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[KUALA LUMPUR] Of South-East Asia’s 600 million people, 140 million, mostly in rural areas, live without electricity, and 300 million still cook on traditional stoves that produce lots of smoke and little heat. Without electricity, they also lose out on better sanitation, healthcare and education.

This was heard in a workshop on Energy for Off-Grid Villages in South-East Asia, held last 27-29 January in Kuching, Malaysia. Organised by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia in collaboration with Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, the workshop is the second of six across Africa, Asia and Latin America planned by the Smart Villages Initiative (SVI) to link parties that work to provide electricity to rural communities and help them achieve the UN goal of universal access to sustainable energy by 2030. The SVI is run by a team in the United Kingdom that partners with science academies.

“A smart village will be where somebody will want to choose to live in the future instead of thinking they have to migrate to a city for a better life,” explained John Holmes, SVI co-leader.

Participants of the workshop learned that socio-economic capacities vary greatly across South-East Asia, “perhaps more than we anticipated”, said Sir Brian Heap, senior science advisor on the Smart Villages team.

Some governments could light up most of their rural communities, whereas others are too cash-strapped to pay. While rural communities in some countries may be chatting on Facebook, those in Cambodia would first need to have clean cooking stoves and water filters.

But workshop participants cautioned against a “one-size-fits-all solution” to rural electrification. Benjamin Frederick, manager of a Myanmar company specialising in renewable energy, pointed out that “it is incredibly helpful to have some guidelines” on rural electrification.

Frontline workers emphasised the importance of strong and long-term engagement with rural communities, “otherwise, rural energy services will trip”.

Others highlighted the negative effects of technologies which came along with the introduction of electricity. In one example, a telecommunication centre was built with a solar-diesel hybrid generator in the rural village of Bario, Malaysia. But parents began to complain that their children would rather use the phone and internet at the centre than spend time with the family.

Holmes singled out community-involvement as a “key message of the workshop”. He noted, “Ultimately, the rural communities must own electricity and drive development according to their visions.”

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.