When people talk about 'household energy', most people automatically think of stoves. A lot of attention has been paid to improving stoves to make them more energy efficient and to reduce their pollution. This is one side of the 'stoves' approach, whilst others look at the 'supply' side of the problem by, for example, setting up woodlots. However, without wanting to take away from the very important work of trying to find solutions to meet this basic need, one should be asking 'Is this all there is to household energy? Once every household has an improved stove, will their energy problems be solved?' The answer is 'No'. This is because the energy needs of a household are more than what is needed to heat the cooking pot. There is the need for lighting, and in some places for heating. People are becoming more aware of the possibilities of electricity, for example, radios and sewing machines. Their needs are becoming more complex. This requires a change in approach about the way we consider household energy. We have to think more in terms of energy services to the household. Then we have to look beyond the walls of the household and see what goes on outside and how it relates the household and its energy needs.
The rural household
Let us begin by looking at the situation in rural households. Agriculture is the main economic activity for those living in rural areas. In addition, the majority of rural industry is strongly dependent, directly or indirectly, upon agriculture; for example, grain millers and blacksmiths. Therefore the effects of agriculture on all rural households, including their energy supply and demand, is significant.
- Agriculture produces both food and income for the household. Agricultural output could be increased with extra energy inputs, and thereby benefit household members' nutrition and wealth. Extra income could be used in turn to buy improved energy services for the household.
- Crops are transported to the household by head-loading and to market by mechanized means, such as carts, buses, and lorries, again each type of transport with its own form of energy input (Figure 1).
- Agriculture residues can be the main energy source for households or rural industries, or they can be used as a time saving strategy at busy times of the year, for example, post harvest. However, residues also play a number of other roles, for example, as raw materials for making household articles, such as mats and baskets (Figure 2), or play a significant environmental role as a fertiliser or for erosion prevention. Diversion of residues from their environmental protection role can lead to soil degradation.
A good understanding of the way agriculture is influenced by local conditions is necessary to make appropriate energy interventions.
Figure 1:Crops are transported to market by mechanized means, such as carts
The close links between farming and related activities forms the background to rural peoples' daily lives, and they themselves already see these activities as a single idea. Energy is not seen as an end in itself. This may help to explain why people generally do not consider the provision of energy as an important issue, even in areas of severe fuelwood stress. Energy supply cannot be considered in isolation from its end-use and the potential environmental impacts.
Who makes sure women's voices are heard?
To see how energy links all aspects of rural development, the best starting point is probably the household. This will reveal not only agricultural activities and household basic needs, but also a whole range of subsistence activities taking place in the household which are otherwise often overlooked. These so-called cottage industries provide market goods and services; for example, beer brewing, palm oil processing, soap making, hair-dressing, sewing, spinning and weaving. Many of these activities are important sources of income for women. For example, beer brewing is often the single most significant income-generating activity for rural women in Africa. Despite this, and the fact that there are significant quantities of wood used, there is little attention paid to developing improved beer-brewing stoves.
Figure 2: Agriculture residues can be an energy source... but they can also be the raw materials for making household articles
Many of these activities use large amounts of energy inefficiently, and produce end-products at a very low rate. Shortages of fuel threaten this access to cash. However, because subsistence activities are not included in government statistics they are generally neglected by energy (and development) planners. This has implications for energy policies which tend to concentrate on large scale projects, which tend to benefit men, for example, large scale dam-based irrigation schemes, and not on small-scale solutions more suitable at the household level, for example, hand pumps. On the other hand, if energy programmes focus solely on cooking, lighting and space heating, often with the intention of helping women primarily, they miss the opportunity of benefitting women by the promotion of more energy efficient systems for the household income generating activities. By ignoring the gender dimension of rural activities, we run the risk of creating gaps in our understanding of the rural situation and making ineffective interventions. As a consequence, a large number of women's energy needs go unmet.
Women's and men's needs are different
If we want to ensure that both women's and men's needs are taken into account, gender analysis may be used to ensure the design of more effective energy interventions than in the past. For example, gender-related activity calendars show that men and women grow different crops, which have different energy input requirements, processing and transport needs. An analysis showing:
- Who does what?
- Who owns what?
- Who has access to what resources?
- Who controls which resources?
in the household would show that decision making within households has a distinct gender dimension. Cash purchases are decided primarily by men, although women may be consulted. On the other hand, women are usually free to make decisions about matters which fall under their management. If women are to be the ones to benefit from an intervention, solutions will probably be easier to implement if the purchase of goods or equipment is not involved. An alternative strategy may be working with both women and men so that both recognize the benefits of a particular intervention to the household as a whole. Improvements in children's education and income generation may prove to be acceptable common aims.
The forgotten input
Many activities actually use substantial quantities of women's own energy. One of the frequently stated goals of rural development is the raising of living standards through a reduction in drudgery. This then begs the question: why is the reduction of women's physical work not being tackled as an energy issue? Is it because planners only respond to statistics? Perhaps then to give it a more widespread recognition, women's energy should be included in national energy statistics. Anyone who has tried to argue this point will be well aware of the reactions. The polite response is that measurement is too complex. There is some truth in this but this should not been seen as a reason for not doing it, but rather as a challenge to be overcome! The struggle to have non-commercial biomass energy included in energy statistics encountered similar arguments but there are increasing numbers of countries which now include at least crude estimates. The next issue to tackle is to make women's own energy more visible!