Renewable Energy and Livelihoods in the Chittagong Hill Tracks: a value-chain approach

October 28, 2015

Proposed New Programme in Remote Areas of Bangladesh.

Renewable World delivers its mission of a poverty alleviation thru the application of renewable energy in many ways. Not only does this include our practical work on the ground but also working with partners to design new and innovative programmes. Not all of these programmes will eventually be implemented by us, however, if we can assist others with our experience, our tools, ideas and methods then this adds to our vision of world free of poverty. This programme has been designed with the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Track Affairs and is currently being considered for central funding. Read this article written by Nick Virr, Renewable World’s Global Programme Manger that appeared in the Ministry’s annual gazette, September 2015.

We are proud to be assisting the Government of Bangladesh with this early stage design work made possible by the donations from our core supporters.


The Sangu River around and upriver from the market town of Thanchi is a special and beautiful place. The wide Sangu weaves its way between high hills, which support the farmers and communities of Tindu, Aungthoai Para and Rimakri. Families make their living from farming these hills using traditional jum techniques from catching fish and farming the banks of the Sangu. The farmers produce mangos, bananas, ginger, turmeric, green, red chillies and pineapple: highly sought after, cleanly produced produce that benefit from the unique environment.

However, what appears to be an idyllic way of life on the surface is increasingly unsustainable. There is pressure on the Sangu’s flow and on the land as farmers return much quicker to jum gardens than traditionally practiced in the past. Farmers also rely on the rains for their single harvest per year, leaving them both vulnerable to changes in the climate and weather and unable to grow more or diversify their produce. In effect, farming in this area is highly vulnerable to the worsening impacts of climate change and weather variability.

Pic 1Adding to this vulnerability is the fact that the communities and farmers have no access to affordable, reliable modern forms of energy. It is widely accepted, globally, that the absence of such energy is a severe impediment to sustainable development goals. As well as a lack of lighting for schools and homes, this also impedes farming communities from adding value to their raw produce; a particular problem when such produce perishes quickly in the warm humid weather conditions. As a consequence farmers, who work very hard to produce their crops, receive a tiny fraction of the price their goods demand in markets elsewhere. Furthermore, when farmers, sell their raw produce by themselves, they are at the mercy of the traders; unable to bargain for a better price and in need of cash for essentials, the farmer’s price is pushed down further.

These issues are not, however, unable to be solved. With the provision of renewable and affordable energy that can be used to light homes and schools and, importantly, allow farming communities to add value to their raw materials and store them in good quality for buyers elsewhere to buy, it is possible to use this energy as a trigger for more sustainable livelihoods.

A project designed and proposed by the Clean Energy Consortium of the Chittagong Hill Tracks (CECCHT) and championed by the MoCHTA seeks to do just this. The project, known as “Renewable Energy and Livelihoods in the Chittagong Hill Tracks: a value-chain approach” or REAL-Value plans to launch in 2016 will tackle these problems head on through five interlocking strategies. Strategies that have been designed in consultation and informed by the local communities’ needs and Upazilla Parishad, and environmental and technical surveys over the last 3-years.


Providing renewable energy for livelihoods and communities

Pic 12REAL-Value will use the natural advantages found in Thanchi, Tindu, Rimakri and Aungthoai Para to generate energy for a range of uses demanded by the communities and farmers.

In Rimakri: an Improved Water Mill uses the power of the stream and water fall to enable agro-processing during the
day and provide 5KW of electricity for lighting in the evenings: a Hydraulic Ram Pump (Hydram) and solar pumps will lift water for irrigation from the stream and from the Sangu to gardens during the dry season and; two solar stations will provide lighting to the households, market place businesses and school. One solar station and water mill will be integrated into a hybrid renewable energy micro-grid, whilst the other will provide lighting to the nearby village cluster.

