Transforming Sustainable Energy In Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, living off the grid isn’t a tree hugger’s dream — it’s reality. but a renewable-power startup called Sustainable Energy Services Afghanistan is lighting up Afghans’ lives, with help from the sun and the wind.

Transforming Sustainable Energy In Afghanistan
Photograph by Benjamin Lowy


ON A PLEASANT AUTUMN DAY, Shakibullah Hedayat Rustaqi and his colleagues began to prepare for their next job. They grew out their beards. They stopped showering a week before their start date. They chose their most raggedy clothes. “We had very dirty shawls that we turned into turbans,” he recalls.

Their destination was Paktika, an Afghan province just over the border from Waziristan, the lawless Pakistani region that’s said to be home to Taliban and Al Qaeda bases. Their mission: to install four windmills.

Rustaqi and his team could never have gone to the countryside dressed as they typically would for work at a Kabul-based renewable-power firm called Sustainable Energy Services Afghanistan (SESA); to bandits, who are as common on Afghan highways as rest stops are on American ones, engineers look like ATMs. “If anyone asks, ‘Who are you?’ we tell them we are laborers,” says Rustaqi. “If they get engineers, they cut off their heads. You know the Taliban: stupid people.”

Get in, get the windmills up and running, get out as quickly as possible — that’s the basic game plan for each job. This mission, in Taliban territory, did not go smoothly. Partway through the afternoon, gunfire exploded in the air, followed by sirens crying out through the hills. Suddenly, a convoy of Afghan National Army vehicles sped by the work site. As the sounds of a firefight grew around them, Rustaqi was tempted to seek shelter. “It was very dangerous!” he says. But he had two engineers 100 feet up a half-finished windmill. “We couldn’t leave our friends up there. We just kept working.”

Within an hour, the fighting had passed as quickly as it had started. Their job finished, the engineers descended.

“What did you see?” Rustaqi asked them anxiously.


They stared at him blankly. They hadn’t heard the gunfire or the sirens or his shouts. A hundred feet above the valley floor, all they’d heard was the sound of the wind whooshing past.

IN THE WEST, LIVING OFF THE GRID MAY BE AN ASPIRATION FOR SOME bleeding-heart eco-warriors. In Afghanistan, it is reality. Eighty percent of the country does not have electricity. In the villages where SESA typically works, the only form of it that some residents regularly encounter is lightning.

Even if someone were to build a new major power plant, it would be largely useless because there is no national electrical grid, and given Afghanistan’s devilish terrain, with the jagged skyscraping peaks and the gash-in-the-earth valleys, there never will be. “You just can’t string power lines all over the country,” says Ahmad Saboor Arya, an engineer at the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.

That makes Afghanistan the perfect place for small renewable-power installations with enough capacity to electrify a village. With unique coalitions of consumers and clients — the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. military, which fund most of the construction; not-for-profits that often help secure local buy-in; tribal elders who welcome SESA teams into their communities and then oversee the completed power projects — the company is gradually bringing power to one village after another.


The U.S. and its NATO allies have plowed more than $56 billion into Afghan reconstruction and development. “We have to make sure we leave a sustainable solution,” says British Major General Nick Carter, who, until November, commanded allied forces in southern Afghanistan. But a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said that USAID and the Departments of State and Defense together were responsible for $17.7 billion in spending that they could not now account for. In that context, the $4.8 million that the U.S. has spent with SESA seems like a very good deal. That money has bought more than electricity; it has also created a surprising model of local development. “What our clients purchase is not solar power or wind power — they actually don’t give a shit about solar,” says Tony Woods, the affable Kiwi-American who is the company’s founder, CEO, and majority owner. “It’s a means to an end — to stability, to employment, to growth.”

Woods is convinced that with some minor modifications to suit local cultures, his strategy will work across the world, in inhospitable business environments from Asia to South America. By going where most businesses would fear to tread, his company is creating jobs and boosting agricultural output. It is aiding improvements to health and education — and showing there is money to be made in some of the world’s unfriendliest nooks and crannies.

