If you want to get to the village of Dee Doke in Myanmar, Google Maps won't help. You need to take the highway from Naypyidaw to Mandalay, execute a U-turn when you see the milestone that's 278 miles from Yangon, and head down a "road" next to a motorbike taxi stand. Unless you fancy an the adventure at the back of a motorbike, you better have 4 wheel drive!
In many ways, Dee Doke is like many of the other villages in the dry zone in Myanmar. Agricultural motifs abound - tractors, fields, families of chickens, what looks like 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. Like is often the case, the monastery is a cornerstone of the community here. The head monk is a force for social change - he has set up a school that caters to 200 students from Dee Doke and two neighboring villages and found 14 teachers to teach them. But Dee Doke is special in a way - since late 2018 it it co-owns a solar hybrid minigrid built by a private developer (Mandalay Yoma) with support from the Department of Rural Development (DRD) and the World Bank.
I attended a function in NayPyidaw on 8th March 2019, where the head monk was invited to talk about what electricity access means n Dee Doke. He started out by saying: "On behalf of our village I would like to thank the DRD and Mandalay Yoma, for bringing light into our lives". He went on to talk about how having electricity brought safety - poisonous snakes were no longer a hazard to face every night.
The women in the village now use electric rice cookers - freeing them from the drudgery of scavenging for firewood to cook with, not to mention avoiding noxious fumes. He talked about how students in Dee Doke were able to study better (partly with a computer that the school acquired post electrification). The simple heartfelt speech created a vivid picture in my mind of improving lives.
I could not say no when I had the chance to visit Dee Doke later in the day. A short drive out of the village brought me to the compact, modern, containerized "powerhouse" of the minigrid sitting alongside a small solar panel farm. The plant was quietly going about its business of pushing out electrons to the village. I proceeded to follow the distribution line back towards the village.
In the village I met a man who had switched his rice de-husking operation from diesel to an electric motor - saving money and increasing productivity in a single stroke. I visited the school, and heard about a teacher's plans to get more computers for his students as one computer was not enough. I met a lady who, with her new rice cooker and electric kettle, has been able to reclaim large swathes of time from the hunt for fuel to burn. I saw a nearby telecom tower with a connection to the minigrid and heard about how it runs its diesel generators 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 really looking up in Dee Doke!
On the drive back to Naypyidaw, I reflected on what I had seen and experienced. Being on the ground really brought home the positive changes that access to energy can bring - something that is easy for practitioners in the domain to lose sight of, especially for those of us working inside large corporations. In the end, I remain grateful for the hospitality I experienced and the reminder of purpose that I found at Dee Doke.