Spread the Word: Lifeline Energy’s Fight Against Energy Poverty in Africa Using Radio
by Lisa Wong, Media & Communication Design, WAM UK Steering Committee
Kristine Pearson is a voice to be heard. In a hyper-connected world, it is often easy to forget what it means to be disconnected and without access to energy and information. At a dinner with Women Advancing Microfinance UK (WAM UK) members in Central London, Kristine spoke of the energy inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa and her fight against it as the CEO of Lifeline Energy, an NGO working against energy, light and information poverty for women and girls.
Starting in 1999 with a small-scale project distributing radios in remote Rwandan villages, Lifeline Energy has since reached over 10 million people in Africa since 2003 with its wind-up and solar powered radios with MP3 capability. Along the way Lineline Energy has won a host of accolades and support, including Silicon Valley’s first Tech Award for Technology Benefiting Humanity. But, why radio?
Kristine, TIMES Magazine Environment Hero of the Year 2007, first understood the power of the Lifeline radio – the first transformative product of Lifeline Energy – in Rwanda. She took the wind-up radios to child-headed households, so called as they were formed entirely of children orphaned from the genocide, and witnessed how they came to depend on radio not for entertainment or distraction, but for an essential sense of security. Lifeline Radio earned its name as the children of these devastated households trusted the voices on the radio more than anything else in the world. The radios allowed the children to feel safe at night – Kristine observed that it gave them a “lifeline” to the outside world. When in possession of a radio, the children had one clear favourite on what they wanted to listen to: the News; they were hungry for information.
The initial Lifeline Radio, which still serves as the core template for the more advanced current model, was designed entirely with the user in mind. Many of the girls who would come to use the radio were farmers and wanted a radio shaped like a handbag so they could carry it on to the fields. More crucially, given the lack of electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa, it was imperative that the radio was self-powering. First Lifeline Energy started with improving the wind-up radio, and, as technology allowed, introduced solar power.
Through years of working with poor and vulnerable households, Kristine saw that technologies and the energies used to power them had a gender bias. With some exception, it was generally observed that men were in charge of the household income, security and subsequently the energy that was purchased. In wanting to prevent women and children from making important decisions from a lack of information – to “guess” instead; Lifeline Energy worked hard to keep the radios, a way of transmitting information, in the household. Amongst their many efforts, one of their most successful was to colour the radios a culturally “feminine” colour – which, contra-distinct to the Western gender bias, is blue. The concept of user-centric design, now a design buzz-word, has been at the core of Lifeline Energy since its inception in 1999. Today it is used for a range of purposes: to share village information, connect isolated areas and with the addition of a MP3, offer education and training as educators record “lessons” and share.
Since Kristine’s first radio distribution project in Rwanda, radio has become, and remains, the most important medium for communication in Sub-Saharan Africa as the region continues to transform. Electricity, cellular coverage and the internet are still a luxury and are restricted to a handful of cities in an area the size of Texas but radio remains an efficient means to reach isolated groups. From 2006-8, Lifeline Energy shipped 265,000 solar and wind-up radios to Southern Sudan to support the civic education initiative led by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to cover weekly programmes on the political transition, rights and responsibilities of a democracy and the new constitutional framework and political processes. In a country with less than 50 miles of paved roads the transmission of radio was all the more important in the provision of information for the 2011 referendum to become Africa’s 54th independent state.
None of these achievements have been small; and Kristine’s enormous energy, passion and commitment to fighting energy poverty in Africa now also addresses the widespread and unsafe use of kerosene and its biased effect on women and children from its status as a “woman’s” and “home” fuel. It is clear that there remains a lot to be done and Lifeline Energy continues to pioneer against gendered and energy inequality.
Kristine Pearson also serves on the Women’s Leadership Board of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; is a fellow of the Schwab Foundation of the World Economic Forum; serves on the New Energy Architecture Council of the World Economic Forum; serves on the UN’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and Energy Practitioner Network; serves on the Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice Network; is a lifetime fellow of the World Technology Network and is the 2005 James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award honouree.
Follow Lisa Wong on Twitter @lisavwong