KABUL IS AFGHANISTAN’S BEST-LIT CITY. MOST OF THE CAPITAL’S electricity is imported from Uzbekistan, via a transmission line completed in 2009 with foreign-aid funding. What little power there is in the rest of the Texas-size country comes almost entirely from fume-spewing diesel generators, but Afghanistan has no significant domestic crude-oil supply, refining capability, or affordable diesel fuel.

Before 2001, under Taliban rule, “only Taliban houses and ministries in Kabul had electricity,” says an engineer at the Afghan Ministry of Energy and Water, who asked not to be named because he did not have permission to speak. Even in homes that had once had power, “people passed five or six years in darkness.” Electricity wasn’t the only thing most Afghans lacked. In a 2003 survey by the National Solidarity Program, Afghans were asked what they would want the government to do with the approximately $200 per family in development funds available through foreign aid. Thirty percent said water and sanitation, another 30% said transportation, and 11% made electricity their top choice. “When you bring even small amounts of electricity to a rural area, income, literacy, and health generally advance,” says Chris Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C., research group that specializes in energy and the environment. “Understanding this link is key to improving the lives of the rural poor.”

Helping the poor was never the primary goal for Woods, who came to the energy business — and Afghanistan — circuitously. Born in the U.S. but raised in New Zealand and trained as an engineer, he had noticed nonoperational micro hydropower generators while biking through Pakistan. (He was en route from South Africa to China.) After the trip, he put together a proposal for New Zealand Aid, the national development agency, and got hired as a consultant to return to Pakistan and fix them.


In 1999, he made his first visit to Afghanistan. One blue-sky day, he ran into a platoon of Taliban soldiers enjoying a picnic by a lake near Kabul. They were shooting ducks, and they directed a gun at him — so that he could have a go at the ducks too. Maybe it was the weather or Woods’s disarming Forrest Gump-like charm. “They were quite helpful,” he says, recalling that they offered excellent driving directions and local knowledge, including tips on which roads were mined.

On that trip, Woods had an epiphany: Afghanistan seemed perfect for renewable energy. The northeast region has abundant water, the west has steady wind, and the south is blessed with strong sunshine. The only thing it did not have was someone who was willing to take on the challenge of harnessing those natural resources and turning them into locally distributed, grid-free sources of electricity. So in 2007, he moved to Kabul and founded SESA.

Kabul’s dusty streets are full of expats — aid workers, journalists, ex-military. If you didn’t know them by their skin color, you’d know them by the hunger in their eyes. The prototypical Kabul foreigner is a former idealist now angling for an ever-bigger piece of the lucrative war-and-aid pie. Woods stands out from that crowd. In one of the world’s hairiest countries — a decade ago, an engineer who now works for Woods spent a week in jail for shaving his beard — Woods never even sports a five-o’clock shadow. Amid the cynics, he is, even after four years in Afghanistan, endlessly optimistic about doing business in a poor, corruption-plagued land. “We’re willing to do this where nobody else wants to go,” he says. “We’ve always been about helping — we grew out of the development field — but we are unashamedly commercial.”

Woods’s company, which turned a profit in the fourth quarter of 2010, draws almost all its revenue from the American taxpayer; USAID and the U.S. military are his biggest clients. But they are not his end consumer — the Afghan villager is — and Woods views his operation as being as much about sales and marketing as it is about electrification. “We understand what our clients are actually buying,” he says, explaining how he constantly switches between two languages: that of the people who pay for a facility and that of those who will use it. “The funder talks about employment and stability. But the villagers talk about TV and lights and refrigerators. We put as much, or often more, time and effort into nontechnical parts of a project. If the social, environmental, or economic sides fail, then the project will fail even if the engineering is done to a high standard.”

The first priority on every job is to prep the territory. Woods and his team are often hired in disputed regions where the government is seeking to wrest influence from the Taliban, so it is important, as Woods puts it, “to call ahead.” “The community must be involved at the earliest stage or else they will blame problems later on the lack of consultation,” he says. “They must help along the way, providing security and labor. If the village wants us there, then they will protect us.” SESA also requires that the village provide land for the installation, a tangible investment in the project.

