How Rural Electrification In Bolivia Has Become A New Source Of Income For Women

According to historical data, Italy was the birthplace of ice cream, at least as we know it. The first famous ice cream parlor was inaugurated in Paris in the late 17th century, although there are theories that suggest the first ice cream dates to 2000 BC and was based on something similar to rice and other spices that were kept under snow.

In Puerto Villazón, also known as El Cafetal, a community in the Bolivian Amazon located in the department of Beni, the first ice cream shop was not opened until 2021. Vanessa Camacho, a young woman who had migrated to the city, decided to return to her hometown to open the ice cream shop when electricity finally arrived.

The lack of electricity, both in Puerto Villazón and other communities in Beni, limited the economic for women. The main activities were related to rubber extraction or fishing –  traditionally male-dominated occupations.

“Electricity makes things much easier for us because here, most of the workers are men. But now, with powerelecricity, many women are encouraged to start their own businesses … and women are beginning to open their businesses.”

Vanessa Camacho, owner of the first ice cream ship in Puerto Villazón

Electricity has also created new opportunities and value chains for products like fish. A simple freezer extends their, shelf life and commercial value. Fishermen like Fausto can now catch and sell more fish because they have a place to store it for a longer time.

In Bolivia, the coverage of electric service between 2006 and 2021 increased from 89% to 99.1% in urban areas, and from 37% to 81.5% in rural areas. However, in some departments of the Bolivian Amazon, such as Beni, the rural electrification rate reaches only 70%.

Beni is one of the nine departments of Bolivia located in the central-northern part of the country. It is the second largest department but also the second with the lowest population density, with only 3 inhabitants per square kilometer. Its vast territory and scattered inhabitants make it challenging to provide basic needs such as access to electricity for nearly rural 200,000 families that lack power.

Faced with the challenge of reaching communities in hard-to-reach areas, three populations in Beni - El Remanso, Puerto Villazón, and Cerro San Simón - not only have access to electricity but also have clean and renewable energy through hybrid plants with photovoltaic panels and battery banks that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Juana Suruly remembers when there was no electricity. She keeps her artisanal lamp as a souvenir, a milk can with a wick that was fueled with diesel to light up her home when natural light faded. Even when generators arrived, these communities only had electricity for about three hours a day.

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Solutions that contribute to the transition of the energy matrix in the country

Before the hybrid plants, the beneficiary communities consumed around 35,000 to 40,000 liters of diesel per year, and that consumption has now been reduced by 90%. Diesel in Bolivia is a subsidized fuel that needs to be transported from the interior of the country and, besides being one of the major carbon dioxide emitters, its combustion produces harmful gases for health.

The hybrid plants installed in the communities of Puerto Villazón, El Remanso, and Cerro San Simón have photovoltaic panels, lithium battery banks, and a backup diesel generator that only operates when demand is excessive.

“Achieving universal access to electricity is fundamental to eliminating poverty. Electricity is a catalyst to improving people’s living conditions and creating income opportunities in rural areas.”

Edwin Malagón, senior energy specialist, IDB

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Rural electrification programs financed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) aim not only to guarantee access to quality service but also to promote decentralized solutions that reach the most remote communities. Bolivia is also transitioning to a clean and renewable energy matrix, allowing families to enjoy longer days full of economic opportunities that don’t vanish when the sun sets.

“Who would have thought," said Vanessa, pondering the paradox, "I have the first ice cream shop in Puerto Villazón, where my best allies are heat and electricity.”

Improving Lives