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Yemen’s ‘microgrid girls’ power community amid war and COVID-19



“The role of women was housework only,” laments Huda Othman Hassan, a young woman from Abs, a rural district in the north of Yemen, near the border with Saudi Arabia.

“Although we are educated and university graduates, we had no decision-making power and couldn’t work in any field.”

But now a new project is helping shift those norms. Last year, Othman and nine other women in Abs set up a solar microgrid, just 32km (20 miles) from the front line in a war that has killed tens of thousands and left more than 3.3 million people displaced.

The project is one of three the United Nations Development Programme helped put in place in front line off-grid communities in the country. The Abs station is the only one run entirely by women.

The other two – located in the Bani Qais district near Abs, and in the Lahij governorate in the southern part of the country – are managed by 10 young men each; 30 percent of them are people who are displaced.

Before the Abs station was built, Othman says, the high price of commercial electricity meant her community was unable to access it. “Most people used a flashlight or a five-watt bulb on a small battery,” she says.

Now, the solar microgrid provides the community with cheaper, clean, and renewable energy, while also tackling another major issue in this part of Yemen – helping women earn a stable income and gain new professional skills.

Abs solar microgrid co-owners repair solar panels [Photo courtesy of SDF YEMEN]

Yemen ranks at the bottom of the UN gender equality index and there are very limited work opportunities for women, especially in rural areas.

But for the group managing this project in Abs, the work has been transformative.

“At first, they made fun of us – that we want to do men’s work. But now, our community is respecting us, as we are business owners. They come to the station and ask us if there are opportunities. Now, they want their women to participate and succeed like the microgrid girls,” says Iman Ghaleb Al-Hamli, director of the station.

“The project has built our self-reliance, confidence in participating in society and broken the red line in dealing with men,” she adds. “And we are now contributing to the family monthly budget to cover food and other necessities.”

The site of the solar microgrid project in Abs [Photo courtesy of SDF YEMEN]

Producing and selling power

Before Yemen’s war started in 2015, finding food and fuel was already a struggle. Five years on, more than 80 percent of the population needs some sort of assistance and more than half of rural communities do not have access to energy as fossil fuel prices continue to surge and embargoes make fuel even more difficult to obtain.

In addition, COVID-19, which is now rampant in Yemen, is deepening the crisis.

This is the first time in Yemen that microgrids have been introduced to both produce and sell solar power – and they are believed to be the first privately run energy sources in the country.

Before the arrival of the grids, rural communities were reliant on diesel generators – polluting, expensive and susceptible to sudden shifts in the price of fuel.

Now, these three communities have access to sustainable energy and their electricity bills have been “cut by 65 percent”, according to Arvind Kumar, the UNDP’s Yemen project manager. While diesel costs $0.42 an hour, solar energy costs only $0.02, making it more affordable for Yemenis.

A woman works at the Abs station [Photo courtesy of SDF YEMEN]

“Existing power plants are no longer functional in Yemen and the current energy-transportation infrastructure doesn’t extend to rural areas,” explained Kumar.

“These rural areas are the heart of Yemen’s economy where agriculture, water, public services and the local economy largely depends on fossil fuels. With no income, no jobs and oil price rising, the rural communities would always struggle to stand on their own feet. In this context, solar microgrids, which can be small or medium, are the way forward.”

In setting up its project, the UNDP provided seed grant money and trained the women in Abs and the young men in Bani Qais and Lahij to establish, manage and maintain solar microgrid businesses to bring electricity to their communities.

“I learned technical skills, such as charging batteries, connecting wires, measuring power using an Avometer, converting power from DC current to AC current and checking the capacity in KW,” says Amena Yahya Dawali, a technical officer at the Abs station.

The women’s 20-day training also covered business skills and finance, in addition to four days of orientation on a microgrid model. The project is also supported by the European Union and implemented by the Sustainable Development Foundation (SDF) and CARE International.

A woman works at the Abs station [Photo courtesy of SDF YEMEN]

Community benefit

In Abs, the microgrid has improved life for the wider community.

“In my community, we used to go to sleep at seven o’clock in the evening. Now, we can accomplish many tasks at night,” Ghaleb says.

“There is a woman who sold one of her sheep and bought a sewing machine and now, she can do sewing in her home at night after her children sleep.”

Climate innovation charity Ashden awarded the project the 2020 Ashden Award for Humanitarian Energy. “Local NGOs thought the project would face huge challenges because it is highly technical and these women had never done anything remotely similar,” a spokesperson for the charity said.

“They said that if you are going to put this very expensive equipment in the hands of people who have never done that, it could be over within four months. But now more than a year on, the grid is still working, generating energy and incomes, and nothing has been stolen or vandalised. The community sees the benefits of it and protects it.”

The other two micro-grid stations are also functioning at full capacity, providing energy to commercial shops. Across all three solar microgrids, electricity sold by the project’s 30 owners has helped 70 times as many people. Some 2,100 people gained disposable income as they were able to start income-generating activities, such as sewing, welding, selling groceries and setting up commercial shops. Including those using the services and visiting the shops, approximately 10,000 people made indirect gains from sustainable energy in the three communities.

A woman checks the metres at the Abs station [Photo courtesy of SDF YEMEN]

“The most revealing part of this initiative is to see beneficiaries no longer vulnerable and dependent on humanitarian aid as they now have a sustainable way to generate income, whereas, in other humanitarian interventions in Yemen, it is hard to find such evidence,” Kumar said.

These projects are even more important now that COVID-19 is spreading across the country.

“As we fight back against COVID-19, an already strained healthcare system, economy and society have been stretched to new limits,” said Auke Lootsma, UNDP’s Yemen resident representative. “If we want to meet the demand for power across these sectors, we need to continue building bold on-grid and off-grid decentralised energy solutions, and promote these solutions amongst development partners, private sector actors and international financial institutions.”

The next step for the programme is to secure funding from the private sector and microfinance institutions to build up to 100 additional microgrids in remote areas of the country, in order to keep schools and hospitals open during the conflict and the pandemic. The UNDP is also planning to pilot projects transforming waste into energy and desalination based on the same microgrid business model.

“The future is promising,” says Ghaleb. “Our dream has been fulfilled with this first station, and now we aspire to cover the entire region.”

The ‘microgrid girls’ alongside solar panels at the project in Abs [Photo courtesy of SDF YEMEN]


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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained



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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year



From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.


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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube



Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.


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