Our Founder's Story

As we enter the last 24 hours of our crowdfunding campaign, I want to take a moment to thank all of you that have made this a success and share with you a bit about why I am committed to making Mee Panyar a reality.

Almost exactly two years ago, I visited Myeik, a small city in the South of Myanmar, for the first time. I had no sense of how important the city would become to me. At the time, I was in the middle of a year-long research fellowship that focused on how rural communities deal with a lack of electricity access. During my time in Myanmar, people had told me that Tanintharyi, the region in the south-eastern tail of the country, was completely disconnected from the national grid. Immediately, I was intrigued. I wanted to see first-hand how communities had responded to this lack of infrastructure.

With little more knowledge than what the Wikipedia page and the government census had to offer, I jumped on a 21 hour bus to Myeik. With a handful of motorcycle breakdowns, a very brief police detention, and even an incident involving some lobsters, my trip was interesting to say the least. But I was most taken by what my time with the villages around Myeik taught me.

Seeing the community-made mini-grids in action gave me an immense sense of admiration, but also concern. I was humbled by what they had achieved on their own and deeply worried that it was undervalued. I saw the amount of time, money, and dedication that the meesayar and their communities had invested into building and sustaining their own electricity systems. My respect for their achievements continued to grow as I learned more about Myanmar’s history of self-help electrification and the scale at which it persists today, with 12% of people without grid access relying on these community systems.

But the more I learnt, the more I grew concerned that these mini-grids and everything that makes them possible would be ignored. During follow-up research, I was surprised to find that few others had taken the time to look closely at these systems, and that those who did largely focused on what they lacked. This sat in stark contrast with how proudly communities had shown me their commitment and achievements. I felt a deep sense of grief that their decades of skill-building, investment, and pride in their own resilience would be relegated for its flaws rather than celebrated for its strengths.

I strongly believe that the agency and ingenuity these communities have shown is exceptional, and something we need to nurture. It is by building on and developing local knowledge and skills, rather than flying in foreign expertise, that communities will be the ones who benefit most from future development. That is why I am committed to investing in people, rather than just infrastructure. To create better lives and livelihoods in addition to better electricity systems. The way I see it, if I do my job well, every day I am working to make myself obsolete. Rather than creating systems that rely on foreign assistance, we must support indigenous knowledge that is uniquely situated to have the most meaningful impact.

My hope for Mee Panyar is that we can provide communities with what they need to take themselves and their aspirations forward and that, above all, we are able to do their narratives justice. Thank you to all of you that have supported us on this journey. We will continue to work to prove that expertise can be found right here, in these communities.

Partner Spotlight: Remote Energy

 
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Core to our mission is the belief that we should leverage, connect, and grow existing knowledge. For Myanmar’s 13,000+ existing mini-grids, this means supporting the hard-earned skills of the country’s rural electricians, rather than relegating them for their flaws. Within our team, this means tapping into each person’s unique skills and attributes and allowing the flexibility to explore the boundaries of them. And in our programs, this means partnering with other organizations so that they can continue to do what they do best.

This is why we are very proud to be partnering with Remote Energy, a US-based non-profit with more than 60 years of combined knowledge as electricians and PV professionals. Remote Energy is comprised of a team of experienced, multilingual solar experts who specialize in technical capacity building programs and solar electric system implementation. They have conducted training activities and developed programs in more than 25 countries worldwide. The Remote Energy team is relentlessly committed to empowering people with the knowledge and technical skills to make positive changes in their lives and in their communities.

The collaboration between Mee Panyar and Remote Energy is an excellent example of two organizations bringing together essential pieces of a puzzle, using customized capacity building programs to empower local technicians and enable sustainable energy development in rural, underserved communities. We are working together not only to energize communities but to foster a successful cultural shift away from fossil fuels by developing a local renewable energy workforce.

Within our partnership, Mee Panyar will be managing the community’s transition to clean energy and facilitating all in-country operations alongside developing and implementing the capacity building program with Remote Energy.

Our engagement with different meesayar and the communities they serve has shown us that more traditional forms of education remain largely inaccessible to rural populations. This is why we are joining forces with Remote Energy to ensure that skills are made available where they are most needed. Together, we hope to develop a local knowledge base and a solid foundation off which to scale our training model such that, over time, we can decrease reliance on foreign expertise and promote growth of the local renewables industry.

