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April 7, 2015
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The rural should go solar

Opinion

April 7, 2015

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"My area ends here", the area salesman announced. We were standing at the outer edge of a small village in the faraway depths of rural Sahiwal. In front of us were infinite tracts of fields filled with wheat crop nearing maturity. A donkey cart appeared trudging towards us out of the melting heat on the uncarpeted road that ran through the fields. A teenage boy of around 16 years of age alighted from his transport. He was the salesperson for the territory beyond that village.
I was there to study the rural penetration of multinational FMCG sales outreach. The company’s sales department had hired one of the largest distribution networks in the country with a sales network of its own. That sales force had outsourced the far end rural distribution to freelancers like the donkey cart runner teenager. Small kiryana (grocery) stores often being run in village houses and fed by freelance mobile distributors are essential components of the rural economy.
In rural Pakistan the size of farmland inherited to succeeding generations is shrinking due to growing families. The number of landless farmers and those with less than 10 acres is increasing. Growing use of herbicides and mechanised farming is pushing farm labourers out of jobs. The gold rush to foreign lands is long over. The country’s economy is crawling under heavy loadshedding while the manufacturing sector is further ruined by unbridled imports and smuggling.
The existing infrastructural deficiencies have been aggravated by the absence of elected local bodies. And a city like Karachi, which provided employment and livelihood to everyone from everywhere, lies ruined and plundered by feudal greed and myopia. Self-employment is thus left as the only practical option for many Pakistanis including landless farmers and those with little landholdings.
Self-employment options have their limits, people usually lack technical education and formal training to successfully develop and operate

agriculture-based cottage industries. Rural consumers generally have limited buying power and they don’t mind using unbranded generic products, and for branded products the general preference is smaller/cheaper SKUs.
We need creative economic vision for the betterment of the grassroots economy, mostly driven by self employment particularly in rural areas. Rural Pakistan suffers a perennial energy drought. According to the World Bank, some 44 percent households in Pakistan, out of which 80 percent are in rural areas, are not connected to the national electric grid. With electricity shortfall rising to around 8,000MW in the summers the rural areas connected to the electricity supply face loadshedding of more than 14 hours a day.
The absence of electricity and presence of an informal network of freelance salespersons in rural life present a logical opportunity for the spread of household solar energy solutions. Globally too rural areas lead in the use of solar energy unlike with many other technologies. According to the IEA (International Energy Agency) solar power could be the world’s main energy source by the year 2050 but with our rulers’ obsession with fossil fuel energy mega deals, Pakistan seems destined to be an unfortunate exception by then.
Though it’s laudable that under the PML-N government Pakistan’s first solar park spread over 10,000 acres in Cholistan with total planned capacity of 1,000MW is soon expected to have its first unit producing 100MW, the general progress on solar energy appears too little and too slow for a big country like Pakistan. In Pakistan’s infrastructural scenario solar energy produced at the household level, especially in rural areas, could be a more economical and viable solution than transmission-based solar energy.
We need a grassroots solar energy spread in rural Pakistan for which solar companies could hire the services of rural freelance salespersons to promote and distribute solar units and appliances like lights and fans to rural shops. These freelancers are usually well versed with their areas’ socio-economic-cultural-community structures and conditions and are widely connected. They could be hired to work on a commission basis for solar companies.
Solar companies should train them for installation, maintenance and troubleshooting; these skills will help customers and increase salepersons’ income. Solar companies also need to run their ground activity floats in rural areas to generate awareness and interest among the populations there; this would also attract rural salespersons and shopkeepers to them.
The PML-N’s federal government could provide transportation vehicles to these solar salespersons through its PM’s Transport Scheme and the Punjab government through its Apna Rozgar Scheme with softer terms and conditions. The Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial governments should also launch rural solar entrepreneurs schemes to spread the culture of household solar energy production and consumption.
Email: [email protected]


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