Collecting data, collecting stories
“Is your house connected to the electricity grid?”
Yes or no, a quick, simple one. It was my fifth household interview of the day, so I had already found a way to quickly validate the forthcoming answer. I glanced up at the thatched roof and the wooden bar beneath it, trying to spot a lightbulb or some simple wire fixtures.
“No… I keep wondering when electricity will reach us. We are traditional, but if it gets here, everything would be easier.” The slight frustration contained in my respondent’s answer drew my attention back to her. It suggested that energy poverty was clearly not a quick, simple matter. It affects every aspect of her life.
Agustina is a farmer and a teacher. She grows corn for subsistence, but also earns money from mung bean and cashew nut harvests once a year. She teaches at the local PAUD, or kindergarten, but has not received her salary in three months. It seems to be the common fate of guru honorer (teachers who work on an informal or short-term contract basis) in villages ridden with funding uncertainty. To ease my visibly aghast face, she quickly explains that this does not discourage her; she still enjoys teaching and spending time with her young students.
Tall trees lined the gravel road leading to Agustina’s compound, situated up on a hill in Karuni village, Southwest Sumba. She neither has an address nor a phone. It would have been impossible to find her if not for the help from one of our local tech agents from whom Agustina bought two d.light S2 solar lights. I interviewed her on her porch as part of Kopernik’s impact assessment of our technology users in the area.
Karuni village has an enviable, breathtaking view. The open skies are blue, and from the elementary school yard on top of the hill, you can see rolling green hills all the way to the sea.
After sunset, however, this area relies on mostly kerosene lighting. According to 2014 census data, only 41% of households in Southwest Sumba have access to electricity. This is also reflected in our solar light user data from Sumba: only 38% of our sampled user households are connected to the electricity grid. That is three out of five households living without electricity access. Maybe this really is the last mile...
(Baseline usage rate of various lighting sources (n=16)
Agustina replaced her two kerosene lights with two solar lights in August of last year. This decision has saved her money, she said, because the kerosene price is steep at Rp 10.000 per litre, twice of what people pay in other areas of Sumba. Plus she had to pay for a motorcycle taxi to take her to the selling point. “It used to be Rp 30.000 (US $2.30) for the trip, but now the road is better,” she said, “so a one way fare is Rp 20.000 (US $ 1.50).” I calculated this expenditure with her to see the economic impact of the solar lights.
Can you imagine spending 18% of your monthly income on just getting kerosene for lighting, like Agustina did? And this was assuming she received her teaching salary in full!
But thankfully, this cost is now zero, because sunlight is abundant and free. She showed me her lights, soaking up the sun next to the harvested corn on a Sumbanese megalithic tomb.
But Kopernik’s concern about kerosene use goes beyond the financial, and rightfully so: a 2009 study in Nepal led by Kirk Smith, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health found that the odds of contracting tuberculosis were 9.4 times larger for women who reported using kerosene lights than for those who did not. Curious, I checked the census data. The most prevalent illness in the Southwest Sumba regency is acute upper respiratory tract infection, with 11,468 incidences over one year (Statistics Indonesia, 2014). That is over four times the number of incidences of the second most prevalent illness. We cannot help but think that the use of kerosene lamps and open fire for cooking, in visibly all households, likely contributed to this huge number-- which probably only accounts for those who registered for treatment.
Since Agustina stopped using kerosene light entirely, her living space has been smoke-free. She and her two toddlers stopped having eye irritations, breathing problems, and coughs. Her ceiling is no longer covered in soot. What great news!
What is more, she said her neighbours started coming to gather at her porch at night (which she did not seem to mind). After she told them about the benefits, they wonder where they can get these bright lights too. We need another technology demo here.
In other interviews with solar light users, we found that the lights have helped farmers, midwives, priests, fishermen, and street hawkers all do their work after dark. Documenting the vast range of benefits that the solar lights have created, including impact on work productivity, remains a challenge. But I have come to realise that beyond the operationalisation, various scales, metrics, and pre-listed survey options, our effort to measure impact is made equally rich through the unique stories our users are willing to share. Sure enough, the in-between chats always last longer than the survey itself. Often our users open up about personal difficulties and good or bad life experiences relating to energy access. Though our emotions were drained, after a full day of surveys, we returned with a more complete picture of what our impact looks like.
As I left Agustina’s house, something came to mind. We Indonesians actually use what we call ‘pelita’ or kerosene light as a symbol of enlightenment. A popular school song contains a simile that compares ‘pelita’ to the selfless character of teachers, like Agustina, who provide light to the world’s darkness. Figure of speech aside, kerosene lights are harmful and costly-- maybe solar lights should be our new symbol of enlightenment?
Going out there to talk face-to-face with Agustina and hundreds of other technology users enables us to see them as more than just data points in a vast sea of statistics. Through their individual insights and stories, we realise our true program impact, discover new opportunities, and improve our work in the last mile.
Photo credit: Lana Kristanto for Kopernik