So what do these mini-grids look like?

When asked about any plans for grid-arrival in his village, Oo Hla Myint shared, “the government said they have no plan to give us electricity. That is why I bought the generator.” With roughly USD 2,000 of his own savings and around USD 5,000 collected from households, he purchased and installed a 50 kW diesel generator mini-grid in 2007. Today, the system provides lighting, mobile charging, television access, and the ability to power small appliances for the village from dark until 10 PM in addition to electricity for day-time appliances such as power-tools and refrigerators.  

The main road running through Pa Thaung

The main road running through Pa Thaung

After learning about electricity metering from a fellow meesayar (Burmese for “electrician”), he installed household meters in 2012 and started to charge houses based on how much they used, rather than a flat fee per month. This meant that he could better track electricity consumption and also gives households the flexibility to only use what they could afford. The tariff is still high, with households currently paying $0.45 per kWh (roughly 20x the price in Yangon); however, they are happy with the flexibility as their income is seasonal with harvest cycles. He even issues receipts so households can monitor their meter readings and track expenses.

This is just one of the ways in which Oo Hla Myint ensures that the electricity service meets the needs of his community. Like most meesayar, his relationship with households isn’t a provider-customer relationship but rather a community-minded one. He sets the price based on what he needs to cover his costs and make sufficient income and households understand that this is fair and are happy to pay. While the system isn’t perfect, when households do have issues, it is mainly from wires breaking, which he always fixes the same day. 

Oo Hla Myint’s generator, which sits under his house

Oo Hla Myint’s generator, which sits under his house

Oo Hla Myint’s service doesn’t stop at providing electricity. Since the system was installed, he has employed roughly 10 villagers to support his operations, from completing meter readings and collecting tariffs, to doing repair work. Looking forward, he wants to make sure that the system will continue to serve his community: “I am already 65 and want a young person to take over one day, I need to train and pay young people to learn the work.”

Beyond this, he hopes that he will be able to upgrade the system to provide more electricity for households and be able to supply more businesses so people have access to other sources of income besides farming. “The paddy-field water is saltier every year and the harvest is not good; my village needs to find new ways to make money and electricity can help with this.”

Today, high-voltage transmission lines run over Oo Hla Myint’s village, but still, they rely on the mini-grid. The lines were installed in 2016 but when asked why the village couldn’t use them, the government response was the same as before, no plan to provide electricity to Pa Thaung. Oo Hla Myint shared, “it’s ok, we do not need the government because we can keep doing it ourselves.”  

Oo Hla Myint proudly showing us his generator

Oo Hla Myint proudly showing us his generator

 

Myanmar's 20-year-old mini-grids: what can they teach us?

Every night as the sun sets over his village in Southeast Myanmar, Aung Moe Win switches on his 30 kW generator. Its low rumble seeps into all the kitchens, sitting rooms, and bedrooms of the village’s 290 households. But the noise quickly gets drowned out by children cheering, news anchors reporting the day’s headlines and Burmese covers of 80’s pop songs.

It is almost 20 years ago now that Aung Moe Win visited a nearby village and saw them using a diesel generator to produce electricity. Back then, the only night-time lighting available in his village came from candles and kerosene lamps, which cost his neighbours almost 20% of their monthly income. Determined to change this, Aung Moe Win gathered the necessary funds – mostly his own savings plus some small donations from the villagers – and proceeded to install a generator, set up distribution lines, and connect the village’s households, all without any formal training.

Aung Moe Win proudly showing off his generator as he gives us a tour of the mini-grid. Every night at 6 PM, he turns it on with the crank of a wrench, providing basic but necessary lighting and charging to his community.

Aung Moe Win proudly showing off his generator as he gives us a tour of the mini-grid. Every night at 6 PM, he turns it on with the crank of a wrench, providing basic but necessary lighting and charging to his community.

The building that houses Aung Moe Win’s generator and the initial set of distribution poles that go to the households in the village.

The building that houses Aung Moe Win’s generator and the initial set of distribution poles that go to the households in the village.

