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Current Energy Utilisation and Future Options in Rural Eritrea


Dr. Semere Habtetsion


An affordable and sustainable supply of energy is a critical pre-requisite to rural development. Such a supply of energy enables rural economies to diversify and encourage the development of alternative systems of livelihood. Indeed, without energy, basic human needs can not be adequately or satisfactorily met. Unfortunately, energy issues seldom figure out prominently in rural development programmes, and even if they are considered, the links between energy and socio-economic development are seldom treated in an integrated manner (Reddy, Williams and Johansson, 1997). Even rural poverty alleviation and/or eradication programmes do not seem to consider energy an important dimension of their programmes. Due to such lack of policy support for rural energy supply, the opportunities for income and employment generation in rural areas are not adequately exploited.

Despite such negligence, the issue of energy remains crucial to rural areas for a number of reasons. Firstly, biomass sources of fuel like woodfuel, on which most rural societies depend, are decreasing rapidly, and rural households are spending more time and labour in their collection. Secondly, the removal of biomass fuel, especially woodfuel, has led to wide scale deforestation thereby aggravating the problems of erosion, flooding, siltation of dams, etc. Thirdly, the capacity of rural areas to increase their productivity and income from agriculture and other income and employment generating activities is highly constrained by lack of modern fuel (Hurst and Barnett, 1990). 

As in most less developed countries (LDCs), biomass fuel is the major motive force in rural Eritrea. In 1997, for instance, biomass fuel accounted for 77% of the national energy consumption. Since more than 75% of the Eritrean population lives in rural areas, the greater part of the biomass consumption occurs in rural areas. Recent energy surveys indicate that almost all forms of modern energy is consumed in urban areas (settlements having populations of 2000 or more) while 97% of the energy consumed in rural areas is derived from firewood, charcoal, cow dung and crop residue. A small quantity of kerosene is used for lighting while cooking, space heating, and other off-farm or non-farm income generating activities like smithery, pottery, local beer brewing, etc. depend on biomass fuel. The only exception is irrigated horticultural production that uses diesel-powered small water pumps to draw water from wells or streams. Most of the biomass fuel is used in its crude and unprocessed form and it is wasteful and inconvenient. Moreover, since most of the rural houses are poorly ventilated, the heavy emission of smoke and other toxic substances have adverse effects on the health of people, particularly women and children. 

The heavy dependence of the rural economy on biomass fuel has created a number of problems. Environmental degradation due to poor management of traditional fuels, growing scarcity and rising prices consequent upon it, and reduction of crop yield due to using cow dung and agricultural residue as energy fuel. For example, using Bojo's (1995) approach the quantity of cereal production forgone as a resulting of using cow dung as domestic fuel in 1997 was about 32,000 metric tons. However, the most serious effect of the dependence on unmanaged biomass fuel is perhaps its depressive effects on the promotion of income and employment generating activities through micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in rural Eritrea.

The importance of MSMEs in eradicating poverty from rural areas is well documented and should not detain us here. It is sufficient to note here that since MSMEs are compatible with the capital and skill of poor people, they offer ample opportunities for income and employment generation in rural areas. However, due to government’s failure to provide a favourable energy supply conditions to rural areas - energy seed-bed - MSMEs have not flourished in rural areas as desired. In a survey made in 1996, of the 52,191 licensed medium, small and micro-enterprises, (MSMEs), only 20,746 or 39.7% were located in rural localities. The rural-based MSMEs employed only 28, 477 persons accounting only for 30.9% of the total employment in all MSMEs; on average, the rural-based enterprises employed 1.37 persons per enterprise. The same survey showed that over 80% of the enterprises did not use powered machinery of any kind due to either lack of capital, lack of power or lack of both. This suggests that the development and expansion of MSMEs in rural Eritrea is highly constrained by the lack of supply of flexible, sustainable and affordable supply of energy.

Other things being equal, the initial low income and employment generating capacity of MSMEs in rural Eritrea implies high untapped capacity for income generation provided they are supplied with sustainable and affordable sources of energy. Again due to energy and/or capital constraints, almost all MSMEs in rural Eritrea depend on unproductive and inefficient technology which affects both the quality and quantity of their products. Due to such problems, their competitive capacity is very low, and their survival is increasingly being jeopardised as a result of increasing liberalisation and globalisation. Seen from this view point, interventions in the form of appropriate energy policy/programmes as well as institutional mechanisms for energy delivery to rural areas could be an important step towards supporting the development and expansion of income generating activities in rural areas.

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