Life as We Know It, and a Glimmer of Hope from Rural Ethiopia

The State of Life

Lately, I hate to admit, I’ve become a bit pessimistic about the future of mankind and Mother Earth. Any time I start reading too much environmental literature I eventually get fed-up and have to give it a break – sometimes a few days, sometimes weeks, sometimes a month or more. The more one reads the more one realizes the extent to which humans have degraded and abused all our natural resources. All I can think of as I read and observe is the quote (and I can’t recall who said it first) that goes something to the effect, ‘Every system is precisely designed to obtain the results it produces.’

This is a system of degradation that has been in the making for centuries upon centuries (even though most of the damage has occurred in the last century and a half) built upon the cornerstone that humans have little regard for the preservation of their natural environment – the very environment that enables all life. It has always been ‘cheaper,’ more ‘cost-effective’(we are greedy and simultaneously we failed, though warned, to incorporate the environmental costs of any decision) or most likely of all just plain easier (lazy we are) to turn the other way, figuring Mother Nature will never actually turn her back on us entirely. Even after we beat her, smothered her, ignored her and trampled upon her.

We are now racing towards the point of no return concerning global warming and climate change, the only debate seems to be exactly where that point is (is it 450 ppm – parts per million – of CO₂ in the atmosphere, or can she handle 550 or 800 ppm?). Mother Nature has finally said enough and if a lot is not done quickly (quite an understatement, by the way), we’ll not withstand the deserved payback. Don’t take my word for it – just browse some of the sources listed below or google it yourself. It won’t take long for you to get mad and maybe even pessimistic as well – but let’s hope, there is always hope, it spurs everyone to effective action. Action, that is, that eventually retards the amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere and leaves a richer, more vibrant and biologically diverse earth for future generations.

Those who know me, know how much it takes for me to admit feeling the slightest bit pessimistic about much of anything. At times, I do feel overwhelmed with the enormity and complexity of the issues we face today – global poverty, global warming, and global unrest mainly – but try my best not to show it. Further, I prefer to take an opportunistic view of the world. But, frankly, the facts are alarming.

In my lifetime I’ll likely witness one of two remarkable outcomes. 1) The world recognizes the challenges facing society in lieu of global warming and the subset of issues it affects but is unable to act en masse to curb CO₂ emissions effectively enough. The climate then changes in violent ways that violently and adversely affect the stability of life on earth. Or, 2) The world recognizes the challenges facing society in lieu of global warming and the subset of issues it affects and, with much creativity, innovation and many blessings, is able to curb and begin to retard CO₂ emissions – effectively preserving and then enhancing life as we know it on Earth. Let’s hope wisdom, innovation, creativity, hard work and a bit of luck result in the later scenario.


Developing World Context

Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi ,was quoted in the Friday January 16th issue of the Sub-Saharan Informer as stating,

“The injustice of the whole issue of global warming and climate change lies in the fact that those who have contributed nothing to its genesis will suffer the most from its consequences because they have the least capacity to adapt to these changes. They have the least capacity to adapt because they are poor and do not have the resources to adapt to the changes. However unjust it might be we have to adapt or die.”

Meles is correct, the poor people of the world certainly did not contribute as much to global warming as residents in the developed world – they didn’t have the opportunity to. There is an opportunity, however, for the developing world to be a leader in embracing clean, affordable energy and transportation for all; land and water management practices that increase agricultural productivity, food security and GDP while simultaneously decreasing deforestation, green-house gas emissions and soil degradation; and conservation funded by eco-tourism. The government will not be able to address even half of this agenda alone. It will need to collaborate with the NGO/ donor community, national and international environmental and sustainability experts, universities and research institutes, the private sector and most of all with the local people.

Rather than specifically addressing and providing examples of all of these areas of opportunity in this post, I’ll highlight a wonderful example of renewable, clean and affordable electricity in rural Ethiopia.


Rural Ethiopia and Solar Energy – Economically Feasible

Sunday, January 18th, Stephen Frapart and I tumbled along some of the worst roads I have ever travelled (David Phillips – whom you might call an artist on a bulldozer – armed with an old Caterpillar D6, could work miracles on the rural access roads, and thus development of this country, but that’s another issue all together). The last road we travelled was more or less a riverbed, which somehow accommodated our Toyota Land Cruiser – it’s no wonder all the village elder could talk about was the need for real access roads to his community. No, we were not out for a Sunday afternoon joy-ride, we were joining Dr. Harald Schϋtzeichel and Samson Tsegaye of the Stiftung Solarenergie Foundation on a visit to Chabeauxsinsaliti (I’m sure that spelling is incorrect, and I apologize), a rural village where the foundation has installed a solar system at a local residence.

