By Madeleine Nicholson
An Indian girl studies by kerosene lamp due to a power cut-off in the remote village of Lingsey, about 157 km (98 miles) from the northeastern Indian city of Siliguri. Photo credit: Reuters/ Rupak De Chowdhuri
Arguably, the most transformative invention of modern time is the internet. It’s used constantly to send and receive money, gain new knowledge, and connect and communicate. It’s no wonder the future of work is becoming more and more entrenched in the Internet of Things, or the interconnecting of people and devices to the internet and to each other. It’s given rise to technologies like automation, artificial intelligence, and blockchain, that are poised to make our world and our workforces drastically different than generations before. While those with unlimited access to the digital world are gradually adapting to the new reality, those without exposure are falling behind in the technical skills necessary to stay competitive and relevant in the new job market.
Electricity as a barrier to the future of work
Rural girls in particular are at a disadvantage. One of the largest barriers to internet access is the need for electricity, and many rural communities across the globe lack electrification. Estimates show that 1.3 billion of the world’s 7.6 billion people do not have access to electricity. In Asia, 2 out of 10 people do not have access, while that proportion jumps to 7 out of 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa. The disparities are stark across urban-rural divides. For example, 94 percent of urban-dwelling Indians have power, while only 67 percent of rural-dwelling Indians do. An even more shocking ratio exists in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 60 percent of urban areas have regular electricity, compared to 14 percent of rural areas.
Without regular access to electricity, forget the Internet of Things; even everyday tasks will fall behind. Energy is essential for basic necessities like the safe and efficient delivery of health care services. Agricultural output has been shown to lag without electrification, and businesses are far less efficient. Students cannot study after dark, stifling the growth of skilled labor, and nutrition is compromised from faulty refrigeration systems and inefficient cookstoves. How can the world expect rural communities—which represent nearly half of the world’s population—to be active participants in the new future of work when electricity is not available?
More educated, more empowered rural girls
Even more than their brothers, rural girls stand to gain immensely from improved access to electricity. Everyday chores and tasks that most often fall to a household’s women and girls, like cooking, cleaning, and collecting potable water, can be made efficient and safe with improved utilities. The time and energy liberated through electricity provides girls with more opportunities for education. When nearly one out of every three children go to a school that lacks electricity to power lights, fans, and other technology, electrification stands to drastically improve general educational achievement.
It can also boost incomes, as one study in Bhutan found that nonfarm income increased by 61 percent as a result of rural electrification projects. Another study in Kenya saw incomes increase between 20 and 70 percent, dependent on the industry. Increased incomes mean more financial capital and economic empowerment for women. Because women reinvest 90 percent of their incomes back into their families, boosting their business productivity with electrification benefits whole communities. Sustained access to electricity has the potential to transform the lives of rural communities and the livelihoods of rural girls, providing them the chance to be active participants in the new future of work.
Investments in electricity are investments in future workforces
There is a clear opportunity for private sector investment and innovation. Founded by Facebook, Microsoft, and Allotrope Partners, and supported by a number of other implementing partners, the Microgrid Investment Accelerator currently deploys renewable energy microgrids to rural communities around the globe. It’s just one example of the private sector using energy investments to improve the livelihoods and increase the opportunities for rural communities to succeed in a changing world and workforce.
Improving rural access to electricity not only ensures better health outcomes, agricultural yields, business productivity, and educational achievement for rural communities and rural girls, it levels the playing field for those with little to no exposure to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It opens up the world of the Internet of Things, and allows the creativity and energy of rural youth to be developed and put to good use. This surge of developed talent will benefit the private sector, as these youths grow into the next generation of workers and innovators. Rural electrification is critical to international development, and through investments in electricity and energy infrastructure private sector leaders can forge the way.