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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 3 (2014 Deadline)

Cooperation and compromise in developing rural communities—Case study: solar-electric mini-grids for the Maasai

PI: Kisioki Moitiko ( with co-PI Robert Lange, The International Collaborative for Science, Education, and the Environment (Tanzania) ICSEE(T)
U.S. Partner: Krister Andersson, University of Colorado
Project dates: September 2014 to February 2016

The Maasai Stoves & Solar Project, another ICSEE(T) effort, provides household-scale solar power systems along with clean cookstoves. There are 750 homes in Maasai villages with these improvements. A Maasai community is organized in bomas which consist of the houses of the wives of one man, and of others arranged around a corral. The people want solar power--they are off the electric grid and won't get on it any time soon. To introduce solar electrical systems in rural settings, it may be better to work with groups of houses rather than each one alone, in the process learning some general principles that could have application in scaling and in other communities. This project will study this assumption by creating boma-wide mini-grid solar electric systems that are likely to better serve their needs if done well. A boma represents a larger-scale social and economic formation. In spite of its apparent homogeneity, there are complexities of status and of relationships among women, among children, and between everyone and the dominant and subdominant men. This makes a boma a microcosm that can reveal issues that are of importance to development actors and scientists. In the course of the project, this research team will introduce and study shared renewable energy resources to see if they better meet development and social goals. As scientists, they will uncover new and interesting dynamics where authority and unequal power and wealth influence what can be harmoniously accomplished in a community. They will stay in close consultation with their U.S. partner throughout this work.

This PEER project is built on the foundation provided by the Maasai Stoves & Solar Project of the ICSEE(T). The ICSEE(T) has put women at the center of its program from the start. Maasai women helped design the stove distributed by the project, and that is the reason its use is sustained without exception by hundreds of women in Maasai villages. Women’s teams in each village become the mafundi, the experts in bricklaying, cement mixing, chimney construction and stove installation. The organization has been recognized by the Global Alliance as a leader in their resource book ”Scaling Adoption of Clean Cooking Solutions through Women’s Empowerment.” Maasai women are an example of those all over the world whose lives are narrow, dominated by menial labor, and with limited opportunities. ICSEE(T)’s work with them is exemplary and recognized as breaking this pattern. The research will require ideas from the community, collaboration and agreement, and finally the physical labor to install the trial mini-grid elements that will be the basis for study in the research. Women will lead and participate in all stages and tasks.

Summary of Recent Activities

The Maasai Stoves & Solar Project has since come to an end. The PI and his team had several different sorts of milestones and targets in their proposal for action. Before the PEER grant and research project, the ICSEE, in its Maasai Stoves & Solar Project provided solar systems for single households with a panel, light, battery and mobile cell phone charger. Their goal with the PEER project was to do the research to come to understand and solve the scientific, technical, and social problems that arise in moving from single household solar systems to cooperative and shared solar electrical systems based in Maasai bomas, each with 5 to 20 homes.

This research was done in the course of installing micro-grid solar systems in 10 bomas. The leadership of the ICSEE(T) and their staff were deeply involved in this and still are. In addition, the research leader and students from the Community Development Training Institute, CDTI, were brought in and did research as well. Their NSF funded partners are experts in studying the social and political issues that arise in cooperative use of commonly valued resources when interests and resources among the people are diverse and potentially in conflict. A Maasai boma is small but actually quite socially complex and as a micro-grid links and involves the entire community we were interested in how the diversity of interests, status, wealth, and authority in the boma would be stimulated and evident and perhaps important in this technological moment.

They were also very interested in and concerned about the technology itself and the design and utility of a micro-grid in such a social unit. Because of the way pastoralists organize their living structures, bomas are the natural and proper unit for bringing renewable and off-the-grid electricity to them. Therefore, the technology is very important to everyone interested in the electrification of rural Africa, if pastoralists are to be included. They described the social diversity in the boma in this way. “The principal residents are the several wives of a particular man. His authority is great, but he is not often in the boma and the women, his wives, have a social order they maintain among themselves. They are of different age, and became wives at different times. They have different wealth, and both due to their own personalities and status and because of their different relationships to the common husband have different command over common interests of the boma. There are others living in a bomas and they might be sons of the principal man, or wives of his sons, or sisters of some of his wives. Added to this are all the children of all the women.”

Benefits of light are enormous and obviously desirable to all. There is general ignorance about the technology, about what is possible, and therefore no strong opinions leading to disagreement about technical system design or different goals and ideas about desired service delivery. The introduction of a boma micro-grid with services to all introduces no differential in earning opportunities. All differences in attitude toward boma micro-grid electrification coming from differential status, and the diversity of personalities are not important given these overarching realities. The project included the students and research director at the Monduli Campus of the Community Development Training Institute to do research on the social side of the research program. They did a thorough job of categorizing both the population and the conditions of life in selected bomas prior to the micro-grid installation. The team had originally been concerned that the social inhomogeneity of even the small population of a boma might give rise to interesting social phenomena of the type studied by their US partners at the University of Michigan and the University of Colorado in other development contexts. If such differences in ideas and participation in boma electrification were important, then they would need to be taken into account in scaling and proliferating such electrification campaigns. But because of the three points above dominating the social and technological aspects of such electrification, there were no significant issues arising related to differences of status in the bomas.

The CDTI research team did visit bomas after electrification and interviewed residents at some length. Not surprisingly, what they found was an awareness in the people of just the improvements of conditions and as would be predicted by those who know Maasai traditional living conditions and who know what a clean, smoke-removing, cookstove and electric lighting can be for people living under basic conditions far from the electrical grid, with 12 hours of darkness per day, and with heavy burdens of gathering fuel and water and child care.
From their interviews the CDTI students listed the things the boma residents were already experiencing or expecting:
  • There is a lowering use of fire wood, both for cooking and lighting
  • The boma refrigerator giving them a way to preserve veterinary items and have cool drinking water and soda
  • The ability to preserve some foods in a safer place
  • The night at light giving the children more of a chance to study, and not have all study time taken up in the day time when they have to assist their parents
  • The lights on the corrals giving them less anxious nights and eliminating the need to kill wild predators.
  • The time saved from fuel wood fetching having economic value that they can recognize in terms of the use of the time in better activities
  • The opportunity to perhaps start a phone charging business to serve others without electricity
  • Eye and chest ailments being reduced or eliminated
These are, of course, the common expectations of the people and the experiences of Maasai who have had clean stoves and solar in one form or another for some time. The people of the bomas anticipate these benefits, as the interviews were conducted soon after grid installation and the full emergence of these benefits was still in the future.
The project team did training of Maasai men and women in the science and engineering of solar energy, solar electrifications, photo voltaics and the basics of electricity. 22 people attended our intensive three-day workship in December of 2015 and subsequently became the installers of the micro grids made possible by the Putnam Foundation grant and the payment by the Maasai boma owners.

In order to maintain the micro-electric grids established under this grant, and in future scaling of this program that they are working on, there have to be more people who have an understanding of basic physical science and electricity living in the bomas that are receiving and benefiting from the micro-grid electrification. In proposals for scaling they are now including explicit development of learning opportunities that will make up, in part, for the poor technical education found in the schools most Maasai have attended, and for the fact that most Maasai women have had very little schooling of any kind. The project team is very positive and excited about finally finding a way for the outstanding technical work of the ICSEE to have a pathway into educational improvement. They have the context, the technology, the growing local experience, and the contact with international experts in science and technology education that will make this not just possible, but a ground-breaking success.

PEER Cycle 3 Grant Recipients