In Tindu, a similar combination of water mill, pico-Hydram, Hydram, solar pumps and solar micro-grid will provide energy for similar uses. In Aungthoai Para, REAL-Value will deliver a solar micro-grid. In each of these communities REAL-Value will install solar dryers.

Finally, in Thanchi, a solar powered storage and chilling centre and power station will act both as a place to store produce in good quality and provide lighting for the market centre businesses. Whilst two other solar stations will provide energy to the clinic and school and the few houses surrounding these buildings. It should benoted that none of the proposed hydro-energy sources requires any sort of dam or land displacement, they are small low-impact systems that divert water for short distance and return it back to the river/stream (i.e. channels).

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Energy is not just for lighting it is for improving incomes and production

A cornerstone of the REAL-Value approach and a core philosophy of CE CCHT it that the new, clean energy must increase the incomes of the local people and improve their production and use of their labour time. It is essential that additional income is brought to the communities not just to lift them out of poverty, but to provide the means to maintain the energy systems in the long run.

Pic 4Improved Water Mills: are simple, appropriate technologies, long used in the hills of Nepal, which take small amounts of water, drop it through a pipe 3-4 meters and create a pressure spout that drives a fly wheel. This fly wheel mechanically drives the machinery and stones that can mill, grind and pulp raw produce into more refined, higher priced powders and pulps. However, at night a simple lever can be pulled that shifts the power to a small generator that then provides power to the micro-grid for lighting homes and businesses
during the evening.

Pic 5Solar Dryers: use the natural power of the sun to dry fruits and vegetables 4-6 times faster than simply using the sun. Most importantly, using flowing air and keeping the produce away from insects and contamination means that the final dried produce is of high quality and can command high prices. Dried fruits and vegetables are easier to transport, take up less room in storage and are in high demand.

Hydraulic Ram Pumps: are a simple, hard wearing and appropriate technology that uses the pressure of water to lift some of the water. They are used to lift large volumes water from streams and rivers up to 200 meters above the water source to be stored and used for dry season irrigation. Such uses of high lifted water means that farmers no Pic 6longer rely solely on rain for raising crops, they can have 3 cropping seasons per year, raise high-value crops and nutritional vegetables for their families. Hydrams are used in Nepal and although the local streams will support them only 9 months of the year they will store enough water for dry season cropping using micro-irrigation techniques.

Short lift solar pumps: as the Sangu recedes during the dry season, not only does new land appear for cultivation but existing gardens move further away from the water source. The amount of labour needed to haul water these distances means that families can cultivate only small blocks. This leaves them short of nutritional vegetables and means they do not raise any additional cash crops Pic 7(turmeric, ginger etc.). REAL-Value will utilise two short lift solar pumps at each location to lift water from the Sangu to gardens and river banks adding at least one additional, maybe two, cropping cycles per year and increasing incomes and raw produce for drying and milling/grinding/pulping in the process.

Solar Stations and micro-grids: REAL-Value will create hybrid micro-grids in Rimakri and Tindu by combining a mix of solar stations and pico-hydro (water mills) into a single grid for lighting homes, schools and businesses. In Aungthoai Para and Tindu, just a solar station will be installed providing a solar powered micro-grid. As well as lighting for businesses these micro-grids will critically provide power for two essential activities Pic 9that will substantially improve farmer’s incomes; firstly, by powering storage and chilling facilities (large in Thanchi, very small in other locations) and; secondly, pulping machines to turn fruits into fruit pulps for sale. Storing and chilling produce in good quality for sale to buyers and creating pulp, both significantly improve the price farmers receive and their power in the negotiation processes.

These clean energy solutions will be used; to turn raw chillies, turmeric and ginger into high value powders; to turn mangos, turmeric and ginger into pastes and pulps and; mangos, bananas and pineapples into highly sought after, nutritious, long lasting dried fruits. The energy also means that storage and chilling facilities keep these goods in tip-top condition so these high prices can be obtained from buyers and buyers quality needs met.


