Do you think renewable energy is an expensive high-tech luxury that only affluent countries can afford to bother with?

Many people do assume that’s the case, but they’re hopelessly out of date, and in fact haven’t considered the practicalities of bringing electricity to poor rural communities that don’t already have a national grid. This week I spoke to the chairman of a non-profit faith group that works on sustainable energy and water projects in the Africa. He explained that they work with renewables, especially solar, primarily because it’s the most cost-effective and practical option.

After going to the 2018 National Peace Symposium I followed up with the International Association of Ahmadi Architects and Engineers (IAAAE), which is linked to the Ahmadyya Muslim Community, the religious group which runs the peace symposium. Anyway, I contacted the chairman, Akram Ahmedi, and he agreed to chat with me on Skype about the IAAAE’s sustainable development work.

Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

TT = Tegan Tallullah
AA = Akram Ahmedi

TT: So first of all, if you could just tell me a little about what the IAAAE does. I’ve seen from your website there’s a focus around sustainable architecture, renewable energy and water?

Akram Ahmedi, chairman of the IAAAE.
Akram Ahmedi, chairman of the IAAAE

AA: As we are engineers and architects, you could say we are the technical arm of the Armaddiyya Muslim association, that’s how we started. Initially our work was to design hospitals and schools in the developing world, and mosques wherever we are. So for example, we recently designed a mosque in Galloway in Ireland, and we are constructing a number of mosques in Mali and Tanzania. On top of that we’ve just stated constructing a hospital in Sierra Leone. These are our core projects. His Holiness directed us to try to make sure all the work is eco-friendly and meets the requirements of the country. So we don’t want very high-tech structures that will be difficult to maintain afterwards. Our work is therefore normally very eco-friendly. In Bamako in Mali, for example it is very hot especially in the summer, so we try to make cool structures without using electricity – engineered in such a way that there is a good natural air-flow.

TTAnd when you are working on energy projects in poor rural areas, why do you choose renewable energy?

AA: Part of the problem in Africa is that people have been using fossil fuels. Not only is it sometimes unavailable, it is also expensive. If you are out in a village and need lighting, you’re going to use a lot of fuel just to get the materials that you need. So this was the most rational way of thinking: if we can use renewable energy, that doesn’t need to be replaced by fossil fuel, then we’ve actually solved that problem. The electricity we provide to the villages to pump water for the houses is all solar energy. In Africa, unlike the weather here, it’s always nice and bright, there is lots of sun available all year round, so we can use the solar energy. What we’ve also devised is a hybrid system, which also uses wind energy. So what happens in Africa – or anywhere – is the winds are often there when it’s raining. When there’s no solar, the wind power kicks in.

Water project in Niger, 2013. Image credit: IAAAE

TTSo would you say that renewable energy is good for them now, being affordable and convenient, and is also helping them in the long term by setting them up for sustainable development in a world that needs to shift to clean energy?

AA: Yes absolutely. In fact, the village projects we’ve done, in Mali and Burkina Faso, which are over five years old, they are working perfectly! We have used no fossil fuels from what we set up there, we are not using the Earth’s resources. And that’s the problem with fossil fuels, it is using up the Earth’s resources. And at the end of the day, it’s just common sense that it is going to run out! But the sun is always going to shine, we will always have the wind. Also, the amount of energy that we produce is more than sufficient for their needs. So even if the village expands a little bit, all we need to do is put up a few more solar panels, and it takes care of the whole situation without impacting on the environment. It’s a win-win situation really. And what we’re also doing is making it sustainable by teaching the local people how to operate these things and how to look after them. So this is the real sustainability – I feel this is crucial. Not only getting them a system that works but is going to be sustainable by themselves. What we are doing at the moment is we’re going out and setting it up for them. But you know, think of the carbon emissions, going by air. So now we have very good trained teams in Mali and Burkina Faso, and one in Uganda, and Tanzania, so these teams are now providing us the support to make sure the systems are working well. So in the long term, I think this is the way to go, even for those of us in the West.

We are also providing people with solar-powered water pumps. There is an argument, that you waste so much energy pumping the water out manually, but when we do this with solar power, we take that away as well. I was speaking to one of the politicians at our symposium, and His Holiness raised a question, ‘are you trying to help in Yemen as well’? They said one of the problems is when Saudi Arabia bombed the place, they took away the electricity, and so the pumps can’t work. I said we are doing something similar in Africa, where the water wells are 100-400 meters deep, so you can’t do this by hand-pumps. And we provided solar powered pumps that gets the water out of the ground without requiring anything else. So you know, solar can even be used in war-torn areas where electricity has been disrupted.