Woods’s team does the installation, which doesn’t require much wiring since everything stays local, and the training. Communities must agree to collective ownership and co-op-style management for the installed system. Villagers pay for power — “Otherwise, there’s no revenue for service and support” — and Woods recommends using prepaid electricity meters. The concept works because nearly all Afghans already know the prepay model from pay-as-you-go mobile-phone cards. It also avoids the dirty work of cutting anyone off for delinquency. In these tightly connected communities, “nobody wants to be the one to disconnect Auntie Maud,” Woods says with a smirk.


Woods trains locals to do the maintenance, which creates one or two well-paid jobs. “Someone has to run it and maintain it,” he says. The Soviets built hundreds of micro hydropower plants throughout the north of the country, but none of them work now because they weren’t maintained. (SESA has $1.5 million in USAID contracts to help resuscitate some of them.) In the background of Taliban training videos, you can see arrays of solar cells. These systems need faithful maintenance of the type that only a committed organization — say, a close-knit group of insurgents or a village — can provide.

Woods brings a deft diplomatic touch to his work. Before launching a solar project in 2009 in the Gardez Province village of Sayed Karam, for instance, he rented a van to bring eight tribal elders to a meeting in Kabul. The men tumbled out of the van, all with long beards, black turbans, and scars from previous wars (one was missing an eye, another a finger). Over tea, nuts, and kebabs, they peppered Woods with questions and comments: Why should anyone have to pay for power? Even the mosque? Even the school? How does a meter work? Where does the equipment come from? Please don’t send low-quality gear from China!

Woods patiently answered each question. “They’re Taliban with a small t,” he says later. “They’ll tolerate some foreigners if there is something in it for them. They’re traditional Pashtuns and mostly want to stay that way, but with satellite TV.”

The appeal of his company’s product has been helped by an unforeseen agricultural benefit. Because of the delicacy of some turbine components, they must be shipped to the installation site in 40-foot cold-storage containers that should then be shipped back out. Woods wondered, What if I left the container at the delivery site?

One of the Afghan agriculture industry’s great limitations is the lack of refrigerated storage. Most produce can’t make it to market before rotting. Also, each community tends to grow the same crops and harvest them all at once, pushing prices down and leaving surpluses to spoil. After SESA installs a turbine, it can hook up the leftover container to the new power supply, creating refrigeration that can extend a harvest’s shelf life by up to two months. It has done this in two communities so far, and is bidding on a U.S. Marine-funded solar project, for Helmand Province, that would power cold storage for pomegranates.


THE WORK OF ELECTRIFICATION HAS GIVEN DIFFERENT KINDS OF new power to Woods’s 25-person staff, including the freedom that a steady, middle-class salary brings. In a nation where there are few jobs outside the home available to women (even hotel housekeeping staffs are typically male), this is particularly true for the four women he employs — and no other has a story like Samiya Amiri’s.

A bubbly 27-year-old with warm, dark eyes and a fleeting smile, Amiri, just over a decade ago, was forced by her parents to marry. Her suitor was rising in the Taliban hierarchy. A top official in the Badakshan Province, he wanted Amiri as his second wife, and he offered her parents an irresistible dowry: their own lives. He pledged to kill them if they didn’t let him wed her.

After the birth of her second child, Amiri says, she fled from her husband, taking her two children and living for a time in a women’s shelter. She had missed high school because the Taliban eliminated schooling for girls, but the shelter had an adult-education program that included English tutoring. That’s when Woods found her. “She showed technical competence but lacked confidence and field experience,” he says. “She also has courage and tenacity. We needed both.” So he hired her and spent another three years training her. Today, she manages an all-female team of technicians.

The office is an oasis for Amiri. After she left the shelter, she moved in with her parents, but they so despised the circumstances around her marriage that they would not allow the kids, now 7 and 9, to join her. She put them in an orphanage.

At times, Amiri speaks about her job with an air of wonder. “We’re the only women installing solar in the field in Afghanistan,” she says. “Out of 12 women who passed the exam in my engineering class, just 3 found work. The other 9 are at home.” She is paid $450 a month — more than the average Afghan earns in an entire year — and now makes enough money to rent a room in a Kabul apartment. A few months ago, she reclaimed her children.