Commitment in the face of constraints

Aung Moe Win’s is one of an incredible 13,000+ villages in Myanmar where rural electricians – called “meesayar” – drew on what limited financial and knowledge resources they could gather to provide electricity to their communities. The practice is known locally as “ko-htu-ko-hta mee-lin-yae”, roughly “self-help electrification”. Their systems take on many different shapes and sizes, varying in households served, tariffs, and operational structures. And in that diversity lies one of their main strengths. We have met with meesayar who have developed tailored payment schemes correlating with seasonal incomes from harvest cycles, some who will trade electricity for produce, and still others who have built cooperative structures for operating and maintaining their grids. These mini-grids, and the governance systems that care for them, are built to fit the resources, constraints, and needs of their villages. That is how, even in the face of severe resource constraints, they have grown to currently serve 12% of Myanmar's off-grid population.

We have found and learnt from meesayar by looking for distribution poles made of collected tree trunks and bamboo poles along the street, signs of a local mini-grid.

We have found and learnt from meesayar by looking for distribution poles made of collected tree trunks and bamboo poles along the street, signs of a local mini-grid.

Still, there are important challenges related to the reliability, cost, and environmental impact of these systems. The mini-grids typically run for only 3-4 hours a day. They generate electricity at on average US$0.65/kWh, far above the US$0.02-0.06/kWh paid for grid electricity in Myanmar. And they run on costly and polluting diesel fuel. However, 100+ personal interviews with meesayar and the households they serve have shown us that communities want to improve their mini-grids (understanding that the government is unable to help them). They simply need help accessing the money and skills they require to be able to do so.

Old mini-grids, new opportunities

Mee Panyar addresses both these issues using the existing mini-grids as our foundation. Rather than start from scratch, we believe that we can achieve more, and have lasting impact by building on what communities have already built themselves. Through a hands-on training program run in the village, we teach the meesayar proper operation and maintenance practices so that their systems can provide electricity more reliably. We also teach them how to hybridise their mini-grids with solar and provide the necessary funds. In doing so, we can decrease household electricity prices by up to 50%, increase operator profit 3x over, and reduce carbon emissions by 60%. After enabling the meesayar to upgrade and de-carbonize their mini-grid, we receive a portion of their increased revenues. This way we can recover our investment, which allows us to reach more people and more mini-grids.

Our project model in each village ensures that the meesayar can more effectively provide electricity to their village and Mee Panyar can recover our costs and invest in more villages.

Our project model in each village ensures that the meesayar can more effectively provide electricity to their village and Mee Panyar can recover our costs and invest in more villages.

On a wider scale, our work will build a qualified workforce of rural electricians. In Myanmar alone, roughly 12 million people are expected to be electrified through solar mini-grids. Worldwide, more than 40% of the almost 1 billion people currently still without access to energy will be reached through off-grid solutions. Connecting these households, most of whom live in rural areas, and the sustainable development of the energy sector as a whole will require a huge number of skilled workers and entrepreneurs ready to operate and maintain these grids. Building off of Myanmar’s self-help practice, as we do, presents a unique opportunity to meet that need.

Myanmar is just the beginning

It also presents an opportunity to find solutions to some of the major challenges that have plagued energy access efforts for years: low and difficult to forecast rural demand for electricity, challenging and uncertain policy environments, and poor engagement with and understanding of difficult to reach last-mile communities. Myanmar’s villages have proven their ability to find creative and tailored solutions that overcome some aspects of these issues. In general, we believe that communities are themselves best suited to determine what they need, and, if provided with the appropriate resources, can create and sustain it. There are plenty of examples of this also beyond Myanmar, from electricity-free refrigeration using clay pots, to relying on ‘‘missed calls’’ to communicate messages using prearranged protocols. In the face of constraints, communities commit.

Moreover, as communities take on these challenges, they create improved and secure livelihoods. Off-grid energy has the potential to create more than 4.5 million jobs globally. Effective community involvement in striving for SDG 7 – “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” – can in that way be a major contributor for meeting SDG 8 – “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. Communities can and have to be seen as an active part of the solution.

At Mee Panyar, we want to take community participation a step further by building every aspect of the mini-grid value chain in partnership with the community, and returning the decision-making power to their hands. Together with our partner, Aung Moe Win, and his village, we are piloting this model and beginning to transition Myanmar from one of the least electrified countries in the world to an example for community-driven energy development and livelihood creation.