Community Storytelling and Rural Electrification
While working on a project that looked at rural electrification through a technology called a ‘mini grid’, I was on a team that visited villages to conduct research on the impact of these systems in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The aim of the project was to capture stories of change, entrepreneurship, and development around each mini grid, while also facilitating the creation of stories by users themselves. Using video as the medium to tell these stories, a foolproof initiation into video-making for new users was something that we also needed to develop. Additionally, two of us had the chaance to visit a mini grid site in Nigeria for a fresh perspective on how these systems functioned in another country and context.
A mini grid may be defined as…
“….a set of electricity generators and possibly energy storage systems interconnected to a distribution network that supplies electricity to a localised group of customers.”
Predominantly solar-based technologies, mini grids are projects undertaken by private companies in an effort to offer electricity access to communities that either have limited or no supply from the government or central grid. In rural areas where a government electricity supply is hard to establish owing to the distances and the consequent costs involved, mini grids are often seen as viable alternatives to central grid electrification. Companies typically offer different schemes for each customer depending on the commercial or domestic nature of use, as well as on the appliances being run on the connection.
Our research of the mini grid landscape involved in-depth interviews and field immersion, all in an attempt to gain an understanding of the context. We traced their journey from the day customers learnt of the possibility of a mini grid connection, through to their various experiences and changes they witnessed while using it. We sought to understand the benefits and the pain points of this journey in order to start identifying the kind of narratives we could look at when making films.
Our exploration in the use of video as a storytelling and knowledge-sharing medium looked into the current media landscape in these areas, as well as the scope for us to make culturally relevant content. Using WhatsApp groups and sharing sessions, we learnt about the different kinds of video content being consumed, as well as the purposes they served. Additionally, we tested different formats of training and capacity building to identify the most effective way of propagating basic filmmaking principles.
My learnings from this project were, largely speaking, of two kinds: one gamut of experiences came from my conversations and observations during research — discovering the areas we visited as ecosystems of business, information and culture. The other was of the mini grid sector itself, and its network of mini grid employees and customers — all within the larger landscape of energy solutions in these areas. Throughout this journey, however, grew a renewed appreciation for people and the value of human interaction.
The Urban in the Rural
Most of the mini grid plants visited were situated in the middle of dense market areas that housed the same shops, institutions and industries that one would typically find in most larger cities. These mini grid ‘villages’ (what I earlier called them) were hubs of commerce and business for neighbouring villages, from which people would travel to work, shop or just explore. While on research, I soon learnt of the local distinction between ‘market’ and ‘gaon’ — Hindi for village — where people would refer to the area they stayed as ‘gaon’, and the area of work for most of them, ‘market’.
The concept of migrating to the city for a ‘better life’ and such was lost on most of these people — there were many who had lived in multiple cities, including ones abroad, but had chosen to settle down to a more peaceful life in their hometowns. This, however, was by no means a compromise on comforts, making the once glamorous option of urban migration obsolete.
My naive notion of what to expect in these areas as an urban dweller soon had to shift to accommodate the large amounts of exposure and technology that had clearly permeated into these parts of India. This in turn brought the need for an understanding of the context that took into account this urban aspect to village life, while also recognising the persistent constraints of the area and its infrastructure.
Many of these persistent constraints, though, boiled down precisely to the limitations of electricity supply in the area — which is where the mini grid played a crucial role for many businesses and institutions.
Navigating Multiple Narratives
A sector with predominantly private sector companies as service providers, it makes for a unique social enterprise that is sometimes at odds between being a rural development initiative and a profit-generating business.
The cost of the service was seen to be much higher than that of the government supply. This, as explained by the mini grid companies, was due to the multiple overheads the service had, including the renting of land and the employment of locals for the maintenance of each mini grid. With rates such as INR 160 a month for a bulb and a charging point on an 8 hour a day availability, the rates I paid for my electricity in my New Delhi apartment were a mere fraction of what many mini grid customers paid for what they consumed.
This, of course, was only half the story. Before the onset of the mini grid service, almost all areas used either diesel (to run generators) or kerosene (mainly for lighting purposes). While being more expensive than its government counterpart, mini grid electricity turned out to be cheaper than diesel and much less polluting than kerosene.
With all this information and more over several visits, I didn’t know what to make of it. Much like my multiple opinions on this mini grid ecosystem, customers themselves were divided in their opinion of the service. While some thanked God for the service, hailing it as a life-changing opportunity that had broadened their horizons, others were skeptical of its cost and the company’s ulterior motive with this business. There were some who didn’t seem to have very strong opinions, and instead gave us a balanced perspective of their situation: “It’s great, I get to run my business without interruptions, but I also have to spend a lot of money on the service itself”.
Our research over India and Africa brought up a lot of thoughts, internal debates, and emotions. From witnessing how Muslim and Christian communities in the Nigerian village of Kigbe lived in quiet harmony, to meeting the caretaker of a plant in Bihar who served as a role model and facilitator for the youth and their aspirations, the people we met and the experiences with them emphasised the value of human compassion and connection in the midst of the politics, individual interest and socio-economic disparities that pull people apart. To reconnect with what makes us human is to reconnect with the people around us.
The second half of this account will explore the storytelling aspect of this project, as well as the various stories I took back with me on the way.