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close this bookBoiling Point No. 21 - April 1990 (ITDG - ITDG, 1990, 44 p.)
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View the documentClean Combustion of Wood
View the documentAlternative Rural Energy Strategies in Zimbabwe
View the documentThe Stove - A Target Orientation Programme
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Alternative Rural Energy Strategies in Zimbabwe

Pointers Towards
by David Hancock - ZERO (Zimbabwe Energy Research Organisation)

The 1980's were the decade of appropriate technology. But the vision of a battery of low cost gadgets or techniques, improving production and standards of rural living, have sadly not yet been realised .This article questions the relevance of technologies being promoted in the field of rural energy. Its conclusions tie in with a growing body of empirically based literature, across the spectrum of rural development field that suggests a shift away from technology orientated towards people led solutions to development problems is necessary.

The Example of Rural Domestic Energy Management

With the coming of independence to Zimbabwe ten years ago, much attention was suddenly focused on wood energy. It had previously been virtually ignored although it is the single most important energy source in the country. Small scale communal farming areas' where the majority of people live, were diagnosed as being Critically deforested with many on the point of environmental collapse. Dire predictions of social and economic crisis were made and a cry for action went out.

In the course of the last two years, ZERO has been involved in the research of domestic energy systems in force in lower income and rural communities in Zimbabwe. The research was prompted by the notable lack of successes in all but a few of the technological solutions that have been developed to effect an adequate or even an improved supply of energy to these groups.

Technology As The Answer?

To ensure a contained supply of energy to rural dwellers, three possible approaches were identified. They were: energy conservation mainly in the field of cooking; improving the supply of wood by planting trees; and switching to alternative (usually renewable) energy supplies. All three options have been technocratically approached.

Cleverly designed improved stoves, developed in laboratories around the world, each with its own scientifically proven efficiency tag are supposed to reduce household fuel consumption, reduce deforestation and improve living standards.

But in spite of quite considerable effort improved stoves have not gained popular acceptance. Do it yourself stoves designs are often difficult to make well and few designs are intrinsically fuel saving efficiency is entirely dependent upon the user. More often than not, cooking returns to the open fire which demonstrated how relevant improved stoves are in the context of rural life. There is also no evidence of any positive environmental effects of improved stove programmer.

Fast growing exotic tree species selectively bred for characteristics that make them successful in well managed commercial enterprises are proposed for the greening of deforested communal areas.

However, like stove programmer, institutional sponsored tree planting initiatives have found limited success. The species favoured are promoted more because they are well researched and understood than for their relevance for rural people. Proposed wood lot schemes require a high level of management and a minimum five years time horizon for a return on their investment is difficult, for people struggling to manage from one year to the next, to appreciate.

Alternative energy technologies that have been offered include solar, wind, bio-gass. gasfiers, and hydro. All are designed to switch people away from wood and improve the quality of energy supply. But for individual households, switching to alternative forms of energy has invariably carried a cost that is well beyond the means of all but a few. For most communal land households wood is still free.

The overall picture in Zimbabwe rural energy scene is of programmer of questionable relevance to the people for whom they are intended. Few people have benefited in spite of the substantial subsidies almost all programmer have offered. What is going wrong with our technological approaches to solving rural energy supply development problems?

Taking A Lead From The People

ZERO's research efforts were aimed at trying to understand existing domestic energy management systems better in order to understand why programmer in this field had performed so poorly. A comparative study of two areas of different woodland cover revealed different management systems. When faced with a shortage of wood, locally developed conservation techniques effected savings of almost half that used in abundantly forested areas. The range of methods used to reduce fuel consumption cost nothing and did not involve any serious dislocation of traditional practices. When fuel consumption was quantified and compared to rural improved stoves, locally developed techniques of open fire management were more effective.

In areas of acute shortage, switching both up and down the energy ladder to lower grade biomass and conventional fuels naturally occurred. Intricate systems of energy supply management involving wood commodification, seasonal switching to other fuels, high opportunity costs of gathering for better off households leaving more marginalised households with first option to remaining stocks, even social mechanisms of redistribution of fuel, are in force in deforested rural areas. In other words naturally developed supply management systems have ensured enough fuel for those most critically affected to continue to nourish themselves. No one is hungry for lack of fuel to cook with.

Contrary to many peoples belief that rural people are more interested in cutting down rather than planting trees, total village samples revealed over 90~c of households in both forested and deforested areas planting trees. This was done in the face of great difficulties with white ants and livestock causing as low as To survival rates. Interestingly, the vast majority of trees planted were fruit which have no institutional support.

The dynamics of scrubland management, (where most fuelwood is gathered) is little understood, but is potentially another wealth of information on rational low or no cost methods of ensuring an energy supply.

Reassessing Areas of Opportunity

Rural underdevelopment and the poverty that goes with it is rooted in structural, social and economic inequalities. Technology was the 1980's solution to correcting these imbalances and modernising the traditional subsistence rural sector. However, effective technology transfer initiated from the outside requires such massive investment levels that it is an option few third world governments can pursue. At such inadequate investment levels. technology answers tend either to miss the point or to miss most of the people.

ZERO research results point towards one most important conclusion. People know what their needs are and how best to go about meeting them. They are responsive to a changing environment and know exactly what fits, in the complex and precarious business of everyday survival. In not adequately understanding the dynamics of rural resources management systems, we continue to make inaccurate diagnoses and largely irrelevant prognoses.

Although improved technology has certainly a role to play in rural development, it will only become relevant once we have fully understood what's already happening. The starting point is to build on systems people have developed themselves. This will inevitably mean a shift away from the "hardware approach" to socially oriented people led development strategies.

To this end ZERO is developing a series of national programmes, that will attempt to take a lead from people. These programmer include among others, reciprocally beneficial resource sharing agreements between communal and commercial land farmers; the transferring of management systems developed in areas of particular environmental stress to less stressed areas; institutional support to growing preferred tree species; research into the use of lower grade fuels, coppice regrowth and the natural regeneration of indigenous trees.

Further inforrnation can be obtained from ZERO,

P O Box 5338, 11 Samora Machel Avenue, Harare, ZIMBABWE.

Ed Note: Whilst agreeing with much of the analysis given in the article, we wish to point out that ITDG and many other stove programmes abandoned the approach the author refers to as "Cleverly designed improved stoves developed in laboratories.." at least 5 years ago and now work with stove users and village builders to help them improve their existing stoves. Every ITDG programme now includes a social scientist working on the lines suggested by the author. However, we do not intend to replace the technological Or by the sociological fix and are well aware that changes in peoples habits are very slou' to spread. There may be no one "hungryforlack offuef' in Zimbabwe but in the next 10-20years there may be many people in other countries who are or who have become refugees from fuel shortages.