Today, over one billion people still lack access to clean water and electricity. Environmental and climate change exacerbates this problem and exposes fragile and conflict-affected communities to further risk and insecurity. While the link between resource scarcity and conflict is well understood, the potential for natural resource governance to facilitate peacebuilding is less well researched.
On Thursday, October 5, 2023, the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) welcomed Bas Berends, Co-founder and Chief Partnership Officer at OffGridBox, to join our Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL) community call. In the hope of collaboration between ICAN, WASL, and OffGridBox, 22 peacebuilders from around the world joined the call, including from Tajikistan, Albania, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Pakistan, and Cameroon.
“We’ve been talking about the importance of women peacebuilders being able to address energy, food, water, and health issues – as we saw during COVID – so this comes at a timely moment.”
– Sanam Naraghi Anderlini MBE, Founder and CEO, ICAN
Water. Power. Resilience. Anywhere in the World.
OffGridBox manufactures mobile, modular, and integrated systems to provide solar energy and purified water in remote areas. On a mission to make communities more resilient to the effects of climate change, their products have been installed in over 18 countries and contribute to at least 10 different Sustainable Development Goals.
The systems are commonly installed as village kiosks for water and electricity, enabling individuals to charge phones and battery packs, and in some cases, access the internet. They can also be connected to households, medical clinics, schools, or in humanitarian settings and refugee camps.
The boxes can be fixed with filters to clean water or reverse osmosis filters to desalinate brackish water. Where there is an overall shortage of water, the company can assist local communities to dig bore holes and collect water.
Where possible, OffGridBox combines their technology with a business model to enable sustainable operation. For example, in Rwanda, OffGridBox solutions power six health clinics in rural settings and a “box-keeper” sells water and power to the community. The proceeds of these sales pay the salary of the box-keeper and fund maintenance on the box. In Tanzania, OffGridBox products have also been used for irrigation and agroforestry, providing employment and revenue generation in local communities.
OffGridBox employs women as box-keepers to advance women’s empowerment and gender equality. The women are trained on how to run and maintain the products from a technical point of view, as well as given bookkeeping and sales training to help them generate revenue. Crucially, OffGridBox partners with and listens to local community actors.
“We try to have community involvement; we don’t just go and deploy the box and then leave. We depend on local organizations.”
– Bas Berends, Co-founder and Chief Partnership Officer, OffGridBox
Unleashing the Peacebuilding Potential
The collaboration between ICAN, WASL, and OffGridBox was initiated in the wake of ICAN’s 2022 Women, Peace, and Security Forum, where WASL members highlighted the importance of identifying new opportunities around sustainable energy production, food production, and water management.
Humanitarian interventions and livelihood development programs enhance peacebuilders’ exposure and add value to their communities.
During the call, WASL members expressed their enthusiasm for the potential of small livelihood projects with OffGridBox solutions to bring communities in conflict together. As skilled convenors able to facilitate dialogues across differences, and build trust between group members, WASL members can use such livelihood projects to reduce violence and contribute to peace.
Economic activities can also support the integration of internally displaced persons or serve as positive alternatives to participation in violent extremist groups. WASL member Maysoon Ahmed Ismael, Director of the Odessa Organization for Women’s Development in Mosul, saw huge potential for minority populations in Iraq who have been affected by the presence of ISIS and face harsh environments and scarce water. She saw great opportunities to bring stability to farming communities struggling with drought, particularly for women farmers.
Rudina Çollaku, Founder of the Women’s Center for Development and Culture (WCDCA) in Albania, concurred. WCDCA has initiated women’s councils in ten areas affected by violent extremism to address community issues and empower women through agriculture. Both also saw the potential for OffGridBox projects to shift gender dynamics and provide positive alternatives to extremism within communities.
Other WASL members were keen to pilot OffGridBox in conflict contexts such as Palestine, Yemen, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. They each noted the value for women and youth in running or being involved in the projects.
Liberian WASL member, Cerue Konah Garlo, asked if the presence of the boxes in communities could cause or exacerbate conflicts and was curious to know how OffGridBox assists box-keepers to maintain security. Berends named several strategies for the protection of box-keepers, including the use of mobile money, physical locks on the boxes, and security guards. He also emphasized the importance of engaging with the whole community, including community leaders and respected organizations.
Women at the Helm: OffGridBox and Peacebuilding
This conversation marked the start of a broader set of discussions and collaboration around the potential for natural resource management to reduce conflict and fragility and help to build positive peace. As we look to expand and enable our partners’ work in this space, we are aware of key limiting factors such as siloed donor funding structures, which constrain women peacebuilders’ ability to implement holistic and flexible approaches. Closing the call, we agreed to assess the most viable locations to initiate a pilot project between ICAN, WASL members and OffGridBox, and explore funding opportunities.
“Our partners are in these very difficult places and as women peacebuilders they already have trust and access in their communities. My vision is that OffGridBox products could provide them with a force multiplier effect. It could enable them to supply critical resources to communities, pushing back the criminal or extremist forces that prey on people’s needs, and thus preventing violent extremism and conflict, and shoring up civic spaces.”
– Sanam Naraghi Anderlini MBE, Founder and CEO, ICAN