IEEE Smart Village: Sustainable Development- A Global Mission

IEEE Smart Village (ISV), a pillar initiative of the IEEE Foundation, catalyzes development in disenfranchised communities around the globe. It does this by providing technical and financial support to local entrepreneurs who expand both energy access and education to remote communities. This model of sustainable community development is successful because the empowered beneficiaries play an active role. This sets ISV apart from other humanitarian and development initiatives, and as seen through its early stages, the program produces tangible results.

To date, ISV has provided energy access to more than 150,000 people in rural communities around the world. In addition to supplying power for basic home needs, this expansion of energy access provides the foundation for education centers in the Himalayas, coffee mills and schools in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and multiple agricultural co-ops in Nigeria, Uganda and Cameroon. ISV’s development model, driven by the efforts of local entrepreneurs, addresses the unique needs of each community.

Ifeanyi Orajaka, founder of Green Village Electric (GVE) in Nigeria, highlights ISV’s impact on his local initiative: “Through the seed funding and technical support from IEEE Smart Village, we have grown our business from being a startup founded by three young Nigerian undergraduate students to one of the largest PV solar mini-grid social enterprises in Sub Saharan Africa.”

Grounded in years of experience and lessons learned, the ISV mission can be defined as: Sustainable community development through a three-pillared strategy targeting energy, education and enterprise.

Energy is a means to an end: Households, businesses, schools and hospitals all rely on access to electricity to function. With access to electricity, households can turn on lights and charge phones, businesses can power equipment, schools can connect to the internet, and hospitals can store blood and vaccines. Access to reliable energy is a fundamental component of an educated, healthy and prosperous community.

Fig. Tsering Dorjay, local GHE entrepreneur, teaches villagers the basics of their new microgrid. (Photo Courtesy of GHE)

This said, it takes more than a light bulb to empower a community. Development is driven by technical, economic and political variables. ISV focuses on the distribution of energy technology to impact economic growth and improve household welfare through support of local business and expansion of education.

Sustainability is a broad term that can be summarized as a system’s ability to (1) operate over time and (2) ensure future well-being is no less than the present. It incorporates economic, environmental and equity variables and relies on inputs of natural, man-made and human capital. Natural capital defines the resources that are used by a system and the environmental endowment of the community. Man-made capital defines the technology used by a system. And human capital defines the skills and knowledge of individuals within a community.

In engineering terms: Sustainability means that once a system is online, it is reliable and can be continually operated, maintained and repaired. In economic terms: Sustainability ensures a virtuous cycle of operation – the community can utilize the system, the availability of supply meets the demand, and the long-term benefits outweigh the initial capital and operational costs.

Fig. Local technician installs home power system. (Photo Courtesy of GHE)

ISV and its global team of entrepreneurs develop all three forms of capital: They utilize man-made technology – typically solar microgrids – to spark local enterprise and expand educational programs. This in turn develops the income, skills and knowledge of each community while preserving their natural endowment. Over time, this leads to an educated, healthy and prosperous population.

Development implies continued growth and innovation. To achieve this, the availability of energy supply must scale to meet growing demand – which is typically led by expansion of enterprise and increases in household income. ISV provides seed funding to programs around the globe to initiate the first community power systems. The next phase of the ISV mission requires scaling to (1) connect a growing number of rural households and (2) meet growing demand for the connected households. This requires new sources of financing as well as coordination with local government and municipalities.

ISV programs have started to navigate the financial and political constraints to scale under the leadership of the local entrepreneurs. The Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) has used seed funding from ISV and revenue from impact tourism to electrify a population of more than 20,000 people in Ladakh, India. To execute their program, they also coordinate deployment of microgrids with the local government. This ensures that the development efforts of GHE and the public municipalities in Ladakh support one another. GVE in Nigeria has leveraged their pilot program, which was supported by ISV, to get low-interest loans from the Nigerian Bank of Industry to scale their enterprise. The Nigerian government has also asked GVE to expand its operation into six additional Nigerian states.

Fig. GVE team installs solar microgrid for residential community. (Photo Courtesy of GVE)

Ifyeani provides insight into varying forms of constraints that GVE has had to navigate, stating: Now that GVE has a modular technology that can be easily deployed, their two biggest constraints are access to finance and availability of skilled labor. To this end, GVE is training 1200 people to create a labor force with the necessary skills to execute their next phase of expansion, which is expected to generate 1.8 GWh annually.

GHE and GVE embody community sustainable development. Each program: Utilizes technology to support community needs; has training programs to ensure their systems can be continually operated; and navigates the financial and political requirements to scale.

ISV’s mission strives to catalyze the sustainable development of rural communities around the world through financial stimulation, a technical tool kit, and managerial oversight. Yet, this first community connection is only the spark that initiates the long path to development. Toachieve sustainable development, the ISV network of local entrepreneurs must improve natural, human and man-made capital within each community and navigate the technical, financial and political requirements needed to scale. Through reliable and virtuous models of micro-utility, ISV establishes the foundation for the development of healthy, educated and prosperous communities around the world. The future success of this mission depends on the local entrepreneurs, whose continued efforts inspire and enlighten us all.

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By Douglas Mackenzie
ISV Volunteer, Johns Hopkins Economic Graduate Student, Black & Veatch Electrical Engineer