Living off the grid, completely independent from an electric utility, can cast energy in a startlingly different light—one in which animal dung serves as cooking fuel, kerosene illuminates kids’ homework after dark, and diesel generators propel rudimentary fans during life-threatening heat waves. Beyond the inherent risks these energy sources pose—fires, injuries, and respiratory ailments stemming from inhalation of toxic fumes—there’s the catastrophic toll they take on the environment as they steadily poison our planet with greenhouse gases.
Equally concerning are the economic and social disadvantages that come from being unelectrified. Business productivity ceases at sundown, limiting families’ incomes; dairy farmers suffer obscene spoilage rates due to poor refrigeration; and basic connectivity—to news both global and familial—demands long treks to distant towns where cell phones can be charged.
This is the reality for 70 million people in rural Pakistan—one that Shazia Khan and her social enterprise, EcoEnergy, are striving to transform with solar technology.
Khan’s desire to alleviate energy poverty in that area is fueled by her personal connection to the country. A Pakistani American, Khan was born and raised in the United States but visited Pakistan often as a child. “I’m still haunted by the images of destitution I witnessed in the villages there,” she says. She recalls barefoot children, some as young as three, selling Chiclets or coconuts on the roadside, something that overwhelmed her with sadness when she later returned home.
Over time, Khan’s despair bred an urgent need to give back. After graduating from Vermont Law School in 2003 with a focus on environmental law, she traveled to Karachi, Pakistan, to work for the National Development Finance Corporation, a group tasked with helping the country improve its energy infrastructure.
While visiting relatives in the province of Sindh, Khan had a realization that came to steer the direction of her work. “Even if we helped facilitate the development of several huge power plants in Karachi, it really wouldn’t have any impact on off-grid communities,” she explains. “It’s simply too expensive for the government to build out power lines to reach these small, remote, decentralized villages.”
Later, while working at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and consulting on a project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo focused on electrifying all of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East, Khan discovered that not even a plan of this scope would help unelectrified low-income villages. The energy generated would first be used to meet industrial and commercial needs, then be fed to major cities. “That was the impetus for me to begin researching solutions that specifically addressed the off-grid communities, who were forever being ignored,” she says.
Pakistan seemed perfectly poised for a solar revolution. The country has one of the highest solar radiation signals in the world and a growing environmental burden caused by the millions of residents who rely directly on fossil fuels for energy. So in 2009, Khan launched EcoEnergy (then a nonprofit called EcoEnergy Finance) to raise funds for solar lanterns that could provide Pakistan’s vast off-grid population with safer, more eco-friendly alternatives to kerosene, wood, and diesel.
A year later, devastating floods hit Pakistan, driving hundreds of thousands of people to refugee camps. Among the many humanitarian items requested by the government were solar lanterns to illuminate both the 24-hour health clinics, overrun with cholera and malaria, and the camps themselves, where in the dark, crowded quarters, women were raped and children were molested. In the midst of this tragedy, “the magnitude of the problem began to sink in,” Khan says. “I had only a couple thousand lanterns, but there were hundreds of thousands of people in need.” So in 2011, Khan teamed up with clean energy expert Jeremy Higgs—who now serves as EcoEnergy’s chief operating officer in Karachi—to transform EcoEnergy Finance into an enterprise that could provide a more comprehensive and sustainable solar solution.
Khan and Higgs devoted four years to consumer research, visiting 44,000 homes across 2,200 villages known to have very low electrification rates or no electricity at all. The duo discovered that although their solar lanterns were a valuable source of light, they couldn’t meet the communities’ greater needs: to charge cell phones or power fans and televisions. “We had to create a more complete solar utility service—one that would let people power anything and pay a predictable fee for only the electricity they used,” Khan says. She credits much of her company’s success to this pay-as-you-go system: Each month, consumers make a payment to their local mobile money agent—there are 1,000 throughout Sindh—the same way they pay for their cell phones. “Once they punch in their activation code, we remotely unlock a corresponding amount of electricity to their solar home unit,” a self-contained system known as a distributed solar solution that provides energy directly to the customer without additional infrastructure.
EcoEnergy’s next move was bringing the technology to those in need. They started with small business owners, like a tea vendor who had long used a TV to attract business—as Bollywood films and cricket games draw in customers and encourage them to stay longer and drink more tea. For years he had been powering his set off a smelly diesel generator but recently switched to solar. The company also has a paid network of community mobilizers who do product demonstrations. “These are men and women from the communities in which we work, each of whom speaks the language and truly believes that energy access can make people more economically productive,” Khan says.
Aside from the empowering opportunities solar affords, there’s the significant environmental boon, which goes beyond curbing carbon emissions. Pakistan is the most heavily deforested country in Asia—largely because trees are a free source of fuel—and this sets the stage for rampant floods. “If we can give people an affordable alternative to wood—leaving trees to stem the tides of floods—they’re happy to make the switch,” Khan says.
EcoEnergy has signed up more than 100 customers over the course of a year. And Sindh’s appetite for solar is growing—right along with Khan’s ambitions. She hopes to convert 50,000 villagers within the next three years before eventually expanding beyond Pakistan to Myanmar, Indonesia, and possibly Malaysia. “Jeremy and I plan on being here for a very long time,” she says. “And we want this company to outlast us.”