The Light for All Program takes electricity to people who once depended on candles, oil lamps and diesel generators
The rural area of Jequitaí, 400 km from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil: surrounded by eucalyptus plantations, Dilma Marçal lives on a small farm where she raises cattle and makes cheese for sale. The symmetrically planted trees turn her home into a distant spot in the middle of a huge maze where electricity arrived not long ago. There are no shops, paved roads or traffic noise. There are no neighbors.
For 33 years, the farmer has lived in her rustic three-room home with the basic necessities: a wood stove, a bed, wooden benches, a crank grinder and books on the shelf. In September, she had the pleasure of flicking a switch and seeing a light go on in her kitchen where a gas lamp had hung before. At the age of 55, she is now considering whether to buy a TV, electric showerhead, refrigerator and stereo for the very first time. “Second-hand, of course.”
Now that electricity has arrived, the farmer’s greatest joy is not being able to watch the soaps or store food in the freezer. Not at all. “My greatest pleasure is charging my cell phone. I was fed up with having to go into town to do it,” she says, smiling and pointing to the light switch in her living room. Cell phone service had reached the farmer’s house before electric lights did.
Light for Minas Gerais
Lives like hers have been transformed in the farthest corners of rural Minas Gerais, through the work of teams from the Light for All program, which is taking electricity to people who once could only rely on candles, oil lamps and diesel generators to light their homes. In Minas Gerais, the Federal program has partnered with the State Government to install a network that will cover a total of 85,500 km. The amount of cable used is enough to go around the Earth 2.5 times.
Converted into the number of beneficiary families, that impressive mileage takes on social contours: following the completion of the third stage of the program in February 2012, more than 285,000 new electricity connections have been made in Minas Gerais. In the third stage, the Consórcio Luz para Minas – a joint venture led by Odebrecht Infraestrutura – is responsible for tackling the challenge of increasing “energy inclusion” and improving the quality of life of Minas Gerais residents.
Odebrecht has been helping make this dream come true since the first stage of the program began in 2005. “Instead of working on a single construction site, we have teams spread across an entire state,” says José Eduardo de Sousa Quintella, the Project Director at Luz para Minas.
The challenge the teams are facing begins with the identification of future beneficiaries: homes, churches, schools, businesses and community centers located in rural areas. After they have registered future users, a logistical study is carried out in the areas to be served. If the terrain is mountainous or steep, the materials are transported by ox cart instead of by car or truck. In these situations, wooden poles usually replace concrete ones due to the topography in the region.
In all these situations, the teams view these challenges enthusiastically. “Our job is not to put a power pole near a person. It is to install the pole, go into their house, and install lights and outlets,” says Quintella, who is visibly moved when he recalls seeing families use a blender or stereo for the first time.
The radio keeps him company
Raimundo da Costa is one of those people. The 71-year-old pensioner remembers exactly which appliance he plugged in first four months ago, when the joint venture’s teams arrived at his small farm in Montes Claros: a radio. “I love listening to the news, comedy shows and music,” he says as he puts a CD of country music on the stereo.
A study conducted by the Ministry of Mines and Energy shows that stereos are the third most popular electronic items purchased by residents of rural areas that now have power in their homes – 45.4% of families buy them as soon as they get electricity. They come behind two other electric appliances that are very common in most Brazilian homes: TV sets (79.3%) and refrigerators (73.3%).
Ricardo Charbel, the Superintendent for Planning, Research and Projection at Companhia Energetica de Minas Gerais (Cemig), the state power company, has been closely monitoring the project and is also moved by the dramatic change it is making in people’s lives. He remembers the pensioner who started seeing more of his grandchildren after buying a television set, the housewife who started going to night school, the women who started a sewing cooperative, and more. “One man told me how hard it was to make a purchase because he didn’t have a delivery address. Thanks to the light bill, he now has proof of address,” he recalls.
According to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the arrival of electricity makes it easier to consolidate social programs and provides access to basic sanitation, health services and education. Another positive impact of the program is containing the rural exodus: since the implementation of the program began, 4.8% of Brazilian families have moved to rural areas served by Light for All.
This was the case with housewife Sara da Fonseca. After her eldest son passed the entrance exam at the Federal University at Vale do Jequitinhonha, the family moved from Greater Belo Horizonte to rural Diamantina. “It was tough at first. We knew the program would get here eventually, but we spent a few months in the dark until the installation team arrived. I have asthma, and had to go in to town to use the nebulizer.”
Sara is celebrating three months with electric power at home. Now they can use electronic items brought in from the state capital – a washing machine, computer, microwave and electric showerhead, all commonly found in middle-class homes. “We used to have a good standard of living, and spending time with no electricity at all made us realize that the smallest things can give us pleasure. After Light for All, logging onto the internet or watching a movie takes on a whole new meaning.”
In Minas Gerais, the program’s name is taken to heart. Although, according to national statistics, 90% of the families served are low-income households earning less than three minimum monthly salaries, Light for All does not discriminate between rich and poor communities. In the third stage alone, 544 Minas Gerais municipalities are being been served simultaneously. “Odebrecht is playing a very important role in implementing the Light for All program. We have carried out the largest rural electrification program in the history of our company in record time,” says Djalma Bastos de Morais, President of Cemig.