Stiftung Solarengerie Foundation charges the residents to use the renewable electricity provided by the solar panels they install. Typically, Harald says, customers place 20% down on their purchase and then, over a three year period, slowly pay for the rest of the system through down payments that purchase electricity incrementally. Currently, there are two options available: one runs about $250 USD and generates enough electricity to operate up to four lights and a radio; the other will cost you about $50 USD and generates enough electricity to light one LED bulb and charge a mobile phone. Stiftung finances the entire operation and also provides repair and maintenance technicians to monitor the system.

Plans are in place for customers to begin using RFID cards, which are essentially pre-paid solar energy cards, to make down payments on their solar panels. The residents purchase a certain amount of electricity, which is stored on their RFID card (like a pre-paid mobile phone card), from Stiftung representatives that travel to their community. Their solar system doesn’t work without the card, which acts as a key. When they insert their RFID card into the battery their balance is steadily consumed as they use the electricity generated by the solar system. Each purchase of electricity they make is a down-payment on the overall price of the system. Eventually, the resident pays for the system and takes complete ownership.

The option remains available to retain Stiftung technicians for repair and maintenance after the residents have taken complete ownership – but there is a fee for these services. Furthermore, the LED lights (produced in Germany, they use only 1 watt of electricity) and the outer covering of the electrical cord (from Switzerland) that runs from the solar panel to the battery are specially designed to last at least twenty years. Harald believes that only with a long term perspective can you make an argument that today, in rural Ethiopia, the direct costs of solar energy is cheaper than the direct cost of kerosene, diesel, or other types of available energy used to generate electricity.


Compare, Contrast and Implement

Now, I must say, this was quite an uplifting experience. My home back in North Carolina is barely fitted out with fluorescent light bulbs, much less extremely efficient LED lights. Moreover, all electricity supplied to the house is still purchased from the local Duke Energy grid – not a bit of renewable electricity generated on-site. All of a sudden I found myself standing in a mud, stick, and tin hut, miles from the main road, in one of the poorest countries in the world – and they were using more high-tech energy generating devices and lights than my recently constructed home in North Carolina.

That, my friends, is an example of what development can and should look like in the developing world as well as the developed world. In a sense, the developed world has further to go than the developing world because the developed world has to work to retrofit a system perfectly designed to kill Mother Nature and everything she provides. The developing world on the other hand, is poised to gain maximize benefit by implementing technology and systems that are designed, often in the developed world, in harmony with Mother Nature.

Furthermore, this technology is not being given away. By providing financing and a long-term commitment to the project, the Stiftung Solarengerie Foundation is creating a market and demand for their product – solar generated electricity. Local people take ownership of the project, and should something go awry, they are serviced by Stiftung technicians, who are graduates of regional vocational training schools. Moreover, customers benefit from the efficiency and durability of state-of-the-art technology from Germany and Switzerland. That’s implementing first rate technology from the developed world in the developing world, and subsequently increasing the standard of living in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner. All of this is happening in rural Ethiopia.



For thousands of years we toiled without light or electricity. Suddenly, literally and figuratively, a light was turned on. Look at how much of the world has gained electricity in the last hundred years, even though most is not generated in a sustainable manner. We can only pray that once again, a period of enlightenment will pervade throughout the earth and we’ll be able to overcome development and design challenges, in the developed and developing worlds, in a manner harmonious with Mother Nature.

I believe, even in the face of a mountain of alarming facts, that with the right leadership, enlightenment and blessings we will overcome the challenges facing our world today. People everywhere want to begin climbing the mountain to overcome global poverty, warming and unrest. Here’s to believing we can and will, but realizing the task will not be easy and will require the very best from all of us – both in the developed and developing worlds.


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


For more information on Stiftung Solarenergie Foundation, please visit:




In-case you’re wondering, this literature ranges from online pulications – Yale Environment 360, New York Times, Wall St. Journal, etc.; to books by the likes of the entrepreneur Paul Hawken,’Ecology of Commerce’; the economist EF Schumacher, ‘Small is Beautiful;’ designers  McDonough and Braungart ‘Cradle to Cradle;’ the farmer and poet Wendell Berry ‘The Way of Ignorance’; and the journalist Thomas Friedman ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded;’ to the available magazine resources here in Addis: The Economist, TIME, and National Geographic predominantly; to local newspapers – mainly Fortune and the Sub-Saharan Informer; and finally to reports like the World Bank Report 2008: Agricultural for Development, and a publication on ‘Best practices and technologies for small scale agricultural water management in Ethiopia’ published by USAID, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. I am not trying to be obnoxious in listing these sources, but merely attempting to show how many different publications are now reporting on the enormity of the environmental challenges facing us today.

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