ON PAPER, IT SEEMS THAT SESA HAS THE POTENTIAL TO TRANSFORM lives not only across Afghanistan but also around the world. Its small-scale, locally based model works. Its training regimens create skilled labor. Its technology is solid — so much so that Lockheed Martin approached Woods for advice about a big solar system it’s building on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan.


Yet there’s one wild card Woods cannot always account for: human meddling. To understand this, you have to go 90 miles north of Kabul to Panjshir Province, where the flat of the valley floor greets the foothills of the Hindu Kush and the road up-country traces gorges carved by tumbling lime-green rivers fed by snowmelt. During the Cold War, guerrillas would descend from the cliffs to ambush Soviet convoys. Today, old Soviet military vehicles sit rusting on the roadsides. Kids use the upside-down ones as playground equipment, a testament to the ultimate futility of the Russians’ Afghan adventures.

SESA has installed 19 systems in the Panjshir: 18 solar and one wind. The solar arrays power 18 health clinics, which previously relied on kerosene lamps and generators that ran only intermittently because of fuel prices. (Diesel costs about 20% more in Afghanistan than in the U.S.) Presently, the clinics have clean water, spirited to the surface by new solar-powered pumps. Several of them even have a steady supply of hot water, thanks to solar heaters installed by Woods’s team. This setup has run flawlessly.

Then there is the wind system, paid for by the U.S. military and overseen by Panjshir Province technology director Muhamad Tahir, a former mujahid who seems bent on proving that one of Afghanistan’s biggest problems is the tyranny of small-time officials. In his spacious, sunny office in the governor’s compound in the provincial capital of Bazarak, you will find no computers, no TVs, no photocopiers — just expensive plush carpets and seven sofas lining the bare walls.

Two years ago, Tahir says, he asked the U.S. military for turbines along the roaring Panjshir River; hydropower could generate more kilowatts per dollar of investment, he argued. Instead, the Americans plowed $1 million into 10 windmills, he says with irritation. (Some news stories proclaimed this Afghanistan’s first wind farm, though one engineer describes it more as a “wind garden.”) Tahir grudgingly admits the investment has paid a decent return. Prewindmill, the generator in his compound burned 600 liters of diesel a month. With wind, it burns just 200 — a savings of nearly $5,000 per year. “It was expensive,” he says, fingering his prayer beads. “Now it’s wind, and wind is free from God.”

Alas, wind power is not free from human interference. In recent months, Tahir has unplugged every building in the compound but his own from the wind-powered mini-grid. “No more AC, no more fridges,” he declares. He claims he doesn’t want people to be spoiled by the abundance of affordable power, even though so little of it is being used that nearly all the electricity generated by the windmills is being wasted.

The power struggle befuddles the keeper of the windmills. Kefa- yatullah Muhammadi, 22, was trained by SESA to maintain the wind farm, which sits high on a hill above Bazarak. There’s usually little to do, so he reads the Qu’ran, as well as books on agriculture and, of course, electricity. From his vantage point, he identifies the army outpost, the finance department, the bureau of refugees, and, on a neighboring crag, the local TV station. His windmills once powered all four. All four went back to burning diesel.


This kind of internecine battle is the one thing that can crack Woods’s optimism. “It probably has something to do with money and budgets… . Or maybe the television station said something [Tahir] didn’t agree with,” he says. “Who knows?”

Whatever the case, Woods wasn’t having any of it. In November, he drove up from Kabul. He stopped by the TV station, which broadcasts six hours a day from a one-room converted shipping container. SESA had covered the cost of laying cable from the wind farm to the station. Woods’s hope was that, with the reliable energy, it would be able to broadcast around the clock.

“I asked them why they used diesel,” he says. “They were not sure why. But they agreed it was better to use wind. I told them to just not be so silly. I looked at the TV-station manager and the wind-power manager together and just said, ‘Come on, guys. Jesus. Sort it out.’ “

Then he walked over to the unplugged cable that once connected the windmills to the TV station. He picked it up, and he plugged it right back in.