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June 17, 2019

Bringing light in Myanmar

If you want to reach Dee Doke Village in Myanmar, Google Map wouldn’t help. Take the highway from Nay Pyi Taw to Mandalay, execute a U-turn when you see mile post 278 from Yangon and head down a so call road next to a motorbike stand. Unless you fancy an adventure on the back of a motorbike, you better come with a 4-wheel drive!
In many ways, Dee Doke is like any other villages in the dry zone of Myanmar. Agricultural motifs abound – tractors, fields, families of chickens, a cow outside every house, herds of sheep and water buffaloes, rice threshers and rudimentary oil mills. With around 140 households, Dee Doke is also one of over 20,000 villages in Myanmar without access to electricity from the grid. As often the case was, the monastery was the cornerstone of the community here. The head monk was a force for social change. He set up a school that caters to 200 students from Dee Doke and two nearby villages and found 14 teachers to teach the students. But Dee Doke has something special that make it different from the over 20,000 villages. Since late 2018, it co-owns a solar hybrid mini-grid built by a private developer (Mandalay Yoma) with the support from the Department of Rural Development (DRD) and the World Bank.
I attended a function in Nay Pyi Taw on 8 March 2019 where the head monk was invited to talk about what electricity access meant to Dee Doke. He starts off by saying “On behalf of the village I would like to thank DRD and Mandalay Yoma for bringing light into our lives.” He went on to talk about how having electricity brought safety as poisonous snakes abundance in the dry zone became an avoidable hazard faced every night as light show this danger clearly whenever it appears.
The women in the village now use electric rice cookers – freeing them from the drudgery of scavenging for firewood to cook, not to mention the noxious fumes from wood fire. He talked about how students in Dee Doke were able to study not only due to light at night but also from a computer in the school that was installed at the school in post electrification period. The simple heartfelt speech paints a vivid picture in my mind of the improved lives.
I simply can’t refuse the chance to visit Dee Doke later that day. A short distance out of the village brought me to the compact, modern, containerized “powerhouse” of the mini-grid sitting alongside a small solar panel farm. The plant was quietly going about its business of pushing out electrons to the village. I followed the distribution line back to the village.
In the village I met a man who had switched his rice de-husking operation from diesel engine to an electric motor saving money and increasing productivity in a single stroke. I learnt of a teacher’s plan to get more computers for his students during my visit to the school as one computer was not enough and more could bring exponential benefits to the students. I met the lady with her new rice cooker and electric kettle. She was able to reclaim large swatches of her time from the hunt for fuel and use it for more meaningful tasks like reading improving her life even more. I also saw a nearby telecom tower connected to the mini-grid and was told how it was no longer running under its diesel generator a lot less now.
Everyone I met was eager to show what had changed in the last few months and to share plans for the future. Things are indeed becoming better and brighter for Dee Doke!
On the way back to Nay Pyi Taw, I reflected on what I had seen and experienced. Being on the ground really brought home the positive changes that access to energy bring forth. Something that was easy for people in the normal circumstances to lose sight of, especially people like us working in offices. In the end, I was grateful for the hospitality I experienced and also to the simple reminder of the importance of access to electricity.

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