiency in U.S. churches to fund small-scale lighting solutions in developing countries, engaging the energy technology expertise that is already found in our membership. We hope that there can be more of these organizations and initiatives that serve as their own coordinating entities within their own religious denominations and faiths, but also connect back on the technological level for the benefit of the whole community over the long term and help to scale solutions so that we can indeed reach universal modern energy access by 2030.