Solar power in Africa IAAAE
Solar project in Sierra Leone, 2012. Image credit: IAAAE.

TTSo, what do you think needs to happen, for the global poor to improve their standard of living in a way that is sustainable? Can these technologies and models your organisation is using can be scaled up to a global scale, or do you think there’s some policies or business actions that need to happen to unlock this?

AA: Governments need to take action as well. We are poor NGOs, how much can we do. Unless governments take stock of this, they are going to carry on in the present way, using fossil fuels, which are not good for the environment, whereas solar energy is very clean and pure. When we started this project, more than 15 years ago, solar energy was not available very easily. We thought we had to go to Europe or America to get the solar panels, but they were so expensive. I wondered whether it was deliberate, as there were huge taxes imposed on this kind of energy. But when we started hunting around, we went to China. And that’s where we get all our panels from now on, as they are cheap and readily available. And it’s sustainable even in the poor African villages – it’s not expensive. The Chinese have in a way flooded the market. And Europe are learning from our mistakes and getting a bit more competitive here with prices going down. All these things are controlled from governments and policies. You have to make it much more available at the lowest prices, so people can afford it in this country as well. Even with the weather conditions we have, studies have shown that a significant part of our energy supply can come from renewable energy already, and places like Holland use it very effectively. When we started, solar panels were very very expensive, it was prohibitive. But now the prices have come down significantly, as production increases, and companies can make it at competitive rates. In fact, a French company has just made a solar plant in Mali.

TTOh wow, and that is going to bring jobs and economic development to that area as well.

AA: Absolutely that’s right. I think it’s going the right way, but we need to speed up a bit more. At present, governments here in the West are saying ‘fossil fuel is still very cheap, so let’s continue with that’. But they’re not paying attention to the fact it will run out. We need to go for more sustainable energy systems, using wind and solar energy. In fact, Kenya has now made it a law that all domestic heating – warm water must be based on solar energy. This is very encouraging, and we hope other governments will follow suit.

Solar power in Africa IAAAE
Solar project in Burkina Faso, 2013. Image credit: IAAAE

TTGlobal poverty and sustainable development are such huge challenges – it’s easy to get over-faced. So what keeps you inspired and motivated to keep going?

AA: Well you know, we don’t do this for making money, we are a technical branch of the Aymaddiyya Muslim association. And what motivates us, if I may say so, is our concept of the spiritual realm. There is a saying of the Prophet of Islam (may peace be on him): he says that when we are giving to the poor, we are not really giving to the poor, we are giving what is owed to them. How the world community operates, we should all be sharing God’s resources. And when a community of His is not receiving that, we are to blame! For example, we wear our clothes here, and they’re made in India or Africa, and we give pittance to the workers, right. So they are not able to get a good quality of life. And the reason is because we don’t pay enough to them. In a way, when we give charity, we are actually paying back what’s owed to them, because we didn’t pay them enough in the first place. So that is the spirit in which we work. In fact, to do charity is not a favour to them, it is an obligation – an obligation on all of us. People who are not religious also feel the poor should be rewarded a little better and wish we could help them. So you don’t need to be religious to do that – it’s a common part of our human nature. God says in the Quran: ‘the nature I have made you, is my nature, of being good to people’. So we are just doing what should come to man naturally.

All our volunteers take time from their scheduled holidays –  some take two weeks of their four weeks holiday to do the work, and some of them take unpaid time off as well. Others will pay their own air fares. And when we get to our destinations in the various countries we have a good network of missionaries and mosques and hospitals in these countries and they support our teams when we get there, saving valuable time so that our teams can get on with the work straight away.

Water project in Mali, 2015. Image credit: IAAAE

I found this really inspiring, especially the part about solar power in Africa actually being the most economical option for electrifying these remote communities, because it doesn’t need the infrastructure that fossil fuels do. Good for human needs now and good for addressing climate change – a real win-win. Also Akram’s comments about global poverty really resonated with me. What did you think?

If you want to find out more about the IAAAE’s projects you can check out their website and Twitter profile.