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Listening Initiative Aimed at Uncovering Vulnerabilities for Off-Grid Customers

Their voices are often unheard in the global conversation, and their pandemic challenges underrecognized, so as part of a listening initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation and its partners are surveying rural electrical customers in six countries to identify vulnerabilities and make sure energy poverty does not spread or worsen during the Covid-19 crisis.

The survey, begun in May and extending for five months, will tally the responses of about 90,000 customers, most of them off-grid, in India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Uganda. The initiative is part of a partnership between the Foundation and 60 Decibels, a social impact measurement company spun out of the nonprofit impact investment fund Acumen.

With dual health and economic challenges triggered by the Covid-19 crisis, the survey has two primarily purposes. First, it will provide insights into where economic hardship may be most acute, seriously threatening customers’ ability to pay for essential goods and services, including electricity. This can help energy companies, national governments and policymakers, and global energy access funders target their responses.

“The initiative is an eye opener in terms of understanding the on-the-ground situation and the needs, expectations and challenges of the rural communities,” said Smart Power India’s CEO Jaideep Mukherji, whose beneficiaries are among those being polled. “The survey will help organizations like ours prepare precise and community-centric strategies in delivering our programs to the last mile.”

Secondly, the survey offers a chance to add seldom-heralded voices to the global pandemic discussion. “In a context where every news headline was about Covid-19 and its impact on people, a dearth of data on realities in rural communities, particularly in the global south, was troubling,” said Shawna Hoffman, the Foundation’s Director of Measurement and Program Performance. “When the story is completely focused on some parts of the globe and devoid of perspectives from other places, that’s an equity issue. We knew lots about how people in capital cities were faring, but very little, if anything, about what was happening in rural lower-income communities.”

“We weren’t hearing the voices of those likely to be most impacted,” agreed Kat Harrison, Director of Impact for 60 Decibels, which is carrying out the survey. “All of us are struggling; no one is having a good time. But if you are vulnerable to begin with, it is really worse.”

From Food to Covid Information, Customers Seek Support

Because providing affordable, reliable and clean electricity is a critical first step toward helping a community lift itself from poverty, the Foundation, working with partners in Asia and Africa, has made ending global energy poverty a priority, often through off-grid renewable electrification to underserved communities.

Despite Covid-19-linked hardships, initial trends show most off-grid customers are still paying their electric bills, indicating their willingness to make short-term sacrifices to keep on the lights and be able to use electricity-powered tools.

At the same time, Covid-19 has created high levels of distress. Of the countries surveyed, Sierra Leone customers reported the highest level of anxiety, with 84 percent saying they were very concerned and another 15 percent identifying as slightly concerned. Myanmar customers reported the lowest levels, with 8 percent saying they were very concerned, and another 57 percent listing slight concern.

The shape of those worries was revealed in wide-ranging answers to a question about how their electricity provider could help them survive Covid-19.

Compiling Coping Strategies and Hope

60 Decibels, whose name refers to the level of sound required to overhear normal conversation, implemented two best-practice methods intended to ensure high quality responses. First, it uses phone surveys, noting that mobile phones are often ubiquitous in some of the most remote areas, and online surveys exclude some 50 percent of the population not connected to the internet, disproportionately disenfranchising lower-income individuals living in rural or developing areas. Secondly, it hires locally based research assistants who intimately know the language and culture of those they are calling.

recipients of covid-19 facemasks in rural India

60 Decibels has created a public dashboard, updated weekly, which combines the information collected for other stakeholders into a fuller picture. As of Aug. 11, it had surveyed more than 16,000 people in 16 countries.

Finally, it developed a Vulnerability Index to quantify how shocks impact a family’s situation. The index considers three main factors: household poverty level prior to the pandemic, perceived change in status, and coping mechanisms, including effects in food consumption. Those who viewed their situation as much worse or were selling assets or eating fewer meals to survive were seen as more vulnerable.

“A sign of immediate stress is when people report reducing their food intake,” Harrison noted. “And if you have to sell an asset because you can’t feed your family, that’s going to impact your long-term resilience.”

Among the countries 60 Decibels is surveying as part of the Rockefeller Foundation partnership, Sierra Leone shows the highest level of vulnerability with about 52 percent of the population extremely or very vulnerable. Tanzania has the lowest level, at about 5 percent. The highest vulnerability levels seem to occur in countries where governments enacted the strictest Covid-19 restrictions, Harrison noted.

On the other hand, when asked to identify their sources of hope in the face of current health and economic challenges, 35 percent cited the lockdown and travel restrictions as fueling hope that Covid-19 would be brought under control. Some 34 percent mentioned handwashing, and 34 percent mentioned masks.

A full 20 percent, though, said they had no source of hope. Overall, 78 percent of the respondents said their financial situation had worsened to some degree, and 35 percent reported some decrease in food consumption.

60 Decibels

To understand the impact of Covid-19, we are speaking to those most likely to be affected - low income customers, in both the developing and developed world - to track the impact of this crisis over time and equip those looking to respond.

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