Bringing the farmers together as agro-processing and collection centre Shomitte

REAL-Value understands that farmers are weak when they act alone, so the project will bring farmers together in Rimakri, Tindu, Ruma and Aungthoai Para into farmer’s Shomitte who will not only own and operate the agro-processing centres (water mills, solar dryers, pulping and small storage facilities) but will also organise farmers to bring the right produce for processing at the right time of the season for sale to buyers. REAL-Value will train farmers on governance, management, enterprise, market demands, and the use and maintenance of the agro-processing equipment to ensure sustainability and that produce handling and pricing is well understood. These Shomitte will produce the powders, pastes and pulps that will be shipped down the Sangu, in one go reducing the transport costs to each farmer, and stored at the Thanchi storage centre for sale when the market price is most advantageous to the farmer. The Shomitte in turn will have an equal share in the storage centre operation which will act as a Shomitte Union.

Linking farmers to far away markets – the value chain

REAL-Value regards the clean energy systems above as the catalyst to link farmers to far away markets in Chittagong and Dhaka that will pay the high prices for their value-added produce. REAL-value will provide advice and services to create a new value chain (including, the supply chains) by linking the farmers with buyers and making sure the goods buyers want are delivered in the quality they want them in and when they need them. In effect, by linking buyers to the storage centres both the buyer and the farmers improve their outcomes and profits from working together.

Adopting new farming technologies and techniques

REAL-Value will establish a technology park in Thanchi (location to be agreed with Upazilla Parishad) that will demonstrate solar pumps, composting, inter-cropping, micro-irrigation, new seed varieties and other small farm and household level technologies that can improve livelihoods and complement the wider project impacts. The technology park will also act as the place where farmers and school students will be demonstrated and trained on new techniques (such as inter-cropping) and shown demonstration farming plots. This ‘seeing is believing’ approach means that farmers and families will adopt those things that best suits their land and labour mix. In effect, each farming household will choose how they want to adapt and diversify their livelihoods to take advantage of the new value chain.

Ensuring sustainability –inclusion, fees and local ownership

A second cornerstone of the REAL-Value approach to make sure that the clean energy systems themselves are self-sustaining. This is achieved using a sustainability methodology developed by CECCHT that uses four interlocking themes:

Firstly, energy systems are designed and installed based on the communities needs and priorities, and include important institutions such as, schools and clinics that the community values;

Secondly, energy systems are owned and operated by the communities themselves. REAL-Value will train the management teams on governance, management, technical management and financial management of running their small Energy Shomitte;

Thirdly, the energy system management team are linked with, and REAL-Value will bring, the private sector clean energy providers that will deliver the on-going parts and technical support to keep the system running;

Fourthly, end-users who use energy and pumped water must pay a fee for their consumption. The fee will be set by the energy Shomitte but REAL-Value will provide advice and training on setting this fee so the Energy Shomitte has enough money to pay for parts and labour and replacements to keep the system running.

The CECCHT sustainability model, means that each community owned Energy Shomitte will reach social, financial and technical sustainability for the life of the system and beyond.


The MoCHTA and CECCHT are rightly excited about the prospect of getting REAL-Value commenced next year. What is clear from the above article is the programme is not just about energy for lighting; rather, it is an integrated approach to the provision of clean energy, in an environmentally sensitive area, to improve the livelihoods and incomes of the partner communities. The energy itself will act as the catalyst to increase high-quality, value added crop production to a new value chain; whilst the income will assist families out of poverty and provide the means for them to maintain their new energy systems. Together with diversification of production and extension of the growing season through year round water pumping and irrigation, these outcomes mean that the people of the Sangu River will become more resilient to climate change and have the means to adapt their livelihoods in a manner they choose.

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Written by: Nick Virr, Renewable World

First published: September 2015, MoCHTA Publication, on the occasion of the Seventh Installation Ceremony Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs.

Editor: Naba Bikram Kishore Tripura, NDC, Secretary, Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs