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close this book Energy research in developing countries
close this folder Volume 9: Human energy
View the document The real rural energy crisis: women's time
View the document Human energetics

Volume 9: Human energy

The real rural energy crisis: women's time

Irene Tinker



Over the past decade, rural needs for energy have been equated with fuel needs alone. The mechanical or muscular energy used to produce and process crops and to survive has not been given due attention. When the time and human effort expended are analyzed, it becomes apparent that the main barrier to rural development is the scarcity of women's time.


Women's work in household and subsistence production is largely invisible to economic planners who focus on economic activity in the modern sector. Census statistics undervalue women's work in the agricultural and informal sectors. Basic survival tasks are defined as traditional household activities and are left out of economic tabulations because modernization is expected to eliminate them.

Data on women's economic roles have shown that poor women work more hours than men, the economic contributions of women (both monetary and nonmonetary) are absolutely essential to the survival of poor families, women's income (unlike men's) generally goes entirely to household needs, and water carrying and food processing are more sex-typed than fuel collection.

Time allocation research in villages in four different countries shows that women work 2-3 h more per day than men, the time spent fetching water is greater than the time needed for fuel collection, and food processing is by far the most time-consuming survival activity for women. Rural women are constrained by the inflexibility of their responsibilities to provide necessities for their families. Women are certainly not underemployed, but they are clearly underproductive.

The crisis in rural energy has been defined as a shortage of fuel and scarcity of firewood. The two solutions offered were to plant more trees and to introduce new stoves that either are more efficient for traditional fuels or use different energy sources. These solutions were not as widely successful as hoped because the problem was not perceived accurately, and the solutions required more time and effort from rural women who are already overworked.

The perception of the problem is gradually changing as patterns of supply and demand for energy are seen as part of the agrarian ecosystem. Firewood collected for cooking is only one small aspect of land degradation and deforestation. The major causes are clearing trees for new homesteads, logging in mountainous areas, overgrazing in Sahelian areas, and commercializing the production of firewood and charcoal to meet expanding urban demand.

There is now growing appreciation for the complex roles of forests and trees in the lives of rural residents. Social forestry programs have been adjusted to plant tree species that meet people's needs for fodder, fuel, fruit, and other edible products. However, reconciling local needs for forest products with commercial requirements for timber, building poles, and bullock cart wheels continues to be a major problem.

Similarly, early assumptions that traditional cooking methods were inefficient and that a single improved mud-stove could dramatically reduce fuel consumption have had to be revised in light of the experience gained in many stove programs. Rural women understand very well the tradeoff between fuel consumption and time saved. They adapt their cooking methods to their daily responsibilities and their families" needs.

Given the demands and conditions of women's lives in poor households, traditional stoves have proven difficult to replace. The requirement for cut wood for many of the new stoves, for example, implies not only more work for women but the need for an axe or other implement.

The idea of a universally applicable technology runs counter to the immense variability in culture, class, and ethnicity. If the unrealistic expectation that improved stoves offer a panacea for rural areas could be set aside, their importance could be seen more clearly. Improved stoves are more important for improving women's health by reducing smoke pollution than for reducing their workload.

The current focus on fuel issues is laudable but insufficient. Much more emphasis needs to be placed on reducing demands for human energy by introducing appropriate mechanical substitutes in ways that do not further impoverish women. Once the central energy problem of women's time is recognized, there may be other ways to address time and fuel constraints. Increased income, for example, will have a more immediate impact on these constraints than improved cooking stoves or new biogas digesters.

If the 2-3 h a day that women spend processing food were reduced, or the distance they walk to fetch water were shortened, then they would have more time to cook more carefully (and thus to conserve fuel) or to earn money to buy improved technology or fuels.

Planners must be alerted to the basic need to provide sufficient income for the poor to buy improved cooking stoves or higher grade fuel. They must recognize that constraints on rural women's time are central to development in general and to energy programs in particular.

For programs to succeed, people must perceive a need for the solution to the problem they address. Rural people in developing countries do not yet consider firewood a major problem. Development programs must involve both sides of the fuel-food equation, which is central to the survival of families in near-subsistence societies.


