This article grew from a conversation within MWC’s Creation Care Task Force regarding whether a solar how-to guide for churches that Mennonite Creation Care Network had produced for a U.S. context would be appropriate for a global audience.
How solar energy in the Global South improves lives
Climate anxiety may be a new term coined in the Global North, but it is not a new experience for communities that depend on rain-fed subsistence farming. I first joined the adults in my family in worrying about the weather when I was 8 years old.
In farming communities, talking about the weather is not small talk – it is everything. The weather is a major determinant for quality of life: it affects water, food and energy security. When a planting season comes late, there is anxiety. In my childhood, each day after 25 November was a harbinger of doom: the potential harvest for corn reduces significantly each day.
In my early years, I was drawn into the complexities of drought and implications for the well being and survival of my relatives and their communities in rural Matabeleland. Other fears haunted my childhood as well. I feared the spread of genocidal killings and the traumatic speech from urban communities toward climate migrants. Waves of my relatives were displaced by both drought and death.
All these things were inextricably intertwined.
As a small child, I wanted to be powerful enough to be part of the solution to the complex problems I saw. Therefore, I studied rural and urban planning and have worked and done research in rural and urban development since 1996. I’ve thought a lot about what authentic sustainability and resilience would look like in my context. I believe these principles can be adapted to other regions as well.
My vision for Southern Africa has three interrelated elements: general access to off-the grid solutions like solar power; empowerment of women and girls as dignified agents in local peace and development spaces; and re-tooling and re-agrarianizing to mitigate negative impacts of outmigration from rural communities.
In this article, I would like to show how these three issues are interrelated and what it would mean for rural communities in Zimbabwe if they could access solar panels and the skills to maintain these systems.
In the United States, a middle-class church that goes solar has the satisfaction of knowing that they are keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Once the panels are paid off, they may have more money for their ministries; but using renewable energy is not likely to change members’ standard of living or affect their opportunities for jobs and education.
In Zimbabwe, nearly half the population does not have access to electricity. Yet with more than 320 days of sunshine annually, it is one obvious off-grid solution. Access to renewable energy can empower women, transform people’s lives, enable education, jumpstart development and heal the land.
Solar power can help rural communities protect their local ecologies and watersheds. Solar panels are not perfect, but at this point, they are the cleanest, least destructive form of energy we know. A church powered by solar is a witness to God’s desire for shalom for all people. Lives are enriched by energy, produced at a lower environmental cost, on a scale that invites living within the limits of God’s free gifts.
Solar is a women’s issue
In Southern Africa during the colonial period, workers, mostly men, were pulled in as labour for mining and paid urban work. The bush war and later, a tribal cleansing affecting the Midlands and western region of the country forced more men to flee for refuge in neighbouring countries. According to patriarchal cultural norms, women remained at home to hold that space and take care of its demands.
In Zimbabwe, almost 70% of the population is rural and most of that population comprises women and girls. It then falls upon them to do the bulk of the work of food production, finding firewood, hauling water and foraging. All these tasks can take hours and require covering large distances.
This makes energy transformation a women’s issue that requires women’s involvement.
Solar paves the way for education and development
When women and girls in rural communities can access energy, it frees up time for other tasks. With a pump and a borehole in place for clean, potable drinking water, other kinds of infrastructure development like irrigation become easier, too.
What might women and girls do with the additional time? It can be re-appropriated. Electric lighting can mean more time for study after the chores are done. Women and girls will also experience better health outcomes when smoky cookfires are replaced with clean energy. Access to energy can also attract teachers to rural schools that lacked energy and water. Access to energy also means improved functionality of healthcare centres.
Solar reduces deforestation and carbon emissions
Women are part of deforestation for want of firewood for cooking. They need assistance to disconnect from unsustainable fuel sources.
Rural electrification has been an ongoing strategic program of the Government of Zimbabwe since 2002; however it has not gone as fast as planned. Rampant deforestation looms large in both rural and urban areas. Off-grid solutions such as solar projects are a faster option for closing the energy gap that continues through overdependence on firewood for domestic use.
Solar can heal the relationship between the land and its people
I believe we must accompany rural communities as they nurture their spaces, heal their soil, heal interpersonal and inter-group relationships and help people embrace one another and the land. I would love for our communities to keep thinking more about what we can do with locally available resources. The grass is not necessarily greener elsewhere; climate change is hitting the whole world. Off-grid solutions can reorient production and offer a path to innovating with what we have.
Pathways to solar access
Women must be part of the solution
Churches owe a lot to women’s participation. Government structures mostly have men at the helm and seem to marginalize women. However, grassroots programs depend a great deal on women’s agency as the bulk of the resident population.
Giving women access to harnessing solar energy is a very direct way of rehumanizing and redignifying women and girls as equal, honoured partners in development. Power-with that has responsible access to means of production is likely to go a long way in connecting women to their local economy and its monetization.
This power-with could receive a boost through barrier-crossing leadership that supports roles, participation, and visions of women and girls. Girls in school and out of school need to hear that we need them to be powerful and supported as they take their place producers, nurturers and consumers in local communities and beyond.
Authentic, productive power should be available to women and girls as producers of market-worthy goods and services. I would love to see women and girls become solar engineers, creating tools, implements, and off-grid solutions. I want them to have the wherewithal to maintain a dam and waterworks; or to keep irrigation equipment running. They need to be equal partners in contributing to household livelihoods.
Churches and schools are part of the solution
Churches have had long staying power at the grassroots level. If the solarization of churches can begin, this would strengthen the work of women’s clubs, saving and lending groups and other important communal efforts that meet in the safe spaces of church structures.
Other community facilities would make good partners as well. Local schools, including Bible schools and seminaries can function more sustainably by producing their own food. This would diversify income sources, reduce tuition and increase staff retention in the long run. Solarization can run concurrently with intense reforestation and other watershed healing interventions.
Networks for support
Vibrant networks that share information, share stories from their contexts, and strike partnerships that can help communities access resources for harnessing solar energy are an essential point of organizing for sustainability. Through regional representatives and global connections, MWC offers those bridges and conduits for support.
I am interested in birthing such a collaboration between Anabaptist agencies as part of the strategic means for sustaining holistic creation care across the African continent. Anabaptist churches, schools, agencies, and their adjacent communities are free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for movement building toward improved gospelling with creation care at heart.
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 edition of Mennonite World Conference’s Courier.