Suggestions for Further Research

Research is needed on

· New stoves that meet the needs of households in developing countries and reduce the health hazards of smoke for women,

· Cooking methods that consider the health benefits of reduced smoke pollution and the time concerns of rural women in addition to the efficiency of fuel consumption,

· Low-energy food-processing techniques (the pretreatment or partial cooking of traditional grains could reduce the use of energy in the household),

· Alternative technologies for cooking needs (for example, solar heaters and biogas digesters),

· Activities in the informal sector (street foods should be recognized as a vital part of the urban scene rather than treated as an illegal eyesore),

· Microlevel aspects of rural energy to determine villagers' perspectives on how and where energy fits into the rural economy, and

· Gender in forestry projects, at both commercial and subsistence levels (women's traditional knowledge about forests, tree species, and uses of forest products should be better acknowledged and investigated, and more women should be involved as data collectors and extension agents to ensure that women's voices are heard).


Human energetics

Grazia Borrini and Sheldon Margen



The science of human energetics studies the human body as it consumes, transforms, and reproduces energy. It was developed through the application of concepts and principles of energy and energy flows to living organisms. Two main approaches to this science are explained.


Energy flow through the human organism can be treated as a purely mechanical phenomenon that follows the rule of energy conservation like any other physical system. In mechanistic terms, the body can be seen as a "rigid" user of energy that transforms food and radiation into heat and mechanical work at a fixed rate.

This approach to human energetics is a useful first approximation, but it does not explain phenomena such as homeo-stasis (regulation of the energy content of the body under different energy inputs and outputs) or the influence of socioenvironmental conditions and psychological factors on energy use by the body.

Energy flows in the human body can also be studied as the interaction between the human organism and its surroundings. In this approach, the context and the continuously changing response of the individual play the major role and offer the most meaningful information.

Whereas the first approach emphasizes measurable amounts of energy input and output, the second approach emphasizes variability and change in the energy flow and focuses on structure, process, and context: The combination of the two approaches offers a powerful tool for understanding human energetics.

In terms of measurable aspects of the energy flow through the human body, inputs of food and radiation and outputs of mechanical work and heat are mediated by the body's metabolism (the sum of an enormous number of microprocesses that transfer and use energy within the cells of the body). At the macroscopic level, metabolism is influenced by muscular activity, psychological state, drugs, physical properties of the environment, and dietary habits.

There is no generally valid relation between intake and expenditure. Energy intake of human subjects can vary from day to day and from week to week without significant fluctuation in body size or activity. Combined changes in dietary intake, muscular efficiency, and metabolic efficiency may account for homeostasis (the maintenance over time of body size and composition).

The Sukhatme-Margen hypothesis is a fundamental feature of a nonmechanistic model of energy interaction between the body and the environment. This hypothesis states that the body can maintain homeostasis within a wide range of energy intakes. Interaction between the body and its environment is regulated by factors intrinsic to the individual, its unique genetic background and development, and its variable environment (Sukhatme and Margen 1982).

The quantification of energy requirements for individuals is called into question on the basis of several issues, both empirical and theoretical. Energy requirement, as referred to by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is that energy intake able to meet the needs of an average individual of defined sex, age, health status, and activity level. It is assumed that the quantity of food eaten by healthy people living a normal life represents their requirement.

Rather than requiring a single fixed value of energy intake, an individual's energy balance is regulated in a flexible way by a continuously changing interaction with the environment. The capacity for regulation varies widely for an individual and among individuals.

The most important product of the flow of energy through the human body is not work output but the process of life. The relation between energy intake and work output must be considered within the context of the biological and cultural environment of each community. This relation also involves political and ethical considerations. Better health and nutrition should be promoted because they are, first of all, good in themselves.

Energy needs, means, and wants are shaped by the local environmental, social, and cultural reality. The context is essential to define energy requirements and assess whether these requirements are being met. A more appropriate definition of energy requirements would allow planners to direct resources toward more productive interventions and to target feeding programs to those who need them the most.

The human body, behaviour, and culture exhibit a flexible energy interaction with the environment. This flexibility should be carefully managed to protect the interests of the individual and the community. Because energy requirement is both a biological and a political issue, the roles of researchers and experts should be changed. Rather than directing research processes to understand, define, and make decisions, they should be providing resources to the community to allow it to achieve its own goals.

Full advantage could then be taken of our understanding of the complexity of human energetics. Concepts such as "fixed energy requirements" that are divorced from context and values should be renounced. Energy needs can best be defined in the process of community organization and should involve not only bread, but dignity and justice.


Suggestions for Further Research

Research should seek to understand

· The processes of energy regulation and adaptation, with particular reference to variations in energy intake,

· The degree to which genetics and the environment control energy regulation, and

· The nature of functional changes involved in energy regulation and adaptation. The most important research recommendation is that the people for whom research is being carried out